History Podcasts



Why It Took 17 Years to Catch the Unabomber

By the time federal authorities arrested Theodore J. From 1978 to 1995, the former math professor with a genius-level IQ and a massive ...read more

How America Jump-Started Iran’s Nuclear Program

For several decades, the U.S. has sought to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But ironically, the reason Iran has the technology to build these weapons in the first place is because the U.S. gave it to Iran between 1957 and 1979. This nuclear assistance was part of a ...read more

Printing Press

The printing press is a device that allows for the mass production of uniform printed matter, mainly text in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers. Created in China, the printing press revolutionized society there before being further developed in Europe in the 15th ...read more

Video Game History

Today, video games make up a $100 billion global industry, and nearly two-thirds of American homes have household members who play video games regularly. And it’s really no wonder: Video games have been around for decades and span the gamut of platforms, from arcade systems, to ...read more

10 Things You May Not Know About Ada Lovelace

1. Lord Byron was her father.Although Ada Lovelace was English poet Lord George Gordon Byron’s only legitimate child, he was hardly an exemplary father. The first words he spoke to his newly born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!” The ...read more

Amazon opens for business

On July 16, 1995, Amazon officially opens for business as an online bookseller. Within a month, the fledgling retailer had shipped books to all 50 U.S. states and to 45 countries. Founder Jeff Bezos’s motto was “get big fast,” and Seattle-based Amazon eventually morphed into an ...read more

Microsoft founded

On April 4, 1975, at a time when most Americans used typewriters, childhood friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft, a company that makes computer software. Originally based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Microsoft relocated to Washington State in 1979 and eventually grew ...read more

7 Early Robots and Automatons

1. Da Vinci’s Knight Leonardo Da Vinci wrote extensively about automatons, and his personal notebooks are littered with ideas for mechanical creations ranging from a hydraulic water clock to a robotic lion. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is his plan for an artificial man in ...read more

First ATM opens for business

On September 2, 1969, America’s first automatic teller machine (ATM) makes its public debut, dispensing cash to customers at Chemical Bank in Rockville Centre, New York. ATMs went on to revolutionize the banking industry, eliminating the need to visit a bank to conduct basic ...read more

History of Illinois Tech

In 1890 when advanced education was often reserved for society's elite, Chicago minister Frank Wakely Gunsaulus delivered what came to be known as the "million dollar sermon." From the pulpit of his South Side church, near the site Illinois Institute of Technology now occupies, Gunsaulus said that with $1 million, he could build a school where students of all backgrounds could prepare for meaningful roles in a changing industrial society.

Inspired by Gunsaulus's vision, Philip Danforth Armour Sr. (1832–1901) gave $1 million to found Armour Institute—and Armour, his wife, Malvina Belle Ogden Armour (1842–1927), and their son Jonathan Ogden Armour (1863–1927), continued to support the university in its early years. When Armour Institute opened in 1893, it offered professional courses in engineering, chemistry, architecture, and library science.

Illinois Tech was created in 1940 by the merger of Armour Institute and Lewis Institute. Located on the West Side of Chicago, Lewis Institute, established in 1895 by the estate of hardware merchant and investor Allen C. Lewis, offered liberal arts as well as science and engineering courses for both men and women. At separate meetings held by their respective boards on Oct. 26, 1939, the trustees of Armour and Lewis voted to merge the two colleges. A Cook County circuit court decision on April 23, 1940, solidified the merger.

The History of the Bar Code

Every few years, the small town of Troy in Miami County, Ohio celebrates an historic occasion that for a few giddy weeks puts it on the world map of the grocery trade. At the time, National Cash Register, which provided the checkout equipment, was based in Ohio and Troy was also the headquarters of the Hobart Corporation, which developed the weighing and pricing machines for loose items such as meat. It was here, at just after 8 a.m. on June 26, 1974, that the first item marked with the Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned at the checkout of Troy’s Marsh Supermarket.

It was treated ceremonial occasion and involved a little bit of ritual. The night before, a team of Marsh staff had moved in to put bar codes on hundreds of items in the store while National Cash Register installed their scanners and computers. The first "shopper" was Clyde Dawson, who was head of research and development for Marsh Supermarket the pioneer cashier who "served" him, Sharon Buchanan. Legend has it that Dawson dipped into his shopping basket and pulled out a multi-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Dawson explained later that this was not a lucky dip: he chose it because nobody had been sure that a bar code could be printed on something as small as a pack of chewing gum, and Wrigley had found a solution to the problem. Their ample reward was a place in American history.

The first item marked with the Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned at the checkout of Troy's Marsh Supermarket. (Courtesy of Yale University Press)

Joe Woodland said himself it sounded like a fairy tale: he had gotten the inspiration for what became the bar code while sitting on Miami Beach. He drew it with his fingers in the sand. What he was after was a code of some sort that could be printed on groceries and scanned so that supermarket checkout queues would move more quickly and stocktaking would be simplified. That such a technology was needed was not his idea: it came from a distraught supermarket manager who had pleaded with a dean at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia to come up with some way of getting shoppers through his store more quickly. The delays and the regular stocktaking were costing him his profits. The dean shrugged him off, but a junior postgraduate, Bernard "Bob" Silver, overheard and was intrigued. He mentioned it to Woodland, who had graduated from Drexel in 1947. Woodland was already an inventor, and he decided to take on the challenge.

So confident was he that he would come up with a solution to the supermarket dilemma that Woodland left graduate school in the winter of 1948 to live in an apartment owned by his grandfather in Miami Beach. He had cashed in some stocks to tide him over. It was in January 1949 that Woodland had his epiphany, though the brilliance of its simplicity and its far-reaching consequences for modern existence were not recognized until many years later.

Joe Woodland (here) and Bernard Silver filed a patent in 1949, which was granted in 1952. (Courtesy of Yale University Press)

It was Morse Code that gave him the idea. Woodland had learned it when he was in the Boy Scouts. As he was sitting in a beach chair and pondering the checkout dilemma, Morse came into his head:

I remember I was thinking about dots and dashes when I poked my four fingers into the sand and, for whatever reason—I didn’t know—I pulled my hand toward me and I had four lines. I said ‘Golly! Now I have four lines and they could be wide lines and narrow lines, instead of dots and dashes. Now I have a better chance of finding the doggone thing.’ Then, only seconds later, I took my four fingers—they were still in the sand—and I swept them round into a circle.

The patent illustrates the basic concept of a bull's-eye-shaped bar code. (USPTO)

Back in Philadelphia, Woodland and Silver decided to see if they could get a working system going with the technology to hand. They first filed a patent in 1949, which was finally granted in 1952. Although the patent illustrates the basic concept, there is only a smattering of anecdotal evidence about what Woodland and Silver actually built. A crude prototype in Woodland’s own home used a powerful 500-watt incandescent bulb. An oscilloscope was used to "read" the code the whole thing was the size of a desk. Allegedly, it worked, up to a point. But an objective evaluation judged it to be 20 years ahead of its time. Woodland and Silver had the right idea, but they lacked the minicomputer and, critically, a very bright light with which to "read" the black and white bar code.

On July 16, 1960, when he first saw the laser, the head of public relations at Hughes Aircraft Company of Culver City, California, Carl Byoir, declared they were in big trouble: "It looks like something a plumber made." But the next day, at a press conference held in the Delmonico Hotel in New York, the company made one of the most sensational announcements in the history of science. One of their research scientists, Theodore Maiman, had made an "atomic radio light brighter than the center of the sun."  Maiman produced for the newsmen his "laser," an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Most of the reporters were eager to learn what the laser was for, and what it could do. It was like science fiction. Maiman said the laser beam was so concentrated, so "coherent," that if it were beamed from Los Angeles to San Francisco it would spread only 100 feet. The tiny beam was hot and sharp enough to cut through materials. Could it be used as a weapon? That was not the intention, Maiman assured reporters. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Herald headlined its story: "LA Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray." This became a popular theme in the newspapers.

Theodore Maiman looks at the ruby used to create the first laser beam. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Maiman had won the race to build the very first laser, beating fierce competition from around the world. It is possible to imagine the extreme excitement that he and his associate Irnee D’Haenens experienced when they produced that first fickle beam. They did not know then what it might be used for, but they imagined it would have many applications in science and communications, in industry for cutting and welding, and in medicine for delicate surgery. But, as Maiman wrote, "I did not foresee the supermarket check-out scanner or the printer."

A booklet produced in 1966 by the Kroger Company, which ran one of the largest supermarket chains in North America, signed off with a despairing wish for a better future: "Just dreaming a little . . . could an optical scanner read the price and total the sale. . . . Faster service, more productive service is needed desperately. We solicit your help." Kroger’s business was groceries, not electronics, so the company went looking for a partner with the necessary expertise.

A small research team at the powerful Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was looking at a few new projects, including the possibility of an automatic bank cash machine, which they decided would not go because "the customer would not buy the concept." Finally, they lighted on the bar code. A search of the history turned up some apparently hare-brained schemes: in one, customers picked out punch cards that identified what they wanted to buy and presented them to a cashier, who retrieved the goods from a store. This did not survive long in the grocery business. Then there was the patent for a system in which the supermarket shopper threw everything into a basket, which was pushed under a scanner that identified each item and printed out a bill.

The first real-life test of RCA's bull's-eye bar code was at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in Cincinnati. (Courtesy of the ID History Museum)

They soon found the Woodland and Silver patent. This was not the rectangular bar code that Woodland had first envisaged on Miami Beach but the "bull's-eye" of concentric circles he thought would be a better design. When he and Silver worked on it, they decided the bull's-eye was the better symbol because it could be read accurately from any angle.

Printing the bull's-eye bar code proved to be one of the greatest difficulties, because any imperfections would make the whole system unworkable. A rotating turret of ballpoint pens, and a pen designed for astronauts that could write upside down, solved some of the problems. All this technical development, involving several companies commissioned by RCA, was to lead up to the first real-life test at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in Cincinnati. On July 3, 1972, the first automated checkstands were installed (One of RCA’s pioneer checkstands is in the Smithsonian collection.) More checkstands were installed and a comparison with other Kroger stores told an undeniable and very promising story: the bull's-eye bar code hit the target, with superior sales figures. But this was just one store in a nationwide grocery and supermarket business worth billions. If the laser and bar code were to revolutionize the checkout counter, they would have to be near universal.

The goal of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code could be stated very simply. The representatives of the grocery trade were charged with finding a way to introduce a Universal Product Code, a bar code of some description that would be common to all goods sold in supermarkets and imprinted by the manufacturers and retailers. The code would carry information about the nature of the product, the company that made it, and so on. In-store computers would "read" this information with scanners and introduce their own variations, which might involve special offers and reductions. The vision was there but the difficulties in the way of its realization were daunting.

Manufacturers were often resistant to the idea of a universal code. They had existing methods of identification of products, which would have to be discarded or adapted. Cardboard manufacturers worried that a printed code might spoil their product. Canners did not want to be obliged to put bar codes on the base of cans. It took four years to arrive at a workable proposition to put to the whole industry.

Eureka: How Invention Happens

Tracing the long pre-history of five twentieth-century inventions which have transformed our lives, Gavin Weightman reveals a fantastic cast of scientists and inspired amateurs whose ingenuity has given us the airplane, television, bar code, personal computer, and mobile phone.

In the end, seven companies, all of them based in the United States, submitted systems to the Symbol Committee, a technical offshoot of the Ad Hoc Committee. RCA, having demonstrated to the committee its system in Cincinnati, took the view, not unreasonably, that it was the only real contender.

However, at the last minute, International Business Machines (IBM) made a surprise bid. It had no technology at all to demonstrate to the committee, and the decision to enter the competition appears to have been an afterthought, despite the fact that it had in its employ none other than Joe Woodland. As it turned out, although he was involved in IBM’s submission, he was not the creator of its version of the Universal Bar Code. That fell to George Laurer, who, in his own view, had an advantage over his rivals because neither he nor IBM had given supermarket checkout systems or bar codes much thought and his company had no ready-made technology. Starting from scratch, Laurer had no prejudices about the appearance of the bar code, though his bosses had assumed it would be some version of the circular bull's-eye in Woodland’s patent and RCA’s pioneer system in Cincinnati.

Laurer was handed the specifications for a bar code that had been determined by the Symbol Selection Committee: it had to be small and neat, maximum 1.5 square inches to save money it had to be printable with existing technology used for standard labels it had been calculated that only ten digits were needed the bar code had to be readable from any direction and at speed there must be fewer than one in 20,000 undetected errors.

Although there was skepticism in IBM, Laurer was convincing enough to be given the go-head with a rectangular bar code. A division of IBM built a prototype scanner, and Laurer’s Universal Product Code was tested. "There were many skeptics in IBM," Laurer recalled, "not the least of whom was [his boss] B.O. Evans himself. However at the end of a flawless demonstration for Mr. Evans, we had our ace softball pitcher pitch beanbag ash trays, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over the scanner. When each one read correctly, Mr. Evans was convinced."

It was another matter to convince the Symbol Selection Committee, which was under huge pressure to accept RCA’s already functioning bull's-eye symbol and technology that had done much to inspire confidence that a universal product code could work. After asking for an appraisal of the rival symbologies from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on March 30, 1973, in a New York hotel close to Grand Central Station, the committee met to make its final and fateful decision. The committee’s chair Alan Haberman asked them first to declare how sure they were that the symbol they had chosen was the correct one. There was a very high level of confidence—about 90 percent all round—and the winner was Laurer’s rectangular code.

For Woodland, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, it must have been a strange experience to witness the reincarnation in sophisticated form of the elongated lines of Morse Code he had drawn in the sand in�. There was now a modestly priced laser scanner to register with a concentrated beam of light the coded vertical lines of alternating black and blank and a microcomputer to decipher the information.

Like so many inventions, the UPC was not an immediate success. It was when the mass merchandisers adopted the UPC that it took off, Kmart being the first. In fact, bar code technology was almost made for companies like Walmart, which deal in thousands of goods that need to be catalogued and tracked. The bar code took off in the grocery and retail business in the 1980s, and at the same time began to transform manufacturing and to appear like a rash on anything that benefited from instant identification. In 2004, Fortune magazine estimated that the bar code was used by 80 to㻚 percent of the top 500 companies in the United States.

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45 Years of Wal-Mart History: A Technology Time Line

Sam Walton's self-described distrust of computers didn't keep him from building his company into a global leader of information technology innovation.

First Wal-Mart opens in Rogers, Ark.

With more than 125 stores and $340.3 million in sales, Wal-Mart leases an IBM 370/135 computer system to maintain inventory control for all merchandise in the warehouse and distribution centers and to prepare income statements for each store.

Electronic cash registers in more than 100 Wal-Mart stores record point-of-sale (POS) data to maintain inventory.

Wal-Mart builds a companywide computer network and deploys a system for ordering merchandise from suppliers.

Wal-Mart sales top $1.2 billion, making it the first company to reach more than $1 billion in sales in a mere 17 years. The company builds a computer center and installs the first terminal in a store: an IBM 3774.

The company begins to use bar codes for scanning POS data.

Store associates start using Texlon handheld terminals when reordering merchandise. Upon scanning a shelf label, the unit provides a description of the merchandise, information on prior quantities ordered and other data.

Wal-Mart has 882 stores and sales of $8.4 billion.

Wal-Mart completes what is at the time the largest private satellite communication system in the United States. It links all operating units of company and headquarters with two-way voice, data and one-way video communication.

A check-in system designed to take full advantage of container bar-code labeling is in the back room of every Wal-Mart store.

A data warehouse prototype is created to store historical sales data.

Wal-Mart deploys the Retail Link system to strengthen supplier partnerships. The system provides vendors information on sale trends and inventory levels.

Wal-Mart has stores in 50 states, for a total of 1,995 Wal-Mart stores, 239 Supercenters, 433 Sam's Clubs and 276 international stores. Sales top $93.6 billion.

Wal-Mart makes Retail Link and EDI available via the Internet and begins using the Internet as an application platform.

Wal-Mart and Sam's Club launch online stores.

Wal-Mart chooses the Internet for data exchange with thousands of its global suppliers.

Linda Dillman becomes CIO.

Wal-Mart has its biggest single-day sales in history: $1.43 billion on the day after Thanksgiving.

Wal-Mart announces it will deploy radio frequency identification (RFID) technology on Jan. 1, 2005.

Wal-Mart redesigns Walmart.com, starts experimenting with Web 2.0 and social networking tools, and contracts with Oracle and Hewlett-Packard to use their price-optimization and BI retail applications.

The company ends the year with $349 billion in sales, nearly 2 million employees and 6,775 stores worldwide.

Wal-Mart launches Site to Store service, enabling online customers to pick up merchandise in stores.

The non-linearity of technological change

Whilst some technological change follows a continued linear progression, many of the technological innovations we see follow a non-linear pathway. This non-linearity is observed most clearly in examples which show rapid evolution following an important enabling innovation. Below we have included two examples of such trends: the take-off of human flight, and the sequencing of the human genome.

Progress in human flight

This chart shows the global distance record set by non-commercial flights since 1800. This record represents the maximum distance a non-commercial powered aircraft has traveled without refueling. We see that prior to 1900, humans had not yet developed the technology necessary to enable powered flight. It wasn’t until 1903 that the Wright Brothers were able to engineer the first powered flying technology. This initial innovation sparked continued, rapid progress in modern aviation, with the record distance increasing nearly 150,000-fold from 0.28 kilometers in 1903 to just under 41,500 kilometers in 2006.

This provides one examples of non-linear evolution of technological change: a single enabler shifted us from a civilization unable to fly, to one which could. Progress in aviation — and space exploration — has been rapid since.

Click to open interactive version

Progress in human genome DNA sequencing

Another example which demonstrates this non-linear progress is the field of human genome DNA sequencing. 5 The Human Genome Project (HGP), which aimed to determine and map the complete set of nucleotide base pairs which make up human DNA (which total more than three billion) ran over 13 years from 1990-2003. This initial discovery and determination of the human genome sequence was a crucial injection point in the field of DNA sequencing.

As reported by the NHGRI Genome Sequencing Program (GSP), the cost of sequencing DNA bases has fallen dramatically (more than 175,000-fold) since the completion of the first sequencing project. Note that this costing refers to the price of raw base pairs of DNA sequence the cost of producing the full human genome is higher than the sum of 30 million base pairs would suggest. This is because some redundant sequence coverage would be necessary to complete and assemble the full genome. Nonetheless, this rapid decline in cost is also observed in prices for the sequencing of a complete human genome.

This can also be observed in another way: in this chart we have plotted the number of human genome base pairs which can be sequenced for one US$. In the early 2000s, we could sequence in the order of hundreds of base pairs per US$. Since 2008, we have seen a dramatic decline in the cost of sequencing, allowing us to now produce more than 33 million base pairs per US$.

Click to open interactive version

Recent News

Natascha van Bommel and Johanna Höffken (Eindhoven University of Technology) are happy to share with you their recently published article:&hellip

This year, SIGCIS [SHOT’s Special Interest Group in Computing, Information, and Society] is holding its annual conference virtually, Sept 23-25,&hellip

As the History of Science Society looks towards its second century, the next Executive Director (ED) will be charged with&hellip

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is proud to announce a call for applications for its Leading Edge Fellowship program. This&hellip

The Canadian Business History Association – l’association canadienne pour l’histoire des affaires (BHA/ACHA) organizes the webinar: 150 YEARS OF CANADIAN&hellip

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech seeks to fill two faculty positions to advance transdisciplinary&hellip

Information technology

Information technology (IT) is the use of computers to store or retrieve data [1] and information. IT is typically used within the context of business operations as opposed to personal or entertainment technologies. [2] IT is considered to be a subset of information and communications technology (ICT). An information technology system (IT system) is generally an information system, a communications system, or, more specifically speaking, a computer system – including all hardware, software, and peripheral equipment – operated by a limited group of IT users.

Humans have been storing, retrieving, manipulating, and communicating information since the Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed writing in about 3000 BC. [3] However, the term information technology in its modern sense first appeared in a 1958 article published in the Harvard Business Review authors Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler commented that "the new technology does not yet have a single established name. We shall call it information technology (IT)." Their definition consists of three categories: techniques for processing, the application of statistical and mathematical methods to decision-making, and the simulation of higher-order thinking through computer programs. [4]

The term is commonly used as a synonym for computers and computer networks, but it also encompasses other information distribution technologies such as television and telephones. Several products or services within an economy are associated with information technology, including computer hardware, software, electronics, semiconductors, internet, telecom equipment, and e-commerce. [5] [a]

Based on the storage and processing technologies employed, it is possible to distinguish four distinct phases of IT development: pre-mechanical (3000 BC – 1450 AD), mechanical (1450–1840), electromechanical (1840–1940), and electronic (1940–present). [3] This article focuses on the most recent period (electronic).

Technology Timeline

Technology Timeline Timeline
History Timelines of Events provide fast facts and information about famous events in history, such as those detailed in the Technology Timeline, precipitated a significant change in World history. This major historical event is arranged in the Technology Timeline by chronological, or date order, providing an actual sequence of this past event which was of significance to history. Many historical events, such as detailed in the Technology Timeline, occurred during times of crisis or evolution or change. Many of the famous World events as detailed in the Technology Timeline describe famous, critical and major incidents. The specific period in history detailed in the Technology Timeline led to great changes in the development of World Civilisation. The Technology Timeline timeline provides fast information via timelines which highlight the key dates and major historical significance in a fast information format. Specific information can be seen at a glance with concise and accurate details of this historical event of World significance. The History timelines of famous events include timelines and chronologies of many important events of significant occurrence and outcome including the Technology Timeline.