New Millennium, Old Memories

"Back in the good old days before the chip and the mouse, real programmers worked on big computers and used cards the way God intended!"

This sign, which has been hanging on my office wall for over 15 years, prompts some of the younger IT staff to comment, "Tell us a tale old timer!" Having spent almost 40 years in the computer business, I thought that the arrival of the new millennium would be an appropriate time to look back, and tell the tale of what the IBM landscape looked like in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

My first encounter with "Big Blue" was at the IBM Financial Data Center in New York City, in 1962. I had been scheduled to become educated in the fine art of 402 Accounting Machine wiring principles, followed by two weeks of additional training on 602 Calculators, collating machines, and card sorters. With this knowledge transfer completed, I went to work on my first computer--the IBM 650.

Some of the more interesting characteristics of this 1966-pound monster included:

  • A power supply weighed in at just shy of 3000 pounds.
  • Average rental fee was $3200/month--the cost of a fully loaded Cadillac.
  • Up time averaged 80 percent.
  • Spare parts cost an average of $4000 per year.
  • Standard memory was contained on a magnetic drum, with a 2000 word capacity.
  • This system was one of the first to utilize transistors in place of vacuum tubes.

    My next encounter with "Small Iron" was the IBM 1401. This system, introduced in 1959, was designed to replace punched card (unit record) equipment for commercial data processing. It was also often used as a front end to some of IBM's larger processors, such as the 709 and 7094. IBM shipped over 12,000 of the 1401 series systems. I can vividly remember, after we fist started using the 1401, asking my manager, "What are we ever going to do with 4,000 positions of memory?"

    The data on the 1401 was stored in a 6-bit character instead of 8-bit bytes, referred to as Binary Coded Decimal rather than the later ASCII. There was no operating system on the 1400 series machines, and the two most common languages were SPS (Symbolic Programming System), and the later extension of SPS, Autocoder.

    My employer, a manufacturer of the first hybrid analog/digital computer, also used an IBM 1620 scientific computer. Memory on this machine maxed out at 40KB. The IBM 1620 was originally to be known as the "Cadet," but the name was never used because some IBM insiders translated the acronym to read "Can't Add, Doesn't Even Try."

    In the late '60s, I moved up to what is generally regarded as the first genuine computer system--the IBM 360. Here's an interesting fact surrounding the development of the 360--Thomas Watson, Jr., the president of IBM, was responsible for the creation of the largest private venture in American history, spending $5 billion on five new manufacturing plants and the hiring of an additional 60,000 employees, on a gamble that the 360 was the "now" computer. In 1968, four years after its debut, IBM had shipped 14,000 model 360 mainframes.

    Our first 360 was a Model 30, with 64K of memory, and IBM 2311 removable disk drives. These drives, about 18 inches in diameter, had a total capacity of 7.5 million Bytes. Incredible! Another attention getter on the 360 was the operator's console, which featured IBM's amazing Selectric typewriter. This meant that the operator no longer had to toggle in number and letter codes, but could actually type them in.

    The original operating system was known as BPS (Basic Programming System) loaded from a deck of punched cards. This was followed by a series of upgraded OSs--BOS (Basic OS), TOS (Tape OS), DOS (Disk OS), and finally OS, which in turn evolved into MFT, MVT, and MVS.

    Subsequent systems that I fought included the System 36, System 3, System 38, and now the AS/400. It has been an incredible 38-year journey, but now getting back to the 90's, I guess I'll pack up my TRS-80, Model 4-P, go home for the weekend, and finish this article.