Electronic Data Interchange’s connection to the 1948 Berlin Airlift: A History Lesson

Colorful chalk on chalkboard with text: "Today's History Lesson: Electronic Data Interchange and the Berlin Airlift of 1948"

By Molly Goad

Because we are amid the back-to-school season, I thought it to be an appropriate time for a history lesson.  

I wanted to learn just how far back the origins of EDI can be traced. I plunged down the rabbit hole, fascinated to learn that it goes back to the 1948 Berlin Airlift and the work of a man named Edward A. Guilbert. 

Operation VITTLES 

The Berlin Airlift – also known as Operation VITTLES by the American military – was a way for the Allies to fly supplies into parts of Berlin that were inaccessible on the ground due to Soviet occupation zones. The airlift lasted for 13 months, and more than 2 million tons of food and supplies were lifted.  

“But tracking the cargo, which had to be loaded and unloaded at top speed, was next to impossible with shipping manifests in different forms and, sometimes, different languages,” writes Frank Hayes, in The Story So Far.  

Standard Manifest System Emerged 

Tracking massive amounts of cargo daily was made possible by U.S. Army Master Sgt. Edward A. Guilbert and his colleagues. They created a standard manifest system that could be transmitted by telex, radio-teletype, or telephone.  

Guilbert brought his knowledge and experience to a position at DuPont, where he helped develop a set of standardized electronic cargo messages for communicating with tank truck carrier Chemical Leaman Tank Lines. 

This was the early 1960s, and the transportation industry was bogged down with paper, paper, and more paper. Guilbert’s work was a breakthrough.  

Transportation Data Coordinating Committee 

By 1968, many transportation companies were using electronic manifests. It was time to think about cross-industry standards, so the Transportation Data Coordinating Committee was born.  

The TDCC developed, published, and maintained the original EDI standards in 1975, and Guilbert served as its president for 19 years. Today, EDI standards are maintained via the American National Standards Institute in the U.S. 

The Father of EDI 

Guilbert is often referred to as the “father of EDI” in the industry. He even has an award named after him, called the Edward A. Guilbert Lifetime Achievement Award presented yearly by the nonprofit EDI standards organization X12.  

The award “…recognizes outstanding long-term actions activities and professional accomplishments related to development and implementation of X12 standards.”  

(What’s X12? I’m glad you asked. It’s the most common set of EDI standards used in the United States.) 

Guilbert was aided by several cohorts as noted in the article “The Story Behind the Awards.” Joe Carley, Ralph Notto, and Earl “Buddy” Bass also lent their expertise in the development of EDI integrated standards for air, ocean, motor, and rail transportation. 

Class Dismissed 

This brings us to the conclusion of our EDI history lesson. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  

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