Book MakingMaking the World Work Better: Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company,” by Maney, Hamm, and O’Brien; $30 from

It’s remarkable how much we owe to IBM research and development. This book tells that story, and it’s the story of the computer revolution.

Starting with Herman Hollerith’s use of punch cards to simplify recording the 1890 U.S. census, to the invention of ASCII code to work with the IBM Selectric typewriter, IBM’s research has been crucial. Hollerith took his punch cards and founded IBM. It was six decades before that technology moved on, when IBM invented the Selectric. It used ASCII code to assign a number to every letter, number and punctuation mark, which is how computers understand language to this day. IBM even invented the “escape” key to get you and the machine out of trouble.

They invented the hard disk drive, which is still in nearly every computer. They were called “Winchester drives” at first, because they were the inventors said they were faster than a speeding bullet. Not at all coincidentally, the team that developed the hard disk drive was in the IBM building across the street from the Winchester mansion, built by the widow of the man who invented the repeating rifle. IBM also invented the bar code, now used everywhere. It was touch-and-go at first, with the inventor’s boss wanting it to be in the shape of a bulls-eye instead of lines. The inventor risked his career by insisting on bars instead of circles and was proven right when an IBM softball pitcher pitched bar-coded ashtrays past a laser reader and it read every one, no matter how fast they went by.

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