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Taking the plunge: Enterprise IT firsts over the decades

Technology trailblazers are everywhere these days, but early on, big corporations were reluctant to gamble on unproven startups. Which brave businesses were the first to put technology to use? Here are just a few of the early pioneers.

IT is an essential corporate function today, driven by desire for profits. But the modern computer age emerged from government- and university-funded research. The first true programmable computers were developed during World War II, to break Nazi codes and produce artillery firing tables. A generation later, the Internet emerged from a U.S. Department of Defense research project, and 20 years after that, the web was created as a side hobby at a scientific lab.

Private companies, in contrast, are more conservative in adopting new technology, usually waiting until the kinks are worked out. But inevitably, some company takes the first step. We tracked down the pioneers in a number of enterprise and web tech categories over the early computer age. Perhaps their stories can help you decide whether you should take a chance on the new tech of the moment.

First business computer: the LEO I

You might think the first computer built specifically to assist the operations of a for-profit company would appear in aerospace, defense, or some other high-tech industry. But no, this pioneering moment in business tech history occurred in 1951 at a British food and catering company, J. Lyons & Co. Lyons sent two executives to the U.S. in the late 1940s to assess the potential of computers. But the company's management thought it best to support queen, country, and British industry instead of turning to the Yanks, so they partnered with Cambridge University, which was working on a project called EDSAC (electronic delay storage automatic calculator).

The result was a business computer called the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO, which helped manage the operation of the company's bakeries. While it's unclear whether LEO actually helped Lyons' bottom line, the project proved that computers had applications beyond the academic. Listen to its story here.

First corporate mainframe: GE'S UNIVAC I

The first mainframe, in the sense that we'd understand it, was the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer), designed from the start to be a business computer. At first, though, it was used only in government, the military, and academia. General Electric, itself a major defense contractor during and after World War II, became the computer's first private-sector customer in 1954, putting it to work in the company's state-of-the-art appliance factory. Burton Grad, an engineer with GE at the time, wrote a fascinating description of how he came to write the code for UNIVAC's role there. Grad worked by himself and managed to get his application up and running faster than a rival team working on an accounting software project. He also notes that GE's move to deploy UNIVAC was driven in part by the desire to cut costs by increasing automation and undermining the unionized workforce.

Univac control panel

Source: Wikimedia Commons, CCL

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First company to use spreadsheets: Bell Canada

By 1969, computers were in place at most large companies, but the idea that ordinary users might interact with them was still foreign. Managers still had to hand over budget forms to programmers who instructed the computers to do the math. Two recent Harvard grads, Rene Pardo and Remy Landau, had an idea to bypass all this and developed a tool they called LANPAR, for Language for Programming Arrays at Random. LANPAR was, in effect, the first spreadsheet, running on mainframes of the era such as the GE-400 and Honeywell 6000. It was simple enough that non-programmers could use it. Accountants at Bell Canada, their first customer, used LANPAR to rework the company's budget program in a weekend—a task the programming group said would take six to 24 months.  

LANPAR found customers at AT&T and local Bell companies in the U.S., but it didn't catch on elsewhere. All evidence seems to indicate that VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for PCs, was developed independently, though VisiCalc lacked several of LANPAR's features, such as forward referencing and natural order calculation. Still, LANPAR eventually prevailed in a patent suit in 1982.

First company with a hacking problem: AT&T

The first hackers (in the negative sense of people gaining unauthorized access to electronic systems, not the original positive sense) were the phone phreaks of the late 1960s. Phreaking involved playing sounds into telephones to reproduce AT&T's control tones and in so doing gain access to the back-end systems and make free phone calls. The very first phreakers were blind teenagers with perfect pitch. But the Blue Box, a sound-producing gadget that made the capabilities more widely accessible, was created by John Draper, a.k.a. Cap'n Crunch, and is considered a hacking holy object.

Phreaks used their powers for everything from pranks—Steve Wozniak called the Vatican claiming to be Henry Kissinger—to just straight up stealing telephone services. AT&T eventually had to change how its networks worked in the 1970s as the techniques became more popular, marking the first corporate IT upgrade motivated by cybersecurity.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, CCL

First corporate CIO: Bank of America

Over the 1970s and 1980s, computers spread until they were in most departments of most companies. But it wasn't until 1986 that a tech-focused executive joined the C-suite. That man was Bank of America's Al Zipf, who shaped the way banking worked in the second half of the 20th century. You know those magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) stripes at the bottom of paper checks? Zipf spearheaded the team that developed those in the 1960s. Before the MICR stripes were widely used, bank branches closed to the public at 2 p.m. so employees could spend the afternoon processing checks.

Zipf rose through the ranks and was rewarded by being the first person to receive the title of CIO. This wasn't just an achievement for Zipf. To tech companies like IBM, it was a recognition of the importance that technology now played in business and an organizational shift that was at least as important as any new hardware or software rollout.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, CCL

First company with a website: Nexor

The World Wide Web, like much of the Internet's infrastructure, was developed at a public institution—in this case, CERN, a public European research lab, in 1989. And the first webpages were all built at CERN and related institutions, mostly universities and other labs. Still, techies in private industry were paying attention, and in May of 1993, Martijn Koster, an early web dabbler working for pioneering British cybersecurity firm Nexor, wrote to the www-talk mailing list to announce his company's "experimental web service," which included "some sales info about the company." This is as good a candidate as any for the first corporate website.

Koster would go on to make some other waves in the early web, creating Aliweb, the first search engine, and developing the robots.txt standard for blocking web crawlers.

First secure e-commerce transaction: NetMarket (maybe)

The moment when the Internet truly became a commercial venue arrived in 1994. In August of that year, the New York Times  heralded a purchase that will go down in history: a company called NetMarket used PGP to secure the online sale of Sting's "Ten Summoner's Tales" album for $12.48 to Phil Brandenberger of Philadelphia, which NetMarket claimed was the first-ever secure online transaction. But not so fast: The Internet Shopping Network, founded around the same time by Randy Adams, claims it made its first transaction a month earlier. NetMarket, against all odds, still exists, looking a little like an Amazon wannabe.

As a final side note, whether NetMarket or the Internet Shopping Network won the race, what they did was, strictly speaking, illegal. Commercial activity on the Internet was forbidden on the Internet until the spring of 1995, when the National Science Foundation relinquished its sponsorship of the Internet backbone. It just goes to show that today's regulation-skirting companies like Uber and Airbnb are playing a very old game. 

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.