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Hidden Figures - A Look at Heroes & Technology

Hans Picht, Regional Technical Executive, z Systems , IBM Systems for Cloud Platforms Asia Pacific | Dec. 14, 2017
Based on a true story, the film Hidden Figures follows three brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind one of the greatest space operations in history.

 Earlier this year the movie “Hidden Figures” was released. The film gives us a powerful glimpse into a moment of history which reveals a great deal about how far we’ve come as humankind.

Following a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Based on a true story, the film Hidden Figures follows three brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind one of the greatest space operations in history.

On the surface, this movie shows us the story of how three amazing women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson helped transform the world in their work putting John Glenn in space with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

The Human Computer

In 1961, mathematician Katherine Johnson works as a "human computer”. Before the era of electronic computing, the term "computer” was referring to someone “who computes”, performing mathematical calculations.

Human computers played integral roles in the World War II war effort in the United States and other countries and because of the depletion of the male labor force due to the draft, many computers during World War II were women, frequently with degrees in mathematics.

Hidden Figures isn't just the story of three brilliant and determined women, but also of the transition from human to electronic computing. While working as a “computer,” Dorothy Vaughan brought the early IBM 7090 mainframes to life in NASA’s computing facilities.

The IBM 7090

Back in 1959, the 7090 was the most powerful computer in IBM's lineup. The fully transistorized system had computing speeds six times faster than its vacuum tube predecessor, the IBM 709, and it was 7.5 times faster than the IBM 704. Although the 7090 was a general purpose data processing system, it was designed with special attention to the needs of engineers and scientists.

The 7090 could simultaneously read and write electronically at the rate of 3,000,000 bits of information a second, when eight data channels are in use. Each channel may have a total of ten magnetic tape units, a card reader, a card punch, and a printer. Therefore, a maximum 7090 system would include 80 magnetic tape units, eight card readers, eight printers, and eight card punches.

The 7090 could perform any of the following operations in one second: 229,000 additions or subtractions, 39,500 multiplications, or 32,700 divisions. It was manufactured at IBM's Poughkeepsie, N. Y. plant, sold for $2,898,000 and rented for $63,500 a month in a typical configuration.

The NASA servers

Let’s just take a moment to remind us of the fact that NASA started to get humans into space without (electronic) computers? Allot of people today can’t even order a taxi without one. This was a world in which a mistake as simple as forgetting to carry a one could have grave life-or-death consequences.

Not only did mainframes (which would eventually take over the title of “computers” from the workhorse math wizards like Katherine Johnson) make it far easier to calculate equations for a rockets’ launch, orbit, and re-entry; but they helped inform the very design of aircraft and spacecraft.

To provide the reliability needed for manned flights, the primary NASA did operate multiple 7090s units in parallel, each receiving inputs, but with just one permitted to transmit output. Called the Mission Operational Computer and Dynamic Standby Computer, the names stuck through the Apollo program. This was NASA's first redundant computer system. Switching from the prime computer to the Dynamic Standby was by manual switch, so it was a human decision.

The roaring sixties

April 7, 1964, IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. literally bets the business on the System/360 mainframe—shutting down all other product lines for this new vision for the future of computing.

Today, IBM Z server run the next generation of transactional applications using Blockchain.

IBM Z will be able to support 12 billion encrypted transactions a day, two million Docker containers and 1,000 concurrent NoSQL databases via three times the memory of the z13 and 3x faster I/O and transaction processing.

Apollo 11 moon landing

 In 1969, Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, forever changing our view of the universe and our own perception of what’s possible.

The IBM System/360 mainframe processed the data for the lunar landing and liftoff.

 Today, Travelport the world’s leading Travel Commerce Platform, is serving the $8 trillion global travel and tourism industry, allowing millions of customer to takeoff on commercial planes, processing millions of airline tickets, with z Systems, operated in real time.

“Travelport processed transactions in the order of 900 billion system messages last year in order to generate 120 million airline tickets. We haven’t found anything that can do that with the same level of reliability, security and speed than the mainframe.”
— Gordon Wilson, President & CEO, Travelport

The hidden engine

Similar to the women behind the scenes in putting astronaut John Glenn into space, the mainframe is the hidden engine and the mainframe IT folks the hidden figures that power the world’s mission essential business transactions. Consequently, the mainframe is quickly becoming a source of revenue growth and innovation for forward-thinking companies.

While some believe that smaller distributed servers provide the agility needed in today’s fast-moving cognitive era, the IBM mainframe is the preferred solution for many of the world’s most competitive businesses, including:

  • The 10 top insurers
  • 44 of the top 50 banks
  • 18 of the top 25 retailers
  • 90% of the largest airlines


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