RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — What IBM created 40 years ago was a huge contraption only for businesses, but it led to the kind of computers many people cannot live without today. It also led to an explosion of growth in what used to be a wooded area,
Research Triangle Park
In 2004, people often deal with laptops, pagers, palm pilots or IBM Think Pads. But 40 years ago, cutting-edge technology included IBM's first mass-produced commercial mainframe.
"For the engineer who worked on that project, this was a whole new step, a new evolution in the way computers were being done," said Greg Moore, IBM director of development.
IBM is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the mainframe and everything it led to.
"It affects our everyday life. It's in your car. The car has lots of computer parts these days, so everything you do, all we touch is influenced by this," Moore said.
The mainframe also led to the growth of Research Triangle Park.
"The whole notion that North Carolina was a place for new technology didn't really become reality until IBM came," said James Roberson, of the Research Triangle Park Foundation.
IBM needed additional manufacturing capacity for the new mainframe and chose to locate in the fledgling RTP in 1965.
"What that said to the rest of the corporate world and certainly the government was that this is a place that has unusual resources," Roberson said. "We have these three great research universities that IBM was able to relate to, hire grads from, faculty involved from UNC, N.C. State and Duke."
IBM's mainframe ranged from nearly $3,000 to $115,000 a month. Today's Thinkpad is under $1,000.
Research Triangle Park was nothing more than a pipedream in the early 1950s when a committee was formed to work on a research area between the Triangle's three major universities. In 1957, the park was officially born, when an investor bought 35 acres of land for $700,000.
Those original 3,500 acres have since doubled in size. The park stretches 8 miles long and it is 2 miles wide. More than 130 organizations call RTP home, including the original tenant, the
Research Triangle Institute
, which opened in 1959. It is the same group that now has employees in Iraq, helping the country rebuild.
Within 10 years, RTP had 21 companies. By 1979, that number grew to 38. By 1989, 56 companies were located at RTP.
During the high-tech boom of the 1990s, 42 companies came to the area. Combined, the companies in the park occupy 19 million square feet of space, which is times the amount of space in Raleigh's current convention center.
IBM is still the park's largest employer with about 13,000 workers. Glaxo, Nortel, Cisco and the EPA round out the top five biggest employers. Forty percent of the park's businesses employ fewer than 10 people.