My Papa – Visionary, Creator, Wall Destroyer
October 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
There are only a few pictures of me with my grandfather, William (Bill) H. Wells, before he died only months after I was born. The memories I have of him are not mine but are formed from the stories retold by my grandmother and his three daughters. Many, many times I have heard them say how similar we are and how much fun we would have had sharing our interests in technology.
When I was 11, the computer center at Georgia State University was dedicated and renamed to honor him. I remember seeing a bronze statue of him and listening to many people tell stories about him and about his passion for his work as the first and founding Director of the Computer Center. I also remember my grandmother’s tears which were often shed because she missed him so much and the pride exuding from his three daughters.
It was 1957, and GSU had recently purchased an IBM 305 RAMAC as it was an
“indispensable tool for the development of accountants”. This computer weighed over a ton, had fifty 24-inch-diameter disks, and required a room approximately 30 ft. by 50 ft. to store it. This beast of a computer was so expensive, that little was left in the budget to pay for the staff required to support it. My grandfather recruited eager student assistants to fill these positions and soon was pushing for a replacement – an IBM 1620 – as the RAMAC was incredibly slow.
In an open meeting with the Board of Regents, my grandfather was asked to defend his request to upgrade the computer at GSU. He said, “Mr. Chariman, the 305 performs any move in .0345 (estimated) of a second, whereas the 1620 performs the same operation in .000000232 of a second.” The chairman replied, “Mr. Wells, I can afford to wait!” Being raised in Virginia, my grandfather was a southern gentleman; he was gracious and kind. This outright and flippant dismissal along with laughter from observers was like a punch in the gut to him. Records say that he “hung his head and tears streamed down his face”.
Wow. That is a man who is passionate and devoted to his work. He was a visionary, and he was dismissed and laughed at by people who did not see the future the way he did, who did not have the depth of knowledge to respect what he was trying to accomplish.
Fortunately, for GSU, the request to order the IBM 1620 was approved. When the arrival date was announced, plans were made to knock down the walls housing the RAMAC so they could get it out and move the 1620 in. The evening before it arrived, the walls were still standing. My grandfather (who had a history of suffering from tuberculosis) was found with an axe in hand knocking the walls down himself! Because of Bill Wells, GSU became one of the first business schools in the country to have a computer center and the first to require the computer in the academic curriculum. In 1968, he collaborated with professors from the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop the concept of a computer network connecting multiple universities in Georgia.
It wasn’t long before the 1620 was overloaded and needed to be replaced. While my grandfather was pushing for the third generation IBM, a two million dollar RCA computer was ordered. When it didn’t perform as defined in the contract, Bill called the president of RCA (a Georgia Tech graduate whom he had worked with in the past). The two men worked out an agreement to swap the RCA at GSU for the very last computer at RCA which was worth five times more and set a “solid foundation for a quantum leap forward”. This leap forward brought the vision of connecting universities through a network of computers across Georgia into reality.
“It was Bill Wells’ courage and determination, his willingness to size opportunities, unsupported at times, that set the foundation of the present greatness of our Computer Center.” – Dean Emeritus George E. Manners, 1988
I’m inspired by my grandfather’s passion, determination, and success. “Oh, you would have loved spending time with him” is what his daughters have told me many times. I am sure they are right. I imagine his reaction to our newest technologies would be one of awe and excitement. I would love to see his reaction to an iPad! Looking back, I can see how this experience and stories like these have influenced me. Passion and vision are contagious and can literally break down walls.