1955: IBM customers form the first computer user group
Early IBM mainframe users find fellow early adopters a fine support network.
May 5, 1999
by Mary Brandel
(IDG) -- It didn't take long for the first IBM users to find one another. When there are only 17 of you, with seven in Southern California alone, you're bound to meet. Just two years after the release of IBM's first computer, the 701, those companies formed Share, the first user group in computing history.
Share held its first meeting on Aug. 15, 1955, at Rand Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. Its main purpose was to stop reinventing the wheel -- at the time, all the 701 users were writing their own utilities and programs. With the impending release of the 704, they faced the giant task of rewriting or porting all those programs to a new machine. So from the very first meeting, the group began to share programming knowledge.
Computerworld spoke with three original members: Frank Wagner, who at the time was group leader for engineering computing at North American Aviation Inc.; Paul Armer, who headed the computer science department at Rand; and Morton Bernstein, an associate mathematician at Rand. Here's what they had to say about Share's early days:
Armer: There was an IBM salesman in Santa Monica named Blair Smith. He said, "I've got all these [701 customers] all trying to do the same thing -- you guys need to get together to talk about it."
There came into being the Digital Computing Association, also known at the time as the Drunkard's Computing Association because it was a very social group. Then, when the 704 was coming out, there was this meeting at which the idea of forming Share came about.
Wagner: An IBM speaker came out to give us a preview of the 704. In Los Angeles, we all knew each other well. We were deploring the fact that all of us were doing a lot of work that was identical. At lunchtime, we said, ΤLet's call all the people we know around the country and see if they're willing to form an organization.' So we went into a phone booth and started calling.
Wagner: The first thing we decided was that we had to set some standards. If we were all going to use the same programs, we all needed to have the same computer configurations. There were probably 10 to 15 standards we discussed, such as utility programs and mathematical functions.
We committed to distribute any programs that would be of value to others. And a lot of ethics were involved. You were not supposed to recruit people from other organizations at a Share meeting. And if you were in the business of selling programs or hardware, you were forbidden to do this at a meeting except at the invitation of Share.
The mix of work and fun
Bernstein: One of the delightful inventions of Share was SCIDs, or Sessions on Common Information Discussion. We managed to arrange for a suite where people could get together after the day's meetings and let their hair down. Companies like Rand were not permitted to spend money on alcoholic beverages. It became an instant tradition. There was always a card game in the corner, but a great deal of information exchange went on.
The Share grapevine
Armer: I walked into my office around 9 one morning, and the phone was ringing. It was someone from Share on the East Coast saying, "I understand you had a fire on your computer." The news had gone from our installation, to another 704 installation, to the East Coast and now back to me, all by the time I got into work. That says something about how much we were in contact with one another.
Wagner: We had dozens of committees on various technical matters. These were very influential in directing IBM as to how they should behave in the technical world. We had a tremendous influence on the use of Fortran. It turned out that 90% of the engineering [and] scientific programs were written in Fortran. Without Share's backing, that wouldn't have happened.
Bernstein: Share turned out to be, by accident or design, the first standards-setting organization in the [industry].
The IBM/Share relationship
Bernstein: For a customer that had never owned a computer before, IBM could say, You can join Share, with literally hundreds of experts and get all the support you need. It turned out to be best marketing tool that anyone could have invented.
Brandel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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