Advancing humanity
IBM aims to have a positive impact on the world. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, IBM has pushed the boundaries 
of information technology — combining intelligence, reason and science to improve business, society and the human condition. 
Footprint of an astronaut on the surface of the moon.

IBM in everyday life

From finance to retail to transportation, IBM has played an integral role in the development and maintenance of the systems that make modern life work

About this exhibit

Modern industry and society exist at the intersection of dozens of complex systems. Think about how transportation infrastructure, commercial payment networks, energy grids, supply chains and social services keep life moving forward. Now also consider this fact: IBM has played a central role in the creation and maintenance of nearly all of them.

From the company’s beginnings, IBM built tools to solve problems, increase efficiency and offload cumbersome tasks. As its tools and technologies proved helpful in particular areas, their utility inevitably broadened, sometimes becoming full-scale platforms to support the rise of industries. Numerous examples prove the point.

One of the most striking shifts in IBM’s history occurred during the Great Depression with the introduction of the IBM 801 Bank Proof machine. A device for sorting and processing checks, it helped IBM form an enduring relationship with the finance industry and sparked innovations in banking and commerce for decades to come. The 801 showcased automation, which made way for the automated teller machine (ATM). IBM’s magnetic stripe technology then became the linchpin for a global ATM network and, subsequently, instantaneous debit and credit card transactions. Today, IBM remains heavily involved in global finance, including providing the supercomputers that instantly authenticate and verify transactions occurring around the globe.

A similar dynamic exists in retail. IBM created the now-ubiquitous universal product code (UPC) to streamline inventory management for grocery stores and packaged goods manufacturers and expedite the checkout process for customers. It accomplished that and more. The UPC laid the foundation for effective supply chain management and boosted the possibilities of commerce.

The company had an equally impressive impact on non-commercial systems. When the Great Depression destroyed the livelihoods of millions in the 1930s, the US Congress established the Social Security Administration to oversee the creation of a vast new economic safety net for retirees — one that would be funded by taxing the wages of 27 million people. The project’s scope was almost unimaginable. But when enlisted to help, IBM created a machine for the job: the IBM 077 Collator. Its success cemented a partnership that would transform the company, the nature of government operations and society at large. It opened a door for IBM to begin building innovative social systems in transportation, energy, voting, local governments and elsewhere.

In this section, you’ll find more stories about the wide-ranging impact IBM’s technologies and expertise have had over the years in building the complex systems that we all rely on every day.

Information

For more than a century, IBM has led the development of innovative tools, methods and rules to govern information storage, access, retrieval and privacy

About this exhibit

IBM has offered so many products and services over the decades that it can be difficult to succinctly describe the company’s business at any given time. But if it were necessary to distill IBM’s most enduring value proposition since its founding into a single description, it would be tough to beat “information processing.” From clocks and scales to supercomputers, many of the company’s signature products have shared a common purpose — to convey the intelligence that comes from crunching data. But for information to be processed, it must first be gathered, stored and made accessible. This is why it’s important to also acknowledge IBM’s leadership role in developing the tools and methods that have been so vital to these stages.

An early icon of the information age was a thin piece of stiff cardboard commonly known as “the IBM card.” Comprising 80 columns, 12 rows and a series of tiny rectangular holes, punched cards held most of the world’s stored data for nearly half a century. They greatly increased the efficiency, speed and accuracy of recordkeeping. They also helped propel IBM to the forefront of information processing. As recently as the early 1950s, punched cards accounted for as much as 20% of IBM’s revenue.

The company spurred the industry forward with a few key developments. In 1952, IBM introduced a major advance in magnetic storage through its IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine. By using the first magnetic tape drive, known as the IBM 726, it broke a memory and storage logjam and established an industry standard. Meanwhile, the company rethought the arduous process of accessing data, which then involved running a stack of punched cards through a machine. The first computer to use a random-access disk drive, RAMAC, reduced the time required to access data from days to seconds.

Random-access memory led to a revolution in portable data storage and transfer. The floppy disks that IBM began selling in the early 1970s owe a debt to RAMAC. Floppies housed magnetic tape storage in slim envelopes, each with the capacity of 3,000 punched cards. They became the most widely used storage medium for PCs — until the 1990s, when another IBM invention emerged: optical data storage. It utilized lasers to write to, and read from, small disks that contain a light-sensitive layer to store information. Optical disks delivered a lower cost per bit, had greater storage capacity than magnetic media, and didn’t wear out easily.

IBM continues to innovate in secure data storage and retrieval, most notably through its hybrid cloud systems, while also leading the quest to ensure data privacy, through both technology and policy structures.

Read on to learn more about IBM’s leadership role over the decades in the creation of new and innovative means to store, access, process and protect information.

Artificial intelligence

IBM has been pioneering AI systems since before the technology had fully escaped the realm of science fiction

Long before there were smart speakers, language translation apps and game-playing bots, IBM was laying the groundwork for AI-powered functionality across business and society.

As early as the 1920s, the company was making forays into automated translation. Its first system combined human agents with the era’s latest technologies — headphones and a switchboard. Within a few decades the concept evolved into an experimental software program that automatically translated Russian to English on the 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine, the world’s first commercial scientific computer. Today, the IBM Watson Language Translator, powered by neural machine translation technology, can instantly translate documents, news and more into dozens of languages.

Natural language processing (NLP) has traveled a similar path. Today’s smart speakers and automated customer service agents owe a debt to the development of IBM’s experimental speech-recognition device, Shoebox, which debuted at the 1962 World’s Fair. Named for its size, Shoebox entranced crowds by calculating a series of numbers and mathematical commands that had been spoken to it. It was an early hint of today’s NLP systems, which boost our productivity, entertain us and help us navigate the world.

Much of IBM’s more recent progress in AI comes from a willingness to have a bit of fun. Rules-based board and strategy games enable AI systems to study and anticipate interactions. Honing such skills leads to better game play, but also garners insight for researchers into how best to train AI systems across a variety of tasks.

In 1992, IBM created the world’s first backgammon-playing computer, which used an early neural network to learn game play and strategy. It had brainpower equivalent to a sea slug. Within a half decade, the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue became the first machine to defeat a world champion.

In 2011, Watson beat two of the most successful Jeopardy! champions. These systems have become the basis for AI advances that help companies and municipalities around the world manage factories, supply chains and urban infrastructure, and create more efficient business processes, from hiring and retention to lending practices.

As AI continues to extend its reach, IBM has committed to being a leader in creating more transparent AI systems that reduce unintended bias, as well as in outlining safeguards to maintain privacy in an age of ubiquitous facial recognition.

Read on to learn more about the significant role IBM has played over the years in developing the AI systems that so many of us rely on every day — as well as the work that the company continues to do to improve AI technologies and policies.

Research

A persistent commitment to scientific exploration has yielded world-changing discoveries and given rise to entire industries

About this exhibit

The first corporate pure-science research facility in the United States, The Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory, was born in 1945 of Thomas J. Watson Sr.’s desire to foster collaboration among a broad swath of scientists. What started with a modest footprint on the Columbia University campus has since grown into IBM Research, a revered global institution comprising thousands of scientists and engineers whose discoveries have provided the foundation for modern life and given rise to entire industries.

The first director, Wallace Eckert, established the organization’s reason for being. “This is our fundamental principle: Problems will be accepted because of scientific interest,” he said, “and not for any other considerations.” It has remained the guiding vision ever since.

While IBM Research has contributed greatly to the success of the corporate parent, the institution’s explorers, visionaries and tinkerers are driven not solely by possible productization and profit, but by a collective ambition to solve the world’s biggest problems. Together they have won six Nobel Prizes and six Turing Awards while authoring more than 110,000 scientific publications and collecting more than 150,000 patents.

Consider the impact of some of their innovations. IBM Research is responsible for inventing dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, which can be found in electronics, from laptops to video games to smartphones. It gave the world the hard drive, the relational database, the foundational computer programming language Fortran, and the silicon germanium chips that power billions of smartphones and Wi-Fi and GPS devices.

The institution has helped scientists unlock the mysteries of the nanoscale with fractal geometry and the scanning tunneling microscope. It has fundamentally advanced biotechnology and healthcare, from enabling affordable genomic sequencing with the DNA transistor to providing tens of millions of people a path to 20/20 vision via LASIK surgery. Then there are the breakthroughs in areas that have yet to fully mature, such as high-temperature superconductivity and quantum computing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the greatest contribution of IBM Research, but serious consideration must be given to the culture that has made such diverse innovations possible. IBM scientists and engineers operate in what might best be called a perpetual state of forced serendipity. An environment of world-class thinkers and tinkerers from far-ranging fields, bound by a common curiosity and ambition to solve big problems, encourages researchers to see roadblocks from new angles and to borrow practices from seemingly unrelated fields. In other words, it’s the type of far-ranging collaboration that IBM’s first CEO envisioned all those decades ago.

Read on to learn about some of the greatest achievements of IBM Research over the years, along with the motivations and insights of the institution’s shining stars.

Technology platforms

IBM introduced the platform business model — and so many of the productivity tools that the world relies on to this day

About this exhibit

In the early 1950s, IBM handled both the hardware development and manufacturing for a real-time air defense system called the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE, system. The project required inventing many technologies and would transform IBM’s bottom line during the 1950s. In addition to serving as the basis for future computing endeavors, SAGE sparked IBM’s decades-long march into developing technology platforms to operate mission-critical operations across business and society.

The most obvious descendant of SAGE was Sabre, the first computerized airline reservation system. Before Sabre, which stands for Semi-Automated Business Research Environment, booking a flight required traveling to the airport or waiting hours on the phone — and too often arriving for departure only to discover another passenger in your seat. Sabre, which was developed for American Airlines, linked reservation desks around the country to a central processing server, creating a network for sharing flight data worldwide. Sabre solidified IBM’s commitment to developing and operating hugely complex networks — in effect, platforms upon which entire industries can be built. It also led to what observers called “a bet-the-business move” on System/360 a few years later.

A family of mainframe systems introduced in 1964, System/360 ushered in an era of compatibility where computers were no longer collections of individual components. System/360 was the first computer platform to separate hardware and software. It enabled a program written for one computer to run on any other machine in the line, and it replaced all five of IBM’s existing computer product lines. The gamble paid off in a huge way, with the 360 and its descendants, System/370 and System/390, spawning entire markets and eventually giving rise to the personal computer.

The IBM PC also owes a debt to the company’s success in typewriters. Concurrent with System/360’s development, IBM introduced its iconic typewriter, the Selectric. Comprising 2,800 parts, including a spherical typing element resembling a bouncing golf ball, the Selectric sold 80,000 units in its first year. It introduced the power of using technological tools to record and manipulate information and would become the preferred means of data entry among businesses around the globe for decades to come. It also cemented a place in the annals of industrial design. Eventually, the Selectric gave way to the IBM PC, which enabled businesses to enter yet another new phase of productivity built around word processing, electronic spreadsheets and, eventually, instant communication.

Read on in this section to learn more about these key technologies, as well as IBM’s formative work in developing early iterations of voicemail, email, shared calendars and file databases — the platforms that so many of us rely on to this day.

IBM in space

These are the stories of the company that harnessed the passion and talents of its employees to help turn science fiction into reality. This is IBM in space.

IBM’s impact on space exploration is nearly impossible to overstate. In the 1940s, when spaceflight was still the realm of science fiction, IBM was piecing together the tools and expertise that would one day help launch NASA’s rockets into the cosmos. One of those tools, the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine, a large-scale electromagnetic calculator originally deployed to map ballistic trajectories, provided the company with the backbone to handle the government’s satellite programs in the 1950s.

By the time NASA began putting astronauts into Earth’s orbit with its Mercury and Gemini projects in the 1960s, IBM was providing cutting-edge data processing systems, complex software programs, and compact onboard computers to manage spacecraft safely from launch to landing. The company’s role in the later Apollo missions was of such importance, in fact, that one NASA flight director said, “Without IBM and the systems they provided, we would not have landed on the moon.”

By the time the lunar chapter came to a close, IBM was already helping to manifest the next leap forward for mankind. In the 1970s, NASA brought on the company to design the support systems for the country’s first space station, Skylab, as well as for the first international space mission, Apollo-Soyuz, a collaboration between the US and the former Soviet Union.

During the 1980s, IBM was consumed with creating the software and computers that would operate the Space Shuttle program.

At the dawn of another space age, one increasingly defined by entrepreneurialism and privatization, IBM was still playing a fundamental role in enabling cosmic exploration. The company continued to leverage emerging technologies to improve life on Earth and to reach for the stars.

In 2018, in a collaboration with Airbus, IBM introduced the first free-flying AI assistant in space — a bot named CIMON that provides companionship and critical technical support to the ISS’s European Columbus research module. Separately, the company has parked a space-based communications system in Earth’s lower orbit with the intention of mapping out the future of edge computing and cloud data centers. As Naeem Altaf, CTO of IBM’s Space Tech team said, “We are learning. We are redefining what is possible.”

Unexpected places

For decades, IBM has used cultural projects to stretch the boundaries of its technology and increase our collective understanding of history and the world around us

About this exhibit

IBM’s lasting impact on science and industry over the past century has remained consistent to the point of being expected. The company’s innovative tools and services have greatly enhanced research, office productivity, communications and commerce. But its reach has also extended into more unexpected realms, helping to further our understanding of the environment, preserve historical artifacts and increase our access to — and enjoyment of — everything from sporting events to museums.

For generations, the company has used cultural projects as a means to stretch the boundaries of technologies while providing valuable aid to humanities research. In 1950, for example, IBMers indexed and digitized 40,000 fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls in an effort to interpret the thinking of a long-lost Jewish monastic community. IBMers modified existing programs to read and analyze a vocabulary of more than 30,000 words in Hebrew, Aramaic and Nabatean. The company created software to track the frequency, use and sequence of words in the text.

In the 1960s, IBMers assisted in the restoration of Indonesia’s Candi Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple and the eighth wonder of the world. For the seven-year project, IBMers developed systems to track more than 300,000 stones, statues and sculpture work as the temple was dismantled and put back together. And in 1965, the company participated in the landmark Conshelf project, led by legendary French explorer Jacques Cousteau, in which six oceanauts occupied a habitat 100 meters below the Mediterranean Sea for three weeks. IBM systems continuously fed data to a mainland data center for real-time analysis and future study.

Healthcare

Helping healthcare do good by empowering it to do better

About this exhibit

In its long history working with the healthcare industry, IBM has been a vendor, partner and thought leader. From its earliest days managing military medical records for the US Surgeon General’s Office, IBM has been embedded in the mechanics of healthcare and a progressive advocate for technology’s pivotal role in developing novel and innovative strategies to improve human health and wellness.

More than a decade ago, IBM decried healthcare’s “piece parts” approach to implementing technology. For years, it pursued the ambitious vision for the industry of a fully integrated, transparent patient-care ecosystem, one built around electronic health records and health information exchanges that seamlessly shared data. All the while, it has deliberatively changed how the industry functions by adapting off-the-shelf technologies (mounted time clocks), inventing machines (the IBM 2991 Blood Cell Processor), and designing customized processes and solutions.

As one might expect of a company with a heritage of making big bets, IBM has repeatedly changed the healthcare conversation by reimagining the industry’s processes, practices and possibilities. Be it a primary care–centric health model, an online Health Village of educated consumers and providers, or an artificial intelligence “moon shot” to help find cures for diseases, IBM has boldly pursued an industry ideal while addressing today’s problems by designing and deploying the best available technologies.

To balance the growing demand for care in the coming decades against cost and labor pressures, outmoded ways of working, and gaps in service availability, the industry is slowly shedding its skeptical attitude toward technology — and increasingly turning to IT leaders for answers. Cloud computing and AI, both core to IBM’s future, will play pivotal roles, as will, no doubt, technologies and solutions that have yet to be conceived.

In the following stories, you’ll see examples of IBM’s efforts to improve healthcare globally by streamlining communications, improving billing and operations, and unlocking new capabilities. But as impressive as each initiative may be, the company’s true impact comes into focus only when you consider its decades-long commitment to reimagining and inventing systems to elevate the whole. Few industries have proven more fertile than healthcare for IBM to take on the big challenges of business while doing good work for the world.

Education

IBM’s long-standing focus on the importance of learning has cemented its corporate culture and guided the company’s efforts to do well and to do good in the world

About this exhibit

Given IBM’s persistent focus on education over more than a century, it may be surprising to discover that the company’s first CEO, Thomas Watson Sr., didn’t have much in the way of formal education. Although his parents encouraged him to become a lawyer, Watson took just one college-level accounting class before opting to join the workforce — as a supermarket bookkeeper for $6 per week. Which is not to say that he didn’t value education. In fact, Watson consistently stressed the importance of knowledge acquisition along the way to becoming one of the most successful businesspeople of his generation and one of history’s thought leaders on the role and obligations of corporations in broader society.

Watson championed education as key to employee advancement. He believed the one prerequisite to success in any endeavor is the desire to develop and learn. “There is no saturation point in education,” he famously said. He spearheaded the development of technical curricula, namely computer science, in secondary education. He established novel (for the time) collaborations with the finest universities. And he pushed the boundaries of scientific inquiry by donating and selling untold amounts of equipment to academic researchers.

IBM’s culture and business model both still reflect this ethos. It’s partly self-preservation. IBM is not a product-oriented company. Rather, it develops solutions to the biggest challenges of the day. As those challenges change and technologies evolve, IBM’s offerings do, too. So it’s in the company’s interest to foster each employee’s curiosity and ability to think. It also helps sales and recruiting efforts to unpack the wondrous complexities of mathematics and science, as the company has repeatedly done in films, books and venues, ranging from numerous world’s fairs to Disney’s Epcot. And, of course, it just makes good business sense to partner with academic institutions as a means of uncovering new uses and markets for IBM machines and capabilities.

But the company’s educational initiatives are far more than transactional. They reflect a pair of foundational principles that Watson and successors have all espoused: respect for the individual, and the assertion that a company can do well while doing good. IBM has always focused on education as the path leading to both personal growth and corporate success.

In the following stories, you’ll see examples of how IBM’s focus on education has manifested into a knowledge-seeking culture that transcends products, solutions and entire generations.

Networks

From email to the internet, e-business and the cloud, IBM has consistently developed new ways to increase the power of technology in networked settings

About this exhibit

IBM may be known best for creating sophisticated computers over the decades. But the company also has steered the industry in developing ways to connect technology systems to unleash their full potential. By harnessing the exponential power of networks, IBM has both reshaped societal behavior and altered the nature of business.
 
In 1933 — six decades before the earliest forms of what we now consider email became widely available — Thomas J. Watson Sr. bought the patents to a prototype device for sending typewritten messages. In his mind, the Radiotype, which enabled electric typewriters to transmit and receive text by shortwave radio, heralded a future of globalized communication. He started a Radiotype division at IBM, and the device would give the US a distinct advantage in World War II and set the stage for the invention of wireless translation systems.

In the early 1960s, with the release of System/360, the first computer specifically designed to allow simultaneous usage, IBM pioneered time-sharing, which allowed dozens of users to work concurrently without interference. Time-shared systems provided a nearly instant response for users and opened the door to today’s cloud-based architectures.

The company also played a key role in the development of the modern internet. In the mid-1980s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched an initiative to build a powerful backbone to link supercomputer centers and regional academic networks. A year later, the agency unveiled NSFNET. It was slow and continuously overloaded, but it exhibited obvious potential. So in 1987, the NSF called on IBM and two partners to build and maintain a higher-speed version. Their efforts would give birth to the internet and forever change how people work, communicate, learn and connect.

IBM also guided the business community in tapping the power of being persistently networked with customers and suppliers. The company launched a massive campaign around “e-business,” highlighting IBM’s capabilities to cultivate strategies far beyond mere e-commerce. It helped clients reorient themselves toward an always-on world and sold systems to ensure both uptime and security.

Read on in this section to learn more about these seminal developments and how IBM’s relentless focus on the power of networks has shaped IBM’s technology, business strategy and bottom line.

Environmental, social and corporate governance

IBM’s first CEO aspired to make the world a better place. The company — and its hundreds of thousands of employees — continue that effort to this day.

About this exhibit

At the January 1931 annual convention for the exclusive Hundred Percent Club, created to reward IBMers who had reached their annual sales quota, first CEO Thomas Watson Sr. offered a surprising directive for his company’s top performers. “I want all of you to resolve to stand for something big and fine outside of your business life,” he urged.

It was a simple yet profound request that would guide not only the select group before him but also hundreds of thousands of employees to come. In keeping with his resolve for IBM to be a good corporate citizen and to make the world a better place, Watson’s instruction has evolved into a persistent calling for IBMers to give of themselves to colleagues, to their communities, and to the stewardship of our planet.

IBMers have followed the charge to all corners of the globe, providing expertise, services and aid. They have participated in robust volunteer programs, including the Corporate Service Corps (now IBM Service Corps), which was established to harness the high-value technological skills of scientists, engineers and business leaders to spur economic development in emerging economies. They have staged corporate-wide events to give back to communities, including the Celebration of Service during IBM’s centennial year, when more than 300,000 employees from 120 countries donated their time, skills and passions to more than 5,000 projects.

At IBM, volunteerism is more than altruism. It’s an investment that pays dividends in the form of employee satisfaction and loyalty, growth in leadership skills, and community health. And beyond the formal programs, employees also consistently demonstrate compassion in times of crisis. With hundreds of thousands of employees spread across 170 countries, IBMers are invariably nearby wherever disaster strikes. They always seem to answer the call, whether that means setting up communications systems, developing disaster-relief protocols, tracking disease spread, or even simply handing out blankets and water during earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires and pandemics.

Beyond having a positive impact in communities, IBM’s ESG goals include making a positive impact on the world in business ethics and our environment. The company has a long history of environmental leadership. It was among the first companies to issue an environmental policy and has consistently led regulatory directives to create better pathways to conserve natural resources, reduce pollution and minimize climate-related risks. In the realm of corporate governance, it has also consistently been at the forefront of creating policies and practices that prioritize ethics, trust, transparency and accountability.

In the following stories, you’ll see numerous organized and ad hoc examples of how IBM and IBMers follow the original directive of the first CEO, who believed deeply that IBM should exist to make the world a better place.

Supercomputing

A proud history of building the world’s most powerful computers

The first recorded use of the word “supercomputing” appeared in a 1929 edition of the New York World. The headline read “Super Computing Machines Shown,” referring to a desk-sized tabulator built by IBM for Columbia University. By today’s standards, the machine was hardly super — it could solve only 12 equations. But it inspired a focus at IBM that would underpin a century of building ever more powerful, innovative computers capable of tackling problems previously considered beyond the reach of any machine.

The first modern supercomputers — the term typically refers to mainframes designed to handle uncommonly demanding tasks in science or industry — came into use in the early 1960s when IBM introduced the IBM 7030 Stretch. It ranked as the fastest in the world for several years. In the decades to follow, IBM would continue to push supercomputing performance. Since 2000, IBM has consistently produced the most powerful machines. In 2018, IBM’s Summit and Sierra ranked as the world’s two fastest supercomputers — the only time a single vendor has achieved the top two positions.

IBM’s heavy outlays for research and a willingness to push the envelope of computer design has contributed to the company’s — and America’s — leadership in supercomputing. In a 1961 speech titled “Automation and National Power,” given shortly after the introduction of the IBM Stretch, IBM chairman and CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. framed the pursuit of global dominance in supercomputing as important not only to IBM but to America’s economic competitiveness, national security and leadership in innovation, a mission that endures to this day. “We shall not hold back in the development of super machines,” Watson said. “The ‘faster than’ contest is not yet over. In some respects, Stretch is only the beginning in a new decade of super computers. Twenty years from now, we will surely look back on it as a relic of the pioneer days.”

The first supercomputers were built to meet the rigorous requirements of government laboratories engaged in nuclear weapons research, which often needed to conduct more than 100 billion arithmetical operations to evaluate a weapon’s design. Unlike traditional computers, supercomputers use more than one central processing unit (CPU). Thousands of processors work in parallel to perform calculations far faster than a standard computer, with its single CPU, can. By the 1970s, supercomputers began to make their way into the commercial mainstream, used by large financial institutions, manufacturers, insurers and retailers to crunch mountains of business and customer data faster than ever before.

The increase in supercomputing power has long followed Moore’s law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who observed in 1965 that the processing power of computer chips was doubling roughly every two years. From the 1960s through the 1990s, supercomputers achieved roughly a thousandfold increase in speed per decade. In 2008, the IBM Roadrunnner supercomputer became the first to break through the petaflop barrier, capable of making more than 1 quadrillion floating-point calculations per second. (A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros.)

Supercomputers have advanced to the point where they can simulate thinking. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer defeated Garry Kasparov in a chess match, becoming the first computer system to defeat a reigning world chess champion.

Today, supercomputers are harnessed to design commercial aircraft, discover new drugs, devise more efficient batteries, discover new sources of energy, and provide insights into how diseases develop and identify promising treatments. The National Weather Service uses supercomputers made by IBM to process data from satellites, weather balloons, buoys and radar to produce up-to-the-minute warnings about severe weather.

Ultimately, supercomputing’s most profound impact has turned out to be improving everyday life in ways most of us are unaware.