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2nd bio for CHM Fran Underwood (Francis O.)
Born: Omaha, Neb. 06/16/1926
I come from a line of technical people. My grandfather was a watchmaker and an engraver. My father was a draftsman, architect, Mechanical Engineer and teacher. Unfortunately, he died when I was about four years old. I lost a potential mentor, so I had to wend my way without his guidance.
I entered a technically oriented high school in Binghamton, NY and was trained as a toolmaker, hopefully to become a toolmaker for IBM. After graduation, I enrolled in the Navy V-5 program which consisted of one year of college and then flight school. After the one year of college, the navy decided that they were not losing pilots at the expected rate, so I had a chance to stay and transfer to Cornell University. My major was Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Aeronautical Engineering. The war ended after I only had a year and a half at Cornell. I was discharged, then. I tell you of this background to illustrate how inappropriate my schooling was for the work that I was to do later.
My first job, after leaving the Service, was as a Tool Designer, designing tools on contract for IBM. These tools were mostly Drill jigs, Milling fixtures, punch –and- die sets for the IBM 407 Printer. This job only paid 75 cent per hour so I applied for a job at IBM. Instead of a job as a Tool Engineer, they offered me a job as a Customer Engineer to be trained in a special new course they wanted to try. So, ten guys were hired and the training course consisted of spending at least one full year on the production line learning how to assemble every product and to do the final testing. We had to complete at least five examples of each type.
This kind of experience was quite foreign to me and I had considerable trouble trying to figure out what this was all about. Then one day, on the final test line for the 405 my teacher made some casual remark and suddenly every thing fell in to place! I had an epiphany! I had no more trouble with circuits or Accounting practices.
The class used to gather in a classroom with other student CEs and sing "Ever Onward, IBM" and "Hail to Thomas J, Watson, Leader of the IBM". Really!
I remember one day at one of those meetings when a new Electronic Calculator was demonstrated to us. I was overwhelmed. I asked "where are you ever going to find people to service such a device?’ The answer was that we were going to do it! Remember, I had absolutely no experience or knowledge of Electronics and I assumed that no one else had, either. The type number of this Calculator was 604 and it had about 2000 tubes.
After graduation, I was sent to Washington DC. I was reasonably happy there, except that I was only making $ 1. 75 an hour. I spent my spare time designing two new product proposals: a Calculating Key punch and an Interpreter using wheels for printing. I took these designs to my CE manager and asked for an interview with Engineering. He resisted, and came up with lots of excuses about why I wouldn’t get an Engineering job. I persisted and finally got the interview. I was immediately offered $475 per month. My manager couldn’t believe it. I think that was more than he made.
My first assignment was to design a modification for the 405 to handle Extended Capacity Cards (ECC). These cards were to use 6-bit binary coding, two characters per column and I think Poughkeepsie was working on keypunches and printers. That project didn’t last too long. I don’t remember why. My manager at that time was a former CE (in Russia!) and was the designer of relay-implemented large Calculators.
He designed circuits to add, subtract, multiply and divide in decimal (not binary). These circuits involved thousands of relays and he would draw the circuit diagrams, including every contact, in ink with three little circles for every contact point. While I worked for him, I was fortunate to be a student in the first class given in IBM in mathematical circuit logic design. I showed my manager what I was learning and he was amazed. He had no idea that there could be a mathematical approach to logical circuit design.
When the course ended, The Education manager (Perry Perrone) asked me to teach an Engineering Training Program to teach new engineering hires how to be IBM engineers.
Frankly, I was petrified, and begged off. I had no teaching experience, and would freeze up if I ever had to speak to a group of people. He persisted, and it turned out to be easy. I even taught the 604 principals and circuits. For this, I had to plan each lesson and learn the content the night before class. I think that during that time, I was working on the design of a new Interpreter, the 519. I designed the Zone unit for the print mechanism.
After that I volunteered to teach the Circuit design course and then a Computer Architecture course. At some time about then, I suppose the WWAM project was initiated overseas, but I was not part of this effort. I was working in the Advanced Systems Development Department on unrelated special systems.
At this point, you should probably take a detour and read my Oral History of 1968 to find out the particulars of the 1401 development. I should probably mention that I was very naïve about large corporate business, totally unaware of the political aspects of product development. Looking back, there must have been a lot of politics at play in the WWAM program. For me, it was like being in a candy store. I could just do my thing, creating and innovating with little direction and interference. I had become very proficient in designing systems, turning out dozens of data flow diagrams for potential products. In this regard, I was largely self-taught. This was unusual work for a tool engineer.
There still a lot of things I didn’t know, so when I encountered a puzzling situation, I would ‘make up stuff’, otherwise known as inventing, creating and innovating!
When the 1401 was announced and my part was over, I was fortunate to be transferred to San Jose to work on Process Controllers. The result was the 1800. During this program, I had a chance to consult with Arnold Spielberg, the father of Steven Spielberg. I believe he was a Planner.