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ARPC'S first computer -- The RCA 501 and the Early Days of Automation

DENVER -- In this day and age, it's hard to imagine life without our trusty computers. We have grown so accustomed to having them, both at work and in our homes.  It's easy to forget that computers as we know them are a pretty new invention. In fact, did you know that ARPC (or the Air Reserve Records Center, or ARRC, as it was known then) only received its first computer in late 1959? 

For many, that seems like ancient history. But as one who was born that same year, I can actually say that in MY lifetime, I have seen a huge advance in automation technology. When ARRC was formed in 1954 through 1959, all the workload -- accessions, separations, name and address changes, assignments and virtually everything else -- was done by hand! Manual typewriters, pencils and paper, legal pads and index file cards were all the tools our predecessors had to do similar tasks we still perform today. The only mechanized equipment in use was "electrical accounting machines," which were merely punch-card driven adding machines. Even by 1950's standards, the workload was staggering. It was this awareness that led Center leaders to seek some type of electronic data processing equipment in 1958. 

With approval from Air Force headquarters in hand, ARRC personnel began feasibility studies of digital computer machines then available, and decided to order the state-of-the-art Radio Corporation of America 501 computer. This device included eight tape stations online, two modules of high speed memory (which could hold a whopping 32,768 characters ... or about 32K!), a card transcriber, a transcribing card punch, two off-line tape stations and an off-line high speed printer. The system required an entire room at the York Street facility, and the flooring had to be reconstructed to support the extremely heavy components. In fact, two 12.5 ton refrigeration and heating units were installed to keep the computer running. The original cost estimate for the device (in 1959 dollars) was $211,066, which included soundproofing, ventilation, lighting and air conditioning. However, the cost estimate was revised downward, and the final total was only $121,698! The construction commenced in May 1959. Training of the computer personnel was completed in early 1959, but this training was not simple "how to" instructions. The RCA 501 required detailed programming concerning each function, and the instructions had to be extremely specific or the computer would be unable to perform them. It was not exactly "user-friendly." 

The operator fed information into the computer by using punch cards or punched paper tape. The system could be expanded to 63 tape stations and had the capacity for additional memory storage, should it be needed.  To prepare the data for input into the computer, the Center also purchased the Underwood Data-Flo system. Working much like a standard electric typewriter, the Data-Flo devices produced punched paper tape and simultaneously produced a statistical data tape and a hard-copy byproduct. The coded information was then transcribed onto a magnetic tape by means of a computer program, and thus was input into the computer. It certainly was much more complex than simply typing commands onto a PC keyboard. 

The various programs were written for each of the personnel functions the RCA 501 was to perform, and finally, on Oct. 5, 1959, the big day arrived! Several huge semi-trailers arrived at ARRC, and RCA technicians began the arduous process of setting up the complex hardware. Finally, on Oct. 31, the RCA engineers completed the installation and testing, and turned the computer over to ARRC. The system, which was the first of its kind to be installed west of the Mississippi River, was dedicated Nov. 12, 1959. The RCA 501 was upgraded several times, and remained the Center's primary computer system until it was transferred to the Air Force Accounting and Finance Center's computer site Oct. 3, 1970. Finally, in fiscal 1972, it was replaced with a new S/360 system. 

As examples of just how far automation has come in just under half a century, the first personal computers had 4K of memory and cost about $600 when first sold in 1977. Our current generation PCs have 2-plus gigabytes of memory, and a modern cell phone now has 16 gigabytes of memory ... almost half a MILLION times more than that original RCA 501!