Friday, July 23, 2010

Ypsilanti City Council Faces Crucial Technological Upgrade

Kind readers, you all know the city budget is tighter than wet lederhosen on a prize hog (coining a phrase, there). As taxpayers, would you feel comfortable at this perilous juncture with a $721,000 outlay for dubious new technology? One that had never been tested or used before, and which would eliminate several city jobs staffed by neighbors and friends...assuming the darn thing worked?

That was the choice that faced the City Council in May of 1973 as the city pondered whether to buy...its first computer.

The IBM "System 3" was an enormous hulk of a thing that used a punchcard system. It promised to provide a modest speed-up in Ypsilanti's processing of voter information and several other tabulation-type tasks. It was really just a glorified Babbage machine with an electric plug. The "System 3" was introduced in 1969 and discontinued the year I graduated high school and is already collected in historical museums (pass the Geritol).

"Ypsilanti's City Hall may soon enter the electronics age," announced the May 15, 1973 Ypsi Press story by Barney White headlined "Computer Proposed for City."

"At Monday Night's budget hearing, city council heard a presentation from IBM representative Ann Olson, who suggested the city purchase a $151,000 [$721,000 in today's greenbacks] "System 3" computer.

"Describing the device as in the 'small to medium size range,' Ms. Olson said a number of municipalities, including Westland and Dearborn, have converted their business operations to computer systems.

"Presently, most city hall functions are performed by hand, though some, such as tax billing, are 'farmed out' to conputer concerns.

"The presentation follows several months' study by city officials, according to City Manager Peter Caputo.

"The computer cost, plus the approximately $12,000 salary of a full-time 'data processing coordinator,' would be paid from the city's federal revenue-sharing funds.

"According to Ms. Olson, purchase of the System 3 could save the city nearly $40,000 over a five-year period compared with costs under a lease arrangement.

"The System 3, she continued, can, among other things, perform 38,000 six-digit additions a second, process 25 checks a minute or 1,000 new voters in 20 minutes."

"Currently, it's about 10 minutes per new voter," Ms. Olson said, "that's a mammoth job and we can do it in 20 minutes."

When Dusty Diary's husband, a Java programmer, heard the figure of '38,000,' he chuckled. "Do you know how many operations per second a computer can handle nowadays?" he asked. I did not--what, do I look like an encyclopedia? "Several hundreds of millions...and that's on a little computer like that [gesturing to my Mac]." Plus I gather the System 3 was not entirely I said, more like an electrified mechanical Babbage calculator. It was a semi-mechanical computer. Which is pretty cool. Not entirely unlike my 1930s cast iron gas station cash register that I recently snagged, which is entirely mechanical. (A story for another time).

The article continued, "The device would not become rapidly outdated, she added since 'the system does have growth capabilities.'" Heh.

"The computer memory banks can be increased five times by the addition of more equipment, the printing speed by as much as five and a half times and the storage by 20 times.

"The System 3 also maintains good resale or trade-in value, she said."

It was DARN NOISY though!

"Human Rights Party spokesman Jim Scherer, a member of the audience, opposed purchase of the IBM computer.

"'We have another factor for council to consider,' he said, 'that is that IBM is one of the major war contractors in the Indochina War right now.'"

"Councilman Lawrence J. Lobert agreed with Scherer, saying he would not support purchase of the system. Some other council members indicated they would base their decision on the needs of the city and the merits of the computer." --Ypsilanti Press, May 15, 1973.

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