IBM's John McPherson, 1908-1999
John McPherson was the monitor of all technical
activities in "the IBM", as The Old Man liked to
call it. He helped Ben Wood set up the Statistical Bureau at Columbia, and got him his
slightly modified tabulator; he helped Wallace
Eckert set up the T.J. Watson Astronomical
Computing Bureau in the Pupin attic, and got
to build him the first sequencing switch. He got
and Piatt to build and rebuild the five
Aberdeens [Pluggable Sequence Relay Calculators];
he got them to build the crypto gear now called MAGIC. He got Lake and
to build the ASCC for
and I believe contributed to the design.
John McPherson in 1948.
John was the first IBM executive I met after Eckert hired me in May 1945
– the second scientist in the company, the first employee of
Wallace's Watson Scientific Computing
Laboratory at Columbia (and the first IBMer in the U.S. with
hair on his face!). He was helping Eckert set
up the lab, choose and order the gear (making it the third most powerful
computing center in the world), hire guys like me and Rex Seeber and
Hilleth Thomas, and fresh young electronic talent
Rad Lab. He helped
Eckert and Seeber and Hamilton design the
SSEC, and helped Hamilton build it.
He helped with the older machines, and with the 603
and the 604 as electronics burst out. I was in his
office the day he laid out the CPC for Northrop. He sent
and his one-off relay computers to the Watson Lab, and encouraged
John Lentz to do the
prototype there, and By Havens to design and build the first supercomputer
[NORC] around the corner on Broadway and on 115th
He was the door through which almost all the IBM inventors and engineers,
and us scientific types, reached TJ
and Eckert had direct access). I call him a monitor; he didn't give orders,
but he passed requests from la bas to Watson, and Watson's orders to
nous ouvriers. He was unquestionably the central figure in the IBM
technical escalade from 1930 to the early Fifties. Eckert had the
had the marketing vision, but John put it all together and channeled the
overwhelming power of The Old Man to the whole computing community.
My own relationship with him was unsymmetrical. From my first contact for
over four decades I admired him, although I suffered occasionally from his
stiffness; he thought me unruly – a tummeler, as they say in
the Catskills. His access to Watson, and the trust The Old Man put in him,
turned Young Tom hateful, and destroyed his later years. I'm happy that
Emerson Pugh does so well by him in Building IBM. I'm very
unhappy that he never made the NAE, just as Eckert never made the NAS, and
regard it as a proof that those academies are far from impeccable.
and that ilk owed much of their recognition to John, as
Herget owed much to Wallace. I'm
glad, proud, to have known him.
&mdash Herb Grosch, 2004.06.01.
- John C. McPherson (not to be confused with several other John
McPhersons, including at least two at IBM) received an EE degree from
Princeton University in 1929 and joined IBM in 1930. He was IBM's Director
of Engineering 1943-46, became an IBM VP in 1948, and was first director of
IBM's graduate-level Systems Research Institute 1960-65. He retired in
- "The Old Man" = TJ = Thomas J. Watson "Senior".
- "Third most powerful computing center in the world" (after
Harvard and the
Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, MD).
- Clair D. Lake (1888-19??), IBM inventor and engineer from 1915 through the
- Stephen (Red) Dunwell (1913-1994) would go on to head IBM's
- Benjamin M. Durfee (1897-1980), Don Piatt: IBM engineers who worked on the
Aberdeens and the SSEC.
- MAGIC... Breaking Japanese military codes;
see Budiansky, Stephen. "Codebreaking with IBM Machines in
World War II." Cryptologia, Vol.25 No.4 (Oct 2001),
pp.241-255; and Robertson, Laurie, "Arlington Hall Station: The US Army's
World War II Cryptoanalytic Center", IEEE Annals of the History of
Computing, Vol.26 No.2 (Apr-Jun 2004), pp.86-89
- Frank E. Hamilton (1898-1972), IBM engineer who built the SSEC and
- Rex Seeber, Watson Lab SSEC designer, previously worked on the Mark 1.
- 1620 prototype = The IBM 610 Auto-Point Computer.
- Byron Havens, Watson Lab, NORC chief engineer.
- James W. Bryce (1880-1949), IBM's chief inventor through the 1920s, 30s,
- Cuthbert C. Hurd, created IBM's Applied Science Department in 1948.
- Ralph Palmer, IBM project manager for the SSEC
- Jerrier A. (Jerry) Haddad, IBM engineer in charge of
701 development and design.
- Dirk Brouwer, Gerald Clemence, Paul Herget: computational astronomers.
- NAE = National Academy of Engineering;
NAS = National Academy of the Sciences.
- Links all working as of 17 June 2004.
References and Publications:
- Grosch, Herbert R.J., Computer: Bit
Slices from a Life,
Third Millenium Books, Novato CA (1991), ISBN 0-88733-085
[3rd ed mss)].
- Brennan, Jean Ford,
The IBM Watson
Laboratory at Columbia University: A History, IBM, Armonk NY (1971)
- Pugh, Emerson W.,
Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its
Technology, The MIT Press (1995).
- Bashe, Charles J.; Lyle R. Johnson; John H. Palmer; Emerson
IBM's Early Computers, MIT Press (1985).
- Budiansky, Stephen. "Codebreaking with IBM Machines in World War II."
Cryptologia, Vol.25, No.4 (Oct. 2001), pp.241-255.
Abstract: "Standard IBM punchcard machines, supplemented by a number of
ingenious add-on units developed by U.S. Army and Navy cryptanalysts,
played a crucial role in the breaking of Japanese naval and military
codes and German and Soviet diplomatic codes during World War II."
- McPherson, John, "New Ways of Multiplying" (1935),
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol.17 No.1 (1995),
- McPherson, John, "A Large-Scale, General-Purpose Electronic Digital
Calculator--the SSEC" (1948),
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol.4 No.4 (Oct 1984),
- McPherson, John, "Early Computers and Computing Institutions", IEEE
Annals of the History of Computing, Vol.3 No.1 (1981),
- John McPherson, Computer Engineer, an oral history conducted in
1992 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New
Brunswick, NJ, USA.
- John McPherson Obituary, IEEE Annals of the History of
Computing, Vol.23 No.2 (April-June 2001), pp.83-84.
- McPherson, B., "In Memory of John McPherson", ACM APL Quote
Quad, Vol.29 No.4 (June 1999), pp.3-4.
Most recent update:
Wed Apr 29 16:39:45 2009
Columbia University Computing History