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John Diebold, 79, visionary before the age of computers

NEW YORK -- John Diebold, 79, a business visionary who preached computerization during the era of Elvis and Eisenhower as the future of worldwide industry, died of esophageal cancer Monday at his home in suburban Bedford Hills, a nephew said.

Although Mr. Diebold is now hailed as a prophet of the computerized future, his zeal for computers was not widely shared in the 1950s.

After graduating from the Harvard Business School in 1951, Mr. Diebold was hired by a New York management consulting firm and was fired three times for insisting that clients consider computerizing.

''I was too early," he once said. ''It was before the first computer was installed for business use."

Mr. Diebold laid out his vision of a computerized future with his 1952 book, ''Automation," which presented the then-radical notion of using programmable devices in daily business.

The influential book was reissued on the 30th and 40th anniversaries of its publication.

His vision of the future was conceived while serving in the merchant marine during World War II. He watched the ship's antiaircraft fire control system, with its crude self-correcting mechanisms, and envisioned adapting the technology for business use.

In 1954, Mr. Diebold launched his consulting firm John Diebold & Associates. Coincidentally, that was the same year General Electric unveiled the first full-scale computer system for a business.

Over the next half-century, his firm, which had no connection to electronic equipment company Diebold Inc., provided advice to AT&T, IBM, Boeing, and Xerox, along with the cities of Chicago and New York, and the countries of Venezuela and Jordan.

In 1961, his firm created an electronic network for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York that allowed immediate updates of all transactions, allowing customers to bank at any branch. His company also developed a network that changed the way hospitals keep medical records and statistics.

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