RIT faculty studies productivity and international computer tech transfer

Germans feared computer use would create unemployment and poverty




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Corinna Schlombs

It’s hard to imagine life today without computers, but computer technology was not warmly welcomed in Germany following World War II.

That’s one conclusion Assistant Professor Corinna Schlombs, who teaches history in Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts, found while studying productivity and trans-Atlantic technology transfer and their impact following the war. Her research was made possible with a $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The American government was bringing computers to western Germany after World War II as productivity machines to help raise their standard of living,” Schlombs said. “Germany looked at them as automation, machines that would bring poverty and technological unemployment. It’s a very different reception than what Americans had expected.”

Her findings will be part of a book she’s writing about productivity and culture. The grant is enabling her to take time away from teaching to focus on her research for the book, which she expects to complete this summer. In the course of her research, she has traveled to Munich, Koblenz and Sindelfingen in her native Germany, the National Archives near Washington, D.C., and the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit. A trip to Frankfurt, Germany, is also planned.

“Computer history for a long time was about nuts and bolts, how they worked,” Schlombs said. “Since the mid-’90s, historians started asking more questions about human relations, how technology was embedded in our lives and culture, who works with these computers, who maintained them… In other countries, computer development had a much different background. In Britain, for example, there was far less government funding for computing research than in the U.S., and in Germany, government funding early on included small and medium computers. That has influenced how computers have developed in other countries.”

Computer technology transfer followed the Marshall Plan initiative to help rebuild European economies following World War II. The United States was the leader in computer technology in the 1950s, as the production of the vacuum tubes needed to make computers work were allied controlled, she said.

The first electronic computers were brought to Europe in 1956. One of them, a Univac, was the size of a room and was flown overseas, so it wasn’t damaged by salty ocean air during a long ship voyage.

The Germans constructed a building specifically for the massive computer, leaving one wall open to accommodate its delivery and installation.

“Americans brought in this notion of productivity which was highly debated in Germany,” Schlombs said. “As it turned out, unemployment rates did not skyrocket as they did in the U.S.”

Schlombs plans to create a website to go with her book so other historians can use the resources she’s found. “It will help us reflect how we will deal with productivity in the United States in the future. Our way is not the only way. Technology carries the values of the people who created it.”

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Corinna Schlombs