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Changes at Lotus, 1982 – 2012

One of the things that I want to examine at tymshft is the way that individual companies have evolved over the years. When someone starts a company, the business environment has certain characteristics, and the technological environment has certain characteristics. But 15 years later, or 30 years later, or 100 years later, things could change dramatically.

Take Lotus. When Lotus Development Corporation was founded in 1982, the key word was “integration.” When Byte Magazine reviewed the not-yet-released Lotus 1-2-3 in its December 1982 edition, the word was prominent:

Lotus’s 1-2-3 is modestly revolutionary because it synergetically combines three packages….

Integration is a very important characteristic of 1-2-3. Because the spreadsheet, database, and graphing programs are in the computer simultaneously (1-2-3 does not use overlays to bring in sections of code when called), you are more likely to use them. I for one am always annoyed when I have to wait for UCSD Pascal to load another part of the language system whenever I go, say, from the Filer to the Editor. I would be less apt to experiment with graphing different sets of data with Visicorp’s Visicalc and Visiplot, which would involve saving my data to disk, exchanging disks, starting up the Visiplot program, exchanging disks again, reading in the data, and, finally, plotting the data. I would do a similar sequence of disk and program switching to get back to Visicalc and adjust my data. How much experimentation does that rigamarole encourage?

Even when hard disks became more common (eliminating the floppy-switching), the very idea of not having to start up separate programs was, at the time, mind-boggling. A couple of years after Lotus 1-2-3 was released, I was working for a company that offered a word processor, spreadsheet, and other packages for the THEOS operating system. At a trade show I ran into a guy who was specifically looking for “integrated” software. Lotus 1-2-3 had made an impact.

Thirty years have passed, and a lot has happened on the technology front – people eventually forgot about Lotus 1-2-3 (although Windows users can still purchase it today) and concentrated on Lotus Notes. And of course, a lot happened on the business front also – today, if you want Lotus products, you’re paying money to IBM. And if you go to the Lotus section on IBM’s website today, you won’t run across integration – you’ll run across collaboration.

IBM Lotus Software delivers robust collaboration software that empowers people to connect, collaborate, and innovate while optimizing the way they work. With Lotus you can drive better business outcomes through smarter collaboration.

Collaboration wasn’t all that important in 1982-1983. At that time, the pendulum had swung from centralized computing to distributed computing, and people were all creating individual spreadsheets and storing them on their own floppy disks.

But collaboration is clearly important today, and Lotus – I mean IBM – has shifted its focus.

Computing memory in the 18th century – Jacquard’s Loom and its punched cards

I’d be willing to bet that most of you haven’t worked with a computer that accepted punched cards. I only did so once in my life – toward the end of high school I was taking a Fortran class. I can’t remember why I dropped the class, but I do remember that all of our Fortran programs had to be entered via punched cards. Even by the late 1970s, punched cards were on the way out. By that time the IBM punched card had enjoyed a long history.

In 1928, IBM introduced a new version of the punched card with rectangular holes and 80 columns. This newly designed “IBM Computer Card” was the end result of a competition between the company’s top two research teams, working in secrecy from one another. It turned out to be one of IBM’s most important technological innovations, propelling the company to the forefront of data processing. For almost four decades, it was the major medium for storing, sorting and reporting data processed first through punched card equipment and later computers. As late as the mid-1950s, punched card sales made up 20 percent of IBM’s revenues and an astonishing 30 percent of its bottom line.

But punched cards were not invented by IBM in 1928. Nor were they invented by Herman Hollerith in the late 19th century. Nor were they invented by Charles Babbage. The true origin of punched cards lies in the 18th century’s version of 3-D printing – the weaving industry. Joseph-Marie Jacquard was responsible for this advance:

In consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the late 18th century had witnessed a considerable expansion in the automation of processes that had once been the preserve of small groups of highly skilled workers employed in so-called `cottage industries’. The textile industry was one sphere were industrialisation had rendered obsolete such skills. Whereas, prior to the development of mechanical looms and weaving machines, lengths of fabric had to be woven slowly by hand, the advent of powered tools for carrying out this task meant that quantities of fabric could be mass-produced at a far quicker rate than previously, thereby reducing its expense. There was one area, however, where the new machines could not compete with skilled manual workers: in the generation of cloth containing anything other than a plain (or at best extremely simple) woven pattern. The Jacquard Loom provided a solution to this problem so that, with it in use, extremely intricate patterns and pictures could be automatically woven into cloth at much the same rate as a plain length of fabric could be generated. The key idea behind Jacquard’s loom was to control the action of the weaving process by interfacing the behaviour of the loom to an encoding of the pattern to be reproduced. In order to do this Jacquard arranged for the pattern to be depicted as a groups of holes `punched’ into a sequence of pasteboard card. Each card contained the same number of rows and columns, the presence or absence of a hole was detected mechanically and used to determine the actions of the loom. By combining a `tape’ of cards together the Jacquard loom was able to weave (and reproduce) patterns of great complexity, e.g. a surviving example is a black and white silk portrait of Jacquard woven under the control of a 10,000 card `program’.

Additional information on Jacquard and other punched card pioneers can be found here.

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