In 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. As the nation marveled at this feat, the U.S. House of Representatives slowly prepared for its own launch: into the computer age. Months before the astronauts had touched down on the moon, Members of the House of Representatives descended on the Rayburn House Office Building to witness one of the three Capitol computers in action. To clarify, in the spring of 1969 there were only three in the entire Capitol complex: one for the Senate, one for the House, and one for the Library of Congress.
At the then-whopping price of $13,500 (roughly $86,000 in 2013 dollars), House Clerk W. Pat Jennings procured the first computer to demonstrate the machine’s possibilities for the House of Representatives. Computers could help research legislation and provide instant access to vital reports. Among the administrative benefits, Jennings noted, monthly payroll could now be processed in 40 hours instead of the standard three weeks. Meanwhile the House Banking and Currency Committee demonstrated its new ability to retrieve legislative documents. By attaching the committee’s IBM typewriter to the Library of Congress computer and typing the simple command “GHBCHR2” (code for “get, for House Banking Committee, status of House Resolution 2,”) the system retrieved the requested information. After “testing” out the technology, Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts noted its potential: “I see even broader applications of electronics. I see a system of computers for use by the Congress.”
Congressional critics complained that Congress lagged far behind the Executive Branch which already operated 4,600 computers. Some Members thought that given the ability of computers to revolutionize administrative chores, wouldn’t every congressional office want its own machine? A whole host of questions had to first be answered. These included logistics—How much would computers cost? Who would service them? Others wondered aloud whether information sharing was in the best interests of the status quo. For instance, one source privately confided in a reporter, how would senior committee members maintain their knowledge base over upstart freshmen who were more adept at using the modern marvels?
After a Democratic Caucus meeting, where Members debated for an hour and half the merits of computers, electronic voting, and a new telephone system, Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas reviewed the technology improvements under consideration. In his summary, however, Brooks devoted far more attention to the House’s efforts to replace rotary dial telephones with new push button telephones than he did to computers. Brooks imagined a future where every Member could pick up a handset, press a single button, and receive an update on legislation or current events, an audio version of a modern day Twitter feed.
While the space program rocketed forward, the House crept toward Speaker McCormack’s vision of a computerized workplace and Brooks’ modernized telephones. By 1975 computers became a common sight in most Member offices. To a degree that would have far surpassed even McCormack’s vision, new Members of Congress now arrive at the House with a website, social media presence, a computer for every staffer, tablets and smart phones, and access to limitless data.
The Office of the House Historian and the Office of Art and Archives invite you to join our launch into social media space, by following @USHouseHistory on Twitter. Whether you are a social media aficionado or, like Representative Brooks, still fond of 1970s-era push button phones, you will enjoy discovering more about the “People's House.”
Sources: Washington Post, January 2, 1969; Washington Post, February 20, 1969; New York Times, March 31, 1969; Washington Post, April 23, 1969.