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1950's IT without tailfins and leather jackets

Usually when talking computer classics, I stick to computers from the 70's, 80's and 90's. This video from IBM shows a state of the art accounting computer from the 1950's. See how far we've come.

Usually when talking computer classics, I stick to computers from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. This video from IBM shows a state-of-the-art accounting computer from the 1950s. See how far we've come.

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With a computer on almost every desk, it's difficult to think of a time when business ran without computers at all. This is especially true when it comes to numbers-intensive business functions like accounting.  If you've ever taken an accounting class and had to do manual ledgers, you quickly realize how crazy it must have been tracking multi-million dollar businesses doing debits and credits by hand. No wonder Scrooge was always so cranky and worked Bob Cratchit so hard.

In the 1950's computers were just starting to gain traction in business. IBM lead the charge with several units. One of the most popular is shown in the video above, the IBM 305 RAMAC.

State of the art computing circa 1956

IBM had been producing computers for some time by the time they developed the IBM 305 RAMAC. It launched in September 1956. The RAMAC was significant for the fact that it was one of the last IBM mainframes built around vacuum tubes.

The RAMAC included some things that are in modern computers, just in antiquated form. There were also things that are in modern computers that wouldn't be developed for years. For example, the RAMAC included a hard drive, could drive a printer, and accepted input from a keyboard.  However, there was no monitor to interact with. All data was entered via punch card. There also was no such thing as a formal CPU as we know it today.

The RAMAC didn't come cheap.  IBM leased it at a rate of $3200 per month, which is about $24,000 in today's money. Among the customers IBM had for it were Chrysler and the 1960 Winter Olympics. IBM built over 1000 units between 1956 and 1961 when it was ultimately ended production.

Let's go to the video

This video was a sales piece done by IBM touting the advances of the IBM 305 RAMAC. It starts off sounding like all of those science documentaries you ever saw while in elementary school. The presenter makes sure to point out the ‘beautiful design' and compact size of the unit. Today you'd have more power in a handheld calculator, but for 1956 when computers filled entire rooms, this unit isn't much bigger than a few cubicles, so it was a major advance.

The presenter takes time to point out the major features of the 305 RAMAC. Among them are the 50 platter disk drive which was standard for the unit.  As he points out, it could hold about 64000 punch cards worth of information.

He describes the drive as being able to store 5 million characters. This isn't exactly equivalent to 5 Megabytes of information. These computers didn't measure data in the standard 8-bit units we're used to today.  Characters were built out of 7 bit units. Therefore, with a little bit of math, the 5 million character limit on the hard drive equates to 4.375 megabytes. Just a little more than 3 floppy disks.

The disk transfer rate was also slower than a modern floppy drive. It could only transfer 8800 characters per second. The minimum transfer rate on a 1.44 MB floppy controller is 500Kbps.

The 305 RAMAC doesn't have anything like a modern CPU. Instead, the presenter discusses the Magnetic Process Drum which turns at 6000 RPM. This is where the work is done with the Magnetic Core Units assisting.

As the video continues, you see all of the mandatory blinking lights and knobs that were mandatory in computer design. You could see the spider's nightmare of wires in the storage process units and other paces as well. I'm not sure how you were supposed to tell what was going on, but at least you knew something what happening with all the flashing lights I guess.

More information about the 305 RAMAC

IBM has rebuilt a couple of these units and you can still see them in action. The RAMAC Restoration Website includes lots of information about the 305 including copies of the original user's manual, the engineer's guide, and a plug wiring diagram.< -->

17 comments
michael_orton
michael_orton

In 1961 I had IBMs STRETCH running Fortran-2 at AWRE Aldermaston. It took ages to get from the written data sheet to punched cards to a printed output, usually it failed as I had got three brackets one side and two the other or something trivia like that.

seanferd
seanferd

and magnetic core memory. I really want a computer with knobs, dials, and indicator lights more than ever. I particularly like how the tape and film leaders were left on the video. Very cool. Thanks for the article and links, I'll be checking them forthwith.

rhomp2002
rhomp2002

My first computers were IBM 1401's, IBM 407 accounting machines and the rest of the board wired stuff, and the Univac 1004 which also had board wiring. Progressed to univac 9300, Ibm 7090, IBM 7080 and then IBm 360. Along the way I also worked on the Honeywell computers and even the RCA Spectra70 (which was the best at the time). I wonder if I can still wire a board. I used to be pretty good at it in the old days. It was amazing what we could do on those old things. I remember seeing the payroll done for the Pentagon Army contingent on a 16K 1401 with punched card input, tape drives and a printer. Good times then just trying to be creative in using everything and saving storage. It was more fun then.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

As posted in the July 4 Classics Rock discussion... http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-13624-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=268137&messageID=2539906 You're starting to repeat yourself, John! :D Edit: BTW, the link to the connector pinouts is bad. Shouldn't "http://ed-thelen.http/ed-thelen.org/RAMAC/RAMAC-Connectors.htmlorg/RAMAC/RAMAC-Connectors.html" be "http://ed-thelen.org/RAMAC/RAMAC-Connectors.html"? It looks like you double-pasted it. Second edit to provide corrected link

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Hmmmm... Did I? Must be getting old. Especially if I double pasted a link. Which I'll correct shortly. Unfortunately, that Tinyurl link caused the discussion forum to spit up, so dont know which post you're referring to. Thanks though! (Yeah... that was intentional *snicker*)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

All I knew was that I had been asked twice... ;) Sorry about the link, it's been fixed.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Hmmmm... Did I? Must be getting old. Especially if I double pasted a link. Which I'll correct shortly. Unfortunately, that Tinyurl link caused the discussion forum to spit up, so dont know which post you're referring to. Thanks though!

seanferd
seanferd

http://techrepublic.com.com/http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-13624-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=268137&messageID=2539803 OK, that link is weird, but works. A TR bug. This is cleaner: http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-13624-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=268137&messageID=2539803 That was actually Justin James in the July 4 Classics Rock. How did he originally spell Burroughs?

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

See? I didn't repeat myself after all. :) And I know I've asked what your first COMPUTER was, but I had mostly meant first PC, Apple, Commodore or whatnot. Although I know for many in the TR audience, first computer means first REAL computer such as a mainframe. We just never seem to talk mainframes much around here, so I thought I'd highlight the mainframe folks a bit for a change and see even for the PC Jockeys, what mainframes they worked with and their experiences thereof. *whew* Not as close as suffering from dementia as I was afraid!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

This is the post I was linking to: http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-13624-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=268137&messageID=2539906 Apparently either TR or TinyURL don't like parsing the character substitutions.

seanferd
seanferd

This is what I was talking about: http://techrepublic.com.com/http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-13624-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=268137&messageID=2539803 Actually, I know that com.com has been registered by CNET for a very long time, along with a lot of other simple/obvious domains like news.com, download.com, etc. Very smart marketing decision from the early days. Quick off the mark, CNET was.

Tig2
Tig2

You can type the URL for TR into the address bar as http//www.techrepublic.com and reach the home page. But if you look at the URL, it will read http//techrepublic.com.com. It isn't an error. I know, confusing isn't it?

seanferd
seanferd

I posted a link for Michael Kassner in a discussion, only to get a puzzled response. Turns out the link I posted was to a discussion I'd never even seen before. It is a puzzlement. The link I posted here with the duplicate domain in the link was quite odd as well. It is the way it showed up in the address bar, not a paste error. Weird? Definitely.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Many IT professionals today only have experience on PC-based networks, or possibly some midrange systems. The mainframe still survives however. In Classics Rock, I found a video featuring a state of the art machine from 1956 - the IBM 305 RAMAC. http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/classic-tech/?p=207 I'm not quite THAT old. The first mainframe I got to do much work with was an IBM 4381. What was your first mainframe? And do you still use one today?

cliveamcgregor
cliveamcgregor

i cut my eye tooth in the early 80's on a mid range IBM system 38, then moved up to a first generation AS400, then moved across to an IBM system 370, moved up to an IBM 4331 then upward again to an IBM 4381..back in them there days, we coded in COBOL (batch and online), RPGII and RPGIII...quite a journey..anyone knows anyone who needs a COBOL programmer to maintain their (ageing) legacy systems..?? Gimmie a shout...i am available full or part time..

cliveamcgregor
cliveamcgregor

i cut my eye tooth in the early 80's on a mid range IBM system 38, then moved up to a first generation AS400, then moved across to an IBM system 370, moved up to an IBM 4331 then upward again to an IBM 4381..back in them there days, we coded in COBOL (batch and online), RPGII and RPGIII...quite a journey..anyone knows anyone who needs a COBOL programmer to maintain their (ageing) legacy systems..?? Gimmie a shout...

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