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5 of the oldest U.S. tech companies — and their unusual histories

Above: Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress

Sometimes you don’t know your household brands as well as you think.

From the oil fields of Texas and the Social Security Act to experimental aircraft and even a Disney movie, here are some of the unusual circumstances that brought about five of the largest tech companies in America.

General Electric

General Electric traces its origin back to one of America’s greatest inventors and the foundation of America’s electrical infrastructure.

Thomas Edison established the Edison General Electric Company in 1890 to bring all of his various electrical interests under one name. He and his team at Menlo Park invented the first incandescent lamp and the first electric dynamos capable of powering lighting systems for entire neighborhoods during the 1870s. Edison went on to establish the first power company and construct America’s first power station in New York City in 1882, laying the groundwork for the electrical grids that our society now relies on.

Almost 125 years later, GE is developing the next generation of advanced steam turbine systems. GE Healthcare is also researching a new class of nanoparticle-based imaging agents that may enable medical imaging systems to see diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancerous cells earlier than ever before.

IBM

A merger of three of the largest American companies of the 19th century — the Tabulating Machine Company, the International Time Recording Company, and the Computing Scale Company — created IBM.

Early on, IBM produced and sold a wide variety of machinery, including industrial time recorders, commercial scales, and even meat and cheese slicers. It was renamed the International Business Machines Corporation in 1924 to better represent its focus on creating tabulating solutions for businesses.

In 1935, IBM secured a major government contract to maintain the employment records of 26 million people — part of President Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. It was called “the biggest accounting operation of all time,” and its successful completion brought IBM a steady stream of government contracts. During World War II, IBM placed all of its facilities at the disposal of the U.S. government. The company added bombsights, rifles, and military engine parts to its product line in support of the war effort. IBM employees would go on to invent the automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the magnetic stripe card, and the Watson artificial intelligence computer system, named for the company’s former president.

Today, IBM researchers are working on solutions for everything from cloud computing and data analysis to smart cities and nanotechnology.

Texas Instruments

Texas Instruments, in spite of the name, didn’t actually start in Texas.

In 1930, in a rented hotel room in Newark, New Jersey, John Karcher and Eugene McDermott began drafting designs for a new type of geophysical instrument to search for oil reserves. They formed Geophysical Services, Inc. in May of that year and became the first independent firm that specialized in reflection seismography. The process involved setting off small dynamite explosions and then recording the reflected shock waves to determine the depth of potential oil and gas reserves. During the 1940s, the company used their signal processing technology to develop submarine detection and airborne radar systems for the U.S. military.

The Laboratory and Manufacturing wing of GSI opened in 1946, with a focus on building military and civilian electronics. The company officially changed its name to Texas Instruments in 1951. TI played an important role in the growth and development of a variety of industries, producing semiconductors, the first integrated circuit, missile-guidance technology, and the even the first handheld calculator.

Texas Instruments now works on an immense variety of products, ranging from driver assistance systems in vehicles to telecom infrastructure and, of course, graphing calculators.

DirecTV & HughesNet

One of America’s most famous aviators and his passion for developing faster aircraft led to the creation of satellite television and Internet.

In 1932, Howard Hughes, a wealthy entrepreneur and aerospace engineer, founded the Hughes Aircraft Company. As an aerospace and defense contractor, the company built numerous prototype aircraft including the famous H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose.” Hughes flew many of the test flights himself, setting multiple world air-speed records and surviving several crashes.

Hughes Aircraft designed everything from helicopters and spy planes to air-to-air missiles systems. A subsidiary known as the Hughes Space and Communications Company launched the world’s first geosynchronous communications satellite in 1963 and later built a NASA lunar lander. GM purchased Hughes Aircraft in 1985 and merged it with several other companies to create Hughes Electronics.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Hughes became a leading manufacturer of satellites. Seeking to expand upon this success, Hughes launched DirecTV in 1994, the world’s first high-powered direct broadcast satellite service. By the early 2000s, Hughes Electronics decided to focus its efforts on the satellite businesses, and in 2003 its remaining components were renamed The DirecTV Group.

Today DirecTV provides television service to over 20 million customers in the United States. The Hughes name itself lives on with Hughes Network Systems and its HughesNet satellite Internet service, which was purchased by EchoStar in 2011.

Hewlett-Packard

Two Stanford graduates, a garage, and Mickey Mouse all played a role in the formation of what would become one of the world’s leading computer companies.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, friends and electrical engineering students in college, rented a house in Palo Alto, California in 1938 to start their own company. While Packard and his wife lived in the house and Hewlett slept in a backyard shed, the two used the one car garage as a workshop and even used the kitchen oven as a paint-baking station for their prototypes.

Some of their early inventions included a device to help astronomers set their telescopes, a harmonica tuner, a foul-line indicator for a local bowling alley, and an electric eye for automatically flushing toilets. The Model 200A resistance-tuned audio oscillator proved to be their first big breakthrough, providing a practical, low-cost method of generating high-quality frequencies. A sound engineer at Walt Disney Studios was so impressed that Disney purchased eight of their slightly modified 200B audio oscillators to use in producing the 1940 landmark film Fantasia.

After deciding on the name of their company with a coin-flip, the two formalized their partnership on January 1, 1939 and Hewlett-Packard was born. Recognized as the producer of the world’s first personal computer, HP remains one of the largest producers of PCs in the world. In addition to laptops, tablets, and printers, HP also produces software, servers, and cloud-based solutions for a range of industries and businesses.

robyn-johnstonRobyn Johnston has an unequalled passion for science and technology, and has a desire to share it through her writing. When she isn’t writing, you’ll find her focusing on her studies.

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More information:

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