Copyright 2007 by John Blankenbaker

I (John Blankenbaker) started the design of a computing device in the winter of 1949 when I was a physics freshman at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). My motivation was the need to do the calculations by using logarithms for the weekly physics lab, a very tedious job. The inspiration was an article in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science which told about a computing device. The article said very little except that the machine used thousands of vacuum tubes but used only two digits, 0 and 1. I did not worry about the thousands of tubes but instead I concentrated on how to write numbers with only 0 and 1 and on how to do calculations with these numbers. It is embarrassing how long it took me to hurdle these two questions. Then I asked how could I do these things with mechanical devices such as relays. The design as it evolved was a real kludge and far too expensive for my budget but it whetted my desire to learn more about computers.

Fortunately, in the summer of 1951, I had the opportunity of working on SEAC (National Bureau of Standards Eastern Automatic Computer). I was extremely fortunate for out of the hundred students working at NBS (as it was then called) only four of us were assigned to SEAC. The computer was impressive for its size and what seemed to me to be its speed. It was kept busy solving problems for other government agencies and little time was available for an individual to use it for his personal programs. Usually, this time was during thunderstorms when the operation of the computer was unreliable. I did write one program but it failed to execute in a normal environment and even the engineers were puzzled by the failure.  It was very difficult to tell what was happening when the program was running.

After graduation from OSU in 1952, I worked at Hughes Aircraft Company and was assigned to a department working on digital computers. I was asked to design the arithmetic unit for a business data processor. The department head was fond of saying that every flipflop (a bistable device capable of storing a 1 or a 0) added $500.00 to the price of the computer.  So I expended a great effort on designing with a minimum number of flipflops.  My experience with any computer was limited and I felt this lack deeply.

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