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Did you know? The first modern computer family won an R&D 100 Award

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 9:33am
Paul Livingstone, Senior Editor

Most people associate the dawn of the modern computer age with the advent small computers, affordable to individuals. Early Apple and IBM desktops, complete with floppy 5.25-in disk drives and green phosphor cathode ray tubes, still reside in our memories. But far fewer people remember the hulking mainframes that for decades defined the industry. The democratization of the computer depended on significant advances in this market. Some of those advances were technological; others were smart business decisions.

Early mainframe computers operated on custom-written software tailored especially for the latest hardware. When they outlived their usefulness for the customer (typically a large corporation or government agency), these mainframes were instantly obsolete. New software would need to be written for the next model and little to no data, or workflow, could be carried over. Prohibitively expensive, short-lived, difficult to operate: an early mainframe was not a common shopping list item for most companies.

The market changed when IBM launched the System 360 Computer, which won an R&D 100 Award in 1964. This was the first family, or series, of computer built on a standardized foundation of computer code and CPUs. Microcode technology let IBM’s people develop and market a series of small and large computers, which allowed customers to start with a small system and upgrade as their needs increased without changing software. This helped lower costs and gave smaller companies a chance to enter the computer age with less upfront capital.

The separation of implementation (software) and architecture was an important advance for the industry and set the stage for a modular approach to

That’s not to say IBM shattered the custom mainframe market. In 1965, the company won another R&D 100 Award for the Model 44, which adhered to a pre-microcode implementation in the interest of performance. But the System 360’s flexibility allowed it to last far longer, being delivered to customers as late as 1978.

The System 360 was not IBM’s first R&D 100 Award. In 1963, the first year of our Awards program, IBM introduced two advanced technologies that continue to shape the world information technology. The first, the “optical transistor”, was an early solution for using optical radiation to control electrical switching functions. Though it bears little relation to modern all-optical transistor technology, which is still in development stages, the transistor offers an insight into how early researchers attempting to use light to control electricity, or information.

The other invention that won in 1963 was the “injection laser”, a dye laser based on gallium arsenide (GaAs). Stimulated emission devices were discovered at Bell Telephone Laboratories five years prior, which prompted IBM to perform their own investigations. These efforts helped produce the GaAs injection laser in 1962, which was also discovered independently by General Electric Corp. in the same year. The GaAs laser became extremely important to both R&D and industry. Dye lasers were continuously tunable and highly suited for work in spectroscopy. And injection lasers formed the basis for eventual solid-state lasers that allow optical storage devices such as CD/DVD players to function.

There’s still time to enter 2014 Awards!

In addition to a shorter, simpler form this year, the editors have decided to give participants an extra two weeks to prepare their submission. Friday, May 9 is the new deadline, so if you have a new product launched in 2013, consider entering!

Official R&D 100 Awards Web Page

2014 R&D 100 Awards Entry Form

What products qualify?

Any new technical product or process that was first available for purchase or licensing between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2013, is eligible for the 2013 awards. This includes manufacturing processes such as machining, open source software, new types of materials or chemicals, and consumer-level products such as cameras. Proof-of-concepts and early-stage prototypes do not qualify, however; the submitted entry must be in working, marketable condition.

This year’s awards will be presented at our Gala Awards Banquet on Friday evening, November 7, 2014 in the Grand Ballroom at the Bellagio Las Vegas, Nevada—an entirely new, exciting venue for our awards with more surprises to be announced along the way.

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