Walter Bauer and Informatics
CHARLES BABBAGE INSTITUTE
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Walter Bauer and the Birth of “Informatics”

We were saddened to hear of the passing of Walter F. Bauer in February 2015.  He was a pioneer of the software products industry, a close confidant and business associate to CBI founder Erwin Tomash, and a leader in the Charles Babbage Foundation that supported CBI in its early years.  Bauer also jointly coined the term “informatics.”  In a way, his story helps understand why the United States in the 1960s saw the rise of “computer science” while Western Europe experienced the rise of a similar technical discipline that is known as “informatik,” “informática,” “informatique,” or “informatics.”

March 1962, as Walter Bauer recalled, was a fateful month in that both Bauer in the United States and a French entrepreneur named Philippe Dreyfus seized upon “informatics.”  The linguistic exercise of combining the root of “information” with the suffix “-atics” which stands for “the science of” (such as mathematics or numismatics) was not particularly obscure.  Bauer was in the process of forming and thus naming a pioneering software venture (with key support from Erwin Tomash).  He and his associates had considered “datamatics” but there was already the large Honeywell mainframe computer Datamatic 1000, originally a joint venture with Raytheon.

Ordinarily, you don’t expect exact synchronicity across the Atlantic.  But in France that very same month a group around Dreyfus, who had previous experience working at Harvard with the Mark 1 computer and for Compagnie des Machines Bull, was launching a new software company called Société d'Informatique Appliquée.  In this context they were searching for a term to describe the new field of computing and also fastened on “informatics.”  It was soon blessed as an official French word by L’Académie française, and spread across Europe being adapted into the different language groups.  A German scientist’s independent use of “informatik” added momentum to the phrase.

Right from the start, Bauer decided to trademark “informatics” both as a proper noun for his company Informatics as well as a distinctive lower-case noun.  “Through the years we stopped many organizations from using the name [informatics],” wrote Bauer.  His logic was that words like “Xerox” and “Cellophone” had not been legally protected and had spread into common usage to the “detriment of their respective companies.” 1  Bauer even related an inquiry by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to change its name to the Society for Informatics.  To this day, “informatics” is rarely used in the United States to refer to “computer science,” while just the opposite happened in Europe.

There is a revealing story of how Erwin Tomash and Walter Bauer became linked as business partners.  Tomash, as readers of the CBI Newsletter should be aware, was a University of Minnesota electrical engineering graduate (1943) who went to work for the local Engineering Research Associates; then, after several business positions in the Midwest and Southern California, he took up leadership of Dataproducts (a spinoff from a Minnesota-based hearing aid manufacturer) in 1962.  Bauer was a mathematics Ph.D. from the University of Michigan who entered the computing field in the early 1950s.  He moved to the Los Angeles area to work for Ramo-Wooldridge (two-thirds of the well-known TRW Corporation) in 1954 and rose to become director of computer operations.  Wanting to start a company, he was having difficulties raising financing for a startup venture when Tomash offered to create a new division within Dataproducts.  It became Informatics General Corporation.

In the event, Dataproducts was solidly successful in the 1960s as a manufacturer of computer peripherals, such as highly regarded disk drives, printers, and core-memory units.  Informatics rose in the burgeoning world of 1960s software.  Informatics started as a software contractor, but within two years it purchased an entire software division from Hughes Aircraft; that division’s file management program led to the blockbuster file-management product MARK IV.  Aimed at the IBM mainframe market, it was the first software product that crossed $100 million in sales.  Informatics, spun off as an independent company in 1968, was eventually purchased by Sam Wyly’s Sterling Software in 1985.


Bauer at CBFtrusteesmtgLeonard Kuhi, Walter Bauer, and Clarence Spangle at the 1989 CBF Board of Trustees Meeting


Charles Babbage was the namesake that Erwin Tomash adopted when he retired from Dataproducts and began casting around for a means to capture the history he had personally lived.  The result was initially the International Charles Babbage Society (1978), the Charles Babbage Institute, and the Charles Babbage Foundation (CBF).  From the start, Tomash and Bauer were partners in this venture, too.  Bauer chaired the CBF in the middle 1980s.

Informatics was at the center of my correspondence with Bauer, shortly after I arrived at CBI in 2006.  Walter had unearthed a run of strategic plans from Informatics, and he’d kindly forwarded these to be archived at CBI.  They are now part of our Market and Product Reports Collection (CBI 55).  Documents that help give insight into the software products industry as a whole are rare, and a prominent company’s assessment of the market and strategically desirable directions can be of wide research value.

American Federation of Information Processing Societies and Association for Computing Machinery were the principal professional societies that Bauer invested his time in, in addition to his business, philanthropic, and charitable activities.  For AFIPS he was chairman of the 1961 Western Joint Computer Conference as well as on the AFIPS Governing Board.  For ACM he served as chair of the Los Angeles chapter, chair of the Editorial Board, and was a candidate for ACM President.

Naturally, with these contacts in the business and professional communities, Bauer’s Rolodex was of immense value for the Charles Babbage Foundation.  His correspondence with CBI director Arthur Norberg reveals an “A list” of the movers and shakers in the computing industry, beginning with Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Ross Perot, John Diebold, Sam Wyly, and many other luminaries.  It is remarkable to reflect today that CBI drew so fruitfully upon support from the computing industry, and Walter Bauer was a key person in bringing this about.

“Southern California in the late '50s was really the most important place for software in the country, no question about it,” as Bauer related in his oral history with Arthur Norberg.  In addition to Ramo–Wooldridge’s investing heavily in high-performance computing, other players in the region included the aircraft companies Douglas, North American, and Lockheed as well as the Air Force think tank RAND and soon enough the IBM user group SHARE and the “university for programmers” System Development Corporation.  Aircraft, guided missiles, and satellites all had immense information processing requirements.  It was from this context that Bauer developed his career in computing, and assisted in later years with the development of the history of computing through the Charles Babbage Foundation.  We remain, standing on the shoulders of giants, in his debt today.

Thomas J. Misa

1. Walter Bauer told this story in several places, with this one coming out of the CBI files.  See a published version as Bauer, “Computer Recollections: Events, Humor, and Happenings,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29 no. 1 (2007): 85-89 at https://doi.org/10.1109/MAHC.2007.2

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