This weekend I started re-reading one of my favourite technical books, “Data Processing” by K.N. Dodd. It’s a slim volume, published in 1969 by The English Universities Press. I picked up my beautifully musty copy in a second-hand bookshop in March 1995. It is a profoundly practical book (at least in 1969!), which educates the reader on the “state-of-the-art” of The Modern Computer, as well as elaborating on business applications:

  1. Payroll
  2. Stores and Accounting
  3. Production and Distribution
  4. Banking and Giro
  5. Insurance and Building Societies
  6. The Stock Exchange
  7. Local and Central Government
  8. Transport
  9. Miscellaneous Applications
    • Computerized House Selling
    • Instant Tickets
    • Information Systems
    • Media Planning
    • Responsive Stock Control
    • Economic Planning
    • Delivery Routing
    • Computer Graphics
  10. Project Planning

A list that has stood the test of time, and not a bad summary of 80% of business applications today!

There’s an old saying that “to predict the future, you have to understand the past”, and this little book offers a fascinating snapshot of the early days of the application of computers to mainstream business problems.

The 2,000 computers in operation in 1967 (in Britain) will have doubled by the end of the decade, after which there will be a further, if slower, increase.

The Modern Computer (introduction), Data Processing by K.N. Dodd

The introduction to the book provides a primer on how computers work: registers, accumulators, machine code, input (punched tape/cards), output (punched tape), as well as early networking (distributed compute grids!) at the dizzying speeds of 50 to 600 bits per second, provided by the Datel service of the Post Office.

It is striking how much incremental progress we’ve made over the past 54 years, but also how little the fundamental concepts have changed. The most profound changes have been in how we interact with computers, both as end-users and as programmers, while the mechanics of describing programs, performing computations, and dealing with inputs and outputs have gradually evolved, but have remained conceptually the same.

The cheapest computer on the market in 1969 cost £1680 and was a desktop machine, the size of a typewriter. Adjusted for inflation that is roughly £35,000 today.

Our terminonology has also evolved, the book describes the job roles of: computer operator (feeds punch cards), maintenance engineer (repairs faults), data processing manager (overall manager), systems analyst (business requirements, creates flowcharts), programmer (converts flowcharts into programming language or machine code),

The introduction also touches on the ever-present subject of how automation will impact jobs and unemployment. The arguments presented are an interesting snapshot of the sexual and economic politics of the time! The core argument presented hinges on the cost/benefit of automation compared to the cost of clerical labour.

In view of this ability of the computer to displace labour particularly in clerical work, it is natural to ask if the Computer Revolution will produce considerable amounts of unemployment. In Britain this is unlikely to be the case for three reasons. In the first place, clerical work is performed to a considerable extent by temporary female labour. The intake of such labour can be reduced instead of declaring existing staff redundant. Secondly, many of the companies which are installing computers are expanding, so clerical workers displaced by the computer can usually be employed on other types of work. Finally, the computer itself will give rise to a number of jobs for which clerks can be trained. On the basis of experience so far, it may be stated that in Britain, computers have had a negligible effect on employment compared with variations in world trade and difficulties arising from the country’s overseas balance of payments. In the United States, where labour costs are higher, computers have had a more powerful effect and have caused significant unemployment. In Eastern countries, computers have made little impact owing to the cheapness of human labour.

The Modern Computer (introduction), Data Processing by K.N. Dodd

I hope you enjoyed opening this time capsule with me —subscribe to read the next post, using The Modern Computer to calculate “Payroll”!