Monday, June 18 , 2018, 12:46 pm | Fair 68º

 
 
 

Harris Sherline: The Unstoppable March of Technology

The ability of electronic machines has come a long way since the 1960s

I first started working in public accounting in 1961. Since then, the advances in technology have been so amazing that I sometimes wonder how we managed to function in those days.

There was no such thing as a copy machine then, and there were also no computers — at least not in the sense that we think of them today. What we did have were two early versions of equipment that were used to accomplish the same tasks.

For copy work, there was something called a Bruning machine. It was a small tabletop piece of equipment that employed a wet process, sort of like a blueprint machine.

In those days, we would make a master of a document we wanted to copy, say a tax return, on a sheet of velum, which is a kind of stiff, clear plastic sheet. The forms were reproduced on the velum, and we wrote on them with something like a marking pen. The velum master was mounted on the machine, and we then ran a sheet of light-sensitive paper under it and through a developing solution. After the paper dried, you had a copy you could use for the tax return and to file with the tax agencies.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how slow the Bruning process was and how much time it would take to make multiple copies and assemble them.

The first copiers on the market were Xerox machines, but you couldn’t buy one. You had to lease it. After a few years, the government used anti-trust pressure to force Xerox into offering its machines for sale in addition to leasing them. Xerox complied, but the early machines cost $25,000, so you can just imagine how many were sold. Probably zero.

Think about that price at that time — in the 1960s; $25,000 for a Xerox machine that was about the size of today’s tabletop copier, compared with anywhere from $100 to $500 or $600 now for equipment that’s probably 10 times faster, more efficient and reliable. Even today’s most highly sophisticated copy machines cost far less than the early Xerox machines.

But Xerox was the only game in town in the ‘60s, and it literally had 100 percent of the market. There was no competition at all because the company had everything very tightly controlled with its patents. Competition from other manufacturers eventually began to enter the market, but it took many years before there was any kind of market penetration by anyone else.

Those who are familiar with the punch cards that were used by the first IBM machines will no doubt recall that the early computers were gigantic machines, with systems that filled an entire room — which, by the way, had to be very carefully temperature-controlled.

Today, the average desktop PC has more power and capacity than those early systems that filled a large room or sometimes even an entire floor of office space. The first IBM (360) computers occupied about 11,000 square feet of space and had only about one-quarter the memory of today’s desktop PC. Think about that — 11,000 square feet of space filled with equipment that had only one-fourth the memory that a desktop PC has today.

Punch cards were the initial method of running the early computers. The way it worked was to punch small, rectangular holes in a card that was about 4 inches by 8 inches. The position of the holes would be used by the machine to read either alpha information (letters of the alphabet) or numbers, and a separate card had to be punched for every line item that you wanted the machine to calculate or print out. Literally, thousands of cards were required to process even a simple set of accounting records.

Within a short period of time, some courageous business types bought their own machines from IBM and opened up businesses that were called service bureaus. What they did was have key punch operators produce the cards, which were then run through their IBM machines to produce the books and financial statements you needed for your clients.

Working from the original data, we would summarize the information on the service bureau’s forms and mail them in. The whole process took about a week to 10 days to turn around and get back to us. That was even with the service bureaus sometimes working 16 to 20 hours a day. Some of these outfits became pretty large businesses because they were servicing hundreds of clients, in both public accounting and private industry.

But even with the time delay and the added expense, it was still a lot faster and cheaper than doing it the old-fashioned way — that is, by hand, in your own office.

After a time, another advance made it possible to run the IBM machines with a roll of tape that had holes punched in it in various positions, which the computers could read directly to create the punch cards without key-punch operators. That cut costs for the service bureaus and made it possible for them to process information much faster.

The first machine we bought took a lot of thought and planning because of the cost, which was about $5,000. That was a lot of money in those days. Compare that cost with today’s computers and the difference in the things they could or can do.

Adding machines were the equivalent of today’s printing calculators. They were big clunkers, made of steel. But they were great machines and were very durable.

A high-quality adding machine cost $600 in the 1960s. That’s $600 in ‘60s dollars vs. $20 to $60 at today’s value. And today’s equipment probably has 100 times the power of those old adding machines — at 5 percent or 10 percent of the cost.

Another interesting cost comparison is typewriters. About 25 years ago, the best electric typewriter on the market was the IBM Selectric. It cost $600 — which, again, was a lot of money for a small business at the time. Today, you can buy electric typewriters for anywhere from about $60 to $100 or $120. The better typewriters still cost around $500 or $600, but they have many more features than the old electric machines did, including greater speed and memory.

Speaking of technology, you can hardly consider the subject nowadays without at least some comment about the Internet. Most people today are part of the “world of wired.” One article had a headline that read, “U.S., Canada Net Users Up to 79 Million.”

One statistic I heard a number of years ago pointed out that the amount of information that was available on the Internet was 25,000 times greater than the world’s biggest library.

Considering the growth of the World Wide Web and the sheer volume of users, the incredible amount of information we can Google today is no doubt incalculable.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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