Manufacturer in Texas Still Relies on their IBM 402

In the late 1940s, IBM's factory in Endicott, New York, started manufacturing and delivering the IBM 402 Accounting Machine and related accessories. The 402 was not exactly a "computer" in the way we now think of them. For example, the 402 was electromechanical instead of electronic, and programming a 402 involved stringing wires in complex patterns on plugboards. Nonetheless, the IBM 402 helped businesses and governments efficiently and quickly (for the time) solve a wide variety of accounting problems: inventory control, payroll, billing, cashflow, etc.

One of the IBM 402 machines was delivered to Sparkler Filters, a small manufacturing company in Conroe, Texas, which specializes in chemical process filtration. That machine, now over 60 years old, is still running and still handling a wide variety of the company's accounting tasks. That's in no small measure due to the people who keep Sparkler's 402 in top condition, including Lutricia Wood, the company's data processing manager, and Duwayne Leafley, an independent maintenance technician. As far as anyone knows this IBM 402 is the last one operating in the United States and perhaps also in the world.

Sparkler Filters is an extreme example perhaps, but their experience reinforces some important lessons. One lesson is that business processes are extremely important and often durable, and the programs written today often endure a lot longer than anyone expects. Certainly Sparkler could adopt different technology, but doing so would be highly disruptive, especially without careful planning, documentation, training, and customization to fit within existing processes. Obviously they would prefer not to experience that disruption (and cost) unless there's a "damn good reason," and they haven't found one yet. Another lesson is that the choices we make about technologies should recognize durability and longevity requirements to support long running businesses and their often stable core missions. For example, the principles of accounting really haven't changed for centuries, so why rewrite core applications "just because"? That's frequently expensive and disruptive.

There should be a balance. IBM works incredibly hard to make sure that zEnterprise-hosted programs simply don't break even when everything else is evolving: input, output, servers, storage, operating systems, middleware, addressing, etc. While the supported program portfolio doesn't go back as far as IBM 402 programs, the commitment IBM made in the 1960s with the System/360 has been and continues to be honored. zEnterprise customers really do run code which was born in the 1960s alongside 64-bit code written 5 minutes ago on one operating system on one machine. That code interoperates: exchanging data, calling back and forth, etc. Unless there's a "damn good reason," you don't have to replace your programs unless and until your business has a new requirement, and then only to the extent you wish.

Now, just because you could run only decades old code without improvements and innovations doesn't mean you should. If you underinvest in any business infrastructure, including important application enhancements, that's a problem that'll progressively and negatively impact your business. However, being forced to make vendor-driven changes simply for the sake of change (and for the benefit of vendors' quarterly financial statements) is no way to do business either. That sort of change is simply wasteful.

I hope I get the chance to stop by Conroe, Texas, someday soon. What a wonderful story.

by Timothy Sipples April 26, 2013 in History, Media


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Manufacturer in Texas Still Relies on their IBM 402:


The comments to this entry are closed.

The postings on this site are our own and don’t necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of our employers.
© Copyright 2005 the respective authors of the Mainframe Weblog.