July is an auspicious month

Robert Barron
6 min readJul 20, 2023

IBM, the Moon landing, Artificial Intelligence, and watsonx

July is an auspicious month. Named for Julius Caesar, one of the greatest generals and statesmen of all time, the first full month of summer marks many national Independence Days across the globe.

July was the first full month of operations by the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, the precursor to IBM, which was founded on June 16, 1911. As a company with a 112 year history, many aspects of the 20th and 21st centuries are reflected in the history of IBM, as it has re-invented itself many times throughout the years — to stay relevant, profitable and make a mark on the world. While some of the first “Business Machines” may have been clocks and cheese slicers, today’s IBM “slices” atoms to make quantum computers.

Antique IBM Cheese Slicer and IBM Q System One Quantum Computer (Wikipedia & IBM)

July is an auspicious month for IBM. One such example is from 1961. IBM announced the Selectric typewriter which greatly improved communication by giving people easy access to easily changeable type-styles for different languages and symbols for the first time.
But I’d like to concentrate on another July when IBM made an indelible mark on the world — specifically on the 20th of July 1969.

“… achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.“ — John F. Kennedy

This day was a high water mark for humanity — the first Moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. As well as a triumph of human effort, ingenuity, and dedication, it was no less a triumph for some of the newest tools in humanity’s ever-growing tool-chest — the computer.

Quoted from The New York Times, July 17th 1969:

“If I had to single out the piece of equipment that, more than any other, has allowed us to go from Earth-orbit Mercury to Apollo lunar trips in just over seven years, it would be the high-speed computer”
— Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., NASA’s Director of Flight Operations, Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston.

Computers were everywhere in the Apollo program — from the planning to the construction through the testing to the flights themselves, humans simply couldn’t handle the mass of information and perform the necessary calculations fast enough and effectively enough.

Mary Jackson was one of the “human computers” who used the “digital computers”. She was portrayed in the film “Hidden Figures.” (image from NASA)
Mary Jackson was one of the human computers who used the digital computers. She was portrayed in the film “Hidden Figures.” (image from NASA)

The largest computers used, and the ones with the most versatile roles, were in the basement of Houston’s mission control building. There, the Real Time Computing Complex (RTCC) was filled with IBM mainframes which monitored every aspect of the flights, delivered up-to-the-moment accurate information to the flight controllers, calculated past, present, and future positions of the spacecraft, and, finally, delivered digital commands and information to the spacecraft.

Mission Control Console and RTCC Mainframes (NASA/IBM)

Every console at mission control displayed a certain subset of the information analyzed by the RTCC computers — the flight M.D. saw telemetry which showed the heart and breathing rate of the astronauts, the EECOM engineer observed the vital signs of the spacecraft itself (the Electrical, Environmental and COMmunication systems), and the FIDO (Flight dynamics officer) engineer monitored and controlled the direction in which the spacecraft flew.

While the IBM 360 mainframes are veritable tortoises compared even to today’s slowest commercial computers, they were necessary to handle the overwhelming amount of information generated by the myriad components of the Apollo missions to the Moon — too much information to be managed in time by mere mortals.

Much of the astronomical amount of information managed by the jack-of-all-trades IBM mainframes was generated by other, more specialized, computers. Planning and practicing for the flights began years before they occurred. Specialized simulators enabled the astronauts to practice both the “happy path” of the mission and see how they could handle unexpected errors and mishaps along the way. Other computers were used to handle the communication equipment and shepherd the precious data (telemetry, radio communication and television) from the spacecraft to Houston, even when the Moon was below the horizon in Texas. These dedicated computers were built by a variety of companies such as Computer Control Company, General Electric, UNIVAC, and others.

The most famous of the Apollo computers were the spacecraft computers themselves — the ones the astronauts used to control the spacecraft and travel from the Earth to the Moon. Designed by the Draper computer lab in MIT and built by Raytheon, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was a marvel of 1960’s miniaturization, which weighed a mere 32 kgs (70 pounds) and had a specialized 20 button keyboard panel which was robust enough to be used by astronauts with thick gloves, whilst floating weightless in space.

Entering commands into the Display and Keyboard (DSKY) of the Apollo Guidance Computer during a simulation. Image courtesy: Draper.
Entering commands into the Display and Keyboard (DSKY) of the Apollo Guidance Computer during a simulation. Image courtesy: Draper.

One last computer was hidden within the gargantuan Saturn V Moon rocket — the IBM Instrument Unit was the independent brains and control system for the first minutes of each Moon mission.

The Saturn V Instrument Unit and components (NASA/MSFC)

This computer was so well built that it survived a direct lightning strike during the launch of Apollo 12! As the chief designer of the Saturn rocket, Wernher von Braun was wont to say — “As the Instrument Unit [IBM computer] goes, so goes the Saturn.”

After the triumph of Apollo, IBM continued developing and improving computers — and itself. Today’s IBM bears little external resemblance to the behemoth company managed by Thomas J. Watson and Thomas J. Watson Jr. over 50 years ago.

One thing that remains true is that July continues to be an auspicious month for IBM. We’ve just launched our watsonx artificial intelligence and data platform. While light-years more advanced than the mainframes of the 1960s, they have a similar goal — making sense out of an overwhelming amount of information and helping humans make the right decisions, based on the right information, at the right time, in the right way.

You can join IBM’s journey of perpetual re-invention and auspicious July's by trying out watsonx and its three components — watsonx.ai for working with AI foundation and machine learning models, watsonx.data for scaling your AI workloads anywhere, and watsonx.governance to make sure that your AI is responsible, transparent and explainable. NASA is already using watsonx to apply AI to Earth science data.
See for yourself how you can benefit from watsonx — just as the world benefited from IBM’s computers on the 20th of July 1969.

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Robert Barron

Lessons from the Lunar Landing, Shuttle to SRE | AIOps, ChatOps, DevOps and other Ops | IBMer, opinions are my own