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The history of computing

IBM's empire takes hold

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IBM's decades-long reign over the computer industry began in 1953. It all started with the 701, also known as the Defense Calculator. But it wasn't an easy birth.

April 30, 1999
Web posted at: 2:56 p.m. EDT (1856 GMT)

by Mary Brandel

(IDG) -- IBM's decades-long reign over the computer industry began in 1953. It all started with the 701, also known as the Defense Calculator. But it wasn't an easy birth.

In the early 1950s, IBM was looking for a way to contribute to the war effort, but building computers wasn't its first choice. "Old man Watson didn't like the idea of going into a new industry when he was doing very well with the punch-card business," says Jan Lee, a professor of computer science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Watson's son, Thomas Watson Jr., who had learned about the potential of the new field of electronics during his service in World War II, eventually persuaded company management to explore computers. The name "Defense Calculator" was part of that strategy. It made the computer seem like a special-purpose military contract and appealed to management's patriotism.

But it was a lesser-known IBMer named Cuthbert Hurd who really brought the 701 to the world.
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Hurd -- who died in 1996 -- was the one who persuaded General Electric Co., Los Alamos and about a dozen other organizations to purchase 701s, "even though it cost what seemed to be an enormous amount -- over $1 million," according to former IBM staffer John Backus, who helped develop the 701's successor, the 704. The 701 was also rentable at $15,000 per month, which was the equivalent of the salary of about 30 employees, according to IBM historian Emerson Pugh, who wrote IBM's Early Computers (MIT Press, 1986).

The 701 was introduced during the United Nations' first police action, the Korean conflict.

Just as soon as the 701 was introduced, Backus and the rest of the Applied Science team set to work on improvements. Also on the team was Gene Amdahl, who would later found Amdahl Computer Corp. in 1970. One of those improvements, created by Backus, was called "speedcoding," which significantly simplified the task of programming for the 701. "Speedcoding took the 701, which was a fixed-point, single-address computer without index registers, and made it look like a floating-point, free-address computer with index registers," Backus says. In other words, programmers no longer had to tangle with the binary code that was the true "machine" language, he says.

Most 701 programmers used speedcoding, although it exacted a price. "The synthetic computer ran a lot slower because it had to do all the extra work of simulating floating-point and index registers," Backus says.

Lee says there are still some aspects of speedcoding in things we do today. It was the predecessor of several similar systems in the 1950s and '60s, most of which have been replaced by high-level languages such as Cobol. Still, C+ and C++ are still very machine-specific and are the modern versions of speedcoding.

1953 also saw the first practical use of magnetic core memory, a technology that also ushered in the first practical use of random-access memory, or RAM -- though it was a non-IBM pioneer who brought it to life on a different computer in 1953. That computer was the Whirlwind, developed by Jay Forrester and his team at MIT.

Magnetic core memory -- which uses an electric current to store data bits on two-dimensional magnetic iron cores -- dates to the 1940s.

It was Forrester who came up with the idea of placing the cores onto a three-dimensional wire grid, thus enabling random -- rather than serial -- access. So not only was magnetic core memory faster, but it was also smaller, more reliable and more environmentally sound than its predecessors. With other types of memory, everything was lost when the computer was shut off.

In the 1950s, however, magnetic core memory was expensive to manufacture -- it cost $1 per bit. It was also fragile and had to be refrigerated to run properly. Still, it revolutionized the computer industry. By the end of the 1950s, "everyone was using core memory," according to Lee. "It was scooped up very quickly -- IBM did nothing but manufacture magnetic core memory in its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., facility."

In fact, magnetic core memory was used right up until the late 1960s, when semiconductor memory took over.

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