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Thursday, 4 August 2011

What Do You Know About the History of Technology Companies?


This blog is for all of you out there who like to take a quiz. In particular, what do you really know about the corporate icons of our technological landscape that have shaped our world over multiple generations and that have provided the platform for the creation of innumerable intellectual property rights and the legal practice to support them?

The quiz begins with a birthday. Anyone who loves technological longevity just had to feel pangs of elation in mid-June, when IBM celebrated its 100th birthday. From tabulating machines to data processing cards to mainframe computers to PC computers to the hardware-software behemoth of today (with a few existential thrills thrown in, especially in the early 1990s), there is something almost mystical about reaching 100 years of age (actually going back to 1885 if one counts the earliest of the four companies that came together in 1911 to create the modern company). This is especially so when one considers the combination of continuity with product innovation that has marked IBM's success over the years.

Talking about technology/hi-tech and the like in same breath as history may seem odd. After all, with our preoccupation on the here and now, Google is measured against Alta Vista, Explorer is measured against Netscape, Word is measured against Word Perfect, and Wang is measured against..., well, I am not sure. The common denominator is the compression of time, a decade at the least, 30 years or so at the most. History--what history?


That is why the 100th birthday of IBM was so exciting. For a history of technology buff like this Kat (witness the row of books on the subject in my study), the celebrations of IBM occasioned reflections on the handful of companies that have succesfully remade themselves multiple times. How many such prominent companies are there and how far back do they reach in time? One such list was recently suggested by Bloomberg Business Week, which described the following companies: Siemens, Western Union, Diebold, AT&T, Ericsson, NCR, Nintendo, Eastman Kodak, Xerox and IBM. To that list let me throw in GE, Nokia and HP.

And so the quiz: without the crutch of on-line search (consultations with colleagues are permitted), can you take this list of companies and place them in chronological order, from the oldest to the youngest? For bonus points, can you identify the main products of each company listed over time? All such efforts by readers are welcome.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

- off the bat:

Diebold - safes
GE - electrical goods since Edison
AT&T - telegraphy and telephony
Western Union - telegraphy and money transfer
Siemens - electrical goods
IBM - tabulating machines to computers
Ericsson - telephony equipment
Eastman Kodak - films through imaging
NCR - cash registers to computers
Nokia - rubber boots to cellphones
Xerox - dry copying
HP - oscillators to computers
Nintendo - electronic games

I had to google Diebold, but then I do not live in the US, but I have probably disqualified myself. Arghh

Francis Davey said...

Nintendo sold playing cards a long time ago - they are much older than you might imagine.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Nintendo originally produce some sort of traditional Japanese playing cards?

Gentoo said...

Kodak, what about cameras? box brownie, original disposable cameras circa late 19th C, vest pocket brownie, 35mm, lenses? all those instamatic cameras? 126, 110, that disc-shaped one (instant photography? - ha, IP joke) X-Ray equipment, office microfilming, film processing and printing, briefly: optical fibre connectors (used coated optics - ha, a physics joke)
computer printers and ink

HP oscilloscopes, sampling osciilloscopes, voltage sources, massive range of instrumentation - the catalogue was a like a reference book, then the HPIB/IEEE488 instrumentation bus to control them all (it was a daisy chain not a ring - probably not a literary joke), then a range of well pre-PC "calculators" starting with a huge HP7000(?) HP85-87, pocket scientific calculators HP15 onward

Lawrence B. Ebert said...

There may be an ambiguity as to "when" a company was formed. Are we talking about the named company per se ("GE") or do we include its predecessor? Edison had companies BEFORE GE was formed, and GE threw Edison out. The American Bell Telephone Company went after Western Union (aided by Edison) long before AT&T was formed. [see IPBiz post: Is Lemley right about Bell and Gray? ]

Similarly, are we concerned with the formation date of Xerox, or of Haloid? See IPBiz post: Chester Carlson and Xerography

Anonymous said...

from the first Anonymous: the task was quite difficult, because it was not clear whether predecessor companies count or not. In the arts, the Polygram company Deutsche Grammophon sponged on the anniversaries of the original company by that name, which had been confiscated during WW1 and sold to a much smaller competitor, Polyphon. There is also a major trade mark story in that.

Neil said...

Lawrence

I take the point that it is a lot easier to speak of a formation date for HP than for GE (or IBM). Comments above in this vein support the observation that David Teece made in his classic article of 1986, "Profiting from Technological Innovation: Implications for Integration,Collaboration, Licensing and Public Policy", in Research Policy 15, that the imitator and not the innovator company is the entity that more often ultimately reaps the commercial benefits of path-breaking developments.

Lawrence B. Ebert said...

An interesting question. In the particular case of Carlson's xerography, one would say that the innovator, not the imitator (eg, IBM), reaped the commercial benefits.

Anonymous said...

Re Xerox - while I believe they started off in dry copying (hence the name) and I presume photocopying is still a big bit of their business and/or they are still big in that industry, they also formed the PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) which produced many computer innovations, notably the Windows/Icons/Mouse/Menus type of user interface used in Windows and the like today.

And yes, I thought Nintendo originally made playing cards.

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