Taking a walk through IBM's technology history

6 mins read

If there is one company which casts a huge shadow across industry, commerce and education, that company would be IBM. But during its 100 years or so history, it has been something of a technology chameleon; adapting itself to the times. Today's IBM is significantly different to IBM of only a decade or so ago and unrecognisable from its origins. But one strand runs consistently through the company's heritage – data processing.

The IBM name has been in existence since 1924, when the legendary Tom Watson retitled the Computing-Tabulating-Recording company (C-T-R) as International Business Machines.

IBM's history, however, can be traced back to the last couple of decades of the 19th Century and to Charles Ranlett Flint – the creator of C-T-R and the man who hired Tom Watson as the company's general manager.

What better way to get a snapshot of the history of IBM's technology than to take a tour around the museum at IBM UK's headquarters at Hursley Park, near Winchester.

There's a small team working behind the scenes to collect and renovate pieces of IBM's history, as well as to deal with a pile of printed and

photographic material. The museum's volunteer curator is Terry Muldoon, who started out as an IBM customer engineer in the early 1970s.

He pointed out the breadth of IBM's more recent technical achievements. "There was the launch in 1961 of the Selectric golf ball typewriter. There the development in the 1960s of the Winchester disk and the development of the floppy disk. We developed the first cash machine and, of course, launched the modern PC industry with the IBM PC."

Although IBM UK was only established in 1951, it has made a significant contribution to IBM's technology history. Muldoon pointed in particular to work done to develop Winchester disk technology. But he wanted to correct a popular misconception about the disk's name. "Some people think it's named after Winchester near Hursley or after the Winchester in the US. But it's not; it's named after a Winchester rifle."

That was a 0.30in calibre rifle, with a bullet fired by a charge of 30 grains of gunpowder – hence 30:30. The disk developed by IBM had 30Mbyte of fixed storage and 30Mbyte of removable storage, so it was called a Winchester.

Hursley's contribution was unveiled in 1969 as the IBM5444. But Muldoon said the project was known more fondly at Hursley as 'Dolphin'. "It was named after a pub in the village."

The IBM5444 was launched as part of IBM's System/3 – a computer system aimed at small businesses. The 5444 used a 14in disk platter and was available in three models. Model 1 had a fixed disk and a removable disk, each with 100 tracks per surface, giving a capacity of 1.23Mbyte. Model 2 had the same format, but 200 tracks per surface, for a capacity of 2.46Mbyte. Model 3 featured one removable disk with a capacity of 2.46Mbyte.

Three further storage systems were developed at Hursley, codenamed Gulliver, Piccolo and Kestrel.

Gulliver – the IBM 62GV – first shipped in 1974. While the initial capacity of the 14in platter based system was 5Mbyte, later models offered up to 14Mbyte. Such was its popularity that it was the first hard disk system to ship more than 100,000 units.

Piccolo (1979) – the IBM 62PC – used a swinging arm technology developed at Hursley and, for the first time, a stack of six 8in platters. This allowed users of such computers as System/34 and System/38 to store up to 64Mbyte.

Kestrel (1986) – the IBM 9335 Direct Access Storage Subsystem – increased storage capacity significantly. Using three 14in platters, the device could store 850Mbyte via dual rotary actuators which could seek data independently.

The museum also houses technology that wasn't developed at Hursley; one example is an IBM 705 computer system. According to Muldoon, it was probably the second such system installed in the UK.

The computer has been donated to the museum by its original owner, the Royal Army Pay Corps, based at Worthy Down, near Winchester. The system's claim to fame, apart from its rarity value, is that fact that it ran the 1961 Census. "The Census data was punched onto cards in Titchfield," Muldoon noted, "then loaded onto the 705." While punched cards had been used since the early 20th Century, it was the first time the Census had been processed on a computer.

However, the Census was planned to take advantage of spare capacity on the 705, whose prime task was to handle soldiers' pay. When it came to running the data, there was much less processing capacity available than had been anticipated. However, the use of the 705 allowed a short report to be generated three weeks after the Census was taken, even though it took more than five years for the full set of statistics to be produced.

Introduced in the mid 1950s, the 705 was referred to as a 'commercial computer' by IBM. According to the company's website, the IBM 705 was one of the most powerful data processing systems available at the time. It was capable of making 240,000 'decisions' in a minute.

It used variable length character strings, terminated by a record mark, and featured one accumulator of 256 characters. There were 14 auxiliary storage units, each holding 16 characters, and a further auxiliary storage unit holding 32 characters.

Of course, the 705 was built in the days before solid state memory and data storage – or core memory – came in the form of ferrites on wires. Three options were available – 20,000, 40,000 or 80,000 characters.

Hursley's growing importance was demonstrated by two innovations addressing processor technology. In 1961, the site developed what it called the Scientific Computer and Modulator Processor, or SCAMP, IBM's first operating computer to use microprogram control. This was followed in 1962 by TROS – transformer read only storage. The object of this device was to store microcode.

Muldoon pointed out that Hursley also developed the System360/Model 40, introduced in 1964. "This used solid logic technology," he added, "not quite an integrated circuit, but an approach in which many components were housed on a substrate."

Despite being launched a decade later than the 705, Model 40 didn't seem to bring much more in the way of features. The device was said to run scientific applications at 40KIPs, whilst commercial applications ran at 75KIPs. Model 40 computers also had up to 256kbyte of memory.

Other notable Hursley developments include the IBM 2984; the first modern cash machine. The machine, developed specifically for Lloyd's Bank, was called a Cash Issuing Terminal by IBM, but branded a 'Cashpoint' by Lloyd's – a name which has become the generic description of such a device. It went into use in December 1972 at Lloyd's Brentwood branch.

Unlike almost all other instances of IBM technology, there is no remaining example of the IBM 2984. Muldoon accepts that 'it's unlikely anyone has one in their shed'.

But the Hursley museum has on display the dummy money designed at the site in order to test the machine's functionality.

Hursley's other forte was in display technology. In 1979, IBM announced the Hursley designed IBM 3279 colour terminal. At the launch, the then director of Hursley emphasised that colour was spelled with a 'u'. The terminal, used with mainframes, was available in two versions: with four and seven colours. And the terminal pioneered the use of digital control of the CRT, rather than analogue.

Since then, Hursley has been heavily involved in graphics technology – terminals and graphics adaptors alike.

Once you start looking at technology from the 1980s, it becomes apparent just how rapidly the computing world expanded and how quickly IBM was developing new products.

June 1980 saw the introduction of the Displaywriter; one of the first word processing systems. With an Intel 8086 at its heart, the device came with 224kbyte of RAM and one or two 8in floppy drives.

IBM launched the System/23 Datamaster in July 1981 as part of its efforts to develop smaller, more affordable computers. System/23 had a screen, keyboard and diskette drives packaged in a desktop unit. Muldoon said it was designed to be taken out of the carton, plugged in and used. Powered by an Intel 8085 processor, it could store up to 4.4Mbyte on 8in diskettes and came with a spreadsheet and word processing software.

"It proved popular in the UK," Muldoon noted, "but was only produced for a month in the US." The reason for that short lifetime was the impending launch of the IBM PC. Although it wasn't the first PC, it changed computing forever.

IBM intended the IBM PC would be superseded by the Personal System/2 – PS/2, launched in 1987. The PS/2 was the third generation of IBM's PC offerings, replacing the IBM PC, XT and AT. Despite the growing strength of the IBM PC clone market, IBM decided to push ahead with the proprietary Micro Channel architecture, but without the success it anticipated.

Around the same time, IBM launched a computer based on a RISC processor. The 6150 series was based on its ROMP processor, short for research office product microprocessor. The device was also known as the RT – RISC technology personal computer.

Again, the series failed to have the commercial impact that IBM expected, but its heritage lives on in hardware and software.

RT systems ran a choice of operating systems – AIX, the Academic Operating System or Pick. AIX, a proprietary version of Unix, became the standard operating system for the RS/6000 range and is still being developed by IBM, which supports the OS on its Power Systems. Meanwhile, the Academic Operating System was a slightly upgraded version of AIX.

The ROMP processor, meanwhile, is seen as the ancestor of the POWER processor range and the PowerPC.

Portable computers feature strongly in the museum, with an array of Thinkpads on display. Muldoon explained how the name came about. "IBMers carried around a pad with IBM on one side and 'think' on the other. When the portable computer was launched, someone suggested calling it a Thinkpad."

Today, Hursley is a major software development centre for IBM and is taking a leading role in its IoT activities. An innovation centre and a selection of industry focused labs allow customers to explore new business opportunities. The 'chameleon' continues to adapt.

School computer was ahead of the game

The recent announcement by the BBC that it is to distribute a board level product to UK schools revived memories of the BBC Micro. But Hursley was a decade ahead, developing the Schools Computer System Unit in 1969 as a means of showing students how a computer worked. It had a TV monitor and a four track tape recorder, which allowed machine coded programs to be loaded and stored.

IBM monitors wanted

The museum continues to collect old IBM technology; a box of prototype display adaptors has just appeared, courtesy of an employee clearing his desk prior to retiring. Muldoon says the museum is looking in particular for any IBM terminals. If you have one, then contact the museum at mailto:uklabscomms@uk.ibm.com