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The History of IT at the Church Twitter Facebook Print E-mail
Written by Cassie McDaniel   
Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Information technology is instrumental in furthering the mission of the Church. But even before the first IBM computers, members have been envisioning a future in which computers would improve essential data processes for the Church and better the lives of others.

Implementing information technology into the infrastructure of the Church came about gradually through the faith and dedication of many people.

George Y. Jarvis, head of the newly formed Financial Department in 1953, hired Alfonso Gerrit Pia to mechanize the accounting functions of the Church that same year. The Church Financial Department then became the first department of the Church to use a punch card system for accounting purposes, the direct predecessor to computing, in 1954. In the early 1960s an IBM 1401 became the Church's first computer and was also used for accounting.

In the 1950s there was also an unofficial group of men in the Los Angeles, California area working to implement technology into the Church. Gary Carlson, Kendall Wright, and Bruce Smith began creating a program that would demonstrate the possibilities of computing to the Brethren of the Church. This program was written on an IBM 709. Its purpose was to read raw christening records and then compile them into family group sheets. After that, an official call to join the Data Processing Committee came to these three men.

Throughout the late 1950s, until the 1970s this group of men actively promoted the use of technology and provided consultation about how it could most benefit the Church. Reservations about the need for and proper use of technology were the major points of discussion. Many people were not used to thinking in terms of information technology and data processing. The risk and reward associated with the investment of this undertaking was large and daunting. Because computers were so new to many organizations, many thought that the possibility of failure simply wasn't worth the risk given the unproven results. But, the perseverance of these men eventually paid off. All of them held key roles in bringing the Church into the information technology world.

In 1962 Kendall Wright was hired to determine the best ways in which to go forward with technology. He was appointed by the First Presidency to be the head of the Advanced Planning Department, the first computer department of the Church. He worked with related departments to find the data that was needed in order to explore the areas in which technology would best serve the Church.

Gary Carlson moved from California to Utah to help vitalize the computer program at BYU in 1963 and became the director of the Computer Research Center. He led efforts to develop the first computer science courses and then a computer science degree. During this time he continued to serve on the Data Processing Committee until 1977.

In 1969 Management Systems Corporation (MSC) was established, with Bruce Smith as president. It began as a Church-affiliated corporation, but became a private corporate entity within a year. Its purpose was to not only serve the Church's needs, but also to provide data processing solutions to many organizations such as hospitals, Deseret News Press, Bonneville Insurance, Deseret Book, U & I Sugar, Beneficial Life, and Hotel Utah. An IBM 360-65 was the first computer used by MSC.

In the early 1970s the Church membership records were computerized. This effort was the precursor to Member Information System (MIS) and later, Membership and Leader Services (MLS). Although the idea was embraced, the technical hurdles caused sluggishness and it became a challenging project to maintain.

MSC served the information technology needs of the Church and many other entities, until 1980. With the advent of personal computers, the lower cost of mini and mainframe computers, the loss of key accounts, and the Church's decision to execute its information technology needs in house MSC services were discontinued and many of the employees went to work for the Church. Information and Communications Systems (ICS) became the new information technology department of the Church.

The world in which we live today is blooming with technology. It can be used for ill and for good. It makes us more efficient or can hold us back. We strive to learn from those who so wholeheartedly believed that technology would benefit us as a Church. Their efforts proved the validity of their dreams and have even surpassed what anyone could then imagine. It's up to us to continue the effort as we look forward to a bright future.

Note: This information is based on documents from Church history archives.


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