Half a century ago, a team of young Japanese IBM engineers built a computerized real-time results service for the Tokyo Olympics, a breakthrough that led to modern-day networks such as ATMs and travel reservation systems.
The order came in early 1962, when an executive at the Japanese unit of the U.S. computer giant told Toru Takeshita, an IBM Japan Ltd. systems engineer, to write some challenging software.
It had to be able to provide sports results to the press on behalf of the organizing committee of the 1964 Summer Olympics.
Takeshita confesses the order troubled him. He “didn’t know what to do at all.”
“I even wondered if computers were really necessary for the Olympics,” he recalls.
Takeshita, now 82, had joined IBM Japan six years earlier as a mathematics graduate from Kyoto University. He had just returned from a two-year assignment developing mainstream software at U.S. parent IBM Corp.
Computers at that time were huge, but far inferior to modern-day PCs in performance. Data were stored by punching holes in paper cards that were then fed into a computer. After computation the results were printed out.
The task facing Takeshita, on the other hand, was revolutionary — developing an online system in which a huge amount of data would be fed in on a real-time basis via communication lines, for storage, processing and retrieval.
Takeshita had only two staff initially working for him on the project, and only one of them, Ryozo Hosoi, had experience in developing software.
Takeshita paid visits to sports associations, but none took him seriously, telling him computing was unnecessary for sports and that data could be provided to the press by phone.
IBM Japan then expanded the development team by adding nine workers, including some recent new hires. To help sports associations and other parties understand the potential use of computers in the Olympic Games, Takeshita decided that his team should become familiar with the full range of sports.
His staff studied the rules and visited athletic meetings across Japan in the six months to the end of 1962.
Hideyuki Hikida, 77, was one of them, assigned to swimming and diving events. He went to the Japan Swimming Federation almost every day to gather the understanding needed to devise suitable software.
The work paid off. The team unveiled a program that could on demand print out information such as athletes’ names, nationalities and results, comparing the data with past records and even offering users information on weather conditions. The press reporters welcomed it.
The U.S. parent company sent six experts to Japan in fall 1963 to examine the program. Takeshita prepared for them more than 4,000 pages of specifications in English.
The experts had themselves been involved in the creation of networks for the U.S. military and online airline reservations. They recommended that Japan IBM expand the Takeshita team. It grew to 45 members.
In September 1964, the month before the Tokyo Olympics, the Takeshita team carried out seven days of simulations in which the records of some 4,000 matches at 32 venues were sent from typewriter-like terminals to the computer center, which was located in a building adjacent to National Stadium in Shinjuku Ward.
The exercise was successful, and Takeshita realized the system would work.
The Olympics kicked off Oct. 10 and ran through Oct. 24. The system processed around 66,000 items of data and released 2,780 flash reports. It had no major problems.
The final competition was an equestrian event. When it concluded and the results were printed out, Takeshita could not hold back his tears.
The words “Goodbye, Olympics” flashed up on a computer screen after the lights were turned off in the computer center on the evening of the final day.
Hosoi remembers that day: “I suddenly felt lonesome.”
The IBM-developed online systems quickly found widespread use. The computer used for the Olympics was delivered to Mitsui Bank, the predecessor of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., paving the way for Japan’s first system for managing bank deposit operations in 1965 and linking the head office with its branches.
Hosoi, now 78, said he must have been pretty brash, believing at the time that “any new system could change Japanese society.”
Other networks followed. Airline and hotel reservation systems, shipping container manifests and gas production data networks were some of the spin-offs, Hosoi said.
“It was challenging and worthwhile, and exciting. All were Japan’s first systems.”