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A History of Business Intelligence - Did IBM introduce the concept in the 50s?

I admit that I don't know the history of how Business Intelligence (BI) got started. No doubt many people are just like me. They work in and around the BI ecosystem, maybe as a data engineer, an analyst, a BI tool expert or even a Chief Data Officer, but they don't know the origin story for BI. Curiosity got the best of me and I started digging around to learn more. This is what I learned about the BI origin story.


In 2013 I met Bob on a flight between San Francisco to Dallas Fort Worth. Bob was so eager to chat that he introduced himself before I even had time to fasten my seat belt. When Bob learned that I was in tech the conversation quickly turned from idle small talk to Bob's engaging personal story of his lifetime career at IBM.

Bob joined IBM in the 50's. He wasn't recruited for his college degree, instead he shared that he was recruited for his mechanical skills. In his own words (keep in mind I'm paraphrasing because many years have passed), "I came from a farm and I could fix anything on the farm. Back in those days computers were more like big machines and IBM wanted people who could fix big machines."

But there was one story Bob shared that gave me an idea for a place to start the search for the origin of BI. Bob shared his personal experience of the difficulty IBM had with getting customers to move from storing data on paper punch cards to storing data on magnetic storage. In Bob's words, "People were afraid of change. With punch cards people could see the data on the cards, they could touch it and it felt real. They couldn't do the same with magnetic storage."

So when I sat down the week before Christmas to think about where to start looking for the BI origin story Bob's story came to mind. Was it possible that the concept of BI originated around the same time as data moved from punch cards to magnetic storage? To my surprise, it turns out that it is entirely possible. Thanks Bob.

In October 1958 a paper written by Hans Peter Luhn, a researcher in the field of computer science, and Library and Information Science for IBM, appeared in the IBM Journal. The paper was titled, A Business Intelligence System. Luhn's paper appears to be the first time the concept for Business Intelligence was published.

Enjoy the historical significance of Luhn's concept by reading his paper, A Business Intelligence System or by taking in his concept diagram below.

My curiosity hasn't been satisfied, and I am still learning more about the origin story for BI. Keep an eye out for part 2 in this origin story series.

At Promethium we are working hard to evolve the BI legacy by helping organizations to get answers and insights from data in minutes instead of months. Learn more about Promethium's data analytics solution.


Luhn, H.P. (1958) A Business Intelligence System. IBM Journal of Research and Development, 2, 314-319.



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