Computer History Of The World, Part 7

by Bob Seidel

In my last history column, I talked about the start of the microprocessor revolution within IBM and the group I worked in that developed tools for those early microprocessors.

The time was now the mid-70's, and the work of the microprocessor tools group had stabilized. With few new challenges left, I decided to move to a new group. By the way, this is one of the real benefits of working for a large company such as IBM. It was relatively easy to move between groups - most of which were bigger than normal small to mid sized companies. But you didn't need a resume or a headhunter - you just needed a good reputation.

I followed some friends and one former manager to the group developing IBM's next series of computer display terminals, the 3270 product line. Although I did not have much experience in display terminals, the 3270 was one of the first products within IBM to use the new microprocessor family, which I was very familiar with.

I would like to say that I quickly rose to a position of technical prominence in this group, but in fact everybody was really excellent - again, another benefit of working for a large company such as IBM. We all worked together well, were doing a really challenging technical job, made lots of money for the company, and even got along well after work. We had some great parties, especially when a group of people from England came over for a few years - real party animals!

It was here that my career took a sudden and unexpected shift to a path that I would continue on for the rest of my career - I became a manager. Being selected as a manager was a significant step, especially for someone like me who was a dedicated techie. But my manager had faith in me, and I guess it worked out well because I remained in a management position for almost all the remainder of my IBM career.

The 3270 displays were fairly large and bulky, about the size of a 19 or 21-inch PC monitor today. This was because the quality of these displays was excellent - far better than any competitor in the marketplace at that time. Eventually the product line included color displays, and even plasma displays. The world is now waking up to plasma displays for large screen TVs - we were working on them back in the 70's.

One of my favorite stories concerns a test we did to determine the effectiveness of the service organization we were putting together. This was prior to the time that the 3270 product was actually available to customers. Back in those days, computers were serviced by on-site personnel. The service branch of IBM was very good at fixing hardware, but not very experienced in the more subtle microprocessor code (microcode) problems. I set up a test in which I modified (hacked, as it were) the product microcode to make the New Line (Enter) key fail - instead of going to the next line, it would set the cursor to a random position on the screen. I selected one of our human-factors people to "evaluate" the product by working on it for a while, and asked him in no uncertain terms to report immediately any problem he found. The entire US service organization was primed to wait for the trouble call.

Hours go by, and nothing happened! Sensing imminent failure, I peeked into the room where the human-factors person was working. He was merrily pecking away at the keyboard, and making notes. I asked him if there were any problems. He replied that the New Line key was failing, but he got around the problem by using the cursor arrow keys instead! Apparently, he thought that his (faked) assignment of "evaluating" the product was more important that a little microcode problem! Of course, I immediately reset his priorities.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at or e-mail him at