I challenge anyone working in the IT industry – or anyone with even a casual interest in technology – to visit the new IBM 100 Icons of Progress web site and not lose track of time. The site is intended as a retrospective of a century of IBM innovation, but in a lot of ways it tells the history of large portions of the modern world – that is, the history of stuff we take for granted today that no one could imagine 100 or 50 or even 25 years ago. A few of my favorite highlights:
Er, keep up the good work. In a single, two-page letter dated January 26, 1939 (see the left-hand sidebar) IBM chief scientist James Bryce updated president Thomas Watson on progress made on such projects as recording data magnetically, replacing mechanical computing devices with electronics, using photoelectric cells and light rays for high-speed computing, and a computing array for performing calculations related to “the study of physics, astronomy, electricity, television and the like.” Do you think Bryce got a bonus?
- The Da Vinci (of the UPC) Code. N. Joseph Woodland patented the concept behind UPC codes – a printed pattern that could be scanned and converted to digital data – in 1952, but the idea couldn’t be put to use until optical scanning became practical in 1973. That means Woodland envisioned a scanning system before anyone knew there could be, well, scanning. Okay, maybe it’s not on a par with Da Vinci imagining the personal computer before anyone knew there would be electricity. But it’s still pretty visionary.
- When I was a kid, we walked five miles to school…but that was a picnic compared to programming. Before there were keyboards or punchcards, programmers “wrote” programs using the plugboard, a device that looks like it was designed by a very bitter and sadistic 1920s telephone operator. The IBM 1401 may have been the first computer that was compact, flexible and affordable enough to bring computing to the corporate masses, but you have to believe programmers remembered it most fondly as the computer that wrote the plugboard’s obituary.
There’s a lot more – visit the site yourself,
bookmark it and return often.