Burt Grad: Univac Pioneer Looks Back, And Ahead

For many older Americans, technology is wonderful. They FaceTime grandkids, stream videos, and stay in touch with the online world.

But they’re not digital natives. They rely on those grandkids for technological help. There’s always fear of pushing the wrong button. Computers can seem like a foreign language.

Not to Burt Grad, though. He’s spent his life around technology. He was in on the ground floor of some of the first computers — literally.

And now — at 94 years old — he’s working on a project to save as much of its history as he can.

Burt Grad, at his 85th birthday party.

His office is in the Westport home he shares with his second wife, Carol Anne Ances. There’s a computer, of course, and a cellphone. It has exponentially more power, he says, than “the whole building” that housed the original machines he worked on.

They were at GE. The company bought the first commercial-use Univac 1 computer ever made. There were only 2 others in existence: one at the Census Bureau, the other used by the Air Force.

Its main memory consisted of 1,000 words, of 12 characters each. Grad points to his cellphone — with exponentially more power — and laughs.

Remington Rand’s Univac 1, at the US Census Bureau in 1951.

He grew up in Washington. The summer after graduating from high school, in 1945, he worked at the Pentagon doing statistical analyses of Army Air Force training flights. It was his introduction to punch cards.

Grad earned a scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and majored in management engineering. He was hired by GE, headquartered in nearby Schenectady, New York.

Burt Grad, 1959.

Working there, then in New York City and Louisville, he created the first commercial business applications on that Univac, helping automate factories.

Moving on to IBM, he managed the development of over 100 application program products. He represented IBM in the software industry trade association.

IBM’s legendary former chair Thomas Watson once said that the maximum number of computers that the world needed was 17. “He was slightly wrong,” Grad notes.

As great and important a company as IBM became in computers, Grad adds, it missed the boat with software. They saw it only as a way to sell hardware — not something with intrinsic value.

His third career was in consulting. In a 3 decade-plus career, Grad worked for over 200 clients. He did strategic planning, due diligence studies and valuation projects for software and services companies.

An industry titan, he recognized the need to compile some of the history he was seeing (and participating in). As co-chair of the Software Industry Special Interest Group at the Computer History Museum, Grad has collected oral histories and pored through files from software pioneers from the 1950s through the ’80s.

Software — not hardware — is the force that truly powered the computer revolution, Grad says.

And this has been more powerful than the previous seismic one. “All the Industrial Revolution did was change how we move physical objects,” Grad says. “Now, we move ideas around the world.”

The computer revolution began in earnest in the 1970s. In 1971, when Burt Grad’s future stepson Michael Ances was 1, he played with this IBM 3270 terminal, connected to an IBM mainframe computer. Michael’s mother Carol Anne worked with Grad at IBM.

“Software” is a hard-to-define term, of course. “Google is really a software company,” Grad says. “So is Amazon. The only reason we use them is because they’re online.”

By that definition, Uber may be a software company too. And what about banks? They spend a significant amount of money on computing, Grad says.

Documenting the importance of software is one of the Westporter’s several passions. He has recorded 130 oral histories — each lasting 2 to 6 hours — for the Computer History Museum.

Topics include the development of spreadsheets, word processors and desktop publishing.

Why is it important? “Why is the history of the Gold Rush important?” Grad counters. “This is an incredible industry. It has impacted nearly everyone’s life. Except for a couple of people, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it wasn’t being captured.”

There’s an irony to his work. During the Gold Rush, people wrote letters and journals. Those physical objects remain, a century and a half later.

Thanks to software itself, we have very little physical documentation of the development of that software.

Burt Grad, at work.

Grad knows a lot — and at 94, his mind is as sharp as it was when he was devising the first commercial applications for Univac 1.

But he draws the line at predicting what’s next.

“I’m not smart enough to do that,” Grad says. “No one is. No one in the 1960s and ’70s knew where we would be in 30 or 40 years. No one knows where we’ll be 10 years from now.

“I won’t be around then. But my kids, my grandkids and great-grandkids will be.”

Whatever world they live in, they’ll have Burt Grad to thank for helping them live in it.

And for keeping its history alive.

(Hat tip: Michele Solis)

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