The following is the text of "Rey Johnson: A Full life, A Fuller Future," an article by William D. Blankenship, published on pp. 40-41 of the June 1971 edition of Think, the IBM employee publication.
On the eve of his retirement, after 37 years of brilliant innovation in IBM, he has something new to engage his talents -- the future of education.
Reynold B. Johnson's life has been packed with inventions that have changed the worlds of both education and data processing.
On the eve of his retirement, the 64-year-old IBM Fellow is best known as the man who was hired by Dr. Benjamin Wood in 1934 to develop the first commercial test scoring machine; who headed the project to develop the 021 keypunch in the years after World War II; and, who started a small IBM laboratory in San Jose in the mid-1950's that developed the concept and hardware for direct access storage for computers.
You might believe that at 64 the major impact of Rey Johnson's work has already been felt on the world.
"Not by a long shot," says Louis D. Stevens, manager of the Advanced Systems Development Division laboratory in Los Gatos, where Johnson has been working on educational technology. "The work that Rey Johnson is doing now in educational technology is still in the development stage, and it may turn out to be his most important contribution yet."
Says Johnson: "When I was made an IBM Fellow five years ago I decided to go back to the field I started in—education—and see what new tools of learning I could create."
For his outstanding work, Johnson recently won the 1971 Machine Design Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The Award cited his "many outstanding contributions to the educational and data processing fields through his numerous ingenious inventions and innovations dating back to the development of the first electric test-scoring machine." The Machine Design Award was established by the ASME's Design Engineering Division to recognize outstanding achievement and distinguished service in the field of machine design. Johnson holds a total of 80 patents, and two pending.
Finding ways to challenge the minds of the young has always been a goal of Johnson's. When he was a high school science teacher in Ironwood, Mich., two of his students actually built the first experimental test scoring machine, working under Johnson's directions. The two boys had been assigned to Johnson by the court to work out a sentence for stealing a radio from the school. Johnson turned the sentence into a learning experience for the boys.
"Dr. Wood saw the possibilities in the test scoring machine, but had a tough time selling it to management until he took it to Thomas J. Watson. [Sr.] Mr. Watson immediately grasped the concept and its commercial possibilities," Johnson explains. "Finally, I was hired by IBM to complete the development work, and the first 805 test scoring machine was marketed in 1937. Of some 1,000 that were produced, a large number are still in operation today."
The acceptance of the test scoring machine in the late 1930's, and during World War II (according to the Government, it helped place recruits in the right kinds of jobs), firmly established Johnson as one of IBM's most innovative engineers.
"I was given only two guidelines," Johnson recalls: "Keep the number of people in the lab to about 50, and experiment in a technology that no one else in IBM was working on." As he assembled his staff in a small, rented building in downtown San Jose, Johnson cast around for new areas of data processing development. "During those years I made the two best decisions of my life," he says. "First, I decided we should experiment in random-access storage. I soon discovered that several other people around the country were toying with the same thought. They were trying to store randomly-accessed information on all kinds of media, such as wire and tape strips. The other decision that I'm proudest of was to concentrate on storing information on laminated disks."
The work done by Johnson and his colleagues resulted in a burgeoning new peripherals industry. Today, about 10 miles south of that tiny first laboratory, more than 6,000 people are working at the spacious 356-acre site of the San Jose Systems Development Division laboratory and Systems Manufacturing Division plant, where the main mission continues to be developing and producing direct access storage equipment for computers. Scores of other companies throughout the country also make peripheral computer equipment made possible by Rey Johnson's breakthroughs.
At the time he became an IBM Fellow in 1966, Johnson made this prediction about education: "The classroom of the future will be as different from today's as the computer center is different from the accounting room with its high stools of a few decades ago." He has already been proven right.
What will future schools look like? "They will resemble many of today's homes," says Johnson. "A great deal of voluntary and individualized education will take place with the help of such technical devices as television and tape recorders."
"The most dramatic change will be in the autonomy of education, with responsibility for learning turned over to the student himself. The tools of instruction will permit him to establish his own learning speed. We already know that when a student can work at his own level, he achieves mastery at that level. Success becomes a habit even for pupils of modest scholastic ability."
Developing the technical tools to make that kind of education possible is an engineering problem that has so far baffled the world of education. But Johnson, who is one of the members of IBM's Educational Advisory Board, believes the problem can be solved.
"Only cost has been a deterrent," he says. "The computer's ability to provide instructional guidance on continuous demand and to relieve the teacher and student of time-consuming clerical chores is being demonstrated. It's a widely-held opinion among educational leaders that individualized education cannot become widespread without the computer. The fact is that classroom terminals renting for two to five percent of the current cost of classroom operation can be built now. Before the end of the century they will be as common in the classroom as blackboards are today."