Posts Tagged ‘bar codes’

This past June, fellow High Tech History writer Gil Press wrote an entry  in recognition of International Business Machines’ centennial. In the interim, I came across a documentary created by noted filmmaker Errol Morris  for IBM that draws on the experiences of, among others, the corporation’s former technicians and executives to tell a thirty-minute story of some of IBM’s more notable achievements in computing over the last one hundred years.

In this instance, Morris’ collaboration with noted composer Philip Glass resulted in an expertly produced, sentimental (occasionally overly so), and informative oral history. Morris and Glass previously worked together on the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. And this was not the first time that Morris had been commissioned to work for IBM. In 1999 he filmed a short documentary intended to screen at an in-house conference for IBM employees. The conference never took place and the film was mothballed, but you can check it out in full on his website.

The caption one sees at the very beginning of the film asserts “To visualize the future of IBM, you must know something of the past.” In the film’s initial segment, Frederick Brooks, a former IBM senior manager, noted that by the late 1950s, IBM’s computer product lines were in jeopardy due to lack of memory. In turn, Brooks’ manager, Bob O. Evans, was entrusted with scrapping IBM’s existing lines and replacing them, along with the labs they utilized. By 1965, as Brooks noted, computers comprised between 70 – 80%  of the company, so in essence, Evans’ initiative was “putting the whole thing at risk.” However, Evans’ gamble proved correct. The revolutionary concept they introduced was, in Brooks’ words, “a general purpose product line that utilized the same machine for all kinds of applications.” In other words, the computer at the heart of the machine remained the same, but you could configure the system to run individual applications.

Next is discussed IBM’s critical role in adapting technology they originally created for the military to improve the process of making reliable airline reservations. IBM partnered with American Airlines in the early 1960s to create the “Sabre” system that efficiently handled this complex problem. This technology has been so enduring, in fact, that it not only still aids the airline industry, but also Amtrak, the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, and New York City’s 911 system (to name only a few) – which all presently run on a version of Sabre.

IBM also is demonstrated to have been forward-thinking in such realms as non-discrimination policy: equal rights and opportunities for employees without regard to race; equal pay for men and women performing similar jobs, etc.

Others of the company’s monumental achievements discussed in the film include the development of supermarket scanning technology – together with the bar codes containing the information to be scanned; computers and related technology critical in the successful Apollo 13 manned space flight; the so-called “Acorn” project – the original IBM personal computer which sold 250,000 units in its first year and which has, in many ways, become the standard in personal computing, and finally, the company’s role in helping to map the human genome.

The film’s concluding point is that a company is reliant on skilled and motivated people who look at problems as opportunities rather than as roadblocks. There are intelligent people around, but they have to be motivated and perceptive, in addition to that. Those IBM alumni interviewed here all are shown to understand this, and the unspoken, yet obvious conclusion is that as IBM has succeeded – indeed thrived – over its history is a testament to how that psychology has been successfully utilized.

Morris’ film is in no way a comparative or balanced examination of IBM’s track record; but regardless, it is an important statement of how a successful technology company can make a lasting, beneficial impact on humanity. To this end, Fred Brooks quotes company founder Thomas Watson Sr., after asking a young engineer what IBM produces, as saying “We sell a service that satisfies.” One would be hard-pressed to deny that IBM has largely fulfilled that promise during its history.

-Chris Hartman

The film, in its entirety, can be seen below:


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