John Diebold, 79, a visionary of the computer age, dies

John Diebold's early and persistent promotion of computers and other far-reaching innovations helped shape industrial development in America and beyond.

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John Diebold, a visionary thinker whose early and persistent promotion of computers and other far-reaching innovations helped shape industrial development in America and beyond, died Monday at his home in Bedford Hills, N.Y. He was 79.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said his nephew, also named John Diebold.

Diebold, who held degrees in business and engineering, was an evangelist of the future. In 1952, at a time when computers weighed 5 tons, his book "Automation" described how programmable devices could change the day-to-day operations of all kinds of businesses. Even the book's title was novel: it introduced the modern-day meaning of a term that had previously applied only to the mechanical handling of automobile parts at the Ford Motor.

Diebold (pronounced DEE-bold) made a career of recognizing relevant advances in technology and explaining them to the likes of AT&T, Boeing, Xerox and IBM. Through books, speeches and his international consulting firm, Diebold persuaded major corporations to automate their assembly lines, store their records electronically and install interoffice computer networks.

In 1961 he and his firm, the Diebold Group, designed an electronic network to link account records at the Bowery Savings Bank in New York. Rather than being updated after hours, the records immediately reflected both deposits and withdrawals and were available to any teller. Customers could then bank at any branch and at any window.

Soon other New York banks hired the Diebold Group to help them install such systems, which cost more than keeping paper records but quickly became vital for modern banking.

Another data network eliminated much of Baylor University Hospital's paperwork in departments like accounting, inventory, payroll and purchasing. More important to Diebold, the system made medical records and statistics available to researchers in electronic form, permitting studies that were otherwise too daunting. The American Hospital Association embraced the project, and hundreds of other institutions created data systems modeled on it.

"Today's machines, even more than the devices of the industrial revolution, are creating a whole new environment for mankind and a whole new way of life," he told The New York Times in 1965. "Today's machines deal with the very core of human society--with information and its communication and use."

Many of his most ambitious proposals seemed to lead nowhere, but they often planted ideas that came to fruition years or even decades later. In 1968, 10 years before interstate ATM networks, he advised several Chase Manhattan Bank executives of the costs and benefits of a national system for electronic funds transfer. His audience included Paul Volcker, the future Federal Reserve chairman. What is more, innovations that he presented to newspaper executives in 1963, including an "input keyboard" and "editing consoles" to replace typewriters and carbon paper, became widespread only in the 1980s.

"John Diebold's credentials as a prophet of high technology are impeccable," wrote Robert Lekachman, the economist, in a 1984 book review of one of Diebold's 12 books, including nine volumes of his speeches and scholarly articles.

Diebold came to believe that computers and other information technologies could reshape society, and he guided dozens of municipalities and foreign countries in using them to manage the budget (Venezuela), to compile government data (Indonesia) and to streamline public services like fire protection (Savannah, Ga.) and the distribution of welfare (California).

He envisioned a utopia built on technological progress, complete with cars that diagnose their own problems and refrigerators that know to order groceries. He described his greatest hopes in 1987 in a series of published letters to his daughter Emma, then 2. By 2010, he wrote, defensive technologies will render nuclear weapons powerless and human tissue farms will grow replacement organs, while AIDS and heart disease will all but disappear.

In addition to Emma, who lives in Bedford Hills, Diebold is survived by his wife, Vanessa; a daughter, Joan, of Quincy, Mass.; and a son, John, of Bedford Hills. His marriage to the former Doris Hackett ended in divorce.

John Theurer Diebold (he later dropped the middle name) was born on June 8, 1926, in Weehawken, N.J., and received a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and a master's degree from Harvard Business School.

He also had an engineering degree, and became interested in automation after observing the mechanized antiaircraft controls on a ship doing convoy duty in World War II.

In addition to the Diebold Group, he started John Diebold Inc., an investment firm, in 1967. It financed such ventures as a computer leasing company and a well-known manufacturer of polling machines.

After selling the Diebold Group in 1991 to Daimler-Benz, Diebold focused on the Diebold Institute for Public Policy Studies, a research group he founded in 1968 to promote broad, technology-based reforms.