10 enterprise IT firsts

Somebody's got to be first, even when it doesn't work out

Tech pioneers
O Pioneers

We think of IT as an essential corporate function today, driven by desire for profits. But computers largely emerged out of government- and university-funded research, much of it initially driven in the 1940s by the effort to win World War II -- in Britain, to break Nazi codes, and in the U.S., to produce artillery firing tables.

Private companies, by contrast, were often later to the game when it came to adopting new technology. Often, a more conservative attitude pays off, as you can start integrating new technology into your business after the kinks were worked out. But somebody has to be first -- and we tried to track down the pioneers in a number of corporate IT categories.

First business computer: J. Lyons & Co., 1951
First business computer: J. Lyons & Co., 1951

Bizarrely, the first computer built specifically to assist the operations of a for-profit company didn't appear in aerospace or defense or some other high-tech industry; it debuted in 1951 at a British food and catering company. J. Lyons & Co. sent two execs to the United States in the late '40s to assess the potential of computers, and the company's management decided to help British industry rather than buying what America would offer, working with Cambridge on the EDSAC project and using their own variation, the LEO, to help manage the operation of their bakeries. While it's unclear whether LEO actually helped Lyons' bottom line, the computer proved that it had applications beyond the academic.

First corporate use of a mainframe: GE, 1954
First corporate use of a mainframe: GE, 1954

A few years later, General Electric became the first private customer for UNIVAC I, which had been designed as a business computer but had only found customers in the military and academia to that point. Burton Grad, an engineer with GE at the time, wrote a fascinating description of how he came to write the code for UNIVAC's first commercial application, performing manufacturing control operations in a state-of-the-art GE appliance factory. Working alone, Grad got his application up and running faster than the team working on an accounting software project; he also ties his duties to GE's suspicion of a unionized workforce and desire to cut costs by increasing automation.

First airline to use computerized booking: Trans-Canada Airlines, 1963
First airline to use computerized booking: Trans-Canada Airlines, 1963

American Airlines was a famous pioneer in automation; they developed the electromechanical Reservisor in 1946 to help book tickets, and as early as 1953 were discussing with IBM the development of the system that would become SABRE, still in use today. But SABRE took over a decade to build, and in the meantime Trans-Canada Airlines, working with the British electrical firm Ferranti, beat them to market with their own ReserVec system by a few months.

ReserVec, like SABRE, was intended as a product that other airlines might buy, but it never took off like its American counterpart. Part of the issue may have been that ReserVec didn't store complete passenger information, which required manual processing or a second complementary computer system.

First company to use spreadsheets: Bell Canada, 1969
First company to use spreadsheets: Bell Canada, 1969

Rene Pardo and Remy Landau were developers who believed that users should have more control over the software they used. They wrote LANPAR, a mainframe application that was the first ever electronic spreadsheet -- and accountants at their first customer, Bell Canada, were able to revamp the company's budget program in a weekend, rather than in the 6 to 24 months the programming group wanted.

Though LANPAR had a few other customers, it was largely forgotten as the mainframe era passed, and VisiCalc, the first microcomputer spreadsheet, appears to have been developed independently, and initially lacked important LANPAR features like forward referencing and natural order calculation. LANPAR only won its patent suit in 1982.

First company to be hacked: AT&T, late 1960s
First company to be hacked: AT&T, late 1960s

The first hackers (in the negative sense, of people gaining unauthorized access to electronic systems) were the phone phreakers of the late 1960s. Phreaking involved playing sounds into telephones to reproduce AT&T's control tones and gain access and free phone calls. The first phreakers were blind teenagers, many of whom had perfect pitch, but John Draper, aka Cap'n Crunch, helped phreaking go mainstream by building the Blue Box, a gadget that allowed anyone to play. Early users included Steve Wozniak, who was in it for the innocent pranks (he once called the Vatican, claiming to be Henry Kissinger), but others just wanted to make free phone calls. The growing popularity forced AT&T to upgrade its networks in the early 1970s.

First Internet-connected companies: BBN and Systems Development Corp., 1970
First Internet-connected companies: BBN and Systems Development Corp., 1970

ARPANET, the immediate predecessor to the Internet, was a Defense Department research project born in 1969, and initially it connected universities in the southwestern United States. It was only in the wave of new nodes added in mid 1970 that actual private companies were connected to the proto-Internet: BBN, a defense contractor that had actually built the initial network, and System Development Corporation, which up until a few months before had been a nonprofit spinoff of the Defense Department's SAGE project. Perhaps the first company truly independent of the project's creation to be connected was the Burroughs Corporation, a now largely forgotten mainframe manufacturer, which was hooked up by January of 1971.

First company with a CIO: Bank of America, 1986
First company with a CIO: Bank of America, 1986

Al Zipf was part of the team that shaped the way banking worked in the second half of the 20th century, spearheading the development of those magnetic-ink characters at the bottom of paper checks that allowed banks to process checks automatically. Bank of America pioneered this technology in the 1960s -- before it was implemented, branches had to close their doors at 2 p.m. and spend the afternoon manually processing all those accumulated paper checks -- and Zipf was rewarded with promotion, eventually becoming the bank's -- and the world's -- first CIO in 1986. This wasn't just an achievement for Zipf; tech companies like IBM were ecstatic to have a tech-focused officer in companies' top ranks.

First company with a website: Nexor, 1993
First company with a website: Nexor, 1993

Symbolics.com may have received the first corporate URL, in 1985, but that doesn't mean it had the first company website. That honor seems to have fallen on Nexor, a pioneering British cybersecurity company. Though the company has obviously always been tech-savvy, it can probably thank former employee Martijn Koster for its pioneering position online: Koster was a very early web dabbler, and would go on to create Aliweb, the first web search engine, and the robots.txt standard for blocking web crawlers. In May of 1993, Koster wrote to the www-talk mailing list to announce Nexor's "experimental web service," which included "some sales info about the company" -- making this a good candidate for the world's first commercial website.

First company to securely sell items online: NetMarket, 1994
First company to securely sell items online: NetMarket, 1994

NetMarket was heralded in the New York Times for conducting the first secure transaction online -- it used PGP to lock down the sale of a $12.48 Sting CD. But not so fast: Randy Adams, founder of the Internet Shopping Network, which sold computer equipment online, claims his company made its first transactions a month earlier. The Internet Shopping Network no longer exists and NetMarket, against all odds, does, though it looks like an Amazon wannabe these days. Regardless of who won the race, they may have been breaking the law: commercial activity on the Internet was technically forbidden until the spring of 1995, when the National Science Foundation gave up its sponsorship of the Internet backbone.

First company to sell social ads on Facebook: Apple, 2005
First company to sell social ads on Facebook: Apple, 2005

Mark Zuckerberg was famously dissatisfied with original Facebook partner Eduardo Saverin's approach to advertising in the site's early days. The first ad on the site was a $50 banner for a student government group, and similar ads hawked summer camps, online poker, and knives. It wasn't until 2007 that Facebook rolled out a system in line with Zuckerberg's vision of advertising driven by the social graph, complete with a range of high-profile advertisers; however, an intriguing intermediary ad form was the Sponsored Group, which advertisers could use to drive traffic to their own pages. Apple was apparently the first to sign up for this, showing prescience (and probably a nose for a good bargain).