Mad Dog 21/21: Take Another Bow, William Howard Taft And IBM Mainframes
February 4, 2013 Hesh Wiener
As 2012 ended, the brightest spot in IBM’s financial picture came from, of all things, the venerable mainframe. Sales jumped 56 percent as MIPS shipments soared 66 percent. But the picture wasn’t so simple: Only half this capacity could support IBM operating systems; the rest was confined to running Linux or taking a wash for those unfettered z engines. Meanwhile, in Washington, baseball fans were getting an upbeat surprise, too. The Nationals had named William Howard Taft as a mascot, reminding fans of a uniquely large and flatulent president who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In case you’ve never seen a Nationals game, one of the entertainments provided is a race of the presidents. Until Taft joined the contest, the entrants were the Mount Rushmore four: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. Adding Roosevelt’s successor, Taft, to the race has dramatically increased the diversity and added an immeasurable bit of revived rivalry to the contest. Taft became president in 1909 with his immediate predecessor Roosevelt’s help, but the two later had a political falling out. By the time Taft ran for a second term, in 1912, the gap between the two Republicans had become a chasm. Roosevelt grew so dissatisfied with the Republicans that he formed a progressive splinter group, the Bull Moose Party, that quickly became strong enough to pick off more than half the votes of what had been a more or less unified Republican organization. The upshot was that Roosevelt outpolled Taft but both were beat by the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt and Taft ultimately reconciled their differences, but by that time Wilson had fought and won World War I, America had become a different and vastly more powerful country, and politics had evolved in ways the leaders of the early twentieth century could never have imagined, let alone exploited to regain political leadership.
Meanwhile, Taft, who had been a federal justice in the Sixth Circuit and who long since had wanted to sit on the Supreme Court, was able to get what he had wished for. When Edward White died in 1921, President Warren Harding nominated Taft for the job. The Senate, which had great respect for Taft, confirmed his appointment with a nearly unanimous vote. Taft served for nine years, retiring as his health deteriorated, and died soon after leaving the bench.
Taft was not only huge in politics; he was huge in size, too. He was about six feet tall and, when he was not striving to lose weight, tipped the scales are more than 250 pounds. He had a reputation for eating with gusto, favoring foods that packed plenty of calories. While the media of his day were circumspect by today’s standards, they nonetheless reported the time when President Taft got stuck in his bathtub. The White House soon had a very large replacement installed. Moreover, historians have found ample evidence to support the contention by those who dared to comment that Taft was a frequent source of loud and pungent bodily noises.
He had a reputation as a terrible politician, irritating people in the American power structure by ignoring their participation in behaviors and traditions he found distasteful. Teddy Roosevelt was only one of many politicians he irked. On the other hand, he had a wonderful reputation for organization and order, and great respect for the rule of law. These characteristics along with a vast intellect and unusual strength of character, propelled him down a path that took him to Cuba, where he briefly served as Provisional Governor, to the Philippines, where he put in a couple years as governor general, and as a player in many scenes that defined America’s role as a world power during the first third of the last century.
Just as the IBM mainframe turned up everywhere important as computing recast the role of administrators in business and government, at least during the last third of the twentieth century, Taft was cast in one key role after another.
Notwithstanding Taft’s gift for frustrating, disappointing, and generally irritating politicians in his own Republican party and among the opposition, he had great charisma and charm. He was a prominent character at Yale, where he was tapped for Skull and Bones, the secret society of which his father was a founder. He was a large man even as a youngster, and apparently quite vigorous and athletic. His contemporaries couldn’t forget him, and didn’t want to, whether they saw eye-to-eye with Taft or not.
After college he returned to his native Cincinnati to go to law school and build the foundation of legal experience that ultimately took him to the Supreme Court. But as much as he was known for his serious pursuit of legal, political, and personal goals, he was not known for a serious style. He boasted a large and playful moustache. As it turns out, Taft was the last President to have facial hair while in office. If he had been transformed into a computer, he would have been a classic mainframe from the early days when IBM’s biggest machines had dramatically designed control panels with flashing lights and evocative dials.
As the mainframe created the need for a glass house, Justice Taft promoted the need for a judicial palace. While the Supreme Court still met in the Senate’s offices during Taft’s tenure on the bench, Taft set in motion the plan to give it its own building, a project that wasn’t completed until about five years after Taft’s death, but which today holds such a strong place in the capitol that it deceptively seems as if the Supreme Court Building has always been there.
Just as the mainframe computer has, at various times, served not merely as a record keeper and bean counter but also has been the host for immeasurably important scientific tasks, Taft’s role in the evolution of the American political system includes quite a few developments that don’t simply fit what one might guess about the history of a basically conservative Republican.
For instance, Taft was a key mover in the creation of the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution, which created the income tax. And while his administration was generally held to be a strong supporter of big business, that same administration had a powerful sense of proportion and launched dozens and dozens of antitrust actions. Taft seemed to agree quite often with his sometimes friend, sometimes foe Teddy Roosevelt. The explanation seems to be that he had a very strong sense of justice and a very weak need to curry the political approval of every politician, including many very powerful ones. Basically, Taft didn’t seem to care very much whether or not his cronies kissed his largesse.
IBM’s mainframe group used to be that way, too, and its often politically incorrect behavior won it some friends and some enemies. As with Taft, both admirers and detractors have almost universally praised the size and scope of their giant’s cathectic accomplishments.
Even though Taft and the IBM mainframe have been lost to history, their golden years–Taft’s nearly a hundred years ago, the mainframe’s in the 1960s and 1970s–deservedly stand as monuments to spectacular achievement. Hooray for them both. The mainframe had outstanding engineering; even better in some regards than its contemporary descendants, which are nearly lost in a sea of systems on chips. And Taft had that terrific, endearing, and sometimes gravy-stained moustache.