Tag Archives: IBM

Burt Grad: Univac Pioneer Looks Back, And Ahead

For many older Americans, technology is wonderful. They FaceTime grandkids, stream videos, and stay in touch with the online world.

But they’re not digital natives. They rely on those grandkids for technological help. There’s always fear of pushing the wrong button. Computers can seem like a foreign language.

Not to Burt Grad, though. He’s spent his life around technology. He was in on the ground floor of some of the first computers — literally.

And now — at 94 years old — he’s working on a project to save as much of its history as he can.

Burt Grad, at his 85th birthday party.

His office is in the Westport home he shares with his second wife, Carol Anne Ances. There’s a computer, of course, and a cellphone. It has exponentially more power, he says, than “the whole building” that housed the original machines he worked on.

They were at GE. The company bought the first commercial-use Univac 1 computer ever made. There were only 2 others in existence: one at the Census Bureau, the other used by the Air Force.

Its main memory consisted of 1,000 words, of 12 characters each. Grad points to his cellphone — with exponentially more power — and laughs.

Remington Rand’s Univac 1, at the US Census Bureau in 1951.

He grew up in Washington. The summer after graduating from high school, in 1945, he worked at the Pentagon doing statistical analyses of Army Air Force training flights. It was his introduction to punch cards.

Grad earned a scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and majored in management engineering. He was hired by GE, headquartered in nearby Schenectady, New York.

Burt Grad, 1959.

Working there, then in New York City and Louisville, he created the first commercial business applications on that Univac, helping automate factories.

Moving on to IBM, he managed the development of over 100 application program products. He represented IBM in the software industry trade association.

IBM’s legendary former chair Thomas Watson once said that the maximum number of computers that the world needed was 17. “He was slightly wrong,” Grad notes.

As great and important a company as IBM became in computers, Grad adds, it missed the boat with software. They saw it only as a way to sell hardware — not something with intrinsic value.

His third career was in consulting. In a 3 decade-plus career, Grad worked for over 200 clients. He did strategic planning, due diligence studies and valuation projects for software and services companies.

An industry titan, he recognized the need to compile some of the history he was seeing (and participating in). As co-chair of the Software Industry Special Interest Group at the Computer History Museum, Grad has collected oral histories and pored through files from software pioneers from the 1950s through the ’80s.

Software — not hardware — is the force that truly powered the computer revolution, Grad says.

And this has been more powerful than the previous seismic one. “All the Industrial Revolution did was change how we move physical objects,” Grad says. “Now, we move ideas around the world.”

The computer revolution began in earnest in the 1970s. In 1971, when Burt Grad’s future stepson Michael Ances was 1, he played with this IBM 3270 terminal, connected to an IBM mainframe computer. Michael’s mother Carol Anne worked with Grad at IBM.

“Software” is a hard-to-define term, of course. “Google is really a software company,” Grad says. “So is Amazon. The only reason we use them is because they’re online.”

By that definition, Uber may be a software company too. And what about banks? They spend a significant amount of money on computing, Grad says.

Documenting the importance of software is one of the Westporter’s several passions. He has recorded 130 oral histories — each lasting 2 to 6 hours — for the Computer History Museum.

Topics include the development of spreadsheets, word processors and desktop publishing.

Why is it important? “Why is the history of the Gold Rush important?” Grad counters. “This is an incredible industry. It has impacted nearly everyone’s life. Except for a couple of people, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it wasn’t being captured.”

There’s an irony to his work. During the Gold Rush, people wrote letters and journals. Those physical objects remain, a century and a half later.

Thanks to software itself, we have very little physical documentation of the development of that software.

Burt Grad, at work.

Grad knows a lot — and at 94, his mind is as sharp as it was when he was devising the first commercial applications for Univac 1.

But he draws the line at predicting what’s next.

“I’m not smart enough to do that,” Grad says. “No one is. No one in the 1960s and ’70s knew where we would be in 30 or 40 years. No one knows where we’ll be 10 years from now.

“I won’t be around then. But my kids, my grandkids and great-grandkids will be.”

Whatever world they live in, they’ll have Burt Grad to thank for helping them live in it.

And for keeping its history alive.

(Hat tip: Michele Solis)

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Mark Hennessy’s Journey To Homelessness

On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Mark Hennessy returned from a European business trip.

That night, IBM’s general manager did not sleep in his Westport home. Instead, Mark put on several layers of warm clothes, grabbed his sleeping bag, and found a grate near the Lincoln Tunnel. Like a homeless person, he spent the night on the cold city streets of New York.

Mark Hennessy

Mark was not alone. With 150 other business leaders, he was raising awareness of — and money for — Covenant House.

Mark serves on the board of directors of the organization, which provides crisis care, outreach, health services, education and job training to thousands of homeless teenagers each year.

The “Executive Sleepout” was no mere publicity stunt. It raised $2.6 million for Covenant House’s 22 locations in the US, Canada and Latin America.

And it made a profound impact on Mark himself.

“It was a daunting experience,” Mark says, of his night spent sleeping on the street.

“These are really tough conditions. Young kids are out there every night.”

As a 3-year Covenant House board member, Mark has seen staff members provide shelter, food, respect and unconditional love to 56,000 homeless teens a year. He’s watched as many of those youngsters struggle to turn their lives around.

But nothing compared to one real night on the street.

After a Candlelight vigil at Times Square, and conversations with Covenant House residents, the business executives, sports and entertainment figures and other prominent leaders dispersed.

Following the advice of a couple of “veterans” who had participated in last year’s sleepout, Mark found a spot on a corner near the Lincoln Tunnel.

“It was cold and windy,” Mark says. “And noisy. I had no idea how much activity there is from trucks, buses and delivery vans.”

Sleeping was particularly difficult.

“I’d just gotten in from Europe that morning,” Mark notes. “I was pretty tired. But at 2 a.m., the cold concrete seeped up through the cardboard box, through my sleeping bag, my long underwear and my clothes. I wondered how these kids do this every night.”

At 4:30 a.m. Mark got up. He and a few other executives found coffee. He showered, then headed to work at IBM’s Armonk headquarters.

That’s a few miles — and an entire world — away from New York’s streets. The distance will stay with Mark for a long time.

Mark Hennessy heads to the Lincoln Tunnel.

He’s more inspired than ever to help get as many beds, and as much help, as possible. Mark says, “I have a new appreciation for these kids’ incredible survival challenges.”

He’ll remember his rough night. He’ll think of the 6,100 homeless teenagers Covenant House New York serves each year.

Each has a story to tell.

Before he hit the street, Mark spoke with a boy named Josh. When he was 10, his mother introduced him to drugs. At 17, driving while high, he crashed his car and killed his best friend. He went from a coma to jail, then to the streets.

Thanks to Covenant House, he’s now attending community college, and working 2 jobs. “I’m never going back where I was,” he told Mark.

A participant in Covenant House’s “Executive Sleepout.”

Mark thinks of his own son and daughter, and the teenagers he’s known through sports and school activities here.

“The kids at Covenant House are like kids in Westport, or anywhere,” Mark says. “They have a strong work ethic, and great dreams and aspirations.

“I know all of us who slept out one night are more inspired than ever to help all of those kids at Covenant House achieve their dreams.”

(For more information on Covenant House, click here.)

Happy Birthday, IBM!

Today is IBM’s 100th birthday.

Yeah, I didn’t know companies had birthdays either.  Normally “06880” would not announce — let alone celebrate — something like this.  But IBM is special.

In its heyday in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — when it was to the world of technology what Apple and Google are now —  IBM had an outsized impact on Westport.

The initials stood for “I’ve Been Moved,” the joke went.  And IBM men (for they were all male) arrived in town, year after year after year.  Some moved on, after relatively brief stints.  Others managed to make this their last move, and stayed.

A disproportionate number, it seems, got involved in Westport affairs.  IBM men ran for local office.  They coached sports teams.  They served on boards.  They were involved in the lives of their sons and daughters, and supported their wives’ volunteer efforts.

IBM men understood they were expected to give their talents to their community as well as their company.  They did so in many ways here, for many years.

IBM’s profile in Westport is lower today than it was back then.  But IBM men — and now, women — continue to be a vibrant part of town life.

Congratulations, IBM.  Thanks for all you’ve done, for all of us.  Here’s wishing you 100 more years, all over the globe.

And keep sending your best and your brightest to Westport.