Christmas shopping the IBM way: computerized gift selection in 1962

In 1962, the Simpson's department store in Toronto used an IBM computer to help customers select Christmas gifts, based on the characteristics of the recipients.1 I came across a video that shows how it worked.

"Now! A computer makes Christmas shopping easier." The IBM 1401 computer is the cabinet at the back, with the 1403 printer to the right of it. The 1402 card reader is at the left and the 729 tape drives at the right, (Click for a larger version.) Advertisement in The Financial Post, November 24, 1962.

"Now! A computer makes Christmas shopping easier." The IBM 1401 computer is the cabinet at the back, with the 1403 printer to the right of it. The 1402 card reader is at the left and the 729 tape drives at the right, (Click for a larger version.) Advertisement in The Financial Post, November 24, 1962.

The IBM 1401 computer (below) was pre-programmed with 3000 categorized gifts.2 A customer described the gift recipient: their age range, their interests, their gender (male, female, or couple), the gift category (e.g. apparel, personal, or "the man who has everything"), and the price range (ranging from $5 to "money is no object").

The IBM 1401 computer at Simpson's department store in 1962. The computer is barely visible behind the man's head. The 1402 card reader is at the left. Still from CBC video.

The IBM 1401 computer at Simpson's department store in 1962. The computer is barely visible behind the man's head. The 1402 card reader is at the left. Still from CBC video.

This information was punched onto a card by an operator (called a "girl" in the interview) using an IBM 26 keypunch, as shown below.

Entering the customer data into the IBM 26 keypunch. Still from CBC video.

Entering the customer data into the IBM 26 keypunch. Still from CBC video.

After running the card through the computer, a gift list with ten suggestions was printed on the IBM 1403 line printer. The list was torn off and given to the customer to help with their shopping.

Removing the Christmas shopping list from the IBM 1403 line printer. The Simpson's logo is barely visible in the upper left corner. Still from CBC video.

Removing the Christmas shopping list from the IBM 1403 line printer. The Simpson's logo is barely visible in the upper left corner. Still from CBC video.

The gift suggestions included a King James bible, Eskimo soapstone, a leather-covered cigarette case, Cossack boots, a Marabou-trim bed jacket, Roto-Shine electric shoe polisher ($26.95), a table lighter in the design of an antique pistol ($4.95), a soda siphon ($15.95) "a little more expensive, probably for your father or your husband", an electrified magnifying glass "to read the stock market report" ($7.95), or moccasins trimmed with seal fur ($6.95). (Gift ideas seem to have changed drastically since the 1960s.)

The interviewer suggested that this computer might take all the fun out of Christmas shopping and called it a "Santa monster", but the operator insisted that most people need some help with their shopping. It must have been an unusual experience for people to encounter a computer in person back then, but this gift computer was very popular, with 2000 people a day using it.

I announce my latest blog posts on Twitter, so follow me @kenshirriff. I also have an RSS feed. Thanks to Tim and Lisa Robinson for tracking down the newspaper clipping.

Notes and references

  1. The video is Christmas Shopping the IBM Way, broadcast on CBC on Dec 18, 1962. The host was Anna Cameron with guest Brian Finney. (Only the first part of the video shows the computer system; most of the video discusses the gift choices in detail.) The system was also discussed in a CBC Radio segment, Christmas Computer Selects the Perfect Gift, reported by Jim McLean and Joelle Pearson on Dec 4, 1962. The radio interview also discusses the use of the system at Gimbel's department store in New York. 

  2. The IBM 1401 computer is just barely visible in the video, so here's a photo that shows an IBM 1401 computer more clearly.

    An IBM 1401 computer. The line printer (1403) is in the foreground, while IBM 729 tape drives are in the background. This computer is at the Computer History Museum.

    An IBM 1401 computer. The line printer (1403) is in the foreground, while IBM 729 tape drives are in the background. This computer is at the Computer History Museum.

     

2 comments:

  1. > A customer described the gift recipient: ***their age range***, their interests, ---their age range---, their gender

    "their age range" twice

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not related to computers but Simpson's was (I believe) absorbed by Sears who closed up shop here in Canada several years ago...however Simpson's flagship store in downtown Toronto lives on as a Hudsons Bay store.

    ReplyDelete