The dawn of the computing industry
The first UNIVAC was delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau on March 31, 1951. Built by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly and sold by Remington Rand (which is now part of Unisys Corporation (NYSE:UIS)), the UNIVAC was the first successful purpose-built and mass-produced commercial computer ever sold in the United States. The sale marked the beginning of an American computing industry that would quickly become the dominant force in global high-tech. UNIVAC itself was to prove the value of computing over earlier punched-card systems when it successfully defied conventional polling wisdom in the 1952 presidential election, predicting a landslide victory for Dwight Eisenhower when most pollsters expected Democrat Adlai Stevenson to win the White House.
Between 1951 and 1954, Remington Rand sold 46 of the original UNIVAC systems, but it consistently trailed early industry leader International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM), which boasted a stronger financial position and was able to offer its mainframes at cost, or even for free. IBM soon overtook Remington Rand with its own mass-produced computing machines, and by the mid-1950s, several different IBM mainframes were available on the market. IBM would continue to lead the computing industry for decades to come, while Remington Rand sold itself to Sperry in 1955. Further UNIVACs were developed after the merger, with some models sold well into the 1970s, but they never managed to unseat IBM from its leadership position. Being the first mover doesn’t always matter in the fast-paced computing industry.
The age of patented genetics
Ananda Chakrabarty gained the first patent ever issued for a genetically modified organism on March 31, 1981, a year after winning a landmark case on the subject in the Supreme Court. Chakrabarty, a General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) researcher, had developed a bacterium capable of cleaning up toxic oil spills by breaking crude oil into non-toxic substances that aquatic life might harmlessly consume. In proving that his work was the result of scientific modification, Chakrabarty forced the Patent Office, via his Supreme Court victory, to accept the fact that patentable subject matter might include “anything under the sun that is made by man.”
The advent of lower-cost genome sequencing has added a new layer of complexity to this argument, as a fifth of all human genes (more than 4,000 of them) were patented by 2005. A new precedent may be required in the near future, as no genes have been modified in novel ways — they are not, like Chakrabarty’s bacterium, “made by man.” His bacterium was more groundbreaking in the courts than in the lab, but Chakrabarty continues his research into microbiology to this day. Chakrabarty has since become one of the most decorated microbiologists-cum-genetic-engineers in the world, and today he serves as a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine.
The article 3 Groundbreaking Moments That Built the Modern World originally appeared on Fool.com.
Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more insight into markets, history, and technology.The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) and IBM.
Copyright © 1995 – 2013 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.