Computing Applications ACM at 60: a look back in time

Edmund Berkeley and the Origins of ACM

A fascination with computing machinery, and a desire to explore this emerging field with mathematicians, engineers, computer manufacturers, and others, inspired E.C. Berkeley to help create a hub for these common interests to connect.
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  2. Author
  3. Footnotes

As we all know, ACM was the first professional society dedicated to computing. Yet, as much as we think of ACM as one of the principal societies, if not the principal society for computer science today, its origins and initial identity was something a little different.

In 1947, few people knew what we now call computers were; those that did mostly saw it as a very special scientific instrument, something intricately associated with the nuclear weapons program and other forms of highly specialized research that emerged out of World War II. But during the war, the actual uses of computers had been much broader. This work was done not with electronic computers but mundane calculating machines and other specialized machinery in everything from military logistics, to naval engineering, to aircraft wing design; they were used for ballistics calculations, for anti-aircraft gun control systems, and even the actuarial calculations related to dramatically altered mortality figures. Toward the end of the war, insiders—those individuals who built or used new computers during the war—began to recognize that computing and computing machinery was an emerging field with broad applications in war and peace. They began to meet and communicate as a new disciplinary entity. It was this group that formed the foundation of ACM.

However, the initiative to establish ACM came from a somewhat unlikely source—an insurance industry methods expert by the name of Edmund C. Berkeley. Berkeley had served as one of the commissioned officers who operated the Harvard Mark I under Howard Aiken during the war. He had become excited about the broad prospects of machine computation, and although he elected to return to the Prudential Insurance Company after the war, this encounter with the digital computer fostered an enthusiasm that stayed with him after his departure from Harvard. Berkeley maintained an active liaison with other wartime and postwar computing facilities, most notably the Watson Computing Laboratory established at Columbia University in 1945.1

Nevertheless, as separated from an institutional context that might have brought a more academic flavor to the society, Berkeley conceptualized ACM, or more properly, the "Eastern Association for Computing Machinery (EACM)," as a more ecumenical organization that included all of the different kinds of institutions—and their different uses for computing—that he and his contemporaries could imagine. Berkeley also saw ACM as an organization that could create a bridge between the interests of mathematicians, engineers, computer manufacturers, government officers, and anyone with an interest in computers. While ACM would rapidly mature into a professional society, in this article I wish to focus on ACM precisely as it looked at its origin, and the special role that one of its founders, Edmund Berkeley, played in its early history.

Berkeley had begun his career as a Harvard mathematics graduate in 1930. His early writings from this period reveal his youthful enthusiasm, and the hope and idealism that he would later bring to creating ACM. At the time, Berkeley had been swept up by the promise of New Deal reforms. Moved by the events around him, he laid out his conviction that mathematicians using scientific methods might soon discover the methods to analyze, verify, and correct those elements of industrial capitalism that had unfortunately generated the paradoxical situation of overproduction and scarcity. Attending to more practical matters, Berkeley had joined the Prudential Insurance Company upon graduation, drawn to the then-benevolent image of this industry, as well as the mathematical needs of the firm. He had worked there as an actuary until World War II when, as an officer in the Naval Reserve, he was activated in 1942. Because of his mathematical background, he was assigned to the ballistics section of the Naval Proving Ground (Dahlgren). It was only at the end of World War II, in August 1945, that Berkeley was assigned to work on the Harvard Mark I, also known as the IBM Automatic Sequence Control Calculator. He stayed there just until April 1946, but this encounter was strong enough to foster a deep enthusiasm for computing machinery.2

After the war, Berkeley returned Prudential to work for its methods research section. Life insurance presented one of the most computationally intensive industries. Prudential had to process payments for about 11 million standard policies per month, and thus the firm’s Division of Organization and Methods was regarded as an important part of the firm. Shortly after the war, the latest wave of insurance reform produced a piece of legislation, the Guertin Act, which required the recalculation of various insurance rates. This provided a useful occasion to review the equipment and procedures then employed within the firm. But, given the broad appeal of science after World War II, Berkeley also asked to be allowed to think about how "present scientific research" might apply to the problems at Prudential. Recognizing Berkeley’s association with one of Harvard’s prestigious applied science laboratories, Prudential’s Second Vice President, Harry Volk, approved Berkeley’s request, assigning him to carry out this investigation as Job 42. Berkeley’s early reports on "The Future of Machines" described such devices as the fax machine along with new business and communication devices under development at RCA. New calculating machines also assumed a prominent place in his investigations.3

A computing symposium held at Harvard University in January 1947 provided the catalyst that led Berkeley to extend his investigations into computing machinery. Before this, Berkeley had approached a number of academic laboratories and firms working on computing machinery. However, these early explorations were tentative. It was the Harvard Symposium that allowed Berkeley to become acquainted with a larger segment of the nascent post-war computing community, and to become enamored by the possibility the field presented. After the symposium, Berkeley began systematically visiting various laboratories in order to develop more complete knowledge about computing machinery. By mid-April, he was prepared to approach manufacturers with the intent of securing machine development proposals to specifically support Prudential’s interests and need for modern computing machinery.4

Yet, as much as he was drawn to the idea of procuring some kind of digital computer, Berkeley remained predisposed, through his training as a methods analyst, to be cautious. Like the analysts he knew at the Social Security Administration’s Bureau of Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance, which was in the process of considering whether or not to acquire a digital electronic computer, he felt methods work belonged to an old managerial tradition that was based on extending the principles of scientific management into the clerical work place. Since methods work was generally carried out by trained accountants, this group’s very expertise lay in cost accounting. By virtue of both his training and position at Prudential, Berkeley could hardly recommend procuring a computer without demonstrating its benefits to the firm.5

This led Berkeley to embrace the idea of a study contract. Initially, he began by trying to carry out his own evaluation, drawing together a makeshift staff by borrowing (without explicit authorization) one mathematician and one machine supervisor who had become interested in his work. This early evaluation convinced Berkeley there were real advantages to electronic computers, but he was also convinced that only the machine manufacturers had the requisite engineering knowledge to produce a proper assessment. Berkeley grew more intrigued by a (then) recent arrangement completed between the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), in which NBS agreed to serve as a technical contract monitor to the Census Bureau. He inquired whether it might be possible to make a similar arrangement with NBS, but as a federal agency, NBS could not offer this service to a private firm. Still, this contact with NBS showed Berkeley the possibility of issuing a study contract. This culminated in a $20,000 contract, issued in August 1947 to the Electronic Controls Company—a company created by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, the pioneers who designed and built the first large-scale digital electronic computer, the ENIAC, during World War II.6

Although Berkeley sought outside assistance in matching computer equipment to Prudential’s needs, he retained the detailed analysis of Prudential’s paperwork operations as a matter for his own expertise. This entailed a simple extension of his former methods work. Only now his analyses were based on the hypothetical specifications for an as-yet-to-be-built electronic machine. With the help of his staff, Berkeley determined, for example, that an electronic calculator would reduce the labor required to process the 11.22 million records in their monthly premium billing operations by 230,000 man-hours/year. The machine’s expenses aside, this would result in a quarter-million-dollar savings for the firm. Based on producing such work, Berkeley eventually secured the title of Chief Research Consultant at Prudential, a title he was using in April 1947.7

Accountability and enthusiasm were a source of constant tension for Berkeley. Regardless of his training, Berkeley became convinced of the "new applications of electronic computing machinery to office work." His studies were therefore also an effort to justify—indeed, to sell—the new technology to his superiors. Prudential executives, however, remained conservative in their general outlook. They held quite reasonable concerns about their investment in training and older machinery. Given IBM’s dominance in the field, there was also serious concern about whether they might damage their relations with an important supplier of a key component in their firm’s operations. Berkeley’s reports and memos increasingly took on the tone of selling the computer to his own management. In the course of his continued investigations, Berkeley proceeded to evaluate magnetic tape reliability, and generated a negative evaluation of the latest IBM machinery, including the firm’s new IBM 603 electronic calculator. He also produced more simplified descriptions of the new computing machinery in an effort to promote his cause.8

From the standpoint of ACM’s origins, it was also significant that Berkeley’s interests were not limited to his position at Prudential. About the time when Berkeley submitted his proposal to Prudential’s vice president, he also began weighing the advantages of becoming an independent consultant. He sketched out his thoughts in a memo where the general theme was also that of "new applications of scientific research and modern technology." E.C. Berkeley and Associates would provide an advisory service on clerical procedures, actuarial and mathematical methods, and machinery for handling information. To supplement his income he planned a side business reselling office machinery and their associated supplies. Also enamored by the idea he could be an author, Berkeley listed among his current projects a book on "Giant Brains" ("Target, 50,000 copies"). Eclectic in his interests, Berkeley also hoped he might become an inventor: He wrote of a small home greenhouse "built with modern materials and methods;" and more enigmatically, methods for "moving production into the home, using electricity, gas, small appliances," and for pursuing a number of so-called impossible problems such as that of storing summer heat for the winter.9

Not all of these notions were mere figments of his imagination. Berkeley did eventually produce the book, Giant Brains, or, Machines that Think in 1949. However, the decision to set off on his own was fraught with real difficulty. After citing one of the Gilbreths, Berkeley laid out his own faults and worries:

  1. Can’t start too many things at once.
  2. Enth[usiasm] lacking: Prudential hold.
  3. Not clear what you are. Moody salesmanship.
  4. Unconscious conflicts.10

Berkeley felt trapped by the security of his job at Prudential. After weighing what this meant, he decided he needed a young and energetic partner who would help propel him past his hesitations. In the language of his training as a methods analyst, laziness was a scourge that stood in the way of achievement. A handwritten copy of the ad he placed in the local paper reads, "Opportunity for a personable young man to enter a partnership offering technical services to businesses. Requirements: immense enthusiasm & small capital deposit."11

Berkeley did eventually set up this consulting firm, but not right away. With a wife and two children—albeit a wife with a doctorate in psychology—the hold of Prudential postponed his departure for another two years. But in the meantime, the vice president who had taken an interest in Berkeley’s work left the firm. And the new vice president, F.B. Gerhard, was less favorable toward Berkeley’s interests. A string of delays and difficulties with Eckert and Mauchly’s study contract also strained his credibility in the firm. After recording the situation as "Philosophy of Gerhard is hard to deal with in this sort of a job," Berkeley tendered his resignation in July 1948.12

Berkeley created ACM while he was still working for Prudential. His consulting interests, both inside and outside the firm, fueled a desire to belong to some kind of association through which he could keep abreast of the technology. At first, Berkeley tried to work within the context of the insurance industry by assembling a committee on calculating machinery within the Life Office Management Association.13 This committee was modeled after a more traditional strategy of using a trade association to give representatives of an industry a collective voice in guiding a supplier’s product decisions. But when it became clear this organization was not broad enough for his purposes, Berkeley proceeded to circulate a "Notice on organization of an `Eastern Association for Computing Machinery.’" In composing this note, Berkeley quoted a statement made by the director of the well-known MIT Center of Analysis, Samuel Caldwell. At the closing session of the 1947 Harvard Symposium, Caldwell had made an appeal for the free exchange of information. To Caldwell this had been more a reflection of his own disappointment with the secrecy surrounding military-funded computer development work. His own work at MIT was in the process of being overshadowed by the work of Jay Forrester and his Project Whirlwind, which was initially carried out under the veil of military secrecy.14 But to Berkeley, Caldwell’s words beckoned him to create a professional society that could facilitate the free exchange of information among those involved in computing.15

Berkeley had received promising—in some cases enthusiastic—responses from many of the well-known figures within the emerging computing field. Based on their interest and generosity, he had been able to organize a temporary organizing committee, comprised of many of the representatives from the firms and academic laboratories he had already visited in conjunction with the needs of Prudential. But not everyone was enthusiastic about Berkeley’s initiative. Samuel Williams, the lead engineer for the Bell relay computers, protested to a colleague that someone of such junior standing was taking the initiative in establishing such an organization. Williams had stated that he was "not in sympathy at all with Ed Berkeley’s new organization," in responding to an enthusiastic endorsement of the proposal he received from one of his colleagues."16

"It seems to me that the regular organization headed by Professor Archibald, that is the committee on mathematical tables and other aids to computation, is the logical one to operate; and I further do not believe that there is enough in the development and research in a computing system per se to warrant a separate organization."17

Williams had retired from Bell Laboratories shortly after the war, and like Berkeley was trying to establish himself as a consultant in the field. Although he regretted that Berkeley had taken the initiative, he expressed the "hope that I will be counted in should anything become of it."18

Given the surging interest in computers during the postwar years, there were many who did not share Williams’s reservations. The opportunity to share their ideas in an open forum proved attractive to many leading figures in the field, and many were glad that someone had taken the first step toward making it happen. By August 1947, Berkeley had letters of interest from 175 people, representing 64 different organizations. Working with his temporary organizing committee, he decided to convene the first meeting of the EACM at Columbia University in New York on Sept. 15, 1947. At that meeting, John Curtiss, the director of the new National Applied Mathematics Laboratories, was elected ACM’s first president. Berkeley volunteered to be the society’s first secretary. The group’s second meeting, and the first official national meeting of the society, was then held at the Ballistic Research Laboratories in Aberdeen, MD, on Dec. 11 and 12, 1947. By January 1948, EACM had 350 members, and a geographic representation broad enough that Berkeley announced they could drop the "Eastern" from the name.19

During this period, Berkeley also worked with a temporary executive council—mostly members of the original organizing committee—in drafting the society’s constitution. Much of the work was routine, in that it was necessary to specify such factors as their procedures for elections and governance. The proposed constitution named ACM’s officer, and described its initial system of geographic representation. In recognizing the interdisciplinary nature of the field, the governing body—ACM Council—was established with a number of members-at-large chosen to represent various professions within the scope of ACM. One of the several peculiarities of this constitution was that it called for the secretary and treasurer to be elected by ACM Council rather than the full membership. In practice this meant that although the president and vice president were elected offices, the ACM secretary would receive a sustained appointment. Berkeley had installed himself as ACM’s semi-permanent secretary, and continued to serve in this capacity for its first six years.20

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    1For more on the history of computing and the Watson Laboratory at Columbia University, see (Accessed 11/28/2006). Further information written by Herbert Grosch, director of the computing facility at the Watson Lab from 1945 to 1950, may be found in Computer; Bit Slices from a Life (Underwood Books, 1991).

    2Berkeley's early life and work at Prudential is best documented in JoAnne Yates, "Early Interactions between the Life Insurance and Computer Industries: The Prudential's Edmund Berkeley," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 19, 3 (1997): 60–73. See also Bernadette Longo, "Edmund Berkeley, Computers, and Modern Methods of Thinking," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 26, 4 (2004): 4–18; and Nancy Stern, From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal of the Eckert-Mauchly Computers (Digital Press, Bedford Mass, 1981), 137–42. These sources are supplemented here by E.C. Berkeley to C.B. Laing, Memo Nov. 18, 1946, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 52; Edmund Berkeley, "Nobody's Business," Article submitted for publication May 1, 193, CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 62. Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Technology, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, MN, hereafter CBI.

    3The Guertin Act is described by Stern, From ENIAC to UNIVAC, n2, 138; E.C. Berkeley to E.F. Cooley, Memo, Sept. 4, 1946; E.C. Berkeley to H.J. Volk, C.B. Laing, and E.F. Cooley, Memo, Sept. 17, 1946, both CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 52; E.C. Berkeley to F. Bruce Gerhard, July 7, 1948. CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 1.

    4See Berkeley's memos in CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 52 for his interactions with these organizations.

    5Such a caution can be seen, for example, in the pair of memos: Berkeley to Gerhard, Laing, Cobb, and Cooley, Apr. 15, 1947; and James Bogg (Senior Cost Analyst, Cost Allocation Division) to Berkeley, Apr. 9, 1947; both CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 55.

    6Berkeley to Volk, Laing, and Cooley, Feb. 22, 1947; Berkeley to Gerhard, Laing, Cobb, and Cooley, Mar. 14, 1947, both CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 53; On the internal technical evaluations, see, Henry Schrimpf to E.C. Berkeley, Memos, Apr. 18, 1947, and Apr. 21, 1947, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 55; See Stern, From ENIAC to Univac, on the contract to Eckert and Mauchly; Also E.C. Berkeley and Z.I. Mosesson, "Contract between the Prudential and Electronic Control regarding electronic machinery and technical services," Preliminary draft, June 9, 1947, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 55.

    7H.W. Schrimpf to E.C. Berkeley, Apr. 18, 1947; Z.I. Mosesson to E.C. Berkeley, Memo, May 13, 1947, both CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 55; E.C. Berkeley, "Excerpts from a letter by Edmund C. Berkeley...," Feb. 19, 1954. CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 5.

    8E.C. Berkeley to F. Bruce Gerhard, July 7, 1948, CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 1; E.C. Berkeley to Gerhard, Laing, Cobb, and Cooley, "Prudential's contract with International Business Machines," Memo, July 25, 1947; E.C. Berkeley, Preliminary memorandum, July 28, 1947, both CBI 50, Box 10, Fld 5; Most of Berkeley and his associates' memos to their superiors are filed in a numbered series in CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 52-55, and Box 10, Fld 4–6.

    9E.C. Berkeley and Associates—Purposes," Memo, Dec. 29, 1946, CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 1.

    10[EC Berkeley,] "Ad $15," Handwritten note, Dec. 27, 1946, CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 1.

    11Ibid.; E.C. Berkeley, Giant Brains, or, Machines that Think John Wiley & Sons, NY, 1949.

    12[E.C. Berkeley] "Proposal: leave Prudential in July," June 29, 1948; Edmund Berkeley to F. Bruce Gerhard, July 7, 1948, both CBI 50, Box 15, Fld 1. Stern, From ENIAC to UNIVAC, n2, 139.

    13On Berkeley's involvement with LOMA, and the machine use within the life insurance industry in general, see JoAnne Yates, "Early Interactions Between the Life Insurance and Computer Industries;" and "Co-evolution of Information Processing Technology and Use: Interaction between the Life Insurance and Tabulating Industries," Business History Review 67 (Spring 1993), 1–51.

    14On the situation at MIT, see Kent Redmond and Thomas Smith, Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer. Digital Press, Bedford, MA, 1980.

    15[E.C. Berkeley] "Notice on organization of an "`Eastern Association for Computing Machinery,'" June 25, 1947, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 57. For a background on the role of early professional societies, conferences, and publications in the exchange of information about computing, see William Aspray's, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990), 89–90. In his talk, "Publication, Classification, and Patents," Caldwell did go so far as to recommend the National Research Council's committees on mathematical tables and high-speed calculating machines as appropriate groups for "framing a charter and devising the procedures" by which to realize a common purpose and direction. Proceedings of a Symposium on Large-scale Digital Calculating Machinery (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1948), 282.

    16E.C. Berkeley, "Meeting of the Life Office Management Association Committee on Electronic Sequence Controlled Calculators," Minutes, May 14, 1947, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 55; [E.C. Berkeley] "Notice of an `Eastern Association for Computing Machinery,'" June 25, 1947, CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 57.

    17Samuel Williams to Robert Monroe, July 24, 1947, CBI 45, Box 8, Fld 35.


    19The early ACM reports and other "distributed literature" can be found in CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 57–59.

    20A copy of the May 30, 1949 draft of the ACM constitution and bylaws also exists in CBI 50, Box 8, Fld 57. Its changes from the original draft of Feb. 15, 1948 are noted in E.C. Berkeley to Council, "Proposed constitution and bylaws—changes...," May 3, 1949. Box 8, Fld 58. Berkeley also continued to work as a consultant in the computing field. Among his other accomplishments, he launched the publication, Computers and Automation, originally The Computing Machinery Field, in 1952.

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