Sample of a program coding sheet, circa 1953 (sketched from memory).

Part 2
Epiphany: Dan Gerlough and the SWAC

Copyright ©2000 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.

he toll for a telephone call from Redondo Beach to Westwood would have been more than I could afford, so I did not return Dan Gerlough's call. Eventually he caught me at home.

"Your title will be 'research assistant'," said he, "and the position pays $1.57 per hour."  I was already making $1.75 at a service station over on Pacific Coast Highway, and I told him so. Gerlough continued in a deliberate voice as if I had not spoken. "The work here at ITTE [Institute for Transportation and Traffic Engineering] includes instrumentation for automobile crash-injury experiments, human factors studies; you will have your own office and laboratory here on campus; there will be some computer programming on the SWAC, and -- "

"When can I start?" I asked.

While outfitting ITTE's new electronics laboratory a few weeks later, I was assigned to write programs for the SWAC, which was located in the mathematics building near UCLA's Royce Hall. I had studied the programming concepts on my own, drenching my mind in how a "stored program digital computer" operates, how programs in the computer's memory could run in branching pathways and in loops, how they could modify their own instructions each time around, processing tables of data and making decisions on the fly. I became captivated by the realization that instructions -- my instructions -- would be executed by the thousands every second. I had eagerly devoured the SWAC manual, learning its command set and the procedures for getting programs prepared and loaded and run.

The SWAC filled a room the size of a tennis court. It occupied row upon row of cabinets with cooling fans humming, each cabinet containing stacks of Williams tubes for memory and mercury delay lines for registers.  A galloping punch-card machine appropriated from the realm of EAM (electronic accounting machines) was used for inputting both data and programs; a clattering line printer nearby was the output. There was a glass wall through which visitors to the campus, including school children and conventioneers -- once even a whole convent of nuns -- would stand wide-eyed, sucking their lower lips and shaking their heads before this marvel of mid-twentieth century technology, while a moustachioed docent in cardigan and necktie explained the significance of what they were seeing just beyond the window: A giant brain.

Dan Gerlough was doing research for a paper on vehicular flow, and I was allowed to spend more paid hours on the project than I could stay awake. I made plenty of errors in my earliest coded programs, of course. The term "bug" had already been appropriated for both mistakes in programs and hardware failures. It was not always possible to tell which to blame, because the SWAC went down at least once a day. Don't tell anyone, but I would rest my head on the keypunch machine and doze sometimes for hours waiting for the computer to be repaired.

he university employed a gray-haired PhD for maintenance of the SWAC. I cannot remember what I had for breakfast today, but I shall never forget the sight of Dr. Whitcomb running out of the repair shop holding up a window frame festooned with "bottles" (vacuum tubes) and multicolored componentry. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "It was the epsilon flip-flop."

Dan's deadline was fast approaching. My subroutines for one simulation program had to be perfect; I had checked them a dozen times. Dan agreed after looked over my coding sheets. "It's that machine," I complained. "It's broken down again."  Electronic though it was, from the beginning a computer was called a "machine." I came to resent the machine. More than once I told Dan, "I'm glad I don't have Dr. Whitcomb's job."

Surely, I was thinking to myself that I wanted nothing to do with the SWAC "hardware" -- that the machine was the mindless means for executing my programs -- a necessary evil, mostly evil. It was about at that moment, I seized upon the consummate reality of what I was doing -- that what I was doing was sharply different from what Dr. Whitcomb was doing -- that what I was doing was writing on a coding sheet, not plugging jacks into sockets, not clipping leads onto terminal posts, not soldering wires, not bending relay contacts, not replacing vacuum tubes. What I was doing was writing on a coding sheet! The exclamation point was right there in my thought back then and in my memory now.

It was October 1953 and I was experiencing an epiphany. Before my eyes, I saw my own markings carefully scrawled inside printed blocks on the coding sheet. They comprised numerical "words" -- the only vocabulary the computer could understand. My coded words were not anything like those other things -- those machine things, those "hardware" things. I could write down numerical words -- right or wrong -- and after they were were punched into cards and fed into the reader, the SWAC would be commanded to perform my mandated operations in exactly the sequence I had written them -- right or wrong.

The written codes -- my written codes -- had absolute power over Dr. Whitcomb's "hardware." Then too, I could erase what I had written down and write down something different, then punch a new card and insert it into the deck. The SWAC, slavishly obedient in its hardware ways, would then be commanded to do my work differently -- to do different work entirely, in fact. The writing on the coding sheet was changeable; it was decidedly not hardware. It was -- well, it was "soft-ware."

Dan Gerlough frowned. He had a far-off look in his eyes when I said the word, then chuckled somewhat dismissively when I explained its meaning. I could tell he was worried about meeting his publication date. Dan hefted his notebooks and turned to leave. "Paul, stay here and be ready to run your -- your 'soft-ware,' just as soon as Dr. Whitcomb says the machine is working again."

During the two dozen months that followed, in between constructing a catalog full of experimental circuitry for the landmark studies going on at ITTE, I had many occasions to use my new word, first among the ITTE staff and later in the talks about "giant brains" that I gave at high-school science classes and career days and in speeches to service clubs all over Los Angeles.

ocularity does not always sit well among listeners who are struggling to comprehend new concepts.  "We may yet wind up on the inside of a zoo," I would say (and still do), "with computers on the outside."  Yes, I could be something of a wag, all right.  The Daily Breeze quoted me as saying, "Most people regard the computer as combining the attributes of a sorcerer and a mad -- but competent -- accountant."  A few people in my audiences would allow themselves to laugh.

The word 'software' had a more predictable effect, producing quizzical expressions and shrugs. "Without its 'software'," I enjoyed saying, "a giant brain is less intelligent than a giant gall bladder." Of course, I always hastened to explain what 'software' is.

The word "programming" was serviceable enough, of course.  Renaming it "software" did more to assure my reputation as an eccentric than to illuminate computer technology.

Ah, but when you're there, an invention is wonderful! -- the moment when a new idea arrives is its own exclamation point. Even more so, when the invention is a new word.

Dr. Gerlough more or less liked the term 'software.' More less than more. Others at ITTE --  John ("Harry") Matthewson, Slade Hulbert, Bob Brenner, and Paul Barber -- were polite enough to be amused. My colleagues at UCLA solemnly kidded me: "Don't let Dean Boelter catch you over there at Royce Hall playing with your software." They viewed my latest neologism as a good-natured prank, I think.

Who would have expected the silly word ever to catch on? To be spoken with a straight face? To become the name for a profoundly influential industry?  In researching its provenance, I have been deeply saddened to learn that nearly all of my colleagues at ITTE, including Dan Gerlough, have passed away. I will always be grateful for Dan's persistence in hiring me away from that service station on Pacific Coast Highway. And for giving me an opportunity to write soft-ware for the SWAC.

Try to imagine, Dan, that hokey word 'software' has actually been taken seriously!


In 1953, there were few computers indeed in the U.S. and Europe. Here is a representative list with their respective years of introduction.

  • 1940 Bell Labs Model 1
  • 1941 Iowa State Collage ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer)
  • 1943 Harvard ASCC Mark I
  • 1945 University of Pennsylvania ENIAC (Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer, and Computer)
  • 1945 University of Pennsylvania EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer)
  • 1948 Harvard Mark II
  • 1948 Manchester University Mark I
  • 1949 IBM 604
  • 1949 MIT Whirlwind
  • 1949 Cambridge University EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer)
  • 1949 U.S. Air Force BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer)
  • 1950 Harvard Mark III
  • 1950 National Physical Laboratory ACE (Automatic Computing Engine)
  • 1951 US National Bureau of Standards SEAC (Standards Eastern Automatic Computer)
  • 1951 Remington Rand UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer)
  • 1952 NBS SWAC (Standards Western Automatic Computer)

Standards Western Automatic Computer (SWAC)
Photo from The History of Computing: An Encyclopedia of the People and Machines that Made Computer History
Copyright (C) 1982-2001 Lexikon Services; its appearance here is for educational purposes only under the principle of Fair Use.

With an add-time of 64 microseconds, the SWAC was the fastest stored program digital computer for its time.  Known as the ZEPHYR, the machine was developed by the National Bureau of Standards Institute for Numerical Analysis at the University of California at Los Angeles. Start dates included development in 1948, construction in 1949, and operation in 1950, continuing in service for 17 years and finally retired in 1967.

The SWAC differed from the NBS's other main computer the SEAC, in that the SWAC operated in a parallel fashion rather than serially. The SWAC used 37 Williams-tube memory units; magnetic drum storage was added in 1953. Some of those who worked on the SWAC project and its later enhancements included: Harry D. Huskey, H. Larson, R. Thorensen, M. Melankoff, D. Lehmer. {Return}