Good Morning Reddit!

My name is Jerome Svigals. In 1950, when I was a Lieutenant in the US Army, I was assigned to work on the first electronic computer. For that job, I was one of the first people trained on ENIAC and helped develop the first database computer, the RCA BIZMAC. The idea of a "computer" was relatively new at that time, so I was one of the first 50 people in the world to be trained in digital programming.

After leaving the Army, in 1954, I was the first person IBM hired to develop computers, and over the next 33 years I worked at IBM, invented the idea of computer tech support and eventually headed up IBM's global marketing system. In the early 1960's, I headed up a development project on a machine-readable media mechanism, and am considered the "father" of the magnetic stripe system that we still use today. In all, I hold 15 patents.

Today, I speak at card and payment conferences on future bank implementation. I've written 25 books (here are a few) on the subject.

I'll be answering questions throughout the day today, starting at 12:00 PM EST. I'm not the fastest typist, so I'm getting some help - please be patient if I don't respond right away! I'm looking forward to reading your questions.

Best, Jerome

*Note: Due to Reddit downtime, I'll be posting answers from Friday's top questions on Saturday, and I'm going to be answering some more on Monday!

Comments: 586 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

NaiveSmartass207 karma

Wow. First of all, thank you for everything you've done. Your accomplishments are truly amazing.

Just a few questions...

1) What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

2) Do you still consider yourself up-to-date with technology?

3) What was it like developing the first database computer? What were some challenges you encountered?

4) If you could go back in time, would you make/do anything different?

Thanks for this AMA.

JeromeSvigals24 karma

1) Definitely the magnetic stripe, but there were 4 accomplishments involved in this. The first was figuring how to make magnetic material as reliable and economical as paper stock. The second was we were dealing with two different industries - banking and airlines. Banking was on a numeric system, while airlines are on an alphabetic system. Dealing with these two requirements was a huge problem. There are two tracks on a magnetic stripe - track one is alphabetic information for use in airlines and government, and track two is numeric for banking retail. Track three is optional, and is for re-writing. The third problem we had was how to make these secure, as they were easily manipulated initially. We decided to implement security in the processing system, not in the card, which turned out to be very effective. The fourth problem was migration. As banking technology changes about every ten years, we have to ensure that records move over. We solved this by retaining the same industry processing structure, while changing how the card transmitted information. This is still applicable today with Smart Phones, as the chips in the phones, which are essentially computers that can make calls, store that information now. This system has lasted for 40-50 years, so this is quite an accomplishment, and I expect it to last longer. That's what I call setting a precedent!

2) I'm still very up to date with technology. My 26th book describes the migration of magnetic card technology to computers and Smart Phones. My 27th book discusses the growth of banking on Smart Phones.

3) It was very primitive, every step was new and different. We had to think through what we were trying to do in terms of what data we needed, what functions we needed, and how to use the data. But we were sort of pioneers in this process. Most of those original thoughts still survive today.

4) If I could go back in time, I would invest more money in computer technologies. At the time following ENIAC, there were about 20 companies producing digital computers, they were essentially selling specifications. They did fairly well in the marketplace, but when I joined IBM they were giving us a hard time coming out of the punch-card era. I was in sales in San Francisco in 1956, looked at the situation, and saw that specifications were not the right way to market these, instead we should build an entire system to support the computer and its users. This ended up being the IBM business model on how they marketed computers.

[deleted]197 karma

I've been doing consulting work for just 10 years, and there are times I'll go back to an old customer site and see fingerprints of my original designs still plugging away (a scant) 8 or 9 years later.

Can you think of any trivial design decisions that you may have made 'back in the day' that are still present in modern iterations of the technology?

JeromeSvigals65 karma

With the magnetic stripe, there were six different techniques we could choose from, ranging from optical techniques, embedded metal particles, and of course the magnetics, which also came in several variations.

We chose magnetic stripes because IBM had so much experience in magnetics, which ended up being a great decision.

Quady140 karma

What was the biggest surprise to you in how computers and their surrounding technology and culture developed? And biggest dissapointment?

JeromeSvigals79 karma

When I started with computers they were very primitive, they could only add and subtract ten digit numbers and had no storage programming. We had to propose our questions in terms that the computer could execute. My biggest surprise, I suppose, is how sophisticated they have become.

My biggest disappointment was that I wasn't smart enough to invest more money in the beginning!

[deleted]131 karma

Many people I know who work with computers find it hard to explain to layperson what they actually do for a living. How much more difficult was this in an age when people didn't even know what computers were?

Thank you for doing this AMA, your perspective will be great to hear.

JeromeSvigals26 karma

It was almost impossible. They couldn't even say the name, they kept calling them compooters.

dryga67 karma

Do you remember the moment you realized that "this 'computer' thing we're working on is going to revolutionize society"?

Do you program? (I'm guessing no.) If not, when did you stop? Did you ever find yourself nostalgic for the more "primitive" programming (closer to hardware) that you started out doing?

What did you study at university? Would you say that you consider yourself a scientist or an engineer or something else?

JeromeSvigals41 karma

Yes, I do. While working at RCA on a database machine, which was being developed for the Army to inventory weapons and vehicles, we saw the potential. As nearly every industry had database problems, we realized we had a potential solution.

I did a lot of programming early until people began developing computer programs like FORETRAN which took over a lot of the menial work.

I am an Electrical Engineer and studied at the City College of New York, but not much that I studied was useful as none of the electronics I came to use existed while in college. What I did learn was the skills on how to approach a problem and solve it. The technology changed, but those skills always were relevant. However, in 2009 I was the Alumnus of the Year.

iglidante30 karma

What's your favorite story about tracking down a pesky bug?

JeromeSvigals29 karma

The word "bug" originated because someone found bugs in an ENIAC. We had to fumigate it to get rid of them!

[deleted]28 karma


JeromeSvigals5 karma

1) The first computer I worked on was not stored program. The way we would set up a program was there were ten panels with switches, and each instruction was ten digits, so you'd take one of the panels and spend a half hour turning switches loading your program into the panel. When you were ready, you'd plug the panel into the ENIAC, which would then proceed to execute it.

2) I'm enthusiastic about the languages. I think they're going to explode as well, as Smart Phone's take off. I think that Smart Phone languages will be the primary form of programming development moving forward.

3) When they put them in application form, yes. They need to do a little bit of marketing and make it executable on a Smart Phone. That's where the next phase of development will occur.

Baukelien22 karma

You and others like you have had major influence on how computers still operate today. My question is: is there anything you designed that you regret?

For example Sir Tim Berners-Lee still regrets getting the world stuck with http:// did you make design choices that turned out to hinder the modern computer today?

JeromeSvigals10 karma

Things were changing so fast in the early days that when we discovered something that didn't work or it wasn't responding properly, we just changed it and moved on. There wasn't enough time for mistakes or bad choices to stick around.

trunks626222 karma

Thank you very much for doing this.

What was it like to come up with the sheer idea to make programming how it is and was? I always find it fascinating how humans could think about such an different idea and tackle it although I'm a programmer myself :).

Also, Mac or PC? (you know it has to be asked)

Edit: Formatting

JeromeSvigals6 karma

I believe the first question has been answered, and of course PC. I worked at IBM.

cromethus20 karma

Jerome first let me say thank you, both for posting this AMA and all the work that you've done over your career.

Question: How do you view the state of security and privacy in the modern computing era?

JeromeSvigals4 karma

The answer is remarkably well. The algorithms developed it detect fraud are very powerful, for example, using a card in two cities very close to each other flags the system. Smart Phones use a “card not present” system that works in a similar fashion – all companies now have acquired assets that specialize in this problem.

When looking at situations like what recently happened to Sony, any time you’re storing data in a database, it raises a whole new level of security questions. But in terms of responding to breaches, the industry has been very strong on the whole, and my guess is that they will keep being successful.

TheBossIsWatching18 karma

What are your thoughts on modern languages such as Python & Ruby?

What is it like going from pioneering digital programming at IBM to see them create things like "Watson"?

JeromeSvigals8 karma

We're going to see lots of new languages that have value. If they have an audience and people want to use it, go do it.

Good question! I knew Watson, both Senior and Junior. When we made the magnetic strip, there were 25 board members at IBM, 21 of whom were bankers. We had to make it clear to them that we were making card technology, but not getting into credit card business. After a presentation to the board, Tom Watson Jr. came up to me and said that his mother hated credit cards…she was the real power behind the throne. I was actually scared for a while, but Watson realized it was too important to let his mother stop it.

Regarding "Watson" - it's not bad, but they need to get it to the next step, making it available to a wider audience. Until you make it available on a routine basis, you don't get the backroom benefit. At some point IBM will progress where they will offer it.

NovaeDeArx14 karma

Since you do a lot of consulting in the bank world, may I ask a few things from an intelligent specialist:

1) Why the hell are so many American banks lagging behind on modern-age security? I keep hearing about more and more European banks moving to token-based or one-time-pad security to hamper hackers/phishers/morons from screwing up the system... But in America it's practically unheard of. What gives?

2) I have a few ideas about the next revolution in banking (rather not discuss quite yet), but I'd like to hear an insider's take on what you see coming in the 21st century - more changes or more of the same?

3) Is there really any point in belonging to one of the "superbanks" if you're not a top-0.1%er? Credit unions offer all the same basic services, but without the same degree of "pay us and f*** you" that the big guys have.

4) Is it difficult carrying around that large of an e-wang? Being able to shut down >99.9999999% of programmers with an "Oh, so you think you're old school..." must be hilarious.

JeromeSvigals10 karma

1) Very good question. The answer is that banks in the US think differently than banks in the rest of the world. In other places, people are willing to move aggressively with new technologies. For example, at schools in South Korea students are given computers to learn programming. With this attitude, the US will always be 5-10 years behind the rest of the world. I've written a book called Retail Bank 2020, which talks about the movement to Smart Phones. I've been criticized in Australia for being too conservative, they think it will be more like 2015.

2) The two biggest changes are face to face transactions changing to Smart Phone transactions on the internet, and the PC that we know today is going to migrate to the tablet. The tablet will provide 95% of the function of a PC, but be smaller and easier carried. I just got off of a plane flight, and 1 in 5 people had a tablet they were playing with.

lpfader14 karma

How do you feel about the accomplishments of apple, and what do you see for it's future without Steve Jobs?
Did it occur to you way back that computers could be used for recreation (i.e. computer games) or would that sort of activity been considered frivolous? Did you work with UNIVAC? What did you think of 2001: A Space Odyssey? When did you first send an email and what did you first think about the idea of a 'pc'?
I could ask you a million questions!

JeromeSvigals5 karma

I have very high regard for Apple, and their performance in the market has been unbelievable. Steve has a lot of capable people behind him, and that will continue with or without him. They’re a great influence on the industry on the whole.

We were playing games pretty early. They weren’t elaborate, but we would play tic-tac-toe for example. A little recreation work was always underway. Today it’s so much more sophisticated, but programmers are programmers, when they get a few minutes, they’ll put an interesting experience together. The first game I played was on BIZMAC in 1952 or 53, and it was tic-tac-toe.

theears11 karma

At what point did you understand how big of a thing computers would be? Or did you always have the idea they'd be so pervasive.

JeromeSvigals2 karma

Yes, I did. While working at RCA on a database machine, which was being developed for the Army to inventory weapons and vehicles, we saw the potential. As nearly every industry had database problems, we realized we had a potential solution.

magneticmagnum10 karma

This is like hitting the jackpot!

What can you tell us about the programming aspects and documentation of the 1950s SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Enviroment) commissioned by the U.S. to IBM?

From my understanding, the SAGE system was the largest and most expensive computer system ever built, yet there is no documentation on the programming aspects of the system. The only information left behind are the physical components and the amound of money and time spent on the project.

edit: My Digital-Technology History class professor has been seeking someone who has lived during this time to tell us about this and more. I believe he is afraid everyone who has worked on this is going to pass away before any information is found. He works for the Charles-Babbage Institute, an institution dedicated to documentation all historical aspects of digital-technology. He would ABSOLUTELY LOVE the pleasure to have an Q&A with you about this era of programming.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, can I connect you two to talk so he can document this.

THIS IS FOR SCIENCE! He is a great professor, and he has been seeking this information for over his 15 years as a researcher. He would have more questions for you than all of us on Reddit combined (unless he is here on Reddit).

TLDR: Can I connect you with my professor who is dedicated to documenting historical technology. You have much needed info that he has been seeking for years to have documented.

JeromeSvigals3 karma

From my understanding, the SAGE system was the largest and most expensive computer system ever built, yet there is no documentation on the programming aspects of the system. The only information left behind are the physical components and the amount of money and time spent on the project.

SAGE was a multi-processer system designed for National Security, tracking aircraft flights and things like that. That was very specialized and handled in the Kingston, NY plant, so I didn’t see much of it. There was documentation at the time, I just wasn’t exposed to it.

right_then8 karma

What was the first computer you had in your home?

JeromeSvigals4 karma

The first IBM PC.

jeffh46 karma

Did you work on the IBM computers used with the Apollo program? My father was Joseph Hartt and he told me several stories about those times.

One was about a programmer who coded and compiled everything in his head before typing it in. He typed in 50,000 lines of code and it worked perfectly the first time. My dad made sure he got a company award of some type. Do you know who that programmer was?

I think (not sure) that this was the first "real-time" application ever written. I believe this was for the consoles in Mission Control. The orbit trajectory calculations were not done real time, I remember that. That consisted of "throw a rock, simulate the rocket burn, see where it ends up, adjust, repeat until you get where you want at the speed you want."

JeromeSvigals3 karma

I did not work with the computers on the Apollo program, but they were using standard IBM product as I remember.

I’m not sure who that programmer is, I’m sure he existed, but it’s pretty unbelievable if true!

toneii5 karma

My wife's grandfather worked for IBM, they still have a gold clock from IBM. The stories were that in the 1950s, he had to put together some computer, and all the documentation was all in Russian. Does that sound possible or familiar?

JeromeSvigals2 karma

Possible, but doesn’t sound familiar. In the 50’s and 60’s the Russian’s were following IBM systems. But they were quite clever in watching what the industry was doing and taking advantage of it.