IBM 1401 gives birth...aah

In September 1963 The Computer Bulletin ran a rather whimsical birth announcement: offspring for an IBM 1401 in the form of one million new Swedish surnames.

‘All the new surnames were born at the Central Bureau of Statistics in a night,’ it reports, with ‘the mother’ - the IBM 14021 - feeling ‘good in the six hours it took to deliver them all.’

The Bureau in question was in Stockholm and was tasked with producing new surnames to supplement the Anderssons and Johanssons so popular in Sweden.

It ‘began a little tentatively by suggesting the name Abbeback. After A came B as in Bvarling - a wonderful name n’est-ce pas?’ asked the Bulletin, going truly multi-lingual.

A 1967 book on Scandinavian Studies mentions the Swedish names law of 1964, and a further search prompted by this odd little news item taught me that, with the limited pool of Swedish names available this is rather a fraught topic.

I landed up on www.behindthename.com to search for any sign of these computer generated monikers being adopted - to carry on the maternal metaphor. So I looked for Abbeback, Bvarling or Oxorn, but in vain. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise as the 1963 Bulletin mentions that only about 50,000 of the IBM 1401’s offspring would be saved for posterity and there is no mention of them going into actual usage.

Despite the early BCS’s reputation as being a bit dour, the news item had a nice ironic couple of asides. Noting the name Oxorn it editorialised that ‘even a robot’s fancy can run short.’ And the piece concludes with this observation: ‘The IBM 1401 at least did what it could to satisfy every taste.’

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Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

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