Retrotechtacular: Building The First Computers For Banking

If you’ve ever wondered where the term “banker’s hours” came from, look back to the booming post-war economy of 1950s America. That’s when banks were deluged with so many checks, each of which had to be reconciled by hand, that they had to shut their doors at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, just to have a hope of getting all the work done at a reasonable time. It was time-consuming, laborious, error-prone work that didn’t scale well, and something had to be done about it.

The short film below, “Manufacturing Competence,” details the building of ERMA, the Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting. ERMA was the result of years of R&D work, and by the early 1960s, General Electric was gearing up production at its new Phoenix, Arizona plant. The process goes from bare metal racks and proceeds through to manufacturing the many modules needed for these specialized machines, which were perhaps the first commercial use of computers outside of universities and the military.

The sheer number of workers involved is astonishing, especially in backplane assembly, with long lines of women wielding wire-wrapping guns and following punch-tape instructions for the point-to-point connections. PCB stuffing was equally labor-intensive, with women stuffing boards from a handful of seemingly random components. And the precision needed for some of the steps, like weaving the ferrite core memory, was breathtaking. We really enjoyed the bit where the tiny toroids were bounced into place with a vibrating jig.

The hybrid nature of ERMA, and the assembly methods needed to produce it, are what strike us most about this film. The backplanes were wire-wrapped, but the modules were wave-soldered PCBs. Component leads were automatically formed and trimmed, but inserted by hand. Assembly and testing were directed by punched tape, but results were assessed by eye. Even ERMA itself was prototyped with vacuum tubes, but switched to transistors for production. The transitional nature of electronics in the early 1960s is on full display here, and it offers an interesting perspective on how change in this field can be simultaneously rapid and glacial.

26 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Building The First Computers For Banking

  1. This phrase “which were perhaps the first commercial use of computers outside of universities and the military.” seems to ignore the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) range of computers made in the UK for the Lyons food companies. LEO 1 (loosely based on the Cambridge University EDSAC) ran its first application in 1951 and was so successful that LEOs were manufactured for other users, or they hired time on Lyons models.

    1. I was thinking exactly that – LEO was the first computer designed and built for commercial use. But it was British, so does that count from a US perspective ;-) ?

      Regardless, this is an insightful video and article.

    2. I think New York City had a computer which helped run the subway system in the 1930s. This was only declassified in the last few years (less than 5 years ago). I’m under the impression it was a digital computer and not a mechanical computer like the Norden Bombsight.

  2. I know someone who is trying to resurrect a bendix computer from the 1950’s for a museum. Does anyone know of a source for glass germanium diodes or documentation to retrofit with modern devices? Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi there. I think someone can also use microwave diodes, ie. diodes for GHz applications. They have a low voltage drop and are otherwise very sensitive, similar to Germanium types. Might be an alternative to Schottky diodes, albeit more pricey. If only a couple of them are needed and Germanium/Schottky aren’t available, it’s worth a consideration, maybe.

  3. So interesting. I didn’t know that Something Like a Wire Wraping Gun or Wire Wrapping exist. Last Week i learned on YouTube that IT exist a only one directional conductive Tape. I Always thougt that soldering ist the only was to do a condictive Connection.

    1. Wire-wrap (and crimped connections in general) is usually a superior connection to soldering, especially where there is vibration or corrosion. In some cases crimping is faster than soldering.

    1. Yup. It’s not being mentioned in school, either.
      There, they used to tell boys and girls for ages that IT was being dominated by men.
      And that boys with good math skills (“logical thinking”, whatever that means) will make good programmers/IT people.

      Which both isn’t exactly true. Or not anymore. Programs are usually being written (language skills needed, too) and girls/women were working in computing since the early days.

      Women were often used to do filigrane or repetitive works.
      Such as working as a secretary or an keyboard operator (typing on glass terminal/teletype), for woving programs into rope memory, as computer (people with excellent math skills; see NASA history) etc.

      1. In 1974, I was looking for any kind of work and visited Tektronix seeking an electronics assembly job. I was told they only hired women for those jobs as men lacked the required fine muscle coordination. I had been wiring and soldering since 4th grade.

      2. The original programmers were mostly women (coding is just typing after all) while the men did the much more difficult hardware building.

        Eventually the men noticed coding wasn’t easy, so the women got turfed out.

  4. My fathers family (including me) were transferred from a GE plant in Syracuse to Phoenix in the late 60s. It’s neat to read a line about migrations in the US that I participated in.

  5. GE had little to do wtih the actual design of ERMA. “Developed at the nonprofit research institution SRI International under contract from Bank of America, the project began in 1950 and was publicly revealed in September 1955.” – Wikipedia

  6. “Payments experts contend that ERMA established the foundation for computerized banking, magnetic ink character recognition (MICR), and credit-card processing.

    Arnold Spielberg, father of filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Charles Propster designed the GE-225 mainframe computer in the late 1950s while working for General Electric. The machine allowed computer scientists at Dartmouth College to develop the programming language BASIC, which would be essential the rise of personal computers in the 1970s and 80s.”

    1. Nice reference!
      As for BASIC at Dartmouth, there is a documentary out there somewhere about this.
      I used to poo-poo BASIC as a language but after seeing the docu, I realized that they were trying to make computing accessible to all kinds of majors, and not just for the computer geeks.. and this was in the 1960s.
      They really were pushing new boundaries.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.