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Big, Beautiful Boxes From Computer History 238

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the know-your-past dept.
Slatterz writes "We might sometimes complain about the limitations of today's technology, but there's nothing like seeing photos of a 27Kg hard drive with a capacity of 5MB to put things into perspective. PC Authority has toured the Computer History Museum in California, and has posted these fascinating photos, including monster 27Kg and 60Kg drives, and a SAGE air-defense system. Each SAGE housed an A/N FSQ-7 computer, which had around 60,000 vacuum tubes. IBM constructed the hardware, and each computer occupied a huge amount of space. From its completion in 1954 it analyzed radar data in real-time, to provide a complete picture of US Airspace during the cold war. Other interesting photos and trivia include some giant early IBM disc platters, and pics of a curvaceous Cray-1 supercomputer, built in 1972. It was the fastest machine in the world until 1977 and an icon for decades. It cost a mere $6 million, and could perform at 160MFLOPS — which your phone can now comfortably manage."
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Big, Beautiful Boxes From Computer History

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  • Nice photos... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Archaemic (1546639) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:49AM (#29227413)

    Although these photos don't include the functional replica of Babbage's Difference Engine #2 that's currently at the museum, and leaves in a few months. I was just at the museum two weeks ago. It was pretty interesting. There's also an exhibit about the history of chess computation. Apart from those two things though, most of the museum is a big room full of old computers. I wish there were more to see there, but what is there is pretty interesting. I recommend going before the Babbage Engine leaves in a few months if one gets a chance.

  • Re:Nice photos... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Archaemic (1546639) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:52AM (#29227427)

    Er, sorry, scratch that. There are a few photos of it. There was a repeat photo in the gallery and thought I had gone through all of the photos.

  • ahh (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dyinobal (1427207) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:56AM (#29227449)
    I love BBW errr I mean BBB.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:19AM (#29227565)
    The French.
  • by bezenek (958723) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:50AM (#29227701) Journal
    The caption on one of the photos (Image 30) reads:

    The highlight and centrepiece of the Museum - The Babbage Engine. It's a replica, made in the British Museum using the original as a template.

    This is not a replica of an original. The machine in the British museum was built by a team using Babbage's note. No original was ever built, as Babbage could not get funding for the project. The machine at the Computer History Museum (as pictured) is the second built by the same British Museum team who built the first.

    If you want to see it, it will be at the CHM until December 2010, at which time it will be moved to the home of Nathan Myhrvold, the person who paid for its construction.

    -Todd

  • by cowbutt (21077) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:01AM (#29227749) Journal

    Here was an interesting one, an old PC with a monitor in portrait format. It asks why they didn't catch on, and I'm not sure I know the answer. It seems like it WOULD be better, especially because you could look at an entire page on the thing.

    Some contemporary monitors can be rotated between landscape and portrait orientations; the Lenovo L220x [flickr.com], for example. It's a feature that's more popular in pre-press organisations.

  • by KokorHekkus (986906) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:10AM (#29227791)

    Also, check out the keyboard on this beast! Not QUERTY. Not DVORAK. Who thought that would be a good idea?

    That's a french Minitel terminal (their videotex system, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel [wikipedia.org]). The telephone company gave people free terminals if they would forgo printed telephone books. Remeber, this was the early 80:s so there must have been enough people with less than stellar keyboard skills who'd rather peck away on a ABC-keyboard than hunt around on a AZERTY-keyboard if given the choice. But I'm pretty certain that most terminals had the french standard AZERTY keyboard (here's the Minitel 1 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Minitel_1.JPG [wikimedia.org] )

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:22AM (#29227837)

    Portrait monitors became popular when desktop publishing software first appeared. The high resolution monitors were pretty expensive and used non-standard resolutions and proprietary graphics adapters (back then VGA 640x480 16 color graphics was the standard), and the market was primarily publishing houses. Most of the portrait monitors were monochrome monitors with limited consumer appeal. When color desktop publishing took off most professionals got large landscape format color monitors and were able to view two pages simultaneously, side by side.

  • by jimmydevice (699057) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:32AM (#29227891)

    The CDC display was vector, not raster and I'm thinking it was 10 bits in both axis.
    It was refreshed by the I/O processor.
    It had a great lunar lander game.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:09AM (#29228025)

    Correct - but also note that it was the Science Museum in London that build the replica - not the British Museum (also in London). The British Museum houses collections of cultural artifact and history from around the globe (it's in Great Russell Street in the Bloomsbury area of London, and is well worth a visit if you ever get the chance). The Science Museum is in Cromwell Road in the Kensington area of London, and specialises, as you might guess, in the history of science and technology from the year dot to the present time - also well worth a visit.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:13AM (#29228041)

    Yeah, I programmed the SAGE in the late 50's. It did crazy stuff: Imaging talking to remote radars connected via a phone line? You're kidding, no? Modems the size of a small bus.

    Got audio by monitoring the 1's and 0's cycling a particular register bit, and since the SAGE was a dual machine, some local talent had one playing right and left hand boogie-woogie.

  • by Hal_Porter (817932) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:17AM (#29228059)

    Also, I've seen this picture [cpsc.net] before. Two questions: one, is it real. Two: please tell me the steering wheel is to avoid computer crashes.

    http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/hoaxes/computer.asp [snopes.com]

    Although the photograph displayed could represent what some people in the early 1950s contemplated a "home computer" might look like (based on the technology of the day), it isn't, as the accompanying text claims, a RAND Corporation illustration from 1954 of a prototype "home computer." The picture is actually an entry submitted to a Fark.com image modification competition [fark.com], taken from an original photo of a submarine maneuvering room console found on the U.S. Navy [archive.org] web site, converted to grayscale, and modified to replace a modern display panel and TV screen with pictures of a decades-old teletype/printer [columbia.edu] and television (as well as to add the gray-suited man to the left-hand side of the photo)

  • by mwvdlee (775178) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:22AM (#29228093) Homepage

    As I understand it, a big reason why Enigma was succesfully broken is because some of it's users kept using the same "keys" for it.
    Had the germans used the Enigma how it was meant to be used, it might not have been broken at the time.

  • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:39AM (#29228175) Journal

    IBM did not invent pipelining as the captions suggest. It was invented by Zuse, 20 years earlier.

  • by vtcodger (957785) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:41AM (#29228187)

    ***Each SAGE housed an A/N FSQ-7 computer, which had around 60,000 vacuum tubes. IBM constructed the hardware, and each computer occupied a huge amount of space.***

    The sites had two computers, not one. The switched between them once a day so they could check all the vacuum tubes on the off line computer -- of which I'm pretty sure there were only about 6000. Mostly they were 6SN7 dual triodes so there were actually about 12000 switches in each computer. Memory was 68K by 32 bits wide, and software was continually swapped in from drums in the background. Instruction cycle time was 6 microseconds. The specs weren't vastly different from a 1980s IBM PC with 256K of memory.

    The software was written in assembler and was speced to accept digitized radar from 16 sites, support 40 or 80 (can't remember which) consoles, track up to 300 aircraft simultaneously, control dozens of manned interceptors plus unmanned Bomarc interceptors, communicate with four or five adjacent sites digitally, and some number of manual sites via teletype, and some other things. And it actually did most of that. (I think it maxed out a little below 200 simultaneous tracks). Try THAT on a 8088

    In general, the software -- which cost a fortune -- worked. Not perfectly, but better than Windows and Office.

    And, yes, SAGE needed a lot of air conditioning. The lights in parts of Santa Monica used to dim momentarily when the air conditioning at the RAND System Reseach labs development facility started up.

    *** It was a two story building***

    It was a four story building. And the computers were on the second floor only. Another floor held something like 40 (80?)desk sized consoles -- each with a fairly large display, a light gun (closest thing today would be a mouse), and a button panel. Other floors held offices, Telco equipment, etc. The consoles were used to monitor target tracking, control interceptors, etc. There were also a half dozen or so regional command centers -- also with AN/FSQ7s that were configured a bit differently.

  • by tomrud (471930) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:57AM (#29228259)

    As I understand it, a big reason why Enigma was succesfully broken is because some of it's users kept using the same "keys" for it.
    Had the germans used the Enigma how it was meant to be used, it might not have been broken at the time.

    They (the code breakers) could also use "known plain text" attacks quite a lot. Many operators tended to use the same greeting phrase over and over again. In addition, the Germans sent their weather reports encrypted. The British Navy could easily check the weather and get even more "known plain text".

  • by tialaramex (61643) on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:00AM (#29228279) Homepage

    It _is_ a replica, but just not in the way you imagined.

    The (British) _Science_ Museum has (or had) a workshop for building Difference Engine No. 2. This is the second one, built by replicating the first. They can't build one by following Babbage's plans, because his plans are wrong in subtle ways, and had to be corrected. One of the things the Science Museum gained by making the first one was a _correct_ set of plans for the machine. If you have a lot of money and want a Difference Engine, I have no doubt that the Science Museum would start up that workshop again and build another replica for you too.

  • by Fred_A (10934) <fred@@@fredshome...org> on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:35AM (#29228429) Homepage

    Also, check out the keyboard on this beast! Not QUERTY. Not DVORAK. Who thought that would be a good idea?

    That's a french Minitel terminal (their videotex system, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel [wikipedia.org]). The telephone company gave people free terminals if they would forgo printed telephone books. Remeber, this was the early 80:s so there must have been enough people with less than stellar keyboard skills who'd rather peck away on a ABC-keyboard than hunt around on a AZERTY-keyboard if given the choice. But I'm pretty certain that most terminals had the french standard AZERTY keyboard (here's the Minitel 1 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Minitel_1.JPG [wikimedia.org] )

    I've seen pretty much every Minitel deployed including a number of those used in restricted releases prior to nationwide deployment and I don't remember ever seeing one with a non standard French keyboard.

    Those things were rather kludgy with their using an X25 network at a snail's pace (1200/75) which was more or less sufficient for "enriched" text, although watching pages being drawn was still painful.

    A number of people created BBS systems for them through the POTS, avoiding the (expensive) Minitel network altogether.

    Oddly enough, there apparently are some people that still use them. The train ticketing, phone book, and a number of other services are still up and in use.

    Alphabetical keyboards are evil. People who can't type will still hunt for keys, and people who can type no longer can. It's a stupid idea.

  • by hughk (248126) on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:57AM (#29228513) Journal

    Noooo!!!!

    Colossus was developed for breaking cryptographic material (Fish) from Lorenz telex style stream ciphering machines (Tunny). Enigma was broken by the Bombes which were more mechanical in nature.

    All quite clear if you visit Bletchley Park in the UK, the rather lower budget British museum of cryptography and computing. Both the Colossus and Bombe reconstruction projects were run out of BP and if are lucky you can get a talk on their operation from Tony Sale or one of the other builders.

  • Minitel won't die... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anne Honime (828246) on Friday August 28, 2009 @06:20AM (#29228625)

    Oddly enough, there apparently are some people that still use them. The train ticketing, phone book, and a number of other services are still up and in use.

    Not odd at all considering the various threats of Internet, from spam to virus, credit cards frauds, DoS etc. Minitel pretty much insure that whomever you phone is legit provided you don't misstype the phone number. It's a very helpful and desirable feature for some sensitive businesses (chemist ordering prescription drugs, etc.)

    And thanks to being a passive terminal, Minitel is immune to virus and trojans by nature. Being so simple, there are no bugs either I'm aware off. And being text only makes for a great bonus to blinds who can plug whatever Braille device they want to use it.

  • by commodore64_love (1445365) on Friday August 28, 2009 @07:20AM (#29228855) Journal

    >>>if he thinks Enigma was unbreakable.

    Well let's look at history. Where the British able to break Enigma? NOPE. They had to literally steal a machine before they could read Germany's encrypted orders. So the author was correct when he said Enigma was an unbreakable code.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Friday August 28, 2009 @08:50AM (#29229449)
    Sorry, it was the Poles obtained German Enigmas and took them to the UK. The news that the Germans relied on Enigma was important, but the main reason the British were able to beat Enigma was that the Germans were insufficiently careful in its use. When the system changed later in the war, the Royal Navy (NOT the USN, contrary to the lies of Hollywood) acquired a naval Enigma machine from a sinking German submarine. (They also captured a German weather boat at one point.)

    It is simple fact that many cryptographic systems are uncrackable in the absence of all knowledge of how they work - but in the real world keys must be exchanged somehow, and encryption must always have a mechanism, and these are always potential vulnerabilities.

  • by CoderDevo (30602) <coderdevo@hotmail.com> on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:17AM (#29229751) Homepage
    That is a mess of wires obscuring the Cray 3 CPUs to which they are connected. It cost $300 million to develop the first functional system for NCAR [ucar.edu] before Cray Computer Corp, Seymore Cray's last start-up company, folded. (Not to be confused with Cray Inc. [cray.com] which is still producing new systems.)

    This machine required 90,000 watts of power and gave off 310,000 British thermal units of heat per hour â" enough to warm six 2,000-square-foot homes. Getting the heat out of the data center would have been a serious problem. I'm sure the whole NCAR building was designed to do just that.

    DigiBarn [digibarn.com] has more pictures of the Cray 3 CPUs.
  • by Ciggy (692030) on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:24AM (#29229847)
    IIRC the method to encrypt was to get the relevant wheels in the relevant order, set the key letters, insert into machine, use the initial setting, and plug up the letter swaps - these were changed on a daily basis. The operator then chose a 3 character key for his message and typed this in twice to create the first 6 characters of the encrypted message; finally, the wheels were reset to the operator's chosen key and the message encrypted.

    On receipt, the daily initial setting was set up and the first 6 characters of the message entered whereupon the key should come out twice (allowing transmission errors to be spotted...and also allowing a weak spot for breakers).

    The operators, having to send lots of messages tended to get lazy and use sequences on the keyboard, eg if they had been using the QWERTY keyboard, they would use keys like: QWE, QAZ, WSX, ZAQ, XSW, EWQ, etc.
  • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:27AM (#29229865)

    Here was an interesting one, [pcauthority.com.au] an old PC with a monitor in portrait format. It asks why they didn't catch on, and I'm not sure I know the answer. It seems like it WOULD be better, especially because you could look at an entire page on the thing. Now with 21 inch monitors I can do that anyway, but what was it that caused our landscape monitors to become standardized like they are?

    Since the 1970's, and possibly earlier, computer monitors have piggybacked off TV technology, which first standardized on the 4:3 ratio and later moved to 16:9. The 4:3 ratio was a compromise between picture-tube technology, which wanted to present a circular face, and the material presented, which tended to be wider than it was tall.

    Why is that? Well, it's they way we're used to seeing our world and the things in it. The human visual field is wider than it is tall, because the things we're looking at tend to be spread out more horizontally than vertically. Your food and your enemies are likely to be at approximately the same level as you are (standing or growing on the ground), so it's better to be able to take in more information from the space "around" you than from the space "above" (which is likely to be empty) or "below" (which is likely to be close, and therefore smaller and less occupied).

    Printed matter in Western languages, though, especially code, tends to occupy a relatively narrow width and extend further in the vertical direction. That's why writers and coders want taller monitors, and that's why the relentless drive to "wider", that is, more squat aspect ratios is bad news for the computer field.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:35AM (#29229971) Journal

    Lots of machines from that era had strange ways of storing data. A few used flip-flops as registers a bit later, but for main storage (at least, until magnetic core memory came in) they typically used something like that. Another popular method, for example, was to display something on a CRT, which caused a change in charge on the screen, and then read back the charge. The charge only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was long enough to draw the entire contents of the screen and then redraw it by reading back the charge.

    If you visit Manchester University's computer science department then you'll see a 2KB magnetic core memory in one of the corridors. It's about the size of a wardrobe, and you can see how each individual bit was stored. The first computer my university bought used this kind of memory, and allocated 200 bytes to lookup tables for addition and multiplication. Neither of these were handled in hardware; if you wanted to add two numbers together, you looked up the address in the lookup table constructed by combining the two digits, read the result (if the overflow bit was set you then did the same process with a one and the result of the next digit) then moved on to the next digit. The machine used 6-bit bytes, each of which stored a decimal digit with some condition codes. Words were variable-length, with one of the values being reserved as an end-of-word marker. Everything was stored in little-endian format so that you could add arbitrary-length numbers by adding their digits together in pairs until you got to the end-of-word marker for one and then just copy the digits for the other. Adding two numbers together could take several hundred instructions; not an inconsiderable length of time given that this was an era when computer speeds were measured in thousands of instructions per second. Runtimes for nontrivial programs were measured in hours.

  • Idiot editors (Score:3, Informative)

    by wcrowe (94389) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:22AM (#29230555)

    From TFA: The card punch portion of the Hollerith Census Machine. For the 1990 census, there were slots to record what farm equipment was present, what lighting was used in the home, and the usual number of people in the household, among other piece of data.

    I think they mean 1890 not 1990.

  • There is more to it (Score:5, Informative)

    by cybergrue (696844) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:47AM (#29230897)
    Enigma started out as a commercial product marketed to commercial entities (mid 1930's) and early versions were sold to the public. IIRC, technical details were published (patents, etc) and it was from these commercial models that the Poles did a lot of their work. When Poland was invaded, the Polish cryptography team made its way to England and helped kickstart the Allied effort.

    After figuring out how the machines worked, it became a simple matter to brute force the machines (try every combination) using mechanical means, ie the Bombes. This was simpler then it sounds because of some exploitable weaknesses (the same letter will never encryt to itself, the wiring in the disks wasn't changed, etc) The Bombes tried every possible combination of settings of an encoded message looking for the string "EIN" (German for one, Turring himself was said to have come up with this neat little hack) These possible decrypts were passed on to a human to check if the made sense. Remember that this was all done with a mechanical system. Late in the war, when the Germans were changing their codes every hour, this system was able to keep up.

  • by ncc74656 (45571) * <scott@alfter.us> on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:07PM (#29232045) Homepage Journal

    The operators, having to send lots of messages tended to get lazy and use sequences on the keyboard, eg if they had been using the QWERTY keyboard, they would use keys like: QWE, QAZ, WSX, ZAQ, XSW, EWQ, etc.

    Since we're talking about Enigma, "QAZ" would've been "QAY." Enigma used the QWERTZ layout, which is fairly common in German-speaking countries. (It also moved P from the upper right to lower left, presumably to simplify the mechanical design.) A pretty good photo of an Enigma is here.

  • Re:5 meg @ 27 kilos (Score:3, Informative)

    by Pentium100 (1240090) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:39PM (#29233325)

    You mean something like this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBwM2U77F2c [youtube.com]

  • by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:37PM (#29234173) Journal

    Pentiums? I'm not sure how reliable benchmarks are these days, but here's a table of dhrystones. [roylongbottom.org.uk]

    Pentium 75 achieves 87.1 VAX MIPS (Dhry2); Core 2 Duo 2.4 Ghz, 6248. 32 times the clockspeed, 70 times the performance. And well short of Moore's law.

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