Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/27/tob_ibm_1360/

What ever happened to storing pics with electron cannons?

Blue Blue's digital photo beam

By Austin Modine

Posted in Storage, 27th November 2009 20:03 GMT

This Old Box Features make the system. After all, what good is a gaming rig without superfluous neon-blue lights, an iMac without the almost-matronly lack of sharp edges, or a Verizon phone not forged by the souls of the damned upon an altar of bones?1

This old box logo

This simple and self-evident truth carries over to storage systems as well. Normally, storage is a bit of bore to yours truly - yet this column can't help but make an exception to the terrific IBM 1360 Photo-Digital Storage System for two simple reasons: 1) It has an electron cannon; and importantly 2) Sorry, stepped away for a cup of coffee. Does the system still have an electron cannon? Yes? Fantastic.

The bulky IBM 1360 includes this dangerous-sounding device for a good reason. Built in 1967, it was the first system designed from scratch to store over 1 trillion bits (~116GB). Ponder that 116GB is an OK chunk of storage even today. Then puzzle how IBM engineers built it back in the '60s. Answer: Electron cannon, silly. (highlight to reveal spoiler).

There may actually be damned souls involved here too...

Unlike storage systems of its time (and really, any since) the 1360 stored data inside cabinets stuffed with drawers of photographic film imprinted with binary data rather than the usual methods of magnetic drums, platters, or tape. The system even contained its own internal "film processing laboratory," which developed the film automatically. The film and drawers were moved about my means of pneumatic tubes and a robotic arm. Obviously, this was a very complex rig - but it worked. Of the handful of commercial systems built, three were still being used into the late 1970s.

Back 1960-way, the US Atomic Energy Commission was shopping around for a system that could store an enormous amount of data for their newfangled nuclear blast simulations. The Cold War was in high gear, and America wanted to see what devastation it could wreak in fun new ways with unprecedented accuracy.

Electron cannon!

IBM's Almaden laboratory in Silicon Valley had previously worked on system using a similar photo-storage concept for the CIA during the 1950s to store the agency's sizable library of microfilm documents. IBM peddled the idea to the Atomic Energy folk and they liked it. IBM was offered a $2.1m contract for two machines: one at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the other at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Later, two more systems were ordered for the National Security Agency and one for the Los Alamos National Lab.

The IBM 1360 had four main units: the data controller, the photo-digital recorder, the photo-digital reader, and the cell file and control. With more cell file units, a system could be expanded to store about two trillion bits of data.

Photo-Digital Recorder unit

Cell File and Control unit

Inside the knickknack-cabinet-looking cell file and control unit was stored data written on small pieces of high-resolution photographic film called "chips." About five million bits (~0.59MB) could be burned into a single chip, each one measuring 1.3 x 2.7 inches (3cm x 6.86cm).

Data was recorded on the chips using a concentrated beam of electrons shot from tungsten filaments in the turret of the Photo-Digital Storage system's internal electron gun. Individual blank chips were positioned in a vacuum chamber, then data sent from a host computer was recorded by sweeps of the beam across the chip surface. Dark and clear spots scored on the chip corresponded with binary ones and zeros. Each chip was divided into 32 frames containing 300 lines with 300 bits per line. The 1360 would record data one frame at a time at a rate of about a half million bits per second.

The electron beam-painted chips would then be developed inside the machine using developer, stop, and fix chemicals stored in the recorder unit. After processing, the chips were packed into protective plastic "cells," (which are about the size of a pack of cigarettes) and sent to the storage unit's cabinets by way of a pneumatic blower system made for two-way travel.

Inside the cabinet

Host in the cell

When data was read, it was sucked from its cabinet into a reader station. A robo-arm then held the cell in front of a scanner which would process the bits.

Electron cannon!

The photo-storage system had to overseen by at least one operator when in use for maintenance as well as supplying it with raw film, chemicals, and tender love and care. The operator had limited control over the system through an operator's panel composed of a power-on button, power-off button, and an emergency pull. Powering on the machine would start a program load routine that took about 30 to 40 minutes to complete (Windows Vista: eat your heart out). 1360 operators also had limited control over the machine using a printer/keyboard.

Plastic cells carrying raw film chips would be inserted into the system using a spacer box assembly and hopper that could hold up to 14 cells. Chemicals would be loaded into the system from two sets of three trays of developer, fix, and stop fluids contained in flexible, one-gallon polyethylene bags. The chemical supply was enough for about three to four hours of continuous operation.

A good bit of work for all that storage – but a considerable achievement in engineering. And who wouldn't want their data stored in a Rube Goldberg device? This system has some seriously heinous, yet undeniably spectacular features. More than enough to earn even a storage system a TOB salute.

The message reads, "Check roughing pump oil while vacuum is down."

Trained service personnel only

Thanks as always to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California for letting us covet their aging machinery. The IBM 1360 system you see here was donated to them by Lawrence Livermore National Lab by the way, the big softies. Homework on the IBM 1360 should include the reminiscing of John Fletcher, former physicist who worked with the system at Lawrence Livermore.

'Till our next bi-whenever romp with boxes of legends. ®

1Don't look here for answers. It was a rhetorical question.