Indian computing in the pre-PC world

by May 16, 2022 0 comments

Edited excerpts from an exhaustive video interview with Veer Sagar, Chairman, Selectronic India & Former President & CEO, DCM Data Systems

“In those days there was no IT Ministry. The Department of Electronics for a long time reported to the Department of Atomic Energy. The first time computers came in, it was an IBM 1401 that was refurbished in their Bombay factory and given on a heavy lease of Rs 8.5 lakh a year. (Note: This was a “variable-wordlength decimal computer” that was introduced in 1959). I was there in the middle of all these happenings and very very lucky, first as a supplier of IT in Dunlop with 1401 in 1965-66. The IBM engineer would come in a three-piece suit stitched in Hong Kong and offered a lot of support in system design.

All that it had was 4 tapes and two removable disk drives. It was quite a challenge to program on it with cards. Sales disks and purchase disks were two separate things. Modifying it was significant pain. There used to be a huge printer with 132 characters one way with four carbon copies. It was a strange beast. The room in it was also huge with air conditioning and ducts coming under and on top. Only authorised people could enter with their shoes off after dusting themselves. It was like a temple. The only place where you could learn all this was the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Calcutta.

Political problems in 1977 and a 360 upgrade

After the Janata Party government came to power in 1977, thanks to FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act), foreign companies could not own majority shares and they had to dilute. Coca-Cola and IBM said sorry we are not cutting and left. The problem was there were a lot of 1401s and maintaining them was a big thing.

We wanted to upgrade it to a 360 (IBM System/360) and in those days had to provide a 100-page justification on why you wanted to import the computer, how it would affect the country, and hold your breath, how it would affect the agricultural sector along with disk mapping and memory mapping. An expert committee would decide whether you deserved to get a computer or not and if so, what size. Then a financial committee would decide who would supply the computer and at what price.

Later I was a member of many of these expert committees. Since we were aligned with the Soviets, there was also a lot of pressure to buy Russian computers, but there were too many issues with that. We ultimately went in for a Burroughs’ system. But there were compatibility issues. At that time a computer room cost as much as the computer itself: One crore for each of them.

The 1984 New Computer Policy

The government allowed PCs and chips to be imported. So, a lot of Indian companies were set up making PCs and minis. There were three types of companies. One was the companies with their own internal R&D like Wipro, DCM, HCL, and ECIL. Then there were those who assembled like PCL, Zenith, and ORG. Then we had the grey market. In those days a PC went for a lakh of Rupees and a mini for 3-4 lakh because the duties were high, to the tune of 150%.

Then Sivasankaran (of Sterling Computers), I don’t know how he managed what, he brought down the prices to forty thousand Rupees. It was cash and carry and had no service and support though. Then Zenith followed suit and all our prices crashed. That’s when PCs became more widely used and the mystery started disappearing.”

These are excerpts from a video chat with Editor Sunil Rajguru and part of our PCQuest 35 Years Series on the Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow of Technology.

Check out the complete interview…

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