The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2022 is Codebreaking in World War II, which fits with the topic of the novel that I’m writing. Visit every day (except Sunday) in April for a new post on my topic.
I is for International Business Machines
Today we think of IBM as a computer company, but International Business Machines has been around since 1911 (decades before the modern computer), originally founded as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company.
IBM’s success at providing machinery for the new Social Security Administration in the middle of the Great Depression proved that they were capable of handling large scale government operations. “The Social Security Administration (SSA) operated the IBM Collater, and a variety of other mechanical card-punch and tabulating devices, throughout the 1930s and 40s.” (Social Security Administration History, Research Note #6: Early Automation Challenges for SSA)
One way to measure the growth of the operation to break codes in World War II is the number of IBM machines in use. This is from The Other Ultra by Ronald Lewin (alternate title: The American Magic):
On Pearl Harbor day 181 people were working in the Washington headquarters of the Signal Intelligence Service: at the end, 7,000. On that day, 21 people were operating 13 IBM tabulating machines: in 1945, 1275 operators controlled 407 machines. (p. 132)
What Lewin failed to say in that quote is that the vast majority of those operators were women.
When the Signal Intelligence Service recruited women for war work, they looked for a variety of skills but among them was the ability to work the key punch and tabulating machines from International Business Machines. This is from Code Girls by Liza Mundy:
Running office machines—tabulator, keypunch—was a woman’s occupation, and thousands were now needed to run the IBM machines that compared and overlapped multidigit code groups…. Telephone switchboard operators were unintimidated by the most complex machines. (p. 28)
Here’s my personal reason for choosing this topic for the letter ‘I’. My dad was a computer programmer. In the 1970s, when I was young, he worked with an IBM mainframe computer and a couple of “key punch girls” to do payroll and other computing tasks at the Hercules plant in Louisiana, Missouri.