Everyone loves a good story and one of the ways IBM is marking its centennial is by sharing not one, but 100 stories about the milestones that have shaped the company and the world in the last century.
These iconic stories and their uniquely designed accompanying “marks”—dubbed “Icons of Progress”— have been published regularly since January 20, and will continue through September 20 on the the ibm100 Web site. Some of the Icons detail well-known IBM innovations, such as the 1401 (the first mainframe) and the Selectric typewriter, while others fall into the “I didn’t know IBM did that” category—innovations that impact our daily lives and have helped shaped modern business or culture, such as the UPC bar code and the technique behind LASIK eye surgery.
In a company of more than 400,000 employees, with tens of thousands of patents—that counts Nobel laureates and National Medal of Technology Award winners among its employees—how do you pick the right 100 stories? Very carefully.
The process of choosing the 100 Icons of Progress stories started early last year with a call for submissions that went out to IBM divisions, locations, business units and channels. Some 860 story submissions poured in from around the world.
In a three-day curatorial session, a small group of editorial stakeholders and agency partners culled the 860 down to 100 stories, with many of the original submissions grouped as supporting stories under bigger topics. The stories were aligned to three themes: changing the way the world works; pioneering the science of information; and reinventing the modern corporation, which also served as organizing principles for the Centennial book . A thesis statement and argument was crafted for each story to guide the archival and online research and writing. And for each story a “mark” – an actual graphic icon – was designed.
While the cumulative effect of 100 milestones is impressive, I think it is the smaller moments behind the big events that often are most memorable—the “ah ha!” epiphany in the lab; the quotidian details of being caught in a months-long race against all odds to make a critical deadline; the off-hand conversation that led to a life-changing decision. Here are three not to be missed:
Behind the Silicon Germanium Chips Icon:
In 1979, when working in a lab as a grad student, Bernie Meyerson had inadvertently dropped a one-inch piece of silicon he’d just cleaned in hydrofluoric acid. When he retrieved it and washed it off, he noticed that the silicon wafer was water-repellant—he had work to do so filed the observation away in the back of his mind. Three years later, he returned to thinking about the dropped silicon event. “That was the epiphany,” explains Meyerson—which led to his discovery of the silicon germanium chip.
Behind the Magnetic Stripe Technology Icon :
Back in the early 1960s, the first person to affix magnetic media to a plastic card for data storage was IBM engineer Forrest Parry. He wanted to attach a strip of magnetized tape to a plastic identity card for officials of the CIA, and he couldn’t figure out how to do it. When he mentioned his problem to his wife, who happened to be ironing clothing at the time, she suggested that he use the iron to essentially melt the strip on. That’s what he did. IBM became a pioneer in magnetic stripe technology…the serendipitous result of a household chat.
Behind the Excimer Laser Surgery Icon:
“We wondered if the excimer laser could so cleanly etch polymeric material, what would happen if we tried it on human or animal tissue?” remembers James Wynne. “What really broke things open, after all the talk of what kind of tissue we would use, was that Sri brought his Thanksgiving turkey leftovers into the lab the day after Thanksgiving in 1981,” said Wynne. “He used the excimer laser to etch a pattern in whatever bone, cartilage or meat was on the tissue sample. I had this moment of ‘eureka,’ we have a new form of surgery!”
Yet to come
As of August 24, some 90 Icons have been published—and some of the most interesting stories are yet to come: Exploring Undersea Frontiers about IBM’s work with Jacques Cousteau; collaborating with Mars Incorporated to re-engineer the cocoa bean into a more sustainable crop; and preserving the artifacts of the ancient cultures of Egypt, Italy and Indonesia through technology.
The ones that got away
Some very compelling stories did not get chosen to be retold. For example, IBM’s 40-year history of innovations in supporting the Olympic Games around the world. And IBM’s decades-long ties with Hollywood movies. They are for the next major IBM birthday. When all of the Icons are published, I’ll share my list of favorite stories and invite you to do the same.