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Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia
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What Was Insurance Tech Like Before the PC?

A respondent to a Reddit thread on the pre-PC era provides a window into how billing and accounting systems were developed on punch cards.

I read Reddit pretty often, but even I missed this AskReddit thread titled, "Older Redditors, what were offices like before computers and the internet became mainstream?" It's too bad, because I have a morbid curiosity about a time period that I can only assume was a grim dystopia.

Luckily, PopSci's editorial team didn't miss it, and this morning I found their writeup about it. They called out particularly interesting respondents to the thread, including this window into application development at an insurance company in the 1970s from user "aRoseBy:"

I was working … as a COBOL programmer in a big insurance company, writing billing and accounting programs. I would write lines of code on coding sheets: these were pages of graph paper, twice as wide as long. I would write a program and drop the coding sheets in the inbox in the keypunch room. The keypunch girls (yes, all young women) would copy the program, one line at a time, to a stack of IBM cards. The cards were bound up in a rubber band, labelled, and put in a tray to be brought in the computer room.

The computer ran 24 hours a day, 5 days a week. There was always a computer operator in the room. He would load cards to be read into memory (programs and data), put 12-inch tapes on the tape drives for input and output, fit paper in the printers (big continuous sheets with a line of holes on the edges), and separate reports after printing. If I was lucky, there was a little time between jobs, and he could quickly load a couple of our test programs, and run them.

At best, I might get a chance to have a program I was developing run three times a day. (It runs, I get compile errors, I fix the obvious errors, three hours later it's run again, get execution errors...) If the operator had a busy day, I might not get my program run until the overnight shift.

Think about what that was like. Now, we're used to compiling and running a program in seconds, not hours (or overnight). This motivated us to do very careful desk checking. You looked over your work slowly, again and again, before submitting it.

I wonder how many I&T readers recall similar experiences, or have other stories from a time before PCs ruled the roost in IT organizations. Please feel free to share those in our comment section.

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/12/2013 | 8:30:51 PM
re: What Was Insurance Tech Like Before the PC?
What readers may also find interesting is the associated policy and claims workflow. With no way to view anything electronically, branch offices located throughout the country utilizing one central processing center all relied on paper submission via USPS mail to our home office to see changes implemented. All of the input forms had
to be keypunched, error corrected and processed according to the same tedious
process as maintaining programs. The timing often took several days to weeks to process changes accordingly. Until we obtained collating equipment, entire
departments were organized to manually fold and prepare policy documentation
for mailing. One of my favorite pieces of equipment back then was an Gǣautopen.Gǥ
It was a strange looking device that used a Gǣsignature collarGǥ, a three foot metal collar, with curves and bumps designed to move a pen over signature line to sign policy documents. OK, I guess this confirms my status as a technical dinosaur.
User Rank: Author
4/12/2013 | 7:39:44 PM
re: What Was Insurance Tech Like Before the PC?
Somewhere in the archives is a retrospective issue of I&T in which we looked at this history of the insurance tech industry. We ran some vintage photos from Chubb of the gigantic mainframes, along with then-CIO Chuck McCaig's recollections of the huge punch card stacks etc. But rather than laugh at how archaic it sounds now, we should recall that at the time insurers were actually the innovators -- they were leading business in the use of technology.
Anthony R. O'Donnell
Anthony R. O'Donnell,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/12/2013 | 7:13:49 PM
re: What Was Insurance Tech Like Before the PC?
There is certainly plenty of COBOL still in the insurance industry and elsewhere, and I know of at least one CIO who is encouraging the computer science departments at universities to teach the language on the strength of its continued utility to business.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/12/2013 | 6:47:26 PM
re: What Was Insurance Tech Like Before the PC?
Turns out there are still mainframes and COBOL programs at the heart of the IT organizations of the biggest insurance and financial services companies in the world. They're new, super mainframes. There are PCs there too, of course. The mixed bag of technologies represents the best of all (IT) worlds. Different platforms used for different purposes, based on their strengths, capabilities and economics.
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