Q&A: Talking With IBM’s Personal History Keeper

Q&A: Talking With IBM’s Personal History Keeper

IBM turned 100 yesterday, but since Willard Scott didn’t see fit to pay tribute, we’ll do our best to wish America’s most innovative company the happiest of birthdays. And for every Watson and ThinkPad you already know about, there are hundreds – thousands – of life-altering inventions for which we can thank International Business Machines.

We spoke with IBM archivist Paul Lasewicz for some insight into the company’s secret history: the people, the machines, and the ideas that you never would have guessed.

Q: There’s a lot that’s been written about Watson and Deep Blue and ThinkPad and other IBM milestones. But what are some of the unsung inventions to come out of the company?

A: The social security program back in the ’30s couldn’t have happened without IBM inventing a couple of machines to actually execute on what Franklin Roosevelt wrote into law beforehand. That’s something that touches the lives of everybody in the country today.

Another example might be the Magnetic Tape Selectric, which was kind of word processing on steroids. We rolled that out in 1964, and that’s the machine that basically invented word processing. That’s the first time you were able to type at rough speed and not worry about making mistakes. It had the ability to go back and correct.

And the silicon germanium technology that’s in virtually everybody’s mobile computing and mobile phones today, that was something that came out of IBM. Nobody knows that the underlying technology behind that is something that came out of IBM Research Labs.

Outside of our core business, by the early 1950s we were working with a Dr John Gibbon, who designed the world’s first successful heart-lung machine. We actually did the construction of the machine for him. So that was a case where it was a bit of a milestone for the company. We didn’t turn it into a product, necessarily. We donated the technology, since it was a little outside our bailiwick.

Another example of IBM being involved in health care was during Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine trials. They used tabulating equipment to verify the accuracy of the vaccine, so when they were running these trials on millions of people across the United States they were collecting data on these people and tabulating the results to assess how well the vaccine worked. So that was another example, and that’s 50 years ago.

Q: And IBM had the very first smartphone back in 1994.

A: Right, Simon.

Q: Which wasn’t really a commercial success. How has IBM viewed the advancement of technology versus the commercial application of that technology?

A: I’d say Simon was commercial at a certain point, but we partnered with BellSouth and handed the technology off to them; I can’t really speak to that. But IBM is credited with working with BellSouth to create the first smartphone.

In terms of the focus, it’s probably a chicken and an egg thing. To a certain extent, you do the research and then try to see how it applies to what people are trying to get done. So it’s research first, commercial applications later.

There’s plenty of examples from IBM’s history where we came up with technology and the time just wasn’t ready for them. A lot of times these things caught fire after IBM. For example, there was a partnership with MCA back in the late 1970s called Discovision. Blockbuster made a living out of renting out CDs for people to bring home to watch movies on. Discovision was the same idea back in 1979, but the discs at the time were roughly the size of a 33′ LP record. But it was the same concept. The machine would sit on top of your TV, you would put in the disc, and watch the latest releases at home.

There’s also things like Prodigy, a partnership IBM formed with Sears and a telecommunications company back in the ’80s. That’s an example of something where maybe we were a little ahead of the curve, because all the concepts for online transactions were there but the vehicle – the pervasive vehicle for processing transactions, which was the internet – was not there at the time. So it was a little hard to get people to sign up to participate in this online shopping. But a lot of the concepts and technologies had been worked out for that in the 1980s. Just a step ahead of our time; sometimes it hurts to be too visionary.

Q: For all the well-known technology that’s come out of IBM, we rarely hear names behind their inventors. Who have been some of the champions of strong ideas within the company?

A: Certainly one of the earliest individuals you can point to is somebody named James Bryce. He was hired by Thomas Watson Sr somewhere between 1914 and 1917 to head up the research and development division. He was a very creative individual, and generated a lot of patents. But in particular he had the ability to look ahead and get IBM started in areas that maybe they might not have gotten into without him. Under his guidance, IBM started experimenting with electronics in the 1930s. And without some of the work done in the 1930s, IBM might not have been able to jump into the electronic computer game in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Another would be Arthur Samuel and his artificial intelligence program in the 1950s. He basically created a self-learning program to play checkers against humans. That was eerie in how it anticipated where we went in the 1990s with Deep Blue, taking on the world’s reigning Grand Master in chess, and about 10 years later taking on the best in the world at Jeopardy with Watson.

And when Ted Codd came up with the concept for the relational database – which revolutionised retail, in particular – in the early 1970s, that was something no one else had come up with before. The concept was entirely his. He was another member of IBM research.

Q: Some folks may also not know that IBM’s also been an integral part of the space program since its inception.

A:We’ve been associated with the American space program since the early 1950s, since before there was a NASA, and that relationship continues today. The Pathfinder mission that went to Mars utilised IBM technology. Watson senior would have approved; I think he may have wanted to change the name to Intergalactic Business Machines. Not too many people can talk about their products sitting on Mars right now, but IBM’s one of them. And ThinkPads were very much a part of the space program for many years; once you find out what works in space you tend to stick with it. A lot of the astronauts were using IBM products in space as well.

The moonshot was another challenge we took on. That wasn’t specifically IBM’s grand challenge, but we were close partners with the space program up until then, so that was another part of the challenge for us, was to help the government put a man on the moon. In particular the Saturn instrument unit that we built for the Apollo program was a very key component of getting people to the moon.

Q: Are there any moments that stand out for you personally since you’ve been there? Any times you looked around and thought that this is something that’s going to be a major part of the archives?

A: Most of the personal moments have been when I’ve been around long-time IBMers. I’m not somebody who gets inspired easily, per se. It’s not in my DNA. But when I listen to some of these people, and I listen to them talk about the things they’ve worked on over the decades, usually, that they’ve been with the company, and you see the passion that they still have for the work that they did and the passion that they have with the company… even though we’re a different company today, it still sends the shivers back. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see that IBM 1401 flick that we have up, it’s a five minute video.

It’s just amazing. You see people in their ’70s and ’80s, and they’re talking about the company, and you can still see how much it meant to them. It’s things like that that stand out for me in the course of time. It’s the nature of my job that I talk to people who have been with the company and done a lot over the course of their careers. I’ve always found it inspiring; it’s really kind of cool, the passion that they have.

Paul Lasewicz has served as IBM’s Corporate Archivist since 1998.