Sputnik, spaghetti and the IBM SPACE machine
The 50th anniversary of the 1401
The fall of 1957 was a low point not only for the United States, but for another high-minded world power: IBM.
As the US looked up at Sputnik, without a satellite of its own, IBM was haunted by a rival machine known as the Gamma 3. Built by an upstart French outfit, the Gamma had trumped Blue Blue's fledgling computer tech - not to mention its European sales - and the company lacked even the blueprint for a response. In the fall of 1957, the International Business Machines Corporation had no major business machine in development.
But just as the US would reclaim lost ground with the Mercury space program, IBM would battle back with the 1401, a seminal stored-program machine fated to become the most popular computer of the 1960s.
This year marks the machine's 50th anniversary, and last week, at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum, three of the system's founding fathers gathered for a night of nostalgia. Introducing the venerable trio - chief architect Francis Underwood, project head Charles Branscomb and planning manager Sheldon Jacobs - current Big Blue marketing boss John Iwata called them "IBM's version of the Mercury astronauts".
WWAM. Bam. No thank you, Ma'am
Shipped in 1953 by a French outfit known as Compagnie des Machines Bull, the Gamma 3 was an early electronic computer that served as both accounting machine and general purpose calculator. Big Blue had dominated the accounting machine market for decades, but according to Charles Branscomb - an exec in IBM's Endicott, New York lab at the time - its technology had suddenly fallen behind.
"It was a wake-up call. The Gamma 3 was a calculator that actually attached to an accounting machine, and the IBM Europe people were very concerned," Branscomb says. "They came to the corporation and alerted the corporation that there was a competitive threat - and that something had to be done about it."
Big Blue's initial response was to fashion a transistor-based system known as the Worldwide Accounting Machine, WWAM for short. Its processor was designed at IBM's French lab in Paris, its punchcard reader and printer at a German lab outside Stuttgart.
In 1957, Branscomb was appointed area manager for accounting machines at the Endicott lab, and his first task was to review the WWAM's progress. That October, he flew to France for a meeting with the product manager overseeing the processor design. And as Branscomb sat down, the Frenchman couldn't help but mention the satellite the Soviets had launched the day before.
"The Russians put up Sputnik yesterday, and it goes around the world saying 'Beep, beep, beep,'" the Frenchman said. "Then, when it gets to the US, it says 'Ha, ha, ha.'"
The IBM 1401 (right), with card reader and printer
The irony is that the IBM - including the Frenchman himself - was in much the same position as the Sputniked Americans. After Paris, Branscomb flew to Germany, and he soon told the corporation that the WWAM project should be terminated. Like so many accounting machines that came before it, the WWAM was programmed through plugboard.
"[The European labs] had done some creative work. They had tried to make the best use of a control panel, but it was still a control panel machine and technology was on the move and my conclusion was that it was not going to get the job done," Branscomb remembers.
"Here it was, late third, early fourth quarter 1957, and IBM's largest revenue base had no machine in development."
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Those were the days
The high school I attended in Detroit was blessed by donations of a 1401 for the "business" curricula and a 1620 for the scientific ones. I was in the first class to learn on the 1620 (in 1965-66) and we first learned in SPS (Symbolic Programming System), a language very much like Assembler. Then on to FORTRAN II.
Weird but wonderful in there was no fixed "word" size, just a string of digits delimited by special characters giving variable precision arithmetic at the cost of CPU cycles. Also didn't have a hardware adder allowing arithmetic in anything from base0 to base36. Was thus called the CADET: Can't Add, Doesen't Even Try.
We punched our own cards for program and data input and used either the console typewriter (literally an IBM electric typewriter controled by the CPU) or the high-speed card punch followed by the interpreting printer for output.
Now that was Real Programming! :-)
You did a great job of summing up the essence of the 1401 and the speeches of Chuck Branscomb and Fran Underwood. You cannot imagine the thrills we founders had attending the events celebrating the 50th Anniversary as we recalled the period leading up to the announcement in 1959. It was not only the technology, but also the camaraderie and teamwork that made this machine and its introduction to the world so memorable.
Jan Swanson Barris, Lead Writer IBM 1401 Reference Manual.
Dont forget the other fun thing
Loading the object deck that made those joke print outs of out of "X"'s and "O"'s that would come crackling out of those printers a line at a time, to reveal.. an image of a naked woman on a bar stool in all the greenbar glory! Those were the days!