Project Management Software – A Brief History (Part 1)

So we at EPM Live thought many of our customers might be interested in how project management software came about; it’s a pretty interesting and remarkable story.  Most people don’t realize that project management software is actually 54 years old this year, and was one of the first software applications ever developed.  So let’s start at the beginning:

The project management industry owes its origins to one enlightened US company and four brilliant men.  The company was the Dupont Company and the key players were John Mauchly, J. Presper Eckert Jr., Jim Kelly, and Morgan Walker.  Mauchly and Eckert were the designers of the ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic digital computer.  The US Army contracted with Mauchly and Eckert for the development of ENIAC which was first used to calculate bomb and artillery trajectories.  Eckert did the hardware engineering, and Mauchly did the conceptual design.  The ENIAC was originally “programmed” with patch cords and switches; changing the program took days.  But ENIAC could solve trajectory problems that couldn’t be solved by other means. The picture below shows 4 panels (of 40) from the ENIAC which was located in a basement (more on the basement later) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eventually the two men formed the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and in 1947 they received a contract form the National Bureau of Standards to build the first computer designed for business applications.  Their computer eventually became the UNIVAC I.  Very early in the history of their company, Mauchly assumed responsibility for programming, coding, and applications for the planned computer systems.  Mauchly pioneered fundamental computer concepts including the stored program, subroutines, and programming languages.  Mauchly’s interest lay in the “application” of computers, because he realized that no one would buy a computer without applications.

Mauchly and Eckert were brilliant scientists and engineers, but not so great at running the business.  They had continued financial issues and the company was purchased by Remington Rand and became the UNIVAC division.

DuPont purchased one of the first UNIVAC computers. DuPont management felt that ‘planning, estimating and scheduling’ seemed like a good use of the computer.  Morgan Walker of DuPont was given the job of discovering if a computer could be programmed to help.  Others had started studying the problem, including other researchers within DuPont but no one had achieved a commercially viable outcome.  In the period from late 1956 through April 1957, Walker, assisted by Jim Kelly from Remington Rand and others, had scoped a viable project.  Their challenge was to solve the time-cost conundrum.  Their goal was to demonstrate that in preference to flooding a project with labor to recover lost time, focusing effort on the ‘right’ (critical) tasks could reduce time without significantly increasing cost.

In May 1957, a meeting was held between Remington Rand’s UNIVAC division and DuPont to start a project to develop the Critical Path Method (CPM).   Note that CPM wasn’t first used to describe the operating system for the Apple II.  The project was jointly funded by both companies, but the key ingredients for success were the people brought to the project by UNIVAC.  The DuPont team was headed by Walker and the key players from UNIVAC were James E. Kelley and John Mauchly.  Kelley was the mathematician and computer expert nominated by Mauchly to ‘solve the problem’ for Walker.

The solution adopted by Kelley was borrowed from ‘linear programming’ and used what was called “I-J” notation to describe the relationship between activities.  His approach created a couple of significant challenges.  One was gathering the data needed to load the computer model.  Engineers were not used to describing work in terms of activities (tasks) with resource requirements and different costs depending on the resources.  It took Walker 3 months to assemble the first test data for Kelly’s algorithm!

Another problem was that unless you were a mathematician, “I-J” wasn’t something easily understood.  The team developed the ‘Activity-on-Arrow’ diagram to explain the mathematics to management.  Despite all of the problems, the team ran the first real CPM analysis for one of DuPont’s plant shutdowns in July 1957. The project schedule included 61 activities, 8 timing restraints and 16 dummies!  Here’s a portion of the CPM diagram for that first test:

Project management thus became the first commercial software program which ran on a computer using a “stored program”.

Work on the CPM application continued for the next few years and in March 1959 Kelley and Walker jointly presented CPM to the public at large at the Eastern Joint Computer Conference in a paper entitled ‘Critical Path Planning and Scheduling’.  Amazing though, CPM nearly died as a concept.  Although the system saved DuPont 25% on their plant shutdowns, they dropped the system shortly after a management change took place. And the Remington Rand UNIVAC division saw little future in the system and abandoned it!

CPM was ‘saved’ by Mauchly & Associates (formed by John Mauchly and Jim Kelley).  They commercialized the system, simplified the process to focus on schedule (rather than cost), organized training courses and developed an entire new way of ‘doing business’.  CPM was popular but expensive – solving scheduling problems could cost the price of a small car; however, the commercial ‘push’ from Mauchly & Associates moved CPM to the forefront of ‘scheduling systems’ (overtaking the PERT technique being developed by the US Navy) until the “Precedence” technique used by all scheduling systems today was developed in the 1970s.

In next month’s Part 2 blog: “EPMLive traces itself to these early pioneers”.

*** A bit of releated history:  “What’s the origin of the term software “bugs”?

There are several stories about where the term “bugs” came from, but many center on John Mauchly’s original ENIAC computer, located in a basement at the University of Pennsylvania.  Remember that the ENIAC was driven by vacuum tubes which took a long time to warm up, and “glowed”.  This was long before the advent of commercial air conditioning.  The ENIAC had to be started up before dawn and the operators opened the basement windows to keep temperatures down.  The ENIAC used “core” memory and many wires and switches had no insulation.  You can imagine the effect the moths who came in those windows had when they alighted on the circuits!  One of Mauchly’s first computer programmers Grace Hopper is given credit for first using the term “bug”, although some others dispute her as the author.  Whoever you believe there is a log book on display in the Smithsonian complete with moth attached:



So until next month, I hope you have enjoyed learning about the history of Project Management Software!  To see how far Project Management Tools have come, check out EPM Live!