Automation pioneer John Diebold dies at 79

Automation pioneer John Diebold has died at the age of 79.

Automation pioneer John Diebold, who was 79, died Monday at his home in Bedford Hills, New York, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The Times quotes his nephew of the same name saying that Diebold died of esophageal cancer.

A visionary of future uses of technology, Diebold wrote the book "Automation" in 1952 to explain how programmable devices would alter all manner of business operations. He went on to found The Diebold Group, whose electronic network linked records at the Bowery Savings Bank in New York with its branch banks and also enabled tellers to see deposits and withdrawals immediately. Up to that point, records had to be updated after banks closed to customers. The idea caught on and Diebold's machines became ubiquitous in that industry and also for back-end office use in health care and other areas.

Until publication of his book, the term "automation" had been used to refer to mechanization at Ford Motor Co. "People say I coined this word but I don't claim to have invented the word, just the use of it," Diebold is quoted as saying in "The Rule Breakers," by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank. An excerpt from that book is posted at a Web site of the Harvard Business School, where Diebold earned a master's degree in 1951.

Diebold's ideas about "automatic factories" came to him when he was a midshipman in the Merchant Marine in World War II. "I kept thinking, if we can build tools and if we have automatic antiaircraft fire control, why can't we have an automatic factory?" he is quoted as saying in the book. While at the Harvard Business School, Diebold's professor, John Doriot, suggested that Diebold create a factory on paper and he and classmates set to that project, producing a report called "Making the Automatic Factory a Reality."

A central computer controlling all automatic machines was one proposal given in the paper, says an excerpt from Cruikshank's book posted at a business school Web site.

He first went to work after business school at a management consulting firm in New York, but his insistence that clients should move to computers got him into trouble, Cruikshank wrote. "I was too early," his book quotes Diebold saying. "It was before the first computer was installed for business use." After being fired twice and ordered to "give up on his obsession with computer and automation," the book says, Diebold refused. Fired again, he went on to start his own consultancy in April 1954, in Weehawken, New Jersey, his hometown.

Clients included major U.S. companies, including AT&T, IBM, Boeing, as well as governments and other public bodies.

According to the Times, survivors include Diebold's wife, Vanessa, two daughters, Emma, of Bedford Hills, and Joan, of Quincy, Massachusetts, and a son, John, of Bedford Hills.

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