A rich 200-year history is cause for celebration and for recognition of the many valued relationships that have endured for so many decades at the University of Michigan. Throughout this bicentennial year, the Business Engagement Center will highlight the University’s collaborations, innovations, and connections with their steadfast business partners, giving a historical perspective of today’s achievements.
By Chris Colaner
Even in the early years when the computer industry was just coming of age, the alliance between IBM and the University of Michigan had all the hallmarks of a winning team. They were both willing to take on the uncertainties of the times to forge new ground.
IBM, or Big Blue as it was affectionately known, was changing rapidly in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Its original product offerings of commercial scales, industrial time recorders, tabulators, punch cards, and even meat and cheese slicers had morphed into much more technical fare: computing machines. Thanks to IBMs innovations, the evolution of early computers had already seen the rise and fall of electromechanical switches and vacuum tubes, and were now featuring longer lasting and efficient transistors. And by the 1960’s, IBM knew it was on the cusp of something even bigger than its monolithic, one-size-fits-all mainframes.
Around this same time, the University of Michigan was experiencing the academic equivalent of IBM’s product advancements. Although early computers were already in use throughout the university in a fairly straightforward way (think giant calculating machines), in the academic arena, computers were poised for a major transformation. Up to this point, computer use had been reserved exclusively for researchers, engineers, and scientists; the tasks of students and other faculty members weren’t considered viable ways to use expensive computer power. But the University recognized that there seemed to be an entirely new and revolutionary field of study emerging; something too big to ignore. That’s when things began to change.
One of the University’s first computer purchases was not just a purchase, it was a commitment for fostering a nascent computer industry. UM ordered the IBM 650, the darling among universities and businesses because of its ability to handle diverse scientific and accounting computations. And through IBM’s newly created Educational Contribution Program, U-M received up to 60 % of the monthly computer payment, as long as it agreed to offer courses in scientific computation and data processing. So, as the IBM 650 was installed in the basement of the Rackham Building, then known as the Statistical Research Lab, routine large-scale research and instructional computing formally began at the University, as did the formalization of computer science education.
The Real Game-Changer
Other computer purchases followed as more and more users got a taste for the capabilities of bigger and better machines. By the mid-1960s, the University of Michigan had established an official Computing Center, an actual Program of Communication Sciences (the precursor of today’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences), and was becoming increasingly interested in offering interactive services that gave users the impression of controlling the computer directly. When IBM introduced its unprecedented System/360 series of computers in the mid-1960s, UM saw an opportunity. The 360 series was heralded as a new concept in the industry — a compatible “family” of small to large computers that allowed users the flexibility of upgrading to another model without the time and expense of rewriting software. The IBM 360 series was one of the early systems to establish software as a viable product in and of itself, although neither UM or IBM recognized that at the time. And although the 360 series didn’t originally come with UM’s sought-after timesharing capabilities, that was about to change. After a year of close collaboration and design studies with the University, IBM made a one-of-a-kind version of its S/360-65 mainframe computer that included a radical new component based on architecture developed at the UM. For the first time in history, an IBM computer could now support virtual memory and accommodate time-sharing. The computer was dubbed Model S/360-65M….the “M”, of course, stood for Michigan.
As more and more institutions heard about the specialized machine, including General Motors, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, Princeton University, and Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University), they were all intrigued enough to commit to ordering their own. Such a groundswell of interest prompted IBM to start development of the necessary timesharing program to support the S/360-67. Meanwhile, a plucky band of computer engineers at the U-M Computing Center began experimenting with an earlier version of IBM’s S/360 to create their own customized timesharing program — really just as a learning experience for them to become more familiar with this new breed of computer. Their experiments were intended to be a ‘throw-away’ system that would be replaced when IBM’s timesharing program became available. But what they came up with, Michigan Terminal System (MTS), was so fitting and timely that it quickly became a University staple – as indispensable and widespread as the phone system. It may seem mundane now, but in that pre-internet era, all collaboration was done over the phone, or by shipping magnetic tapes all around the world. No one had even conceived of using computers to type letters or keep calendars or all the other daily tasks we use them for today. With this software, MTS marked the first-ever timesharing system with virtual memory capabilities and one of the biggest cooperative software development projects at the time.
Today’s Innovations Brought to You By Yesterday’s Collaborations
Today, the collaborations between U-M and IBM continue to broaden and deepen far beyond the academic nature of these early projects. The outcomes are demonstrated every day in so many ways. One of the most significant projects was launched last year – Project Sapphire, the largest research agreement between U-M & IBM to date. Led by Computer Sciences & Engineering Faculty member Satinder Singh, together with seven other faculty and numerous graduate and undergraduate students, this 3-5 year project aims to tackle one of the “Grand Challenges” of Artificial Intelligence by developing a new class of conversational technologies that will enable people to interact more naturally and effectively with computers.
Another recent collaboration is the IBM and U-M commitment to continue changing the face of the computer industry through innovation. Together, they are developing a “data-centric” supercomputing system designed to increase the pace of scientific discovery in fields as diverse as aircraft and rocket engine design, treatment of cardiovascular disease, materials physics, climate modeling and cosmology.
Also this year, IBM Watson Health expanded its Medical Imaging Collaborative to include U-M’s Fast Forward Medical Innovation Team and the Department of Radiology. The collaborative will help create an AI-driven tool — a Radiology Advisor of sorts — similar to the already existent Oncology Advisor that is currently helping doctors deliver more specialized cancer care for their patients.
Finally, just this spring, the IBM Watson system was also involved in a unique collaboration with students in the University’s Penny Stamps School of Art and Design. This collaborative explored the possibility of using cognitive technology to address human-scale health care needs.
The long history of collaboration between U-M and IBM has created incredible innovations and both organizations continue to share assets and capabilities that build new possibilities locally and around the globe.