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The "Mad Men" Computer, Explained By Harvard Business Review In 1969

The IBM supercomputer that lords over Mad Men season 7 was actually an innovative new tool for supporting executive intuition with cold hard data. If only Ginsberg had known.

As this season of Mad Men's most glaring metaphor for changing times, the massive IBM System/360 computer took over SCDP's creative lounge and drove poor Michael Ginsberg off the deep end. But it is more than a metaphor—in 1969, the supercomputer was infiltrating businesses to solve data problems.

That same year, IBM engineer Irvin Miller wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Computer Graphics for Decision Making," explaining the 360's new capabilities to readers, which HBR details in a new blog post. A big innovation for executives was an interactive graphic display terminal, which enabled non-analysts who didn't know the computer's language to manipulate data and generate forecasts. Instead of having to put in a requisition to a programmer and wait potentially months for a report, an executive could use a light pen on his own terminal to run queries.

Miller also explained what the resulting graphs could do for a businessman. "To solve business problems requiring executive decisions, one must define the total problem and then assign a mathematical equation to each aspect of the problem. A composite of all equations yields a mathematical model representing the problem confronting the executive." As HBR writes, Miller gives the example "that a system programmed with data on quantities produced and sold, plant capacity, marginal cost, marginal revenues, total cost, total revenue, price, price for renting, and price for selling could enable businesspeople to make informed decisions about whether to hold inventory; expand plant production; rent, buy, or borrow; increase production; and examine the effects of anomalies on demand or the effects of constraints."

Miller doesn't suggest that the computer is a standalone solution to decision-making problems. "In answer to the question of why an executive should rely on the differential calculus and linear programming that underpins the models (interestingly, Miller assumes senior business executives haven’t had calculus), he replies that the point of the equations is only to 'anticipate and verify intuitive guesses which are expected to be forthcoming from the businessman.' In other words, the mathematics are essentially meant to serve as an amplification of the executive’s judgment, not as a substitute. Intuition-support is, in fact, the point for Miller. For him, the real benefit of the new technology isn’t just the ability to perform what-if analyses on current data, as powerful as that is, but that executives could do it in the privacy of their own offices, which would afford them the time for the private reflection from which intuition springs."

If only Ginsberg had read Miller's article before taking extreme steps to release his "valve," he may have had less fear of the computer's mind-control powers.