Computer question: Robots on the loose

Ross Jewell, with the Vernon PC Users' Club, looks back on those early days of computing

If you have ever watched the show How it’s made on the Discovery channel you will have noticed a variety of robotics being used to manufacturer parts and sometimes whole things, as well as performing assemblies. This reminded me as we move into 2015 that it was 50 years ago in 1965 when I met my first robot.

I had left a job as a research assistant at the Stanford Radioscience lab for a new job with Friden Corp across San Francisco Bay in San Leandro where the company had a plant building desktop electro-mechanical calculators. By today’s standards they were big, weighing in around 15 pounds and occupying at least a square foot of desk space. Inside the calculator was a printed circuit board about a foot square loaded with interconnected resistors, capacitors and semiconductors, all currently being assembled by hand.

My job was to provide computer support to the R&D department on the smallest digital computer around at that time, an IBM 1620. While at Stanford my main task was to analyze naturally occurring low frequency phenomena in the magnetosphere. To aid with this I had access to the largest mainframe then available from IBM. So it was quite a comedown, but having discovered that computers were more fun than physics that didn’t bother me a bit, especially that now I could actually get my hands on one!

One day a couple of Friden manfacturing engineers asked me to write a program to run a new machine they were getting called a Numerically Controlled Component Insertion Machine (NCCIM) — a robot. So within a week or so we had a punched paper tape to feed into NCCIM which in a few minutes would complete a circuit board that theretofore required nearly an hour to assemble manually.

Under program control the machine would insert the components into two circuit boards mounted on a table which after completing one would rotate 180 degrees and assemble the second board while the operator replaced the first board with a blank. After several successful tests we demonstrated NCCIM to some company brass who were quite impressed until, rather than rotating the table 180 degrees, it rotated 360 and began jamming components on top of one another. Never trust a robot!

The next meeting Vernon PC Users’ Club meets the second Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Schubert Centre in the cafeteria. Call Betty at 542-7024 or Gina at 550-6126 for more information.