The story behind the computer that made IBM, and computers


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Link here. The introduction:

A short list of the most transformative products of the past century and a half would include the lightbulb, Ford’s Model T—and the IBM System/360. This mainframe series forever changed the computer industry and revolutionized how businesses and governments worked, enhancing productivity and making countless new tasks possible.

In the years leading up to its 7 April 1964 launch, however, the 360 was one of the scariest dramas in American business. It took a nearly fanatical commitment at all levels of IBM to bring forth this remarkable collection of machines and software. While the technological innovations that went into the S/360 were important, how they were created and deployed bordered on disaster. The company experienced what science policy expert Keith Pavitt called “tribal warfare”: people clashing and collaborating in a rapidly growing company with unstable, and in some instances unknown, technologies, as uncertainty and ambiguity dogged all the protagonists.

Ultimately, IBM was big and diverse enough in talent, staffing, financing, and materiel to succeed. In an almost entrepreneurial fashion, it took advantage of emerging technologies, no matter where they were located within the enterprise. In hindsight, it seemed a sloppy and ill-advised endeavor, chaotic in execution and yet brilliantly successful. We live in an age that celebrates innovation, so examining cases of how innovation is done can only illuminate our understanding of the process.

Read it all. The story is fascinating, especially in how intellectual honesty made it a success. In one case two computer managers were competing directly against each other for the lead in how the product would be developed. The man that was picked immediately asked the loser to help him build his proposal, a level of honesty that certainly made this company work in the 1960s.

The story also has one bit of real irony. The 360 was a big success because it was compatible with IBM’s previous computer line, and was designed to be compatible across the board.

In the 1980s, IBM lost its entire dominance in the personal computer field when it introduced its second generation PC, the PS/2, which was NOT compatible with their first PC line. Customers fled to independent companies making computers compatible to IBMs first PC, and this loss of business ended up killing IBM entirely.

You would have thought they would have known better.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

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17 comments

  • wayne

    Halt and Catch Fire,
    Season 1, Episode 1
    “Computer’s aren’t the thing…”
    https://youtu.be/YQLbi4VXYcA
    (0:58)

  • wayne

    Tangentially–

    “History of FORTRAN”
    https://www.obliquity.com/computer/fortran/history.html

    “FORTRAN was the world’s first high-level programming language. It was developed at IBM by a small team led by John Backus. The earliest version of FORTRAN was released in 1957 as a programming tool for the IBM 704.”

    and

    Dr. Grace Murray Hopper
    http://www.women-inventors.com/Dr-Grace-Murray-Hopper.asp

    “During World War II, Hopper joined the Navy and was sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943. After training, she was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard University. She became the third person to program the Harvard Mark I computer.”
    “Hopper’s naval duties ended a year after the war, and she became a senior programmer with Remington Rand, where she worked on the first large-scale commercial computer – UNIVAC. She became Director of Automatic programming in 1952 and subsequently oversaw the company’s endeavor to produce specifications for a common business language. From 1959 to 1961, Hopper lead the team that invented COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), the first user-friendly business computer software program.”

  • Diane Wilson

    I worked at IBM from 1984 to 1994. It would be entirely fair to say that IBM never recovered from the success of the System/360, in much the same way that NASA never recovered from the success of Apollo. The PS/2 was far from their worst debacle; that honor goes to the Future System that was going to be the next generation of mainframes. The pieces of that system never managed to work together, in part due to internal security. As one manager put it, the security was designed in such a way as to ensure that no one knew how the whole thing fit together. Some peripherals eventually made it out to market, but the overall disaster set IBM back years in the mainframe business. As with the PC, there were competitors who made “compatible” machines (Amdahl, Fujitsu, CDC – not THAT CDC – and Future System gave them an opening to establish themselves, just as Compaq did against the PC.

    It was rather ironic that the PC itself came from a skunkworks that the company tried to shut down. When the PC succeeded in spite of IBM, IBM’s top-down management tried to institutionalize this new culture so that every project could succeed that way. I worked in one of those divisions; they never produced a new product in 10 years before being resorbed into the behemoth.

  • wayne

    Diane-
    very interesting!

  • Andi

    Maintaining upward compatibility was/is a big win for IBM.

    I have some programs that I wrote in the late 1960s for an IBM 360/65. Umpteen generations later, the same binary code still runs on the most current machine.

    It’s interesting that those competitors who made PCMs (Plug-Compatible Machines) are no longer around.

  • David

    We used the IBM 360s for process control into the mid 90s at ExxonMobil refinerys, Baytown Texas.

  • Col Beausabre

    I can remember visiting the 1964 World’s Fair and seeing IBM’s brand new System 360 Model 50. Never forgot it. Thought IBM’s motto – “Think” – was so cool (thank you for telling me about it, Dad). And didn’t even dream that 36 years later, after I retired from the Army, I would become a Beamer. BTW, the name “360” came from the fact that it could serve as both a scientific and business machine, which had required separate machines previously – it could “do engineering during the day and run payroll at night”

    Diane – Sounds like you worked for the old Data Systems Division in the Hudson Valley.

    Let me also point out that there were IBM Fellows, brilliant individuals who were given a sum of money, told to recruit a staff and come back in five years with something wonderful. Many did and were awarded multiple fellowships

    Competitors ? In the mainframe era the BUNCH – Burrows, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell

  • pzatchok

    Dang I remember the PC wars of the 80’s.

    The kids just don’t know how dangerous it was back then.

  • wayne

    hopelessly tangentially, but absolutely computer related:
    (we’re living in the future)

    Jordan Peterson A.I. model sings ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem
    Coding Elite, 4-5-19
    https://youtu.be/HHf1dNHU0os
    3:24

    “This model was trained using an implementation of the papers “Style Tokens: Unsupervised Style Modeling, Control and Transfer in End-to-End Speech Synthesis” and “Towards End-to-End Prosody Transfer for Expressive Speech Synthesis with Tacotron,” using about 6 hours of clear Jordan Peterson audio. Given a reference audio, this model will synthesize speech in that particular style.”

  • wayne

    Col Beausabre-
    Great story!

    IBM at the 1964 New York World’s Fair
    “Think”
    https://youtu.be/2UZYG33D2B4
    7:33

  • Diane Wilson

    Col Beausabre, I’ve forgotten the name of the division I worked in (a non-descript name, and they didn’t cover themselves in glory), but it was in North Carolina, and not the Networking division. There were a lot of refugees from the Hudson Valley, and the product lines that got transferred into that division were systems management products. I worked on performance analysis tools for the VM operating system, where we did have close ties to Data Systems.

    IBM and the competition were frequently referred to as IBM and the Seven Dwarves.

  • Andi

    Then there was the indirect reference to IBM in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey…

    Add one to each letter of HAL.

  • Col Beausabre - Who owns a IBM Poughkeepsie made M1 carbine dated 1943

    Andi – You have no idea of what IBM controls (insert evil laugh). The name HAL was no accident…

  • Diane Wilson

    I never had much to do with Pokietown, except to fly through the Broom County airport on my way to Kingston. I do miss staying at the Beekman Arms. Endicott was just boring.

    HAL had nothing on IBM for acronyms…
    I’ve Been Moved
    Irish Business Machines
    Itty Bitty Machines
    Itty Bitty Minds

  • vonmazur

    Colonel B and Fellows; I also have an IBM M-1 Carbine, half of the production of major parts was subbed out to Auto Ordnance in Bridgeport CT…All the wood was finished and delivered, by, among others Hillerich and Bradsby (Baseball bats!) and Milton Bradley….All carbine bolts were made by Auto Ordnance, along with the operating slides and half of the receivers. IBM also made 20 mm aircraft cannons and bomb sights and components for similar devices. They had the facilities to make intricate parts for adding machines and mechanical devices. I think today the US would not be able to equal the ability to make such things at a reasonable cost….

  • wayne

    “Point Rationing of Foods”
    1943 animated by Chuck Jones
    https://youtu.be/HlylTg4_Q18
    6:18

  • wayne

    Dr. Chandra and SAL 9000
    “2010”
    https://youtu.be/T2E7sxGAmuo
    2:44

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