Bull peripherals

an introduction and a summary

Electromechanical equipments had been the core competence of Compagnie des Machines BULL. In addition to logic relay circuitry and mechanical arithmetic operators, the card equipments systems faced the handling of punched cards at a speed becoming faster and faster and of paper to be printed at speeds just obtained in the printing industry. The peripherals were paper handling machines and it is not a coincidence that the prime investor in Compagnie des Machines Bull was a paper manufacturer.

Bull had developed the 300 cpm  card punch, the fastest in the world that was sold to many US manufacturers in the early 1960s. It produced also a 300 cpm and 600 cpm card readers and had drum printers similar speeds. All those devices had been designed in Saint-Ouen and were manufactured in Belfort starting in the early 1960s.

When the electronic computers became the center of the business in the 1960s, the scope of peripheral  extended to electromagnetic and electronics technology and require new skills and a new machinery.   In addition, Bull was to import systems designed by RCA then by General Electric and did not had time to design the controllers for its own devices connected to the proprietary interfaces of its OEM acquired systems. So the Belfort manufactured products dwindled in the 1960s as were electromechanical card equipments.

In spite of the high cost of the first electronic computers, the value of peripheral devices was estimated until the late 1970s to around half of the value of a computer system (excluding remote terminals). The domination of magnetic tapes yield quickly to magnetic discs. Spectacular progresses were made on those devices, equaling if not surpassing, those made in semi-conductor devices. When Bull was a division of General Electric and Honeywell those groups had progressively assemble engineers and manufacturing talents able to fulfill the needs of large computers systems peripherals. In 1974, at the introduction of Series 60, all peripherals were assembled within Honeywell Group. France was a part of this world wide division of work and had taken the responsibility of cards and large printer equipments.

Honeywell had consolidated its peripheral plants with that acquired at Oklahoma City from GE, and Bull had similarly acquired the Honeywell disc production plant of Heppenheim, Germany. In the mid-1970s, the Honeywell discs business was consolidated with that of Control Data, giving birth to Magnetic Peripherals Inc of Minneapolis. MPI developed IBM compatible devices until the mid-1980s when Seagate eventually acquired MPI assets where Honeywell and Bull stakes have been diluted when CDC brought all its peripheral business to the peripheral company. The large disc supplier of Bull became then IBM Storage division, EMC Corporation and Seagate.

The absorption of CII added to Bull CII engineers working on magnetic devices, an activity that was given less attention by Plan Calcul than central systems. However, the Belfort plant started the manufacturing of tapes (for CII-HB market only) and a new generation of low-end disks was underway.
It had been predicted (around 1975) that some time in the late 1980s and the 1990s, semiconductor memories would obsolete rotating magnetic devices, but the competition between engineers from IBM and others pushed ahead the break-even point of the solid-state devices.
Such predictions lead Bull's management to terminate the disc project, helped by inherent development difficulties and by the Belfort's climate not appealing to engineers.

Terminals, initially evolved from the TV industry, have entered the computer peripherals in the second part of the 1970s and have dominated the PC market, becoming often the most costly item of the PC. They had almost wipe-out the typewriter technology that was contemporary of the first card equipments system and shared some electromechanical technology.
Terminals manufacturing by Bull was limited to the assembly of CRT tubes and logic circuits. It was essentially a logistics problem that was not helped by the successive transfers of the production between Belfort, Angers, Villeneuve d'Asq and Barcelona.

It has been predicted that a paper-less society was emerging quickly with communication links with computers, but the still growing personal computers had fueled the printer market. In fact, Honeywell had assigned the responsibility of low speed printers to Honeywell Italia that developed and manufactured those printers in Caluso. By the way, HIS Italia was competing with its cousin Olivetti in the same production area. For a long time, HIS Italia and Bull remained focused on impact printing on hard characters (i.e. forgetting the market of various alphabets and fonts) letting the Japanese companies to monopolize initially the soft font printers (matrix and ink bubble printing).
Belfort had a long experience of magnetic ink printing gained in the 1960s for the CMC-7 encoding of checks. When faced to the unavoidable supremacy of soft fonts, they develop a genuine technology of magnetic drum transfer of print images in competition with the laser printer technology. Although the Mathilde printers were recognized in the high speed printing market, Bull failed to apply that technology to the mass market where Hewlett-Packard and other invade with laser printers in the 1980s.

When during the 1980s the mass market personal computers changed the economics, peripherals also were impacted: low cost and mass production changed the business conditions. Specialized suppliers targeting the world market become the prime actors, letting the captive suppliers facing unacceptable R&D and manufacturing costs. The computer peripherals were quite different to their counterpart in aeronautical or automotive industry because standards became contracts between the peripheral supplier and the end-user customer, leaving system suppliers  a simple distributor job. The disinvestments and the break-up of Bull's peripheral operation at the end of the 1980s should not be a surprise for independent observers. It is, however, a pity that it has not better predicted and that only the high speed printers survived for a while.



Revision : 19 février 2002.