The History and Future of Burroughs Corporation
"a brief survey of the topic"
In 1905 the American Arithmometer Co., a small company started by William Seward Burroughs almost twenty years previous, changed it's name to "The Burroughs Adding Machine Co." in honor of its founder. It quickly took over the adding machine market, and after the second World War saw the future of its business: the computer. In 1953 it dropped the "adding machine" from its name, and began a crusade that would eventually change the way computers were developed for decades.
The company had strong ties to the military, and created several machines for it and NASA. It also designed the B 205 which was a very fast mainframe at the time. However, in 1962 they came out with what was one of the most revolutionary computers ever made: the B 5000. With this machine Burroughs became not only one of the Seven Dwarves (competitors to IBM, they included: Control Data, Honeywell, General Electric, NCR, Sperry Rand and RCA) but a true pioneer in the area of computer architecture.
The B 5000 was amazing for its time. The first commercial machine to use virtual memory and arithmetic stack control(Dvorak), it touted a slew of features including:
- A Master Control Program (MCP) that could be set to automatically schedule the workload according to programmable priorities. It handled I/O, parallel processing, and maintained a constant surveillance over the entire system through the Environment Control Routine("Burroughs B 5000 Is Problem Oriented"). If there was a hardware failure, the B 5000 simply worked around it and continued on. The MCP also segmented programs during compilation, and controlled prioritized interrupts (page 8).
- It was the first computer "designed specifically for automatic programming" (Business Week). It had compilers for both ALGOL and COBOL, which allowed both "English-language" commands and mathematical problems to be entered and run at amazing efficiency (Burroughs cited tests of 20, 30, and 50 times as fast as the "most advanced conventional computers"(page 6)).
- No "downtime." When the mainframe ran out of room, it switched over to self-testing maintenance routines. If something failed, it automatically recorded the precise time of failure, and would continue to operate as much as it was able.
- Parallel processing. If one problem was entered and being solved, others could be entered in the meantime and the B 5000 would allocate unused portions of itself to work on the new problems("The New Burroughs"). Also up to two independent processors could be in the same machine, greatly speeding up machine and acting as a backup in case one of the processors failed.
- Plug-and-play decades before Microsoft. The B 5000 was modular, the hardware could be modified at any point. "The computer immediately recognizes when system parts have been added or taken away and adjusts to its new capacity"(Business Week)!
- The modularity expands to the programs themselves, which are fully interchangeable. And, since the hardware is also modular, they are not fused with the current hardware. (page 9)
In short, the B 5000 was the computer of its time. One of its strongest points was that it hit at what was fast becoming a bottleneck: programming time. When companies had to hire a team of programmers to enter in data and problems for weeks that the computers churned through in a matter of hours or even minutes, the processing speed wasn't the only problem. Burroughs produced a superior machine that should have taken the computing world by storm.
But they couldn't market. While Burroughs did well for several years, becoming the first letter of BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell) which was the next generation to take on IBM after the Seven Dwarves began to die off. However, IBM's superior marketing team combined with its support staff (IBM was renown for sending in a technician to look at a broken machine, and if they couldn't fix it fast, simply swapping it out with a new one, something no smaller companies could afford to even contemplate) to relegate Burroughs to one of a group of mere competitors.
Burroughs continued to do work for the military, but were fighting an uphill battle against IBM in the commercial sector. While they had a solid presence in banking and finance industries, they were failing to remain competitive. Then, in 1986, under the leadership of W. Michael Blumenthal, Burroughs "merged" with Sperry to become Unisys (a name picked from an employee-contest, which would later lead to employees entitling themselves "Unisysies"). In an attempt to take a large share of the market, Burroughs transformed itself into the second-largest computer company in the world (BW:March, 1987). It was heralded as a bold move, and in the next few years everyone shouted cautious praises as Unisys slowly took hold.
And died. Sperry and Burroughs were two totally different companies, with incompatible standards, and their merger (really a multi-billion dollar buyout of Sperry by Burroughs) couldn't "reap the promised economies of scale or cost savings" (BW:Jan1991). In trying to hold on to both companies, Unisys faltered and slowed, becoming not a market-dominating giant, but a company with its fingers in a slew of areas including consulting, servers, and a variety of small programs, but with its hand around none.