John Diebold (1926 - 2005)

Bedford Hills (New York) - The man responsible for coining the term "automation," and perhaps first putting into words the concept of electronically-produced work as a force in the global economy, John Diebold died of complications from esophageal cancer on Monday.

A self-proclaimed lousy speller who didn't like having to type out "automatization," Diebold brought forth in 1952 his concept of using computers to electronically mechanize everyday work processes, in his landmark book, "Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory." Written just one year after his graduation from Harvard with a Masters in Business Administration, the work was inspired by something Diebold noticed during his service in the Merchant Marines during World War II. He noticed that anti-aircraft guns employed self-correcting mechanisms when volleys fell short of their intended aim.

During a course he took in Manufacturing at Harvard, he put two and two together, thinking this way: Factories made those correcting mechanisms. Why couldn't such mechanisms be put to use in factories themselves? His professor asked him to form a team to write a paper, which would be entitled "Making the Automatic Factory a Reality." There, for the first time, he would misspell "automatization," thus overshadowing the brilliant notion that factory processes could be controlled by a central computer.

The man whose name would become synonymous with forward-thinking business consulting, immediately upon his graduation, took up a job as a management consultant. But he would be fired from the same firm three times for what clients took to be an obsession with recommending that businesses use computers to automate processes. Sick of relying on the rest of the world to catch up with him, he took his very last job in 1954, as the founder of John Diebold and Associates. Because of Diebold, business consulting and process engineering are now one and the same process.

For decades, Diebold Election Systems revolutionized the voting booth, perhaps having a significant impact on the social history of the US and other nations. Diebold's beautiful, mechanized booths, with their steel voting switches and satisfying curtain drawing lever, not only simplified the process for millions, but in the era before machines could be "hacked," leveled the playing field for independent candidates who would otherwise have succumbed to voting fraud. Today, the company is a leading supplier of touch-screen voting systems, in response to the 2000 presidential election fiasco that may have been decided by the flip of a justice's coin.

In 1964, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary on the staggering impact that this new concept of automation could have on the Canadian workforce. The program noted that not only were computers automating existing processes, but making new ones feasible, such as the automatic routing of long distance telephone calls across the continent. Such a process, the CBC noted, handled by human operators, would have consumed more females than Canada's workforce could make available at that time.

To help viewers grasp the concept of machines doing the work that they had thought women were designed to do, the CBC asked John Diebold to define automation. Here is a transcript of his response from that 1964 broadcast:

It's getting increasingly more difficult to answer, because people are applying the word so very widely, but fundamentally, it's a technological development that has at its heart the ability to handle and communicate information automatically, and the ability to build machine systems to do this. We use the information for the guidance of military devices - which is where it started - or we use it to guide machine tools and factory equipment, use it in the form of the computer for handling information in the office, and we're finding each day many, many new areas where information plays an important role in our lives that we hadn't realized before, and we start applying these new fruits of science to this, and that process, that application, is called "automation."

This was the era when the great menace potentially afflicting society was the looming prospect of machines taking over the world's workforce, rather than the looming prospect of a kid in someone's basement taking over the world's machines. Diebold was an advocate of determining what public policy should be with regard to coping with the onset of automation in the workforce. But public policy, in both America and Canada, were generally considered at that time to be the products of government intervention, not market forces. So when asked how the government should be expected to play a role in public policy, Diebold had a surprise for the CBC interviewer:

I believe that we automatically presume that public policy means government action. I don't think it means that at all. I think government is one element, but I think that labor, that business, that consumers are all determinants of public policy...I think the premium on planning is to find out what is likely to happen, and then try to determine the consequences of it today. For example, you're going to have many job shifts, many, many shifts in skill abilities, over a period of time. There's a great premium on changing the educational system to adapt in order to handle it, and that gives everyone a better idea of what needs to be done - planning, in that sense, I'm very much for.

I don't think there's any inevitability about further state direction of these efforts. I think the emphasis should be on finding what the consequences are. For example, in automation, the social consequences and human consequences are enormous, enormous. Machines have always been important to us primarily as a means of producing social change. The real importance has, in the end, always been that it precipitated great social change. And that's going to be true in spades, enormously.

John Diebold leaves behind a wife, a son and daughter, a nephew, and a world whose principles were altered by the brilliance of a practical idea.