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Dawn Of Computer Age In India

by Suresh Udani

Today, India is known for its highly skilled technology workforce and often mentioned as a threat to the US, particularly during the current offshoring debate. In fact, not so long ago, India existed with no computers. The dawn of the computer age in India began with IBM and Esso, (Exxon). Esso was the first company in India to install a commercial computer and IBM was the computer of choice. This article describes how commercial computers came to India, the purpose behind the use of computers, its original applications, and how its end users learned how to use computers. It is told from a firsthand perspective since as an employee of ESSO, I was among the first wave of Indians to receive training and use computers.

India's computer age commenced around 1962, when second generation computers were becoming obsolete in the US. It began with IBM's mass produced, transistor-based second-generation 1401 series computers.

Esso Standard Eastern Inc, ((ESSO) a subsidiary of present day Exxon) was the first one to install a commercial computer in India at its Bombay headquarters. It was one of three foreign oil companies refining and marketing petroleum products in India. By Indian standards, Esso (India) was a large corporate entity, manufacturing in Bombay and distributing & marketing all over India. As a result, the company required elaborate accounting and management systems.

No words are adequate to describe the work of the pioneering systems analysts and programmers who not only took ESSO from the unit records age to the computer age, but also improved, improvised and augmented the systems structure that was made possible through the aid of the then modern 4K memory computer. Every individual program had to make repeated use of the same memory units for processing the data brought in from the magnetic tape units in serial batches and the processed data taken to other tape units in properly collated serial order.

It took Esso India more than seven years to upgrade the 1401 memory from 4K to 8K and 8K to 16K. Meanwhile ESSO's systems programmers continued to innovate to meet the changing needs of the accounting and management reports.

Computers during India in the 1960's were relatively unknown among the general public. There were courses offered by some engineering institutions, but there were no colleges or universities offering any computer programming course. In the absence of any established market for computer programmers, no private coaching institutions existed. Thus, when IBM decided to initiate market operations for its 1401 systems in India, they also had to provide training for systems analysts and programmers. IBM was the only place to go to learn computer programming. Instead, computer-training courses were essentially a part of the overall marketing agreements with their customers. Thus, in the 1960's, only IBM clients and their employees were eligible for computer training.

The first set of potential computer programmers were therefore chosen by Esso India management from their accounting staff. The management made selections based upon general merits and logical/analytical abilities of the staff members. The list of selected candidates was then sent to IBM, Bombay who had developed their own IQ tests which were administered to these selected candidates. Only those who scored very well in these tests and who generally were ranked among the top quarter of the competing candidates were ultimately selected for the actual systems and computer training. Of course, IBM or their customers did not specifically charge any fees to the trainees for IBM, the free training was part of customer development and for the customer, it was a matter of human resources development to man their computer operations. IBM trained both the computer operators as well as systems programmers.

Thus, the pioneers of the computer age in India did not have any special academic qualifications or any previous experience in the computer field. They were primarily accounting clerks with exceptional IQs and willingness to put in long working hours. In fact, they were happy for such excellent opportunities for their career progression by rising above and beyond the field of manual accounting which was going to be obsolete with the expected spread of the computer accounting and allied jobs. As the IBM installed more and more 1401 systems in India, they continued to train more and more computer operators and systems programmers. In Esso India, with their traditions of recruiting the cream of the nation which they could attract through their relatively higher emoluments packets, they already had number of well qualified and innovative accountants, some of them foreign returned with some exposure to the computer accounting.. Thus, in Esso, the management could appoint from their pool of existing senior accountants, the managers as heads of newly formed division of Electronic Data Processing and Systems Division. But most of the new corporate users of the computer did not have foreign qualified senior accountants who could head such new divisions. It is here that the pioneer programmers of Esso got their opportunity for change and further career progression.. Some of them with managerial talents and/or potential joined these other companies at senior levels, ultimately to become the heads of computer, DPC and/or systems divisions. Thus, quite a few of the members of the accounting staff of Esso, who could not have hoped to progress much beyond accounts clerks, rose to become senior computer professionals, as the computer systems proliferated in the corporate world of India. To day, of course, they have retired from their active working life with an exhilarating thought of satisfaction that they are the earliest computer professionals in the country having participated as pioneers at the beginnings of the Indian computer age.

The 1401 computer systems, consisting of 1401, 1402, 1403 and magnetic tape units, required relatively large floor-area as compared to the present day desktops and laptops. The system was therefore installed in a separate spacious room, with round-the-clock air-conditioning and false flooring to accommodate hidden cable system connecting various units of the computer. For Esso these requirements were not a matter of handicap, as it would be in the present days of expensive floor space in Bombay, Esso in fact saw an opportunity for pride and publicity to exhibit their modern, large, high speed, electronic gazette to the visitors to the office. One wall of the computer room facing the outer open office consisted only of solid, transparent glass for people to see-through to admire the electronic wonder of the modern world!

The computer in fact became an added attraction for the general public who regularly visited the Esso Building during the weekends and holidays. (The building was formerly called Stanvac Building and presently known as Petroleum House. It was regarded in early 1960-s as an architectural wonder, a seven-story glass structure interwoven by solid cement concrete, angular slabs...) The Esso management proudly described on a huge board just inside the glass wall of the computer room, the summary statistics regarding the speeds of the various computer components. Even the speed of the Line Printer, at 600 lines per minute, was a matter of awestruck wonder for the people, most of whom had not seen anything better than the mechanical, manual type-writers. The conducted tour of the Esso building and its computer became one of the tourist attractions in Bombay.

As stated above, an IBM computer customer in India of 1960-s depended totally on IBM for training of their computer operators, Systems Analysts and programmers. It should also be noted that IBM did not sell the computers. The computers were hired out to the customers on monthly rental basis. The marketing contract also provided for regular maintenance, supply of spares and required technical service. Thus, there was no need for the customer to hire any in-house hardware engineer nor to consult any external engineers except those of the IBM. IBM also supplied to their customers the technical manuals on programming for further guidance and reference.

The 1401 series of computers were essentially commercial computers not suitable for scientific work.. Thus higher level programming languages of those times, like Fortran and Cobol were relatively unknown to the computer software personnel. The IBM mostly taught a low level language called "Autocoder" to the programmers for writing commercial programs. As compared to the present day "free flowing" programming languages, the autocoder programs had to be written manually on specially designed coding sheets by observing rigid rules of format, length, sequential order and branching. as applicable to individual program instructions as also to the entire program routines and subroutines. The systems analyst, which may be the same person as the programmer, also had to construct flowchart diagrams before hand to outline the logical structure to facilitate actual program coding.

The programs written in autocoder language had to be converted into what was known as the machine language, the language actually "understood" by the computer.. The conversion program was known as Assembly program, which was written in machine language, developed and supplied by IBM. A programmer's program thus converted in machine language may have a few errors or bugs, which the programmers had to find and correct by detailed scrutiny of the program's logic and structure. Often the bugs in the program were found while testing the various aspects and conditions of the programs on test data, specifically constructed to test all such contingencies. The programmer had two choices to correct these bugs, either by rewriting the corrected instructions in Autocoder or correcting the corresponding machine language instructions. If corrections were made in Autocoder, the whole revised program had to be reassembled in to machine language again, whereas it was much faster to correct the bugs directly in the machine language. While every programmer had to know the fundamentals of the machine language to be able to write at appropriate places the correct machine language instructions, generally it was quite cumbersome and intricate to write instructions in the machine language. Hence the programmer would generally correct in autocoder if the initial programs had too many and/or too large bugs requiring rewriting of large number of instructions, whereas a few and relatively smaller corrections were made directly in the machine language. Because of the close resemblance of the lower level language like autocoder to the actual machine language, and with the knowledge of both, the programmers of those days had better understanding of how exactly the then computer worked and what exactly was happening in the memory units, arithmetic/logic unit and various registers of the computer when a particular set of instructions were being executed by the computer. On the other hand, the present day software writers are far removed from the hardware intricacies of the today's computers, although they actually develop their software on the computer itself.

Nevertheless, the programmer's job in those days called for patience, perseverance and concentration. Management appreciated this and therefore provided quiet, undisturbed office environment for the group of programmers. There were no telephones in this office and no visitors were allowed to cause any disturbance. There were no specific office timings here. The performance was judged as per the quality and quantity of the program output and not as per the time keeping. Very often the programmers opted to work during the late evenings and nights to avoid being disturbed, particularly if the job on hand called for prolonged concentration to finish a subroutine at a single sitting. There were no "in-tray" and "out-tray" on a programmer's desk. He handled himself his papers which generally consisted of flow-chart diagrams, coding sheets and IBM manuals. Every desk was graced with IBM's famous one-word slogan: "THINK"

      * * * * * * *

The present writer worked as a first line supervisor in the Marketing Credit department of Esso India in 1963. He never worked in its systems division.. However, he and his department were users of computer produced accounting and management accounting reports in respect of the company's Trade Accounts Receivables. Similarly, other departments used computer reports, like Payroll, Inventories, Sales analysis, stock accounting, Tax accounting etc.etc. as per their respective work and job requirements. Whenever a particular job was to be computerized, the systems people held detailed discussions with the concerned line people to understand their requirements before developing the actual; system and program. Very often, there would be arguments between the two groups regarding the actual design and the contents of the proposed computer-jobs. The users demanding lot more details than what the systems people maintained as possible on the computer. The higher management often sensed that the users were asking for "the moon", in the absence of the actual knowledge as to what a computer can do and cannot do, whereas the systems people were trying to minimize their work of writing complicated computer programs on the argument that the computer cannot do what was being asked for. Either of them could be right or wrong or exaggerating the problems involved. Almost all jobs, thus involved time consuming arguments before a useful, sensible program can be developed.

It was under such repeated negative experience, that the present writer proposed to the management in 1967-68 as to why not some line people be trained by IBM for the 1401 programming so that even if they do not actually work as programmers they would be better qualified to appreciate the difficulties of the systems people and at the same time would be able to argue more intelligently as to what in fact can be done on the computer. This policy may also create a pool of ready made programmers who can be absorbed in the systems division as and when an urgent need may arise. in future. Besides, a close cooperation between a programmer and an user both of whom knew basics of programming may lead to better, more sensible and more versatile computer reports.

Accordingly, the writer was included in the next batch of Esso employees selected for the training by IBM. He passed the IBM IQ tests with high merits and thus was accepted by IBM for the training. While he never worked as a programmer in Esso he had already advanced beyond the level of a programmer in the Marketing Credit Department.- he could participate thereafter in more fruitful discussions with systems people to demand and get unique Credit management reports like high volume, high age trade accounts receivable reports. The visiting systems people from the Esso's US Headquarters admired the usefulness of these reports so much that they often carried the sample reports to other overseas Esso divisions for the latter to develop similar reports. In fact, this experience opened up a new chapter of knowledge-based cooperation between line and staff people in Esso organization.

      * * * * * * *

As stated above, while Esso was a pioneer of commercial computer age in India, IBM in India was the first one and for a number of years the only one to impart training of computer software to potential professionals. But as the 1401 systems proliferated, the demand for computer operators and programmers grew. There were number of young persons who learnt from their friends working with IBM or with its customers that great careers were opening up for computer professional in India. But unless they were working with IBM customer, there was no chance for them to become software professional. Even if an interested person were working for an IBM customer and preferably in their accounts/audit set-up, the management had to select him for IBM training and he had to thereafter pass IBM's tough IQ tests before he could have opportunity for a career in programming.

Under this restricted supply of the training opportunities, some enterprising computer professionals who had initially taken training under IBM and had subsequently developed further programming skills and expertise while developing live programs for the IBM customer, pioneered computer programming coaching classes for those who had all the ambitions for a programming career but could not get entry in the exclusive domain of IBM. Obviously, these classes could not provide the standards and facilities comparable to IBM's, but they were willing to accommodate any body and every body whose only requirements was to afford the modest fees and willingness to learn and succeed. No body knew whether the arrangements with such classes were strictly legal or whether such classes would ever succeed commercially or whether graduates of such classes would get commensurate jobs as programmers. Indeed a few classes failed to take off after initial beginnings. Besides, IBM and their large customers could not care less for such small fries, particularly in a country like India which did not and even now do not respect intellectual property rights.

But humble beginnings were made. for the commercial world of India to provide an alternative to IBM's training. While good many experiments failed, some with business acumen prospered. The technical expertise alone was not sufficient. Those with vision, entrepreneurship and capacity to raise required capital from private sources grew in size, standard of training, and facilities. In due course, the organized educational institutions, colleges and universities woke up to meet the demands for the computer professionals By then the computer was no more the monopoly of IBM in India. Third generation computers, microprocessors and micro computers as also mini computers and large mainframe computers with faster processing speeds and larger memories made inroads in the Indian markets requiring higher and higher programming languages, Advent of personal computers, laptops and notebooks took computing facilities and skills not only in small businesses, but also in individual households, at least in the cities. And last but not the least, the advent of fast growing internet opened up the flood-gates to the world of computers. All these developments skyrocketed the needs for the software people with the corresponding exponential growth in the number of institutes for the training To cut a long story short, a new "industry" thus took shape which ultimately resulted into the present day large number of training institutions, even in the nooks and corners of the streets, to meet the ever growing demands for computer personnel in India.

The writer was one of those pioneering small fries, who in 1968, started his own coaching class for 1401 programming. While he had to give up after training a couple of batches of students, to pursue his secured career in credit control functions of Esso, he has reason to feel pride as a part of a historical process during its uncertain beginnings.

Editor's Note: The author is related to the publisher of ILW.COM.

About The Author

Suresh Udani was born and brought up in Bombay, (now renamed as "Mumbai"), India. He holds a Master's degree in Science, (with Statistics and Econometrics as his specialised subjects) of the Bombay University. While he began his professional career as an "Investment and Financial Analyst", with a general Insurance company in Bombay, he made his major career as a credit executive in the Bombay branch of the US oil company, Esso Standard Eastern Inc. At around the time when he had risen to become all-India Credit Manager of Esso, the company was nationalised by the Government Of India, who rechristened the company as Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. Udani, who does not accept political philosophy of a government engaging itself in trade, business or industry, therefore, left the oil company and joined a private company working as manufacturers and exporters of industrial and agricultural plastics goods. As the executive director (Finance), of the plastics company, Udani visited UK, USA and several countries in Europe. Presently, Udani lives in Bombay in semi-retirement. He can be contacted at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.