The birth of IT: The IBM System/360 turns 52

The roots of IBM mainframes, IT run through the System/360

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From IBM archives: The IBM System/360 wasn’t just a brilliant all-in-one computer mainframe; it was stylish too. It was available in five standard colors, although the ASB Bank data center in New Zealand took advantage of ordering it in a custom yellow.

Credit: IBM

IT can trace its roots back to arguably the most important computer introduction made 52 years ago today. April 7, 1964 was the day IBM introduced its System/360, the first true mainframe for the masses, or at least that’s what it hoped on that day.

IBM said on that day that it announced the S/360 to over 100,000 people gathered in cities across the country.

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It told them: "System/360 represents a sharp departure from concepts of the past in designing and building computers. It is the product of an international effort in IBM's laboratories and plants and is the first time IBM has redesigned the basic internal architecture of its computers in a decade. The result will be more computer productivity at lower cost than ever before. This is the beginning of a new generation - - not only of computers - - but of their application in business, science and government."

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The IBM System/360 logo

The first actual System/360 was shipped one year after its roll out and the system found its way into a variety of important IT departments from NASA to the IRS and thousands more.

+More on IBM: The IRS uses computers?! The horror! Vintage 1960s era short film shows IRS defending its use of computers+

Some other facts about the S/360:

  • In 1960, IBM’s Gene Amdahl was named manager of architecture for the System/360 mainframe. Amdahl’s challenge was to design a family of computers that would support a range of speeds and peripherals yet run the same software.
  • System/360 monthly rentals ranged from $2,700 for a basic configuration to $115,000 for a typical large multisystem configuration. Comparable purchase prices ranged from $133,000 to $5,500,000.
  • IBM said the S/360 was the first product family that let business data-processing operations grow from the smallest machine to the largest without the enormous expense of rewriting vital programs. That is to say that code written for the smallest member of the family was upwardly compatible with each of the family’s larger processors. Peripherals such as printers, communications devices, storage and input-output devices were compatible across the family, IBM said.
  • The six models announced in April of 1964 had a performance range of roughly 25-to-1, with the largest model being about 25 times more powerful than the smallest. The smallest model could perform 33,000 additions per second; the largest more than 750,000 additions per second. Six years later, after the introduction of additional models, the range jumped to 200-to-1, IBM said.
  • From IBM: If the basic measuring stick for software size is the number of lines of code produced, then System/360 was light years ahead of its time. The IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Calculator came with 10,000 lines of code, while the popular IBM 1401 came with 100,000 lines of code. In contrast, the System/360 had 1,000,000 lines of code initially, and eventually grew to 10,000,000 lines of code.
  • The IBM System/360 showed up in films throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, including the cult classic The Doll Squad, which features a System/360 Model 30, and The Girl Most Likely To..., wherein Stockard Channing’s title character has her college record examined using a System/360 Model 40, IBM said.

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