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Dead medium: SPS Flexowriter
From: phxbrd@uswest.net (L. Seth Hammond)

Source(s): Personal Recollection

>From the author, L. Seth Hammond, " I started with Singer-Friden in 1963 as a programmer, then became a salesman, and finally a systems sales manager until 1972, when the Kalamazoo office was closed. I worked for Litton EBS as a computer salesman for a year and a half, then went back to Singer Business Machines in Fort Wayne, before they closed down the whole company in 1975."

The SPS (Systems Programmatic Single case) Flexowriter was normally equipped with both reader and punch capable of recording and reading edge cards as well as paper tape. While other codes were available, most units were built with 8- channel BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) capability. As the name implies, edge cards were cards of some variety in dimensions, but punched with the 8-channel BCD coding along one side only. In systems work such as Sales Order entry, edge cards were filed in an overlapping shingle fashion within tub files. Customer header cards would contain hundreds of bytes of data relative to each given customer. As the card was read, programming codes also contained in the input card controlled spacing, forms movement, and stops for manual entry of variable data. Also contained in the programming codes were those that controlled the output punch, recording such things as customer number, order number, date, purchase order number, etcetera.

A frequent alternative to codes in the input edge cards was the use of a Selectadata program loop reader that worked in conjunction with the reader on the Flexowriter. With its use, nearly pure data could reside in edge cards, while all programming instruction came from the other tape reader. While the header card caused automatic typing of constant data such as name and address, etc., the operator went to a product tub file on her other side and pulled the first item card. This card contained product description, part number, pricing, etc. With the completion of the heading portion of the Sales Order, the header card was removed from the reader near the keyboard, and the item card inserted.

Usually, with only a manual entry of 'Quantity ordered', the rest of the item line was automatic, often including automatic price selection from some variety of prices applicable to different classes of customer. As the Flexowriter typed, the last card was refiled, and the next one pulled. The output tape previously mentioned was punched data pertinent to each product item. At the end of the day, the automatically wound tape was removed and sent on to data processing for direct input into a computer or first through a tape to tab card converter, and then into the tab card processing system or computer. Since batch-processing computers of the time were notoriously poor for invoicing, it was common for the order writing Flexowriter to be equipped with a second, or auxiliary punch. One tape produced would then go to EDP for order analysis, scheduling, etc., while the other tape would be used by the next Flexowriter-equipped machine used for invoicing.

It might be appropriate to point out at this time that forms sets printed on the Flexowriter have been known to contain as many as 25 copies with interwoven carbon paper. This author installed a system with 22 parts, including two of card stock buried deep in the set! Every person and/or department appropriate to the order scheduling could have a copy. In fact, another user employed a single form instead of a multi-part set. The single form was an offset printing master that eventually generated as many as 45 copies!

Part of a multipart forms set often included a group of copies used by the Shipping department. One of those copies might have a built-in pocket that contained a rolled and flattened tape that was generated at the same time as the order. Penciled on the face of the document would be changes from the original order, such as lesser quantities shipped, etc. This copy, with its enclosed tape, would be sent back to the sales or accounting department for the next operation.

A machine known as a Computyper, was another Flexowriter coupled to a Friden rotary electro-mechanical calculator. As the Flexowriter printed an invoice, extensions were set into the calculator, and line totals fed back out into the Flexowriter. Line totals were of course maintained toward page totals. As with the original order writing, invoicing normally produced a punched tape for EDP and Accounts Receivable, sales analysis, commissions accounting, etc. As an alternative to punched tape, an IBM keypunch was often cabled into the Flexowriter or Computyper, although functions such as skip, dup, and release slowed down the overall process.

As a comparison between Singer/Friden Sales Order Entry & Invoicing and that of the IBM 360 computer common at the time, two firms in my territory each processed about 2200 item lines per day, or 300 invoices with a little over 7 lines each. The one with a 360 system utilized 30 employees. The one with the Singer/Friden system utilized 3 employees.

The SPS Flexowriter was superceded by the 2201 and 2301 Flexowriters, a little faster, at 12 bytes per second, instead of the original 10. The Computyper was superceded by the 5610 Mini-Computer, which replaced the old STW calculator with the first electronic calculator on the US market, the EC130. The processor memory was that of the delay line principle. 60 totals could be carried at first, then up-dated to 120. The computer was hard wired and utilized no operating system. Actual program memory was 1.1K, but additional programming capability was available through paper tape reading, plug board wiring, and carriage rack actuators. Competing with IBM 360's with 16K was normal and easy.

In case you're interested, Friden turned to Singer also sold a lot of Add punches, adding machines with paper tape out. Another biggy was Collectadata, the first large scale industrial shop floor data collection system. Teledata was the first reliable paper tape transmission system. It had echo check, odd parity check, etc. You may know that Singer also had the first electronic point of sale terminals, on-line to in-house Singer computers and usually also on-line to remote IBM computers.

phxbrd@uswest.net (L. Seth Hammond)