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John Diebold, one of the early advocates of using electronic computing to automate office and factory life, died on Monday at the age of 79.

Diebold was still a student at Harvard Business School when he first proposed using the new technology to automate the operations of factories. According to the business school’s website, the wider potential of computing had first struck him when he encountered rudimentary anti-aircraft controls while serving as a midshipman in the merchant marine during the second world war.

In 1952, a year after leaving Harvard, Diebold set out his ideas in a book that anticipated much of his life’s work. In Automation: the Advent of the Automatic Factory, he spelt out the types of functions in offices and factories that might be susceptible to being handled by machines. The book appeared two years before General Electric brought the corporate world into the information technology age with the first use of a computer in business.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as electronic computing began to make its appearance in a wider area of human activity, Diebold’s was an influential voice in how the new technology was applied. Working as a management consultant, he advised companies like AT&T, IBM and Xerox. Through the Diebold Institute, set up in 1968, he also sought to stimulate wider discussion about the impact of computing on modern life.

He was not related to the Charles Diebold, a 19th century entrepreneur whose company, named Diebold, has gone on to become a leading maker of automated teller machines and voting machines.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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