Inventing the Future

Posted May 18th, 2011 at 3:22 pm (UTC-4)

100 Years of IBM’s Technological Innovation

For one of the world’s foremost inventors, Bernie Meyerson is a fairly modest guy.

Perhaps that’s because his game-changing invention of silicon germanium – basically the stuff that makes every modern computer chip work – began as an accident.

“Many, many years ago,” says Meyerson, “when I was a grad student, I dropped a silicon wafer.  If you have goobers hanging from this piece of silicon, you probably don’t want to heat it up and make a real mess, so I washed it under water to clean it up.”  And here’s the puzzle: no matter how much water he used, the silicon wouldn’t get wet.  “Something wild had just happened.  It violated all the literature of the day.”

But Meyerson had work to do, so he “filed it away under odd things” in his mind and returned to his tasks.

Years later, while an employee at IBM, he returned to his dry silicon mystery.  The answer was complicated: it turns out the wafer had been treated with hydrofluoric acid, which combined with the silicon to form an atomic-level protective layer that kept everything – water, contaminants, even air – out.  Still, his response was immediate:  “That was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”

With the silicon’s purity protected, Meyerson’s humble goober-encrusted silicon wafer eventually resulted in a computer chip smaller, cheaper and much more powerful than any before.  These days, the “SiGe” semiconductor is one of the key innovations that led to laptops, smart phones, iPads, and who-knows-what next.

Yet Meyerson insists it wasn’t just his invention – rather it belongs to the entire team that helped provide answers, conduct research, and develop applications.  He also credits the company that fostered all of that: IBM.

On June 16, 1911 the “Computing Tabulating Recording Company,” or CTRC, was founded in New York City.  13 years later it would be renamed “International Business Machines” – IBM for short – and it’s no hyperbole to say  its products would shape the future.

Every CEO will say they want to encourage innovation, but few corporate cultures can genuinely be said to do so.  IBM is one of the few.  From the start it was said to foster a distinct workplace philosophy and culture – one that put a high value on research and development.  “Think” was the firm’s motto, greeting visitors with thick block letters above the main door, and think they did.  IBM has long held the record for the greatest number of patents held by any U.S. company, and has logged almost as many firsts.  The first laser printer, the first optical-scan test sheet, the first portable computer, the first mass-produced computer – all from IBM.

The list of IBM-sponsored inventions runs very long – though to be frank, the first product names were less than poetic.  The  “Electronic Synchronized Timeclock.”  The “Carroll Rotary Card Press.”  The “Automated Sequence Controlled Calculator.”  Ahem.

But while you may not remember the names, it’s a guarantee you know the inventions.  In fact, you’re probably using several of them at this very moment.

The UPC bar-code.  Credit card mag-stripesAutomated teller machines.  The Sabre travel reservation systemDisc drivesComputer chip memoryRISC architecture.   They’re all IBM inventions – and all still used today.  And, says Bernie Meyerson, that’s one of the marks of a genuinely great invention – something that continues to be of use long after it was first dreamed up.

Bernie Meyerson in his IBM 'clean suit'

“You need great ideas,” he says.  “And to have great ideas – what makes them great is you understand the entirety of the context into which they will ultimately fit.”

Great ideas are the start he says, but they’re only that – the beginning.  Great inventions are made in the follow-through:

“Ultimately, many people have great ideas.  Frightening few of them ever make it to market or make a difference in the world.  The truly great inventors – they don’t just invent it, they make it happen.  You need an infrastructure.  In other words, in the ideal situation you have a setting where you have the  best and the brightest around you, and you feed off one another.  And it’s that invention – not in a vacuum – but invention among others with overlapping but not completely overlapping skills that gets you the best outcome.

“But you also have what I’ll call, for want of a better word, partners.  Partners who actually can reduce those things to practice.  You have a development lab, you have a manufacturing site; and if you’re very fortunate they’re very accepting of you, which means not only do you have the ‘Aha!’ moment, but you follow that ‘Aha’ moment through development and actually to production and into the public domain.  That really is what makes the ultimate and effective innovator.”

Would man have landed on the moon if there was no IBM?  No doubt, but very likely it would have taken longer.  Would offices have functioned for decades without the IBM Selectric typewriter?  Clearly, but secretary’s jobs would have been more complicated.   Would computers permeate our daily lives without the IBM PC?  No question – but the very concept of ‘personal computing’ might not have taken root.

No corporation is perfect, and that’s certainly true of IBM.  They’ve had their share of flops.  Their business models have hit rough patches.  Even their very nickname, “Big Blue”, may have its roots in its tightly controlled culture – for years men could only wear white shirts and blue suits.   (That dress code has been loosened.)

But even if it were to go out of business tomorrow (unlikely as Fortune Magazine ranked it the 7th most profitable company in 2010), IBM will long be remembered – along with Xerox PARC and a handful of others – as a true innovator, fostering a culture of research-driven invention that has literally changed our world.

“The key is this: you need a culture of on-going innovation, you can’t stop,” says inventor Bernie Meyerson:

“To invent is something that you think.  But the flip side of that is the culture to maintain it.  More  than the amount you spend, it’s continuity.  Through the worst of time and the best of times, it takes you 50, 60, 70 years to develop a culture of innovation – you can lose it in a week.  You wanna lose it in a week?  Take certain actions…they will know that you’ve abandoned it.  So it’s continuity.”

And that, in essence, may be the calculus that explains IBM’s history of success: great ideas + support + continuity = innovation.

Meyerson is quick to add one more factor: patience.  “You show me someone who has never failed, and I’ll show you someone who will never lead.”



2 responses to “Inventing the Future”

  1. […] can computer brains and their robotic bodies do what humans do?  Everything humans do?  Sure, IBM’s Artificial Intelligence named “Watson” can help a doctor diagnose an illness, but can it comfort a troubled patient?  Do robots smile and […]

  2. Hi, Neat post. There is a problem with your site in internet explorer, would test this… IE still is the market leader and a good portion of people will miss your magnificent writing because of this problem.

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