an early Norwegian computer?

the HOFGAARD machine

Av Dag K. Andreassen, Konservator ved Norsk teknisk Museum og stipendiat ved Institutt for historiske og klassiske studier, NTNU

A prototype computer from 1955 is the starting point of this research project. It was developed by Norwegian inventor Rolf Hofgaard, who held several patents in electromechanical calculating technologies in many countries between 1924 and 1960.
His goal was to make a complete office machine, based on a new “business brain” combining relay technology with advanced home made math and code, set up in a system covering most tasks in accounting, filing, customer databases, ordering and invoicing and so on. Highly ambitious and quite sophisticated, the prototype still never came to marked. The new electronic age and computer architecture post 1945 made Hofgaard’s machine outdated well before it was finally demonstrated.
Can such a case of failed invention bring new knowledge about the history of computing? It is a solid tradition in science- and technology studies to pay attention to the many failures and paths not taken in the shaping of new scientific knowledge and new technology. This project aims to investigate one small and little known path towards today’s computer based world.
Hofgaard worked in solitude most of his career, but also for several years in corporation with some of the biggest office machine companies in the U.S. Through his very active patent practice, he shared his ideas and visions. No one licensed his work, but could the publications still have inspired others?
The story of the lone and failed inventor bears resemblance of many other stories of inventors, and as such, Hofgaards enterprise also offers valuable lessons in entrepreneurship in general.

Full project description
This research project is based on an artefact belonging to the collection of the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology. It is little known, hardly examined, and has never been put on display in any exhibition. It may be one of the first Norwegian digital computers.

It is a prototype from 1955 of an office machine with functions such as accounting, invoicing, databases and storage, based on a number of patents that the Norwegian Rolf Hofgaard applied for and held in the period 1924-1955. During the first half of the period, Hofgaard was in the United States in partnership with the office machine giant Remington. In the second half of the period, when this prototype was developed, he was in Oslo, engaged by the Oslo based electrical company Soennico. Backed by good revenues from a solid entrepreneurial enterprise in electrifying houses, public buildings, offices and industries in and around Oslo, the company invested in what its CEO saw as a possible future business: Office automation and electric computing.
The Hofgaard system integrated advanced mathematical models and coding with complex fine mechanics and relay-based electromechanics. It was intended as a mass-produced industrial product. The prototype was demonstrated, and received acclaims for its potential. Still, it never got the sales or final investments to take the leap from prototype to a commercial industrial product.

By the end of the 1950s, Hofgaard's solutions were parked and the field overtaken by the digital electronic computers, with their basic design taking shape in the first decade after World War II. From large scale projects in the United States and the United Kingdom, primarily funded by the needs of warfare technology, industrial solutions emerged, targeting military and civilian markets.

The small research- and engineering community in Norway taking an interest in the post war electronics, had strong connections to the Anglo-American scene, first through contacts established by the dozens of Norwegian engineers and scientists who were in exile in the UK during the war, and gained access to the most important British electronics research communities.

In the post-war years, residencies in the USA were almost compulsory for those who speared the electronic research and engineering in Norway in the 1950s. Norway’s pioneer automation professor at the Technical University of Norway in Trondheim (NTH), Jens Glad Balchen, found inspiration from his stays at Yale University in 1951 for his electronic analog machine DIANA. Similarly, Thomas Hysing, who led the development of Norway's first electronic digital machine NUSSE at the Central institute for industrial research, Oslo, had studied relay engineering at UCLA Berkley, before embarking on the machine design in Oslo in 1951. The next generation of NTH engineers who formed the “digit group” at Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), many of whom would break out and start what became the successful company Norsk Data, had all resided at MIT.

These well-known stories give the overall impression that relations between the United States and Norwegian development environments are purely a post-war phenomenon. The story of Rolf Hofgaard and his machine will modify this.

Computer history is a relatively young discipline. It is fair to say that is has a heavy emphasis on post1945 developments. Some thin, long lines are often drawn back to mechanical calculators and Babbage's mechanical differential analyzers, or Hollerith's punch card systems that gave rise to IBM.

In Norwegian computer history, the Hollerith machine is often a starting point, with the machine purchased by SSB in 1894. The punch-card era's Norwegian honorable mention is given as a nod to Bull's punch-card systems from 1919, noting that this adventure slipped Norway due to the moving of the Bull company to France. Svein Rosseland's home maid differential analyzer at the University of Oslo from the 1930s marks a starting point in the academic and military interest in computing power, which is a starting point for the post-war breakthrough. But mainly, also the Norwegian computer history has a heavy emphasis on post-war development

The image of the modern computer as something that has evolved in generations, terming the computers of the 1960’ies as "third generation machines", has also largely influenced computer history. In this tradition, ENIAC is the first generation - and today's diversified machinery are all in a sense ENIAC's descendants. In such a genealogy, there is a danger of defining a "year zero" that wipes out important backgrounds, transitions and overlaps from earlier technologies.

Norwegian professor of history of technology at NTH / NTNU, Håkon With Andersen, points to the same in one of the papers from the ambitious 1980’ies research project “Norwegian Electronic Industry 1945-1970” (Norsk Elektronikk-industri 1945-1970) that ran from 1984-1989. In his outline of the evolution of information technology, he proposes to "flip the family tree", and rather look for
the diverse origins of today's information technologies, and the many streams that met in the post1945 electronic computers.

Also in Olav Wicken's introduction to computer history, the emphasis lies on the post-war decades. And although he also draws in some "prehistoric" perspectives, most of the focus lies on the post1945 period also in his other works. The same can be said of Ola Nordal's presentation of computer history at NTH/NTNU, which also only briefly touches pre-war use of mechanical / electromechanical calculators. It is perhaps symptomatic that the only research work done on a near-mythological figure like Fredrik Rosing Bull and his punch card systems from the 1920s is credited a Danish computer historian.

Computer history research has largely concentrated on history after 1945, with emphasis on wartime projects and the introduction of the vacuum tube at the essence. Norwegian research follows the same line. The picture is dominated by the research institutions' interest in computing power, and eventually a state-sponsored interest in the acquisition and use of electronic computers in industry and administration. Stories about the institutions and people involved in the development of a Norwegian computer industry starts in 1945. Relations between Norway and the United Kingdom and the United States are emphasized on the basis of these pioneers' practices.

One particular story is completely absent: Rolf Hofgaard's work on his data processing system aimed at the private business, developed in collaboration with the leading American office machine companies in the 1920s, and in collaboration with Norwegian investors in the 1930s-50s.

Hofgaard’s work takes place between the first mechanical calculators and punch card systems, and the post-war landscape of electronics and vacuum tubes. Although he was also active in Norway in the post-war period, at the same time as the Norwegian electronics pioneers, he is not mentioned in the literature. This may be because Rolf Hofgaard worked alone and did not belong to the network of engineers and researchers who took the first real steps into the computer age together. In addition, and maybe connected, the Hofgaard machine is an example of a failed innovation. Never the less, the artefact holds strong stories about a transitional technology and a development project that was far more than a rarity on a small-scale garage enterprise.

Hofgaard was in fact among the first to make the journey from Norway to the United States to make his contribution in bringing the office machine industry into the era of electronics. He did establish a collaboration with one of the leading companies in the industry, Remington, who joined Hofgaard in setting up a large research- and development lab in Bridgeport CN. The crash in 1929 and the times of turbulence that followed put an end to the Hofgaard-Remington Corporation, and the estate was sold to the National Cash Register (NCR). According to Hofgaard, hundreds of patents were included in the acquisition, and Hofgaard himself worked as a consultant for NCR in further development in some of these before returning to Norway in the mid-1930’ies.

In his book "Before the computer", data historian James Cortada also points to the important role of the office machine industry in postwar computer development. Remington Rand, NCR, IBM and Burroughs stand for continuity in turning technologies into mass products from the mechanical via the electromechanical to the electronic systems. Hofgaard places himself in the midst of this development, with all his patents and what appears to be the right connects. Despite that, his story is virtually unknown.

Theory and method
The main research question in this project is, in a way, very specific: What is this machine? The research aims to investigate this specific object and its history, to gain new insights into the development of early computers and environments in which they were developed.

Such a point of departure, bringing a forgotten machine to light in an attempt to write "the man and the machine" into the computer history, requires a thorough examination of the machine itself and the development project, as well as all the relationships it formed and the relationships the inventor had or claim to have had to other companies, inventors and researchers that were later central in the development of the computer industry, especially in the United States.

It will require an in-depth examination of both the object itself - the prototype - and the prior patents and subsequent improvement works. This leads into a technical landscape through the patent literature, which links to a landscape of calculators and computers that form the basis for later technologies. This will be an important part of the investigation, since the Hofgaard machine can be said to be indistinct in the sense that it is difficult to say both what kind of technology it is and to what extent the specific object - the prototype - is representative of the patents that formed the basis for it, or for the ideas Hofgaard himself had about the final product.

Indeed, categorizing technologies in this phase of the development of what was to become a more distinct technological landscape of computing can be challenging. Should the line be drawn between analog and digital machines? Or specialized machines vs. universal machines? Is it about basic calculus systems? Or is it about programmability and data storage solutions?

Furthermore, large parts of Hofgaard's work in Sønnico coincided in time with what is regarded as the start-up and breakthrough for the computer age in Norway. This took place within a relatively limited academic-technical environment, with industry and private business as an assumed, or in fact, immature arena for participating in this technology development. Hofgaard's project largely targets these private markets and seems isolated from any other networks. There has been little interest in Norwegian computer history at how the private sector reacted to automation.

The question of why this machine was developed in a small and apparently closed environment in a medium-sized company in Oslo and the various attempts to raise investment capital could also provide new knowledge about the time before a more ambitious politic in Norway for computing and automation and focus on the electronics industry came into being in the 1950’ies.

Hofgaard's lack of success places this project in a STS-tradition of exploring the failed innovations as much as the successes. Already in the first issue of the leading journal for History of Technology, Technology and Culture, in 1959, Howard Mumford Jones strongly argues that the community of historians of technology should throw themselves over the failures: "A history of failure is badly needed, but it must be a just and generous history, not a superior attitude towards human folly ”[…]“ I suggest that the “failures” may be more illuminating than the “successes”.

This call was modestly followed the first years. After 1980 this entrance into the history of technology increased some extent. A kind of breakthrough came with what was, at the end of the 1980s, a leading direction, briefly called SCOT (Social Construction of Technology), focusing on the nature of technologies of being socially constructed, ie the result of interaction between actors rather than the result of individual inventions, let alone inherent features of the technology itself. Here again, an equal weighting of the successful and the unsuccessful in studies of innovation and technology development is advocated

This time it led to a number of studies that followed such tracks, led by scholars such as Bruno Latour and John Law and a number of others. In Norway too, this line has been followed up to a certain extent, for instance in the Electronics History project, where a few examples of failed technologies or industrial attempts were given some attention.

Unsuccessful innovation can thus be said to form a theoretical framework for my project, combined with mapping the various social contexts Hofgaard and his technologies were included in (or excluded from). The perspectives from the theories of social construction of technology and technical systems (SCOT), which emphasize an interdisciplinary approach in the illumination of the interaction between technology development and society has proved fruitful in history of technology studies.

Such perspectives may also support the analysis of Hofgaard's attempts to create technical solutions and products aimed at a private market. Combined perspectives could contribute to a broader analysis of contexts in the development of the Hofgaard machine and computers in general in Norway and other countries. Hofgaard’s project touches key companies and people in the United States, as well as a business sector in Norway and several other countries where Hofgaard sought patents, at a time when office automation and the computer industry was in it’s very early stages.

The business aspect can also extend the theoretical base of the research project from a technology history project in science and technology studies (STS) to a more economic-historical direction related to innovation history. In many ways, Hofgaard can also be seen as a classic Schumpeterian entrepreneur. Innovation theory in this tradition, followed in recent "New-Schumpeterian" discourses, can be fruitful as a starting point for analyzing Hofgaard's project with all the phases it went through and the relationships it embarked on, in the endeavor to develop a commercial product in collaboration between the inventor and his environments, and various investors.

The project's research methods can be said to be based in museum tradition and practice, and at the same time “main stream” history research project based on archives and other sources. The museum object and its archives are a starting point. Focusing on a particular machine, technology or project is not unknown in computer history research. Several recent works are based on a similar starting point. the book "ENIAC in action" by Haigh, Priestley and Rope from 2016, which, by going into depth on this project and a large archive material associated with it, brings out several nuances about both the origin and reuse of this machine. It shows that even the most researched computers and projects can give new perspectives and give new perspectives to the general data history.

The starting point is also a specific museum item in this project. Many of the questions are sought to be answered based on the subject, and combined professional approaches to describe and understand the specific technology. At the same time, these questions lead to close studies of archive material and literature. It is therefore crucial to actively use available archives. Further archive hunting is also important in order to be able to illuminate the Hofgaard machine in the best possible way and released from and unlimited by the somewhat selective source of resources that is initially directly related to the machine. Already in the preparations for the project new archives have emerged from eg. Hofgaard's family, and there will probably be additional material elsewhere.

The object in focus, the prototype from 1956, is preserved together with archive material such as includes detailed descriptions of the system in connection with patent applications. The use of patents as a source is challenging. Such sources can be said to float in a borderland between law, technology, economy and language. Patent documents in themselves share only parts of the realities of an invention. In the case of Hofgaard, who exhibited an almost frenetic patenting practice, patents
in this context could serve as an indicator and "trace" to other development environments about which the sources are otherwise relatively silent.

The archive seems to lack correspondence with possible financial sources needed to lift the product from prototype to industrial product. Documents indicate that there has been a great deal of sales activity and correspondence with others, and it will therefore be a central task to examine other archives to find traces of this. In the National Archives there are a number of archives that can shed light on the electronics industry policy. Development Fund archive. Similarly, NTNF's archives gained insight into the key development environments for electronic computers in the 1950s. This will provide important perspectives for understanding the landscape of the Hofgaard project in the 1950s. Hofgaard's operations also point to several major international companies, both in Europe and the United States. This is especially relevant for examining Hofgaard's possible role in the office machine development that may have lead the way to parts of the post-war computer development. Current US archives will include the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington DE, Carrillion Historical Park in Dayton OH, the Charles Babbage Institute Archives in Minnesota, the IEEE New Jersey collections and more.

Through concrete object-based work, the research project will also be able to bring in new sources and new perspectives through interdisciplinary collaboration to investigate the material. Workshops are planned around the Hofgaard machine in the museum's research laboratory (LAB). A closer study of the machine and the system, together with people with expertise in this type of electrical relaybased punch card systems, will also provide more knowledge about the potential that was really in the Hofgaard machine. The connection to the current research and exhibition project in the museum, and the method linked to the object to be examined, also mean that the project has a museological aspect, which can draw on works and discussions within this field in recent years.

Combined approaches to multidisciplinary object studies, literature use and in-depth studies in known archives related to Hofgaard on the machine, as well as broad archival studies as possible nationally and internationally, will ensure the completion of the project and its goal of gaining new knowledge of early Norwegian computer history.

Dag K. Andreassen and the Hofgaard machine. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

Inside the Hofgaard machine. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

The Hofgaard machine and related documentation. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

The Hofgaard machine. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

Detail of the Hofgaard machine. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

The Hofgaard machine. By: Norsk Teknisk Museum

Kontakt oss

Norsk Teknisk Museum
Kjelsåsveien 143
0491 Oslo

Tlf: 22 79 60 00
Org. nr.: 979676832

E-post: Denne e-postadressen er beskyttet mot programmer som samler e-postadresser. Du må aktivere javaskript for å kunne se den.
Eller fyll ut kontaktskjema

Skole og barnehage:
Epost (kontaktskjema)
Tlf: 22 79 60 60
Telefontid: Tir–fre kl. 13.15–15

Utleie av lokaler:
Denne e-postadressen er beskyttet mot programmer som samler e-postadresser. Du må aktivere javaskript for å kunne se den.
Tlf: 22 79 60 00




Ja, takk!

Vennligst aktiver JavaScript for å kunne sende dette skjemaet

PS: Vi anbefaler også Visit Oslos nyhetsbrev (ekstern lenke).