IBM at 100: A Century of Reinvention and Innovation
Is it possible for a multinational corporation worth over $200 billion, possessing one of the most recognizable brand names in the world, to be somehow underestimated and underappreciated in the public eye?
In the case of IBM —which today celebrates its 100th birthday — that might just be the case.
While it’s common to think of IBM as little more than a manufacturer of laptops and PCs, many of the company’s innovations and scientific achievements over the last century have shaped the contours of our society.
“It would be no overstatement to say that IBM has changed the world,” said Chris Garcia, curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. “”It’s almost immeasurable in how many different areas it’s been influential.”
Since the company’s founding in 1911, IBM has had its hand in a staggering array of pivotal technological advances. In 1937, the company provided the federal government with the technology to implement the Social Security Act. It was responsible for the first electronic calculator in 1956, worked closely with NASA on the Apollo program in the 1960s, and can also lay claim to inventing the likes of bar codes, the excimer lasers used in LASIK eye surgery, and the magnetic strips found on the back of credit and debit cards .
Of course, these accomplishments still pale in comparison to the technology that remains synonymous with the IBM name: the personal computer .
“The personal computer wasn’t just an IBM invention,” Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s vice president of innovation, told TechNewsDaily. “What’s remarkable about it is that it brought information technology into the home, and that’s how people accessed the Internet.”
“There’s this ridiculous debate over who invented the Internet, and there’s no point in having that,” Meyerson said. “But in terms of who enabled people to actually use it? That’s one of our contributions that was absolutely seminal.”
After more than 30 years with the company, Meyerson says he remains astounded by the sheer creativity and cognitive ability he is surrounded with each day.
“[Several years ago], I was sitting in a pub in London with four colleagues and having some dinner and beers,” he said. “At one point I looked at them and said, ‘Guys, I’m not sure I fit in here. I think I may have to leave.’ They looked at me like I’d lost my mind, as they were friends I’ve had for twenty years. And I had to point out to these characters that I was the only guy sitting at dinner who did not have a Nobel Prize!
One of IBM’s most recent, high-profile innovations is the Watson supercomputer , which debuted on the TV show “Jeopardy!” in January. The computer handily defeated its flesh-and-bone rivals, showcasing its remarkable ability to comprehend and respond to normal human speech patterns.
More than just a flashy game show gimmick, Meyerson envisions a wide range of practical applications for the Watson technology. One possibility, he said, would be to load “the entirety of the medical database” into the computer’s memory, giving doctors the ability to present Watson with a particular set of symptoms and have it diagnose the patient.
Today, Garcia says, IBM’s technological research is “as vital as it’s ever been,” but it remains to be seen whether the company will be able to remain relevant as the digital world heads into unknown territory.
“I think in the next 50 years, we’ll be at a turning point where the decision of how computing not only over the next century, but over the next two centuries, will really be defined,” Garcia said.
For his part, Meyerson has no doubt that IBM’s “culture of innovation, risk-taking and reinvention” will allow it to stride confidently into its second century.
“The way to think about [IBM] is the world’s most applied think tank,” Meyerson said. “We don’t just talk about it, we don’t just invent it — we also do it.”
“The impossible simply takes us a bit longer.”