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?