2The IBM Punch Card
Perhaps the earliest icon of the Information Age was a simple punched card produced by IBM known as the “IBM card.” Measuring just 7-3/8 inches by 3-1/4 inches, the piece of smooth stock paper was unassuming. But taken collectively, the IBM card held nearly all the world’s known information for almost half a century. It rose to popularity during the Great Depression and became a ubiquitous installment in the worlds of data processing and popular culture. The punch card also provided such a significant profit stream that it was instrumental to IBM’s rapid growth in the mid-20th century. In selecting IBM engineer Clair D. Lake’s groundbreaking 80-column, rectangular-hole design, IBM made a conscious decision to retool the card in a proprietary way that would not only double the amount of data that could be stored, but would also be compatible only with IBM-manufactured machines.
The IBM 1401. In 1959, IBM introduced the 1401, the first high-volume, stored-program, core-memory transistorized mainframe. Its versatility in running enterprise applications of all kinds helped it become the most popular computer model in the world in the early 1960s. IBM also introduced the 1403 chain printer, which launched the era of high-speed, high-volume impact printing. The 1403 was unsurpassed in quality until the advent of the laser printer in the 1970s. The 1401 was the world’s first system to reach 10,000 in unit sales.
Few products have had the massive impact of the IBM System/360—on technology, on the way the world works or on the organization that created it. The System/360 ushered in the era of computer compatibility—for the first time allowing models across a product line, and even from other companies, to work with each other. It was a turning point in the emerging field of information science. After System/360, the industry no longer talked about automating particular tasks with “computers.” Now, technology providers talked about managing complex processes through “computer systems.” Once introduced, the System/360 set IBM on a path to dominate the computer industry for the following 20 years. The System/360 Model 75 processed data for the first lunar landing 240,000 miles away from the moon, at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. It also later calculated liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin for the flight back to Earth.
5Magnetic Tape Storage
In the late 1940s, inspired in part by Bing Crosby’s pioneering use of magnetic tape to record his radio shows, IBM engineers started experimenting with tape as a data-storage successor to the punched card. The engineers hit upon the idea of using a vacuum column to suck in loops of tape and buffer it from the jarring stops and starts. In 1952, IBM announced the first magnetic tape storage unit, the IBM 726. IBM introduced the magnetic tape drive vacuum column, making it possible for fragile magnetic tape to become a viable data-storage medium. The use of the vacuum column in the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing System signaled the beginning of the era of magnetic storage.
On Aug. 12, 1981, at a press conference in New York City, Phillip “Don” Estridge announced the IBM Personal Computer (IBM 5150) with a price tag of $1,565. Two decades earlier, an IBM computer often cost as much as $9 million and required an air-conditioned quarter-acre of space with a staff of 60. The new IBM PC was not only faster; it also put a computer within every household’s reach.
7The Floppy Disk
IBM engineers who developed the floppy disk could not imagine that it would soon become such a large part of consumers’ lives. It was originally designed for large-scale systems for IBM’s System/370 mainframe data loads. However, the disk’s small size and growing storage capabilities led to its use in smaller systems, as well. Usable, durable and flexible, the floppy disk became the preferred storage medium for the emerging PC industry. More than 5 billion were sold per year worldwide at its peak in the mid-1990s.
8Silicon Germanium Chips
In 1994, IBM Research patented a method for making low-cost semiconductor chips from Silicon Germanium. SiGe was more readily available than the rare, more expensive materials used at the time, and it improved speed and versatility in integrated circuits. Introducing SiGe into the base layer of an otherwise all-silicon chip improved operating frequency, current, noise and power capabilities. The smaller, more energy-efficient chips expanded the wireless industry, being used in everything from radar to space exploration. Today, SiGe technology is used in a new generation of mobile devices and smart technology.
The world’s first hard-disk drive was the size of two kitchen refrigerators set side by side. It contained 50 disks spinning at 1,200 revolutions per minute, supplying data at 100,000 bits per second. The IBM RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) allowed enterprises to think about data in new ways by mixing and matching it on the fly, allowing each bit of information to be read or changed randomly. Along with IBM’s magnetic tape drive, the 1956 release of RAMAC essentially launched the data-storage industry.
In the mid-1960s, IBM researcher Bob Dennard developed the world’s first one-transistor memory, calling it “dynamic random access memory,” or DRAM. Mainframes could now be outfitted with short-term memory as a buffer to the data stored on disk drives. The memory chips would hold information the computer was working on right then, so the system only went back to the disk drive when it needed something new. This sped up the process of accessing and using stored information. DRAM instantly made computer memory smaller, denser and cheaper, all while requiring less power. In addition, the simplicity, low cost and low power consumption of the DRAM, when combined with the first low-cost microprocessors, opened the door to small personal computers. Today, every PC, notebook computer, game console and other computing device is loaded with DRAM chips. DRAM also powers mainframes, data center servers and most of the machines that run the Internet.
11The UPC Code
The UPC (Universal Product Code) bar code system was the result of one man’s idea while working under a dramatically tight deadline. This 1973 invention turned into a key contribution to industrial technology. A universal standard, the UPC, is among the most recognized designs in history, and typically IBM: an elegantly simple matrix of information that can be customized for almost any type of transaction and can yield as much data as needed. For retailers, the UPC meant savings, better customer service, precise inventory control and rich stores of marketing data.
As booming dot-com startups brought electronic commerce to consumers, big companies wondered what to do. In the late 1990s, IBM offered help by recognizing the trend and using its strengths in mainframes, transactions and networking to create a strategy called “e-business.” This was a key point for corporate America in the Internet Age, showing that big companies—not just Silicon Valley upstarts—had an important future in Web-based collaboration and business.
According to IBM, with the height of the dot-com boom ahead of him, Steve Mills, head of IBM’s software group, called his three top men into his office to discuss how they should “Webify” the company’s top enterprise software tools. The conversation led to the advent of IBM’s WebSphere application server, released in early 1998. Initially, the WebSphere team focused on the rapid development and deployment of Web applications supporting HTTP, Servlet and Java Server Pages applications. IBM quickly extended WebSphere to transactional applications and beyond. Today, the WebSphere suite of products and services helps businesses set up, operate and integrate electronic applications across multiple computing platforms.
The driving strategy behind IBM’s $100 million, five-year development project in the 1990s was to leverage scalable parallel processing with practical purposes: weather prediction, oil exploration and complex manufacturing processes. IBM engineers embarked on a quest to dramatically increase the computer’s speed and efficiency while decreasing its size. Designed in partnership with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first Blue Gene helped biologists observe the previously invisible processes of protein folding and gene development.
15Breaking the Petaflop Barrier
The IBM computer built for the “Roadrunner project” at Los Alamos National Lab in 2008 was the first in the world to operate at speeds faster than 1 quadrillion calculations per second—one petaflop. The world’s first “hybrid” supercomputer (using two different processor architectures), Roadrunner is twice as energy-efficient as the next computer, using about half the electricity to maintain the same level of computing power.
16The Selectric Typewriter
IBM unveiled the Selectric typewriter in 1961. Prior to this, the conventional typewriter’s basket of type bars inevitably tended to tangle, slowing a typist’s speed. The Selectric was fitted with a golf-ball-shaped typing head that replaced the type bar carriage, reducing the amount of space the typewriter took up on the desktop. The silver-colored typing head also eliminated the jamming issue: With no bars to tangle, typists’ speed and productivity soared.
Programming early computers meant using an arcane “machine code” specific to each computer. IBM programmer John Backus found a better solution. In 1957, he and his team produced the first high-level language, FORTRAN (FORmula TRANslating System). A FORTRAN program could run on any system with a FORTRAN compiler, which efficiently translated Backus’s code to machine code. For the first time, code was comprehensible to people other than programmers, giving mathematicians and scientists the ability to write programs they could share on different systems. FORTRAN helped free software from the underlying hardware.
18Magnetic Stripe Technology
In 1969, IBM engineer Forrest Parry had a problem. He was trying to affix a strip of magnetized tape with a piece of plastic to create an identity card for the CIA, but combining the two was difficult. When he mentioned the problem to his wife—who was ironing clothing at the time—she suggested using the iron to melt the strip on. He tried it, and it worked. The magnetic stripe, when combined with point-of-sale devices and data networks, helped accelerate the proliferation of credit card use around the world.
19Excimer Laser Surgery
In 1981, three IBM scientists—Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James Wynne and Samuel Blum—discovered how the newly invented excimer laser could remove specific human tissue without harming the surrounding area, and do so on an extremely minute scale. It became the foundation for LASIK and PRK surgery, a painless procedure that changes the shape of the cornea and improves vision.
20NASA Spaceflight Missions
The seeds of IBM’s involvement in space exploration were planted when Thomas J. Watson established an Astronomical Computing Bureau at Columbia University in the 1930s—decades before NASA was founded. IBM has taken part in every U.S. manned space effort in history, working on systems for Mercury, Gemini-Titan and Apollo-Saturn missions, and for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. IBM has also helped develop Mission Control for the Gemini, Skylab and U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz projects, as well as for the Space Shuttle program.
IBM’s “Watson” leverages leading-edge question-answering technology, allowing the computer to process and understand natural language. It incorporates massively parallel analytical capabilities to emulate the human mind’s ability to understand the meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant data, and demonstrate confidence to deliver precise answers. In February, Watson not only became the first computer to compete against humans on television’s Jeopardy quiz show, but also won by a landslide over prior champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
The OS/2 operating system was initially created by Microsoft and IBM in 1985, then later developed by IBM exclusively. It was first released two years later, but the partnership fell apart in 1990 and Microsoft went on to begin to deliver versions of Windows that competed with OS/2 and the OS war was on. Although OS/2 had many features considered technologically superior, for a variety of reasons, it never really caught on. Windows won.
The IBM PCjr (read “PC junior”) was IBM’s first attempt to enter the market for inexpensive educational and home-use PCs. The PCjr, IBM model number 4860, retained the IBM PC’s 8088 CPU and BIOS interface for compatibility, but various design and implementation decisions led the PCjr to be a commercial failure.
25The Simon Smartphone
Simon is an example of an IBM technology that was simply before its time. It offered a touch-screen interface and features found on many of the smartphones of today, but when released in 1993, there was not enough bandwidth to support all the phone’s capabilities. The IBM Simon Personal Communicator was an advanced cell phone for its time, created jointly by IBM and BellSouth. Simon was first shown as a product concept at the 1992 Comdex trade show. Launched in 1993, it combined the features of a mobile phone, a pager, a PDA and a fax machine. After some delays, it was sold by BellSouth in 1994 and was originally priced at $899. Besides a mobile phone, the major applications were a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad, email and games. It had no physical buttons to dial with. Instead customers used a touch-screen to select phone numbers with a finger or create facsimiles and memos with an optional stylus. Text was entered with either a unique “predictive” on-screen keyboard or QWERTY keyboard.