H.R. Oldfield Collection of General Electric Corporation records
Scope and Content Note
The collection is divided into two main groups of materials. The first group consists of corporate records of General Electric and the GE Computer Department. The second consists of materials gathered or created by H.R. Oldfield during and after his employment with GE and used in support of his 1996 book, King of the Seven Dwarfs: General Electric's Ambiguous Challenge to the Computer Industry.
GE corporate records include press releases from 1956-1970, company newsletters such as the Computer Department Newsletter, The Computer Headliner, and GE News(1957-1970), internal reports, texts of presentations by GE staff, and company publications. GE documents include materials such as memos and financial and planning documents.
The Oldfield materials include correspondence between Oldfield and other former GE personnel as well as newspaper and magazine articles and other materials gathered by Oldfield to reconstruct the 14-year history of the GE Computer Department.
Acronyms used in this finding aid:
- ERMA = Electronic Recording Machine Accounting
- GE = General Electric Company, General Electric Corporation
Language of Materials
Use of Materials:
Access to the collection is unrestricted.
The Charles Babbage Institute holds the copyright to all materials in the collection, except for items covered by a prior copyright (such as published materials). Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provisions of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code).
The General Electric Company (GE) was founded in 1892 as the result of a merger between Edison General Electric Company and the Thomas-Houston Company. GE competed in the lighting, transportation, industrial products, power transmission, and medical equipment industries, as well as producing heating and cooking devices, plastics, and fans.
In 1956 GE won a bid against 28 other companies to produce the ERMA (Electronic Recording Machine Accounting) computer system for Bank of America, despite President Ralph Cordiner’s strong objections to GE’s entrance into the commercial computer market. The $31 million ERMA contract was the largest non-government computer contract given at the time. Prior to 1956, GE’s involvement in the then-fledgling computer industry was limited to the production of vacuum tubes, relays, small motors, and other components for IBM.
ERMA was to be a checking account bookkeeping system consisting of computers and automated check-handling and sorting equipment. The prototype had been conceived by the Stanford Research Institute in 1950.
As a result of the Bank of America contract, the GE Computer Department was established in 1956 in Phoenix, Arizona to implement the ERMA program. It was later formally renamed the Information Systems Equipment Division and on October 1, 1970 was sold to Honeywell and became Honeywell Information Systems (HIS). HIS was initially owned 18 ½ percent by GE and 81 ½ percent by Honeywell. Though it appeared to be a joint venture with Honeywell, GE was required to divest itself of all HIS or Honeywell stock acquired as a result of the transaction within ten years. In addition, GE would receive $110 million in notes and Honeywell stock valued at $125 million.
Homer R. (Barney) Oldfield is credited for the successful Bank of America contract bid. Oldfield had received his B.S. and M.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1938 and l939 in Aeronautical Engineering (Instrumentation). While a research associate at MIT, Oldfield was called to active duty with the U.S. Army in 1941 where he helped develop microwave antiaircraft devices. After he was relieved from active duty in 1945, Oldfield found employment with GE as a sales manager and later as operations manager in the Electronics Division, and in 1951 became director of the GE Advanced Electronics Center at Cornell University.
In 1953 Oldfield set up and then managed the GE Microwave Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he was at the time of the Bank of America ERMA proposal. In 1956 he became the general manager of GE’s Computer Department in Phoenix. In 1958 Oldfield left the GE Computer Department and conducted a three-month study program to explore the applications of new electronic technology projected over the next 5-10 years for GE at their Lynn River, Massachusetts location. At the end of the study, Oldfield left GE to work at Raytheon as General Manager of the Equipment Division.
Oldfield continued to follow stories about the GE Computer Department well after the division’s sale to Honeywell. Oldfield reconnected with several Computer Department alumni in the 1990s and used their recollections to construct his history of the Department’s development and demise. His interest culminated in the publication, in 1996, of King of the Seven Dwarfs: General Electric's Ambiguous Challenge to the Computer Industry.
5 boxes (1.66 linear feet)
The collection consists of corporate records of General Electric and the GE Computer Department, as well as materials gathered or created by H.R. Oldfield during and after his employment with GE and used in support of his 1996 book, King of the Seven Dwarfs: General Electric's Ambiguous Challenge to the Computer Industry.
Arrangement of Collection
The materials in this collection are arranged into the following groups:
- GE Records, 1948-1987
- Oldfield Correspondence and Background Material, 1954-1996
The records were given to the Charles Babbage Institute by H.R. Oldfield in January-March, 1996.
- Banks and Banking -- United States -- Automation Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Computer Industry -- United States -- History Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Computers -- United States -- History Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Electronic Data Processing Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- General Electric Company. Computer Department
- Oldfield, Homer R.
- H.R. Oldfield Collection of General Electric Corporation Records, 1948-1996. Finding Aid.
- Prepared by Amanda Schwarze and Maria Plonski, September 2002.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note