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No. 3117:
C.R. Smith and SABRE

by Andy Boyd

Today, we rattle sabres. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

He started as an unknown but finished as a titan. Cyrus Rowlett Smith was born in 1899 in Minerva, Texas, a town that was never very big to begin with and is now home to perhaps sixty people. The eldest of seven children, his father left when the boy was only nine. Smith helped support the family, and as a result his schooling suffered. He ultimately talked his way into the University of Texas where he studied accounting and law.

Cyrus Rowlett Smith
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

After leaving school, Smith proved himself a capable businessman as he navigated his way through a number of jobs, eventually landing at the Texas-Louisiana Power Company. When the power company purchased the mail-carrier Texas Air Transport, Smith was made its Vice President of Finance. The air transport company continued to expand through acquisitions, and by 1934, at the age of 35, Smith found himself head of the newly formed American Airlines.

American DC-3
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

During some four decades at the helm of American, Smith was successful on many fronts. But among the rural Texan's most important accomplishments was one you might not expect.

In 1953 Smith found himself seated next to a salesman in training on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. The young man struck up a conversation with Smith about a new technology that could help American better manage flight reservations. The company was IBM. The technology was the computer.

Within a few years IBM and American were well into joint development of the Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment, or SABRE for short. It was a far-reaching idea, not just for American and the airline industry, but for the world of business. SABRE was formally rolled out in 1964, the largest non-governmental data processing system in the world at that time.

The first SABRE system was comprised of two IBM 7090 computers
The first SABRE system was comprised of two IBM 7090 computers. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Other airlines followed suit but were late to the game. And it wasn't a game of convenience. Airlines quickly realized their growth depended on going beyond pencils and three-by-five index cards. Still, it took five to ten years after American's SABRE was in use for other major carriers to release their own reservations systems. For American, the name SABRE proved highly appropriate, as airline reservations systems unleashed a furious competitive battle for the flying passenger. And leading the charge onto the battlefield was C. R. Smith and American.

SABRE remains an important, vastly expanded system in the travel industry, though as a business entity it was spun off from American in 2000. SABRE still provides services for American, but it also sits behind a host of other travel platforms, including Travelocity and Expedia to name just two. And it owes its existence to the forward-thinking of a small-town Texan who, like many of his fellow Texan's, knew how to think big.

SABRE logo
Photo Credit: Sabre

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)

For a related episode, see AIRPLANE RESERVATIONS.

Smith left American in 1968 to serve as Secretary of Commerce under then President Johnson, but later returned to American, ultimately retiring in 1974.

George James. "C.R. Smith, Pioneer of Aviation as Head of American, Dies at 90." New York Times, April 5, 1990. See also: Click here. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Greg Ross. Airline Reservation System History 101. From the Christopherson Business Travel website.

SABRE: The First Online Reservation System. From the IBM website: Click here.  Accessed March 21, 2017.

This episode was first aired on March 23, 2017