Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


SAGE, SABRE and the Airline Industry

Posted on | June 17, 2015 | No Comments

Military funding lead to the invention of the modem and other data communications technologies for a North American defense system. This grid of radar and other sensors connected to central computers with over a million miles of telephone line. Its headquarters would later be located deep within the Colorado Cheyenne Mountains and be the model for the WOPR, the errant machine in movie War Games (1983). The first commercial application of that technology was adopted by the airline industry.

In 1952, IBM had been chosen along with MIT to build 56 large computers (at nearly $30 million each) for the SAGE defense project.[1] In addition to access to the considerable knowledge base about electronics at MIT and the billions of dollars it earned, IBM also developed very valuable expertise in engineering and production know-how required to design and mass produce printed circuit boards and magnetic core memories. As SAGE was effectively the first wide-area network, the technology translated over the next few years into a new project to combine data processing and communications called Semi-Automatic Business-Research Environment (SABRE).

The airlines, in particular, had an interest in coordinating their activities over long distances, much like the railroads. Pan Am, for example, was growing rapidly as a commercial airline and needed computer and communication facilities to integrate its passenger reservations and cargo control. The company would later implement this “Panamac” computer communication system, but in the early 1950s, this was still an impractical ideal. Both computers and telecommunications still needed to undergo major technological improvements before this vision could be implemented.

SABRE was installed by American Airlines in 1964 and used the SAGE technology to track and coordinate airline seats. Some 1200 terminals were connected to the large mainframe computer over 12,000 miles of telephone wires.[2] During the 1960s, Pan Am developed a network of computer hookups from Honolulu to Europe. Messages extending beyond had to be relayed through telegrams, telex, and leased telegraph lines. United Airlines also had a communications network running at this time that would incorporate 105 cities.

The computerized system reduced the need for reservation processing staff and improved the load factor on flights. Computers helped democratize airlines so others besides the “Jet Set” would be able to use them. In an era of rapidly increasing business, airlines were able to manage and allocate passenger seating and cargo much more efficiently.[3]

The SABRE network was developed for the airline business, but it also became the first real-time transaction processing system used for hotel reservations, industrial process control, and automated financial transactions.[4] SABRE would remain a crucial airline reservations system for travel agents around the world until the commercialization of the Internet; they began to offer Travelocity, one of the premiere e-commerce sites on the World Wide Web.

SAGE and its SABRE offspring provided the model of command, control, and communication for industry using computers. The strategic importance of communications was well known for posts and telegraphy. Telegraphs had been crucial for modern businesses for nearly a century. Electronic voice communications had been recognized for connecting business as early as 1877 when J. Lloyd Haigh ordered the first subscriber line over the unfinished Brooklyn Bridge to connect his office at 81 John St. in Manhattan to his factory in South Brooklyn.[5] SABRE was the first wide area network for computer control and coordination.

Computer communications presented a new opportunity to operate business at a distance. While data could be punched on paper cards or transferred to magnetic tape and then moved to remote locations, electronic transmission offered speed and immediacy. Computers were connected “inplant”, within and/or between buildings without the use of a common carrier or “out-plant” connecting separate premises through lines bought or leased from a telecommunications company. In the 1960s corporations started to piece together data links with leased alphanumeric and voice lines.


[1] Edwards, Paul, N. (1997) The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. p. 101.
[2] Burg, Urs. Von. (2001) The Triumph of Ethernet: Technological Communities and the Battle for the LAN Standard. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. P. 56.
[3] Martin, J. (1976) Telecommunications and the Computer. 2nd Edition. Englewood, N.J: Prentice-Hall.
[4] Flamm, K. (1988) Creating the Computer: Government, Industry and High Technology. Washington D.C: The Brookings Institute. p. 89.
[5] My gratitude to Professor Jan Mainzer at Marist College for providing this reference. She provided photocopies of The City of New York (1915) by Henry Collins Brown, NY: Old Colony Press.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii during the 1990s.


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