Whatever Happened to IBM and the Seven Dwarfs?
Dwarf Four: Honeywell
by John C. Dvorak
It was a coinage of the mid-1960’s as IBM dominated the computer business. IBM and the Seven Dwarfs was how the business was described. By 1965 IBM had a 65.3-percent market share of the industry. The seven dwarfs shared the rest. They were: Burroughs, Sperry Rand (formerly Remington Rand), Control Data, Honeywell, General Electric, RCA and NCR. The following is the story of Honeywell (3.8-percent in 1965).
Honeywell is yet another Minnesota-bred company that began life in 1885 with the invention of a device that could easily adjust the damper of a coal furnace to better and more evenly heat a home. This evolved into the world’s most popular thermostat.
Like almost every company with ties to the government and an excuse to build a computer in the 1950’s and 1960’s Honeywell decided to get into the computer business. From the $175,000 HW290 built in the mid 1950’s to the million dollar HW800 of 1962 its computers were unspectacular and largely ignored by the literature. It was essentially a “cloner.” It’s 1964 H-200 was a clone of the IBM 1400, for example. During it’s reign as one of the seven dwarfs its history is mostly forgotten. There are no books praising innovation at Honeywell. There isn’t much at all.
But after Honeywell absorbed GE’s computer business in 1970 the action began. And the action would eventually suck the computer business right out of Honeywell.
Honeywell bought GE in 1970 and with it came the assets of General Electric Bull in France. It got new computer designs and Multics, the powerful time-sharing system developed oî the GE hardware. But it also found itself sued by Sperry Rand which decided to enforce the patents recently granted to John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. (and bought by Sperry for pocket change) for the ENIAC which, at the time, was believed to be the first computer. Sperry sued Honeywell and Honeywell sued back saying the patents were invalid. There were a number of foul-ups regarding the filing of the patent papers. Honeywell believed the patents were invalid for this reason.
Out of the blue another issue arose during the trial. Apparently Mauchly ripped off the whole design from an Iowa State Professor, John Atanasoff. So the whole thing was “prior art.” It’s believed that IBM, who was paying the most royalties to Sperry, was the company that unearthed the Atanasoff connection. Apparently Mauchly even flew to Ames, Iowa to study the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) machine. It would be shown that the disputed patents were based on Atanasoff designs and ideas. Curiously, this kind of “idea borrowing” thing was played out again with the next Mauchly machine the EDVAC which was based on John Von Neumann’s computer ideas. Mauchly took complete credit and was annoyed when von Neumann made a point of crediting himself, as he should have. von Neumann, though, apparently took more credit than he deserved for the ENIAC. Obviously a lot of egos were head butting each other during this era. A circulated von Neumann document whereby he describes the design of the ENIAC was used as evidence that the patent was invalid since the document was circulated long before the patent application and thus made the invention public domain. Nobody was pleased by this.
In the trial it was finally determined that the patents were indeed invalid due to the bureaucratic snafus but it made no difference because the design was derived from Atanasoff. Furthermore Judge Earl Larsen made a point of decreeing in strong terms that Atanasoff was the true inventor of the first electronic computer. In 1990 he was finally recognized as such with a formal presentation in Washington, DC to receive of the National Medal of Technology.
So Honeywell was off the hook and continued selling mainframes during the 1970 mainframe heyday. That’s when it’s odd relationship with its French subsidiary — Honeywell-Bull — got interesting.
Bull began life in 1921 when, in Olso, Fredrik Rosing Bull invented an add-sorting machine. Knowing that life in Paris was more fun than Oslo he founded Compagnie des Machine Bull in Paris in 1933 to market his inventions.
In 1951 Bull got into the computer business with the Gamma electronic computer which developed into a popular line of machines. It was 1964 when GE bought most of the company and it became Bull General Electric. That was changed to Honeywell Bull in 1970 when Honeywell bought the GE computer business which included Bull. During the 1970’s Honeywell Bull bought a number of computer companies including the smallish R2E which in 1973 was credited as marketing the first commercial microcomputer, the Micral. In 1979 an R&D arm of Honeywell Bull invented the Smart Card (yes, the credit card device that will someday be in all our wallets).
As the company grew the French government decided to nationalize it. So in 1982 Honeywell was bought out and thrown out. But a close relationship remained. Over time, for example, Honeywell Bull and just plain Bull sold over 50-percent of the Multics systems delivered.
Five years later Honeywell would decide that it was no longer interested in the mainframe business and would sell its entire operation to Bull in 1987. Bull then bought out Zenith Data Systems in 1989. In 1993 the company was then reprivitized. Bull was renamed to Bull Worldwide Information Systems.
Multics was still with Honeywell and in 1988 it transferred maintenance of Multics to the University of Calgary. A corporation called ACTC Technologies Inc. was established by the University to do this. As far as I can tell they are still doing this die-hard activity.
Bull is still in the computer business and most recently, in 1996, invented a UNIX mainframe. Ironically, UNIX was derived from the Multics OS. Honeywell is no longer in the computer business and much of the company lore is being lost fast.