Posts Tagged ‘IBM’

On January 22, 1984, the famous “1984” television commercial introducing the Macintosh personal computer ran during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.  Many people think that this is the only time it ever ran.  But, it was also run by the Chiat/Day, the ad agency that created it, on December 31, 1983 right before the 12:00 midnight sign-off on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that it could qualify for the 1983 advertising awards. The ad was so successful, that it never really needed to be run again as the media coverage it got generated a lot of free airtime.  And, people are still talking about it 30 years later.

The ad is based on the book, “1984” by George Orwell which introduced the concept of “Big Brother”.  The ad refers to IBM as “Big Brother” and the Apple Macintosh computer as the individual challenging a society of people who don’t behave as individuals.  Interestingly, the estate of George Orwell and the television rights holder to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four considered the commercial to be a copyright infringement and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day after the ad ran which generated even more publicity.



Here’s Director Ridley Scott discussing the making of the famous 1984 Macintosh commercial.  [This is excerpted from an Apple promotional video.]



The “1984” ad was shown at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Macintosh in 2004  There was also an updated version of it created for the iPod launch.  Was it one of the best ads ever?  That’s up for debate.  But, as a marketer, I’d give it an award for one of the top 10 product launches ever.

— Carole Gunst

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From a 1986 documentary series on PBS called “The Entrepreneurs.” Steve Jobs articulates his own vision for NeXT, the company he started after being forced out of Apple Computer a year prior.

The opening scene has the eminent designer Paul Rand (designer of logos for IBM, Westinghouse, UPS, etc.) unveiling the logo he created for NeXT. Design was a great passion of Jobs’, and he wanted this company to make an important statement in that regard right from the beginning.

Much of the subsequent footage is taken at two NeXT retreats at California’s Pebble Beach – the first taking place 90 days after NeXT was started, and the second three months hence. Jobs presides at his ever-present whiteboard and probes and challenges during these freewheeling discussions with his colleagues, many of whom followed him from Apple.

The “Reality Distortion Field” that Jobs’ made (in)famous is boldly on display here. The first instance shows the staff pushing back on Jobs because they are determined the original 18-month deadline for shipping the first NeXT units is unrealistic. The college market, where NeXT’s computer is being positioned, has put pressure on the company to keep the price at no more than $3,000.

Jobs’ hard-edged instincts as a businessman lead him to assert that missing the Summer, 1987 deadline for college purchases would delay their educational computer for another year – thereby wreaking havoc in the company. Jobs’ chief concerns involved not selling enough units to meet operating costs, and falling behind technologically by the time the units actually do ship. The dreaded talk of “spending cuts” also enters the conversation.

At one point, Jobs is overtaken by a stream of consciousness, issuing forth an entrepreneurial soliloquy about his own start-up philosophy that would make Hamlet blush:    

“I forgot how hard it is to start a company … it’s A LOT of work. And … you’ve got to do everything: you have to come up with a name, you have to come up with a logo … I mean, in addition to designing the product, you’ve got to figure out what you want to design, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to get it to the marketplace, you’ve got to do a part number system, you’ve got to go get bank accounts, you’ve got to set up charts, general ledgers, a management information system, get a little kitchen set up, get a coffee maker, ALL THIS STUFF!”

NeXT wound up being purchased by Apple around the time Jobs triumphantly returned to the latter as “iCEO” in 1997, and the technology NeXT developed was ultimately incorporated into Apple’s OS X operating system. But here, in this brief snapshot, you get a bold-faced look at the urgency Jobs felt to make his “next” act successful, and you experience that pure, undistilled passion he had for what he was trying to accomplish.

Chris Hartman

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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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Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “Mechanical Turk,” an elaborate hoax. Courtesy, GearLog.com

An “elaborate hoax”

In 1769 the Hungarian-born engineer Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) built a chess playing machine for the amusement of the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa. It was a purely mechanical device – a chess-playing automaton later revealed to be a hoax. Its outstanding aptitude, it was later revealed, originated from a man hidden inside the device. Interestingly, it was described in an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player.”

In March of 1949, Claude Shannon (1916-2001), a research worker at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey described how to program a computer to play chess based on position scoring and move selection.  He proposed basic strategies for restricting the number of possibilities to be considered in a game of chess. In 1950, Shannon devised a chess playing program that appeared in the paper “Programming a computer for playing chess” published in Philosophical Magazine, March 1950. This was the first article on computer chess.

In 1950, Alan Turing (1912-1954) wrote the first computer chess program.  The same year he proposed the Turing Test that in time, a computer could be programmed (such as playing chess) to acquire abilities rivaling human intelligence.  If a human did not see the other human or computer during an imitation game such as chess, he/she would not know the difference between the human and the computer.

In 1951, Turing tried to implement his “Turbochamp” program on the Ferranti Mark I computer at Manchester University.  He never completed the task.  However, his colleague, Dr. Dietrich Prinz (born 1903), wrote a chess playing computer program for the Ferranti computer that solved simple mates-in-two moves.  The first program ran in November, 1951.  The program would examine every possible move until a solution was found.  It took about fifteen minutes to solve a mate in two moves.

In 1946 the Hungarian/American mathematician John von Neumann was given the task of designing a powerful calculation machine to speed up the task. In 1950 a giant machine called MANIAC I was delivered. It was filled with thousands of vacuum tubes and switches and could execute 10,000 instructions per second. It was also programmable.

By 1956, Univac’s MANIAC I computer was capable of playing chess using a 6″x6″ chessboard.  This was the first documented account of a running chess program. It used a chess set without bishops.  It took twelve minutes to search four moves deep.  Adding the two bishops would have taken three hours to search four moves deep. MANIAC I was programmed by Stan Ulam who designed the Hydrogen bomb with Edward Teller.

In 1957, Alex Bernstein, an IBM employee, created the first really complete chess program. With three colleagues, Bernstein created a chess program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  It ran on an IBM 704, one of the last vacuum tube computers.  It took about eight minutes to make a move. International Master Edward Lasker played the program, easily defeating it, but he commented that it played a ‘passable amateur game.’

In 1958, Allen Newell (1927-1992), Herbert Simon and Cliff Shaw developed the chess program CP-1 at Carnegie-Mellon.  It was the first chess program to be written in a high-level language and took about an hour to make a move.  Their NSS (Newell, Simon, Shaw) program combined algorithms that searched for good moves with heuristics (rules of thumb for making a move) that captured well-known chess strategies.  The NSS chess program ran on a JOHNNIAC computer.

Artificial intelligence in computer chess

In 1962, the first chess program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was written.  It was the first chess program that played chess credibly.  It was chiefly written by Alan Kotok (1942-2006), assisted by John McCarthy (father of artificial intelligence) of MIT. The program ran on an IBM 7090, and was able to beat chess beginners. Kotok went on to become one of DEC’s leading computer designers (chief architect of the PDP-10), and created the first video game (Spacewar!) and the gaming joystick.

In 1965, McCarthy, who had been at Stanford University since 1962, visited the Soviet Union.  There, a group at the Moscow Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP), led by Alexander Kronrod, challenged his chess program to a match with their own, later called KAISSA.  A match was held over nine months in 1966-67.  The Kotok-McCarthy program lost the match 3-1.  The Soviet chess program ran on an M-20 computer. 

MacHack (Mac Hack or Mac Hac) was a computer chess program written by Richard Greenblatt, an MIT expert in artificial intelligence, with Donald Eastlake, in the 1960s. MacHack VI was the first chess program to play in human tournaments.  It was also the first to be granted a chess rating, and the first to draw and win against a person in tournament play. Its name came from Project MAC (Multilevel Access Computer or Machine-Aided Cognition), which was a research project located at MIT.  The number VI refers to the DEC PDP-6 for which it was written.  DEC built the PDP-6 and gave the first prototype to Project MAC. 

Greenblatt added fifty heuristics to an older chess program written by Kotok.  MacHack was written in MIDAS macro assembly language on the PDP-6 computer that DEC donated to MIT.  Greenblatt wrote the chess program using only 16K of memory for the PDP-6 computer.  It evaluated about ten positions per second. Greenblatt was offered a B.S. degree from MIT if he would write a thesis about his chess program.  He never did write his thesis. Greenblatt later founded Lisp Machine, Inc., and is considered one of the founders of the hacker community.

On January 21-23, 1967, MacHack VI played in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in Boston.  It was the first time an electronic computer played chess against human beings under regular tournament conditions.  The computer played all five rounds and ended up with a score of 0.5-4.5, one draw.  By the end of the year, it had played in four chess tournaments. It won 3 games, lost 12, and drew 3.  In 1967 MacHack VI was made an honorary member of the US Chess Federation.  The MacHack program was the first widely distributed chess program, running on many of the PDP machines.  It was also the first to have an opening chess book programmed with it.

Later, MacHack was available on all PDP-10 computers (400,000 instructions per second).  A version was made available on many time-sharing computer services using DEC PDP series computers.  This led to a rapid proliferation of chess programs.  Within three years of MacHack VI’s debut, at least eight new programs appeared.  This led to the first tournament for computer programs in 1970.  MacHack remained active in chess competitions through 1972.

Sargon Computer Chess

The original SARGON was written by Dan and Kathleen ‘Kathe’ Spracklen in a Z80-based computer called Wavemate Jupiter III using assembly language through TDL Macro Assembler.

The name “Sargon” was taken from either of the historical kings Sargon of Akkad (the first king to use his empire to try to conquer the known world) or Sargon of Assyria. (Ironically, neither ruler would have been able to play chess since it was not invented until long after their reigns.) One other possibility is that it was taken from a character in the original Star Trek series. The name was originally written entirely in capitals because early computer operating systems such as CP/M did not support lower-case file names.

SARGON was introduced at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire, where it won the first computer chess tournament held strictly for microcomputers. This success encouraged the authors to seek financial income by selling the program directly to customers. Since magnetic media were not widely available at the time, the authors placed an advert in Byte Magazine and mailed photocopied listings that would work in any Z80-based microcomputer. Later they were contacted by Hayden Books and a book was published.

In 1985, three doctoral students created the chess-playing program Chiptest. This would develop into Deep Thought, a program that shared first place with Grandmaster Tony Miles in the 1988 U.S. Open championship and defeated the brilliant sixteen year-old Grandmaster Judit Polgar in 1993 in a thirty-minute game.

Deep Blue

In May of 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess program running on a high-powered computer, defeated world champion Gary Kasparov in a six-game series. The computer was designed to consider several billion possibilities at once. But it also uses a series of complicated formulae that take into consideration the state of the game. These formulae, among other factors, weigh the relative material value of pieces (e.g. queens are more useful than knights) and position (e.g. can you attack more squares than your opponent?), safety of the king and the pace of the game.

Deep Blue also kept a record of several past matches to see how it could make best use of what was available. Kasparov found this out – the hard way. On the other hand, when he played some unorthodox moves, he had the computer totally flustered.


“Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess” Computer History Museum, current exhibition.

“MacAttack” Chess.com, May 13, 2008.

“IBM Deep Blue vs. Gary Kasparov,” Quantum Gambits, Ocbober 8, 2009.

Friedel, Frederick: “A Short History of Computer Chess.” Chessbase. N.d.

Surendran, Dinoj. “A Brief History of Computer Chess.” Zimaths, Vol. 2, Issue 1, October, 1996.

IBM Deep Blue website.

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