How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective - InformationWeek
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How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective

In honor of Memorial Day, we laud the IT technology the military helped develop.
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(Image: Aaron Ansarov via Wikipedia)

(Image: Aaron Ansarov via Wikipedia)

Happy Memorial Day from a grateful InformationWeek staff. IT has always been a major part of the military. In fact, you could make the case that the military invented Information Technology. The military certainly pioneered some of the most important breakthroughs in IT.

Originally, I envisioned this as a tribute to individual service men and women who helped pioneer IT. But I came across two problems with that. First, the use of civilian contractors in some cases made it difficult to tell which person within or outside the military deserved credit. Second, individual credit isn't high on the list of military priorities. They like to tell the story of teams. To honor that, it seemed better to think of the achievements of the military as a whole, rather than specific people (though there is one I chose to single out). As in all areas of the military, there are simply more heroes than possible to name.

Whether you are talking about code-breaking and intelligence efforts, or the realization that large-scale operations required the gathering, storage, and retrieval of massive amount of intelligence data, the military has been looking for ways to harness information since before the computer.

When veterans returned from World War II and took jobs in the private sector, they brought what they had learned about management, the need for intelligence data, and basic information organization to their new jobs. Meanwhile, the military kept funding computers that would eventually find their first private-sector customers among these veterans who knew the value of data.

In honor of Memorial Day and the service of our veterans, let's see how the military pioneered IT for us all. Once you've checked out our list, share your comments. And if you are, or have been, in the military, we humbly thank you for your service.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/31/2015 | 12:20:07 PM
Re: And now the less sugar coated accolades of the military
@asksqn- Well, I let ARPAnet stand in for all of DARPA (DARPA used to be ARPA). I really didn't want to get into some of the more nefarious creations of DARPA. But they did give us the most important invention of recent history so I felt like that was enough. 
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
5/29/2015 | 3:30:48 PM
And now the less sugar coated accolades of the military
You missed DARPA.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. The biggest contribution being drone tech. Bringing bombing to a personal level on a city block near you.


And its evil 2002 spawn the Information Awareness Office (IAO) AKA Total Information Awareness.  The better to spy on Americans without without cause or warrants. Preferred vendor of the NSA and totalitarian regimes worldwide.

 

 

 

 

 

 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/28/2015 | 5:50:33 PM
Re: How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective
@zerox203- You're right. Hopper reverberates through modern IT like few of her era do. I don't know if she knew it at the time, but while so many people were applying themselves to hardware, she gravitated to software long before the software revolution. A true visionary.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/28/2015 | 5:46:51 PM
Re: How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective
@progman2000- Yes, I'm pretty sure that requires we take Zerox203's geek card until he makes amends by learning to beat a computer at tic tac toe.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/28/2015 | 5:43:27 PM
Re: new technologies in our horizon
@mak63- I think it is fair to say military technology is a part of solving a lot of the problems you mention. If it weren't for satellite images,for example, we'd have no hope of solving world hunger, climate change, overpopulation issues, etc.
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Ninja
5/28/2015 | 4:49:52 PM
Re: How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective
Wait, wait, wait a second.

Didn't see Wargames until 2008? That is egregious and I think calls for an explanation. I am guessing (hoping?) that means you are significantly younger than me. If you were "of age" in the eighties and didn't see it then I think we have to have another discussion here...
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
5/28/2015 | 3:32:00 PM
Re: How Military Tech Changed IT: A Memorial Day Retrospective
That many civilian technologies are hand-me-downs of old military tech is a common idea in movies, etc (I loved War Games, and I didn't see it until 2008!). As we can see here, it's also true in real life. While the focus on supercomputers may put some to sleep, it can't be understated how important those early developments were for the leaps and bounds we take for granted today. You can see Moore's law (the fact that half of these don't use transistors as we know them notwithstanding) at work as you thumb from one page to the next. The IBM Defense Calculator used big CRTs for memory storage, where the Whirlwind 1 uses RAM, as another example.

I was at my local Microcenter the other day, and they had banners hung up around the store celebrating various greats in early computing. Grace Hopper was right up there alongside Steve Jobs. Her contributions to COBOL were listed, but not the rest of what's here; what a list of achievements! I write C# and Javascript, both of which are, compared to other languages, very easy to read. I suppose I can thank Grace Hopper for that. You might also say the government's funding of civilian contractors helped establish the R&D systems we use today and the way we bring products to market. Reading how the Cray-1's creator left his company, grabbed some private funding, and became a competitor just like that sounds awfully familiar...
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
5/26/2015 | 3:07:27 PM
Re: new technologies in our horizon
I wish new technologies coming from the military or anywhere, for that matter will tackle global issues that is threaten the planet and its habitants. e.g. Nuclear Weapons, World Wide Wars, Overpopulation, Poverty and Hunger, Global Warming, Disease and many others.
In any case, Obama yesterday said that this is the first Memorial Day that the US is not engaged in a major ground war in 14 years. I really hope the US will continue this trend.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
5/26/2015 | 7:48:15 AM
Turing?
Perhaps I missed it, but this list is incomplete without factoring in the efforts of Alan Turing. I appreciate this is a US-focused list, but the Bombe machine he developed was a massive development for code breaking and even helped pioneer the idea of general computing where software, rather than bespoke hardware was needed for new tasks. 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
5/25/2015 | 11:34:04 PM
Re: new technologies in our horizon
Agreed, IT has changed the world, the global economy, and lifestyles, and the credit goes to the military. Drone technology seems to be the next big thing that could change the shape of the supply chain of goods and services, and drone technology also seems to be invented by the military as well.

 
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