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IBM Turns 100, Looks Back at Government Service

From the U.S. Census to NASA, to small towns and big city governments, IBM’s work with the public sector has changed the world.

by / June 16, 2011
Sam Palmisano, CEO, IBM IBM

Around the world, IBM employees are celebrating a big birthday. Thursday, June 16, marks the company’s centennial. IBM is 100 years old.

Though much has changed over the years since IBM was founded in 1911 — as punch cards and cumbersome mainframes paved the way for PCs and smartphones — the public sector continued to rely on the company’s technology as the Information Age became the digital age.

What began as manual processes —  IBM’s tabulating machines sorted and counted the nation’s first computerized Census data in the early 1900s — eventually evolved into the Watson supercomputer (named after IBM’s first president, Thomas Watson Jr.) that won a game of Jeopardy earlier this year against human opponents. IBM is banking on data analytics as a big part of its future, including its worldwide “Smarter Cities” initiative.

“A hundred years old is a pretty impressive age,” said Dave McQueeney, vice president of software for IBM Research, “and it’s something that I think is a great cause for celebration. To have that long of a life as a leader, as a company, is a tremendous testament to the ability to change, adapt and grow.”

IBM’s 100 years have included several historical milestones, many a result of working hand-in-hand with government agencies.

Entwined in U.S. History

The Census was only the beginning. In 1935, after the Social Security Act was passed, the government required businesses to do accurate timekeeping so that workers would receive proper benefits based on how many years they worked. The use of IBM’s more than 400 punch card tabulating machines supported employment records for 26 million Americans, which helped decide those benefits, McQueeney said.

“If you go through the years and you look at Social Security, it’s always been one of the federal agencies that has the largest systems, the largest stores of data — arguably the most critical data for all of us as citizens and taxpayers,” McQueeney said.

Moving forward a few decades, IBM took computing out of this world — literally — by assisting with NASA space exploration, including the historical Apollo 11 mission in 1969 that enabled astronaut Neil Armstrong to take mankind’s first steps on the Moon.

For the Apollo missions, IBM performed trajectory tracking as well as on-board computing. During Apollo 11, which launched in 1969 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, IBM’s computer systems set the spacecraft on its trajectory to the Moon and back, said Jack Flora, IBM’s client executive for NASA.

“A lot of our early work took place around solving the problems for NASA that included real-time analysis that didn’t exist before that,” Flora said. “So it was really created for and with NASA.”

One year later, NASA launched Apollo 13  — its third lunar mission. The famous spacecraft, which also launched from the Kennedy Space Center, didn’t complete its mission because an oxygen tank exploded, forcing the crew to return to Earth as soon as possible.

The Apollo 13 mission failure left little time for the crew to decide the best course of action. McQueeney recalled a story from Homer Ahr, an IBM programmer who worked on the Apollo missions, who explained that during the crisis, IBM computing systems on the ground performed real-time simulations of “what if” scenarios. After trying hundreds of computer-simulated scenarios, a solution was found to bring the spacecraft back safely.

McQueeney said that at the time, most computer simulations weren’t being done in real time, but IBM was one of the first to use the technology.

Flora also attributed the success of the Apollo 13’s safe return to the IBM and NASA teams that prepared the mission in advance. The teams spent countless hours in advance of the mission preparing for possible outcomes.

“[IBM and NASA] had as many variations and variables they were thinking about before the fact,” Flora said. “And I don’t think anyone thought of the actual one that happened on Apollo 13, but by going through all that preparation, they were enabled to help when the crisis did happen.”

A Focus on Analytics

After years of working with NASA on space exploration missions, and with the Department of Defense during the Cold War, McQueeney said the importance of data became a key lesson for IBM.

“Whether that’s data about a mission, or about personal information. Or if you’re in the defense agencies, maybe it’s data about a threat or what might indicate there’s a cyber-attack under way,” McQueeney said.

The company is staking much of its future on providing analytics to states and municipalities. Data is a major component of IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, a range of projects that are designing computer models of transportation patterns, precipitation and other items of interest to city governments.

For example, the computer models can determine factors like how quickly water is being absorbed in soil and what neighborhoods should then be evacuated during a disaster, McQueeney said. Having predictive analysis of these factors can help improve public safety.

Overall, McQueeney said the most important lessons have been “data, dependability of the systems that manipulate the data, and the energy you get from innovating with your client to solve problems together that neither one of you could have solved by yourself.”


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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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