The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 2: “Esprit Romand” and the “Röstigraben”

by Pierre-Yves Hurel


Context : This paper is part of a dossier about “Computer” exhibition.  

In the first one, I presented my methodological choices, the corpus studied, and the main periods of “Computer”.
– In this second one, I address how this show was integrated into a context of regional rivalry
a series of articles to be published over the coming week


The “Groupement Romand pour l’Informatique” (G.R.I.), which presents itself as a group of computer “users” (“utilisateurs” in French), stands behind the “Computer” trade show in Lausanne. Its website (gri.ch) states actually, that the group has been meeting since 1971. They understand themselves as true “users” of IT, but the term should be understood as it was before the era of home computing: G.R.I.’s aim was, and still is, to energize the market and enable the big local players to remain competitive. A short article published in the Journal de Genève (JDG) on June 15, 1971, reports on the initial meeting of around one hundred people “representing companies, administrations, associations and schools” from all over French-speaking Switzerland. The stated aims of this independent non-profit association were to “promote and develop information for specialized circles and the general public”, develop training, distribute documentation, “participate in the definition of information technology” and, finally, “protect the interests” of its members in the IT field.


In 1971, creation of the Groupement Romand de l’informatique (G.R.I.). Source : JDG.

After a few years, during which the G.R.I. was mainly concerned with its organization and providing management training courses, the idea of creating Romandie IT Days (“Journées romandes de l’informatique”) came up in 1976. On September 29, 1976, the JDG announced that the seminars from the   12th to the 14th of October (notably on “increasing the efficiency of public services”) would be accompanied by an exhibition “in which computer manufacturers” and “software producers” would take part.

However, this exhibition project was not to everyone’s taste, and certainly not that of the organizers of the “Büfa-“Messe, a major trade fair for “office technology”, office automation and business computing held annually in Zurich (and later in Basel). “The dispute between Büfa and G.R.I. is already a long-standing one”, Marielle Stamm tells us in the JDG on April 04 1981. “It dates back to 1976, when the Büfa boycotted the first G.R.I. exhibition, based on the association’s statutes, and forbade its members to take part. When the G.R.I. thretened BÜFA with the cartel commission, it signed an agreement in 1977 authorizing its members to exhibit at the “Computer” fair. However, given the success of “Computer 80”, Büfa decided to counter-attack and announced its intention to exhibit in French-speaking Switzerland. An attempt to mediate at the Palais de Beaulieu failed in 1980, and Büfa decided to organize its first French-speaking fair in Geneva in 1982.

The decision to hold two major computer shows so close together in time and space did not go down well with exhibitors, who either had to choose which show to exhibit at or multiply their costs. And yet, the rivalry between the German and French-speaking organizers lasted for years (in 1995, “some people are still thinking of revenge”, even though Computer’s status is no longer contested). The computerization of Switzerland thus took place against a backdrop of regional rivalry, which will come as no surprise to those familiar with the “Röstigraben” (this cultural divide affected all major exhibitions, not just those related to IT: there was talk of a veritable “showcases war“).

This national rivalry notwithstanding, “Computer” was part of a wider network of national and European IT exhibitions. The Lausanne show was sometimes compared to the famous Parisian Sicob (Le Salon des industries et du commerce de bureau) or the Hanover CEBIT (Centrum für Büroautomation, Informationstechnologie und Telekommunikation) show  in Germany. On September 7, 1979, Marielle Stamm wrote that the most sensational announcements and world premieres were made at these two major French and German trade shows. However, she noted, the Swiss public was still very much in attendance. That year, 50,000 people visited Büfa (compared to 13,000 at Computer the following year). It is likely that the target audience – decision-makers from companies and administrations – travelled more easily within Switzerland than to Paris or Zurich. The evocation of prestigious names also sometimes seems to be an opportunity to place Lausanne among the capitals of information technology: “For four days, the capital of Vaud will be taking over from Tokyo, Brussels and Chicago”, says Denise Jeanmonod in the GL on April 27, 1988.

At the end of the 1970s therenumerous national (and international) trade fairs specialized on electronics:

  • In 1977, the “FERA” television, recording and radio fair in Zurich was ready to welcome home electronics and microprocessors.
  • Immm 78 “A Geneva computer trade show seems to have held its second edition in 1978 (but I can’t find any trace of the first), focusing on “hardware”.
  • “Swissdata”, a Basel-based fair specialized in the data processing – that existed at least from 1984. In 1992, it merged with Büfa to become Orbit. By 1994, Orbit was much larger than Computer. “Swissdata” appears to be an offshoot of an earlier trade show, Ineltec, focused on electronics and electrical engineering.
  • An attempt “across the border” took place in Montreux in 1987, with “Logic”. Here too, the G.R.I. “echoed a certain discontent”, as Denise Jeanmonod pointed out a year later. This event, more directly aimed at the general public, was held in several German-speaking towns before being hosted, apparently only once, in Montreux.
  • Outside our corpus, we find a mention of the Mimi 76 show in Zürich, written by Marielle Stamm in 01 Informatique.
  • From the 1990s onwards, Computer organizers sometimes had to defend themselves against duplicating the “multimedia” section of book fairs, as in 1999, when David Panchaud explained that the Geneva Book Fair was “more interested in content, whereas we offer mainly technology. It is not the same angle at all.”
  • In 2001, the Internet Expo in Zurich, and Exponet in Bern (“the Swiss counterpart” of an event organized since the early 1990s by DC Europe in Austria and Germany).
  • Lastly, for two years in 1998 and 1999, “Computer” was associated with ITEC, a trade fair closed to the public and devoted to computer software for the arms industry (especially simulation tools) – a fact which gave rise to some discontent on the part of pacifists and religious figures.

“Computer” therefore had to defend its place in a competitive market, while embodiing the French-speaking world of computing in general. In fact, the show was conceived as a means of strengthening the position of the Romandie vis-à-vis its neighbors, who were sometimes perceived as being too influential or imposing. In 1994, in the words of Emil Jucker: “It is all about maintaining a Romandie spirit. When we created “Computer” in 1978, the idea was already to push our region. At the time, all software adapted to the Swiss market was in German. We now believe that there is a real danger that we will slowly be swallowed up by France. Today, many manufacturer’ hotlines land in France. ‘Computer’ must be the driving force behind the ‘Romand spirit’ [“esprit romand”, in french]”. Denise Jeanmonod had already written about this state of mind in 1986, recounting the story of “valiant computer knights” and their tendency to “love each other [as being] different” from their neighbors (but also to love each other [as being] “small” and “confidential”). And if we go back to 1976, we learn in 01 Informatique that the initial project was to “better formulate the identity of IT in French-speaking Switzerland”.

This identity remains however until now difficult to grasp.  It appears above all to function as a rallying sign for the troops within a landlocked territory at the confluence of imposing neighbors, and which was determined all these years not to become a territory subjugated to French, Swiss German or even American industrialists. Conversely, it seems “very difficult” to make Lausanne a magnet for the neighboring French market.

On April 22, 1986, Denise Jeanmonod recounts “the story of the difficult love affair of those valiant computer knights with the Romandie”.

Emil Jucker, “the most German-speaking of the French-speaking people who founded the Lausanne event“, is systematically at the heart of these positions. He was heavily involved in the organization of the show from 1978 until his death in July 1998. He is regularly referred to as the show’s “father”, or even its “soul”. He was also the one who spoke out “vehemently” in defense of the show against the neighbors. In 1999, when David Panchaud presented the new edition of the show, he tributed to the founder, reporting in Le Temps, “Emil Jucker’s death in July 1998 left an enormous void but also a formidable legacy, the Computer show.”

It is obviously difficult to speculate on the influence of this cultural context and rivalry on the computerization of the different parts of Switzerland. What would have happened if Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich and Basel had spoken with one voice and organized themselves in a collaborative manner? Could the Röstis barrier have slowed the speed of IT penetration in French-speaking Switzerland? Why was development in French-speaking Switzerland, at least initially, seen as a threat on the German side? This study first demonstrates that the computerization of Switzerland, like other sectors, took place in a particular cultural context.

In the next article, we’ll take a closer look at the companies that had a booth at the “Computer” show.


 

Header: “Exposition Computer 1989 – Stand MIP” (by Jean-Paul Crisinel via https://notrehistoire.ch/entries/Gq2YaAERYJx)

Recommended citation: Pierre-Yves Hurel, “The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 2:  “Esprit Romand” and the “Röstigraben””, in: Confoederatio Ludens, https://chludens.hypotheses.org/608, 16.10.2023



Cite this blog post
Pierre-Yves Hurel (2023, October 16). The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 2: “Esprit Romand” and the “Röstigraben” Confoederatio Ludens. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/mr8z

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