An Overnight Sensation 50 Years in the Making

Lessons from the first half-century of digital government.

by / July 28, 2005
Public agencies nationwide are coming to terms with the realities of a new fiscal year, and the spending reprioritization that it brings. The current environment defies a consensus view, but the majority report suggests this is a comparatively good year -- thanks to a short-term bump in public treasuries. That short-term bump provided at least temporary relief from the bruising revenue recession that characterized the first half of the decade.

At a time when everything government does -- and how government does it -- is under increased scrutiny, a track record becomes all the more important. Like friends, when you need a track record, it's too late to go out and get one. For the public-sector IT community, that track record is more than the heady days of the much-ballyhooed gov-dot-com era. In fact, it reaches back a half-century.

The track record speaks for itself -- except we have never taken the time to tell the story. Those serving in the arena today stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, having inherited systems uniquely able to do the heavy lifting of government -- namely processing the volume and complexity of data necessary to conduct the public's business.

Together with our colleagues here at Government Technology, the Center for Digital Government has been crisscrossing the country in search of digital government's backstory. Consider this an official call for nominations about the moments and people that made a difference in the campaign for government modernization.

It could be your predecessor, your colleague or you -- all stories are welcome at

Key IT innovations that transcend jurisdictional lines and industries date from 1955.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore first observed the phenomenon named for him about the doubling rate of computing power that year. Government and all other computer users have enjoyed a free ride on Moore's Law ever since.

While Moore was busy cramming more components into integrated circuits, Walt Disney gave us a taste of the experience economy with the opening of Disneyland, and the McDonald brothers (Richard and Maurice) and Ray Kroc placed a bet on the car-crazy nation's appetite for self-service fast food -- habits that would make e-commerce viable a half-century later.

Meanwhile, the newly rechristened Internal Revenue Service dropped the business of preparing individual returns for taxpayers that year. This created an opportunity for Henry and Richard Bloch to pioneer an industry of acting as agents for people in dealing with government, foreshadowing software agents that would do the same with the arrival of the commodity Internet.

1955 was also the year IBM delivered a working pilot of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE). It differed from everything that came before because it was the first computer system to combine hardware, custom-coded software and at least rudimentary network connectivity. SAGE wasn't just a first for government -- it was a government-driven first in the nascent computing industry.

As the Annals of the History of Computing and the Wikipedia community contend, SAGE was important then -- and is important now for what it has taught us: "It led to huge advances in online systems and interactive computing, real-time computing and data communications using modems."

A consortium of leading companies and R&D institutions partnered to build a defense against the threat that a specific moat -- called the Atlantic Ocean -- might be breached by a Soviet air attack. The story is not without irony. By the time SAGE went into production nationally, the Soviet bomber threat was replaced by the risk from missiles, making the system obsolete.

Of course, the moat would eventually be breached 46 years later on 9/11 -- not by a rogue state, but by stateless rogues using improvised bombers.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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