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10 things I miss about Big Iron

Many IT pros got their start surrounded by massive mainframes, flashing lights, punched cards, and the sound of tape drives revving up and spinning down. Jaime Henriquez looks back at what he liked best about those days.

In the early 1970s, I worked in operations at Montgomery Ward's computer center in Chicago. It was the era of Big Iron, dominated by IBM, whose System/360 line of mainframe computers was used by government, larger corporations, and big universities. Much has improved since then. Still, thinking back to that time, there are some things I miss.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download. Check out the related Big Iron photo gallery for a visual trip down memory lane.

1: I miss "the Floor"

The Floor was an expanse of mysterious boxes scattered singly or in rows as far as the eye could see, separated from ordinary workspace to allow for a raised floor to limit dust and dirt and provide for intensive air conditioning. There was no obvious connection between the boxes ... unless someone had pulled up part of the floor with one of those wonderful suction-cup tile lifters that always made me think of Spider-Man.

2: I miss the solidity of Big Iron

All the delicate parts -- circuit boards and the like -- were inside metal cases five feet tall and several feet wide, big and heavy enough to run into and bounce off of. It's likely they were bolted to the floor, since cables ran from box to box underneath it. This was machinery that could take abuse: If needed, you could always whack a misbehaving CPU on the IPL (reboot) button. Now it's all briefcases in spaghetti.

3: I miss the simple support

Back then, you knew that one of two groups would handle whatever problem came up, either your own in-house programmers or the guys from IBM. If there was anything wrong with the hardware -- computers or peripherals -- it was IBM that came out to fix it. Usually, it was the CEs (customer engineers). But if you were in really big trouble, the SEs (system engineers) would turn up. Their titles suggested an attitude to customer service appropriate for a corporate hegemony: Never engineer the system if you can engineer the customer instead.

4: I miss "the priesthood of the computer"

We had exclusive access to the mysterious machines that were then gathering up the threads of power like so many bright-eyed spiders. Telling someone you worked with computers was enough to get you respect, and maybe a little awe. Better yet, you didn't need experience or education if you had talent; companies would train you. Those were the days.

5: I miss the novelty

All those machines and all that human-like processing being controlled by cryptic commands from an ordinary-looking typewriter -- that was new. It wasn’t complete control, though. I still remember being slightly freaked out the first time the computer typed back to me. Clearly, the realm of “Untouched by Human Hands” was expanding.

6: I miss the iconic images

Computers and peripherals used to visibly do things -- and some of those images became stock footage in TV and film. Spinning tape drives, punched cards being sorted faster than the eye could follow, and the ever-popular rows of flashing lights (easily imitated by set designers), all came to represent “thinking machines” to the general public.

7: I miss the look of the CPU

All those flashing lights, toggle switches, and label rollers, promising to reveal the inner workings of the computer. I was sort of disappointed to find that it didn't mean much to the operator. Basically, flashing was good; not flashing was bad.

8: I miss the sights and sounds of peripherals

It was kind of soothing to watch a 2401 tape drive rev up to speed or spin down, and hear the "ka-chunk" when a 2314 disk drive got up to speed and tested the read/write head.

9: I miss the ubiquitous punched card

The card was the first step by which information became computer data. There was a rumor at the time that IBM actually made all its profit not from selling hardware and software, but from selling cards.

10: I miss the Emergency Pull

That bright red handle was carefully located to be accessible yet out of the way. It was the subject of this trainee's first lecture: "That handle that says Emergency Pull? Don't ever pull it, no matter what!" Apparently, pulling it turned a million dollar machine into a million-dollar doorstop. To me, that garishly labeled but never-to-be-used device felt like a fitting introduction to the world of computer logic -- organized and rational, yes, but not always sensible.

CPU of an IBM System/360 Model 65 -- complete with lights, rollers, toggles, buttons (note the IPL button in the bottom right by the postcard), and Emergency Pull (top right). Photo courtesy of Mike Ross, The Corestore. (Mike's looking for more "360/370 era mainframes and peripherals," if you happen to have any.)

What do you miss?

Were you part of the mainframe era? What aspects of that technology do you remember fondly -- or not so fondly?

46 comments
jgriggs
jgriggs

I too miss punched cards.  A favorite memory is when a senior systems analyst sent a rookie to the computer room to retrieve the contents of the Bit Bucket for his inspection.  A quick phone call to the computer operator and the rookie was sent back with a plastic bag full of the chads from the 026 Keypunch.  Poor dear -- she got all the way back to the programming office before realizing that it was a joke.

atrue
atrue

One of the greatest things that I miss is the consistency of the system. If you ran the same job with the same data the results were always the same. I remember how shocked I was when I found out that running the same program and the same data several times on a PC did not necessarily give you the same results.  Just try to debug that one!

bobp
bobp

Fanfold paper made it easy to go through a large printout by keeping one finger under the top fold.

dcavanaugh
dcavanaugh

The priesthood is still there, but in some organizations it has transformed from the benevolent goal of user service to an oppressive, desperate attempt to retain authority and relevance. The new mantra is control at all costs, irrespective of the consequences. In the big iron days, nobody called us the "preventers of information services" or the "Information Taliban" department.

grantpqd
grantpqd

Well I do miss those things. But I REALLY miss those 407 plugboards and the 1401/1410 upsi switches - as we applied thm to 360/DOS programs before the advent of 360/OS.

TimedRelease
TimedRelease

remember, the awesome black and white picture of the moon that the printer would printout over several sheets of paper which you'd then tape together and stick on the wall....

sbarman
sbarman

One thing I remember are the IBM 1403 line printer. They were so loud and always was the source for fun. The first thing you learn with the 1403 is not to put your coffee on top because it would raise when it was out of paper. I think everyone in the computer center had to clean up their coffee at least once. One time they had to lift a floor tile near the printer and everything was covered in dried coffee! I remember receiving a tape that had images that was marked as being from Doug Comer (author of "Internetworking with TCP/IP") with pictures that can be printed on the 1403. In order to print then pictures, you had to submit a job that requested a formatting tape that removed the top and bottom margins and requested that the job be printed on the back of the green bar paper. Oh yea... what happened to the green bar paper and the volumes of output printed on that paper? Then there was the printer music! Someone figured out how to send a series of lines to the printer to have it make music. It was so cool! I also used the Control Data Corp 6600, Cyber 70/74, and Cyber 170. These Seymour Cray designed machines were great processing engine. Too bad Cyber NOS was one of the worst operating systems ever. It was full of security holes and could be taken over with an ordinary user account!

srlevine1
srlevine1

Thank you very much for this article. Brought back many great memories. Of men and machines. Started with a 1620, moved to a 1401, then to a 7094/7044 DCS and then to an IBM 360/65 and finally the 360/91. Brings back fond memories of being my own operator and being able to hang tape with the best of our professional operators. I thought the 360/20 was IBM's gift to the EAM world. And the 360/30 was a gift to the 1401 crowd and the 360/65 was a gift to the 7094 group. Every machine was a delight. There is nothing like being a programmer and running your own programs in a big shop instead of sticking card decks (actually multiple boxes of cards) in a cubbyhole and waiting for the results or a core dump. Or the agony of loading ten boxes of cards (20,000 cards) only to see a system message saying "Flushing job, searching for next job card." Or knowing another 10 cyclinder extent would have kept the job from bombing. Today, my toys are faster and more sophisticated than those machines. Now if only I could attach a channel box and run an IBM 3800 printer at 20,000 lpm.

Odipides
Odipides

I miss one of the managers coming in with his kids at the weekend to "show them around" (euphemism for "pose"), and one of the little brats hitting the 'all stop' button. It was then that I discovered punching a board member in the mouth isn't the best career move.

TsarNikky
TsarNikky

Jaime is so correct. I miss the RCA 501 so very much. It was such a joy to operate, watch and use.

Michael Jay
Michael Jay

Trouble shooting down to the individual card with an o-scope and fixing the card by replacing a, err, what were those bulky things called, yes transistor, actually using a soldering iron. But even better was aligning tape drives, disk drives and card reader/punches, a lot of delicate electro-mechanical stuff to be dealt with. Fun times indeed.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

That, obviously, was for the eventuality that the computer, evolved into full sentience, turned out to be hostile ]:) They did think of everything...

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Cleaning out the punched card machines. Nice memories as you pointed out.

gchudyk
gchudyk

If you are going to have printer picture memories, why not the naked girl picture composed by an artfully arranged set of uppercase letters? It helped to know that you would get this small reward after working through the night to complete a system upgrade.

bobc4012
bobc4012

@sbarman I remember the music. One of my co-workers had the program that determined what character lines produced the various notes.  Christmas time he would play Christmas music on it. The best piece I ever heard was the Marine's Hymn, complete with drum roll and all. We used to reuse the printer paper when playing music so management would not get TOO upset (of course, it could only be re-used a couple of times). BTW, that was on the 1401s - by the start of the 360 era, work became more serious.

Henriquez
Henriquez

I spent a few months on the care and feeding of a half-dozen 1403's on our 360/50 SPOOL (was that an acronym?) system. Output from the other systems was put on tape and carted over to the SPOOL system for printing. Certainly, the 1403 is one of the most memorable things from that time, but I couldn't quite justify saying I missed it. More of a love/hate thing ... maybe it'll go nicely in a "10 Things I Don't Miss" follow-up. :)

Histrion2
Histrion2

I miss the green bar paper, too. I'm a math teacher now and it makes for great scratch paper.

GSG
GSG

We still have a box of green bar paper stashed away, and I was looking at an old report on greenbar just last week. We're keeping that old box of paper just because we can, and so we can show the "young 'uns" what real printing was about.

mic
mic

Do you remember the print job that printed out a large footprint? We didn't have raised floors so when we had to show off the computer for management we would run that print job & raise the cover. Then we'd ask, "All right, someone stepped on a cable. Who did that?"

crt
crt

Of course having to fix the darn thing in shirt and tie meant you probably needed a new shirt since we were up to our ears in ink and oil... guess what, I miss it too.

waltjohnson35
waltjohnson35

I started with the IBM 1401. It was great to be able to understand the entire system. I still remember that "1" was Read a card; "2" was Print a line; "4" was Punch a card. The bootstrap card started with ,008015,022029 Today's pocket computers have much more power but need a LOT more understanding.

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

My first was the 1620 as well. The most fun: making it do math in octal for a cross-assembler.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

We were working in the machine room, and the CE came to work on a line printer. We let him in, then he started out to get some parts. When he got to the door, he pushed it and it was locked. He said "How do you get out?" The operator replied "Just push the button there by the door." Of course, there were TWO buttons by the door, one was a simple doorbell button and the other was the big red "Emergency" button. You can guess which one the CE pushed. That was the emergency power-down; two of the disk packs had head crashes during EPO, and several tapes and peripherals were also damaged. It took 12 weeks for IBM to get all of the parts and tweaks in place for the system to be fully operational again, and everything that administration had done since the previous night's backup were lost. Of course they were thrilled about that... And IBM took it on the chin for that one, because it was their CE who pushed the wrong button and made such a mess... ;-)

Henriquez
Henriquez

Of course! NOW it makes sense ... :)

srlevine1
srlevine1

I was told that you never pulled that emergency off switch unless someone was being electrocuted. And especially if it was an IBM CE or SE ... they could be replaced easily, unlike the machine.

ted.watkns
ted.watkns

I worked on Honeywell 6000's and the Burroughs 3500 in the seventies. I still have fond memories of sitting at the teletype terminal and playing Star Trek during the long mid-shift nights. It was also during this timeframe that I learned how to enter hex code into the systems using the otherwise useless toggle switches. Great times!

Techie Mom
Techie Mom

I remember updating the Registrar's DECtapes. I would keep from getting bored by seeing how many characters I could type before the PDP-8 caught up with me and echoed them.

sperry532
sperry532

Odd as it sounds, I miss doing PMs on the touchy old Honeywell tape drives. Aligning the heads and setting the vacuum just so then experiencing the thrill of seeing and hearing it run perfectly... for a while. Then there was the satisfaction of "reading" the holes on a paper tape, just to see the total amazement on the face of one of our Pointy-Haired Boss's. It's just not the same anymore. sigh.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I miss VMS on MicroVax and Alpha Best operating system, I've ever used. Good kit as well.

JimTheEngineer
JimTheEngineer

When I was working with those machines while in college, we had to warn people against using the punchouts as confetti - the card punch chips had sharp edges and could damage one's eyes. The paper tape holes had some oil on them, and they would stick to stuff - and reappear often months later.

jsbeam
jsbeam

I think I arrogantly miss the priesthood the most. Now every schmuck that uses facebook feels free to tell me how to run multinational business systems...."dude" you have no idea...

srlevine1
srlevine1

I wrote a banner print program that was requested by everybody and his brother. One datacenter director claimed that I had built the greatest paper-waster/cost center ever devised ... and he was afraid to decatalog the program as he feared a user riot. What was a celebration without a banner?

steve_schaub
steve_schaub

We had to make due with a very good representation of the Mona Lisa. But the operators did get bored one year and decided to create their own master pieces - Frosty, a 4ft Christmas tree with lights, ornaments, etc and Santa in his sleigh, pulled by all the reindeer! These were actually big hits with the school kids that came in for tours - we'd fire up the printer, turn off the autostacker in the back and make them try to catch and fold them as they printed (no one ever succeeded).

michael.rosanbalm
michael.rosanbalm

We printed to paper tape, chad-less too! (An earlier upgrade) It had a typing reperf but I can't recall the model, typed right on the paper tape. Remote interaction was done on a Teletype corporation model 35 console and another teletype attached to the IBM 1620. I think we had a dedicated 56k connection for the thing back to the university. By the way, our "broadband" if you will, cost us $700.00 a month for that 56k circuit. Yeah, I too miss those days too. That was when you weren't embarrassed to admit you worked with "Computers". Some days I'd rather be a plumber.

dcavanaugh
dcavanaugh

I miss having exactly 66 lines of 132 columns with a single fixed pitch font. Labels were 6 lines, 1-up. You knew in advance if columns were aligned, whether or not text would fit, and you could read the output without squinting. No complaints or trouble tickets because some moron decides to print in 18 point Comic Sans.

jimmeq
jimmeq

Sorry, but I don't miss "bursting" continuous green bar paper even though I became quite good at the job. I do miss what looked to be 16" platters visible through a small window of the 100MB hard drives that took up the same space as a washing machine. A room was filled with 'em!

srlevine1
srlevine1

If you put an AM radio next to the control panel and you could hear noise of various frequencies generated by the machine. The tighter the loop, the higher the tone. I finally wrote an assembler that turned notes into loops of various instructions and had a blast. I can still count by twelves and remember if you missed the flag, you could easily wrap core. A TI speak-and-spell has more memory and computing power than my first 1620 with 40K of real core.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But many years ago when we had Halon Fire Suppression I did trigger the Fire Suppression System which locked the doors and placed the People inside on Oxygen. Pity that the Powers that be at that place who where in attendance at the time refused to have the O2 System operational. :0 They where panicking and running around taking the Emergency O2 Bottles off the workers and asking what do we do now? My reply was die as that Emergency portable Bottle lasts 5 minutes and it takes the Fire Brigade 15 minutes to get here to let us out. They say a Picture is worth a Thousand Words but I would insist that, that picture was worth million of words. :D I just loved pulling System tests when no one else in the place knew about them. :^0 Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

If an Apprentice walked in while I was working on the thing to Pull that Handle. That's what it was put there for to keep Apprentices away. ;) Those where the days though Fun Times with great Hardware. Though I didn't like the Hydraulic Drives as they tended to sprout leaks and people like me had to fix them. Only time you got drowned in nasty stuff though. :0 Col

ntdalio
ntdalio

Our Banks IBM S E was great & taught me all my initial lessons in the 60's about how to set up o NOP area to use for getting a program to run using the toggle switches after a crash due to as program error

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Yep almost anything is better than being a [b]Windows Cleaner[/b] these days. :( Col

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

have been using that secret weapon before me? It is hard to tell - after all, it's nearly invisible. but not entirely!

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

It was all of the dead managers who they where about to loose. Now try to insist that I sign off on something substandard again and see what happens. :^0 Col

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Let's not waste precious oxygen! It costs money! Why are you all turning blue? Suck it up people, I can get workers from India who'll go three days without breathing!!! Those are sadhu's obviously....

AllenT_z
AllenT_z

I too was a banker; I wasn't in the DP department, but ran Proof & Transit. Sometimes I went into the computer room to make a quite transit (check distribution) run. The program kept stopping and required the then-familiar control-blank-interrupt combination to start again. After doing this perhaps a hundred times I pushed the Interrupt right out of its panel mounting. I finished the run by opening the panel, fishing out the Interrupt button which I held in my hand, pushing constantly until the run was finished. Oh, this was on a 360 Mod 30. Allen