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Big, Beautiful Boxes From Computer History 238

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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  • Favorite quote (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:12AM (#29227521) Journal

    Magnetic core memory came in a range of sizes. It replaced vacuum tubes entirely by about 1960, and was extremely cheap to produce - from $1 per bit initially, to 1c per bit by the mid-60s.

    Crazy, but in those days, no one ever used more than 640 bits of memory. True story.

    Direct link to photograph, in case you want to see a range of core memories, which, incidentally were great because they didn't lose their values in a power outage:,computer-history-museum-photo-gallery-weird-fascinating-photos-including-a-giant-cray-and-a-60kg-hard-drive.aspx/40 []

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:17AM (#29227555) 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. 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?

    Also, check out the keyboard on this beast! [] Not QUERTY. Not DVORAK. Who thought that would be a good idea?
  • by mister_dave ( 1613441 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:45AM (#29227681)

    I recently read A Computer called Leo [], which tells a story of post WW2 computer development in the UK.

    The thing that stuck me most was the long cylinders of mercury used as memory [], (mercury delay lines []).

  • by rubies ( 962985 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:03AM (#29227759)

    ...because in use they aren't terribly functional. One of the secretaries I used to work with back in the eighties had a Radius portrait display on a Mac II - it was awful as seeing the whole page at a time was far less important than seeing what was on the page clearly. Print Preview pretty much killed portrait monitors stone dead.

  • CDC (Score:4, Interesting)

    by solanum ( 80810 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:25AM (#29227847)

    Seeing that old gear is great. It's amazing the ingenuity used in the 40s and 50s.

    My mother-in-law used to program a CDC, which always seems quite crazy as she can't even use SMS on her phone! Of course in those days doing punch cards was so tedious men didn't want the jobs. It would be interesting to compare the ratios of female:male programmers and correlate it with the improvement in tech over time.

  • by tinrobot ( 314936 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:42AM (#29227935)

    When I was in high school, my computer class did a field trip to one of the sites. It was a two story building, with each floor the size of a department store and filled with aisles and aisle of racks filled with vacuum tube processing modules. The had disk had a drum the size of a small trash can. Even at the time (late 70's) the guy giving the tour said the computer could be replaced by one the size of a phone booth. These days, a few hundred of them could fit into something the size of a phone.

  • by Jurily ( 900488 ) <> on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:54AM (#29227973)

    15 years is not that much. We already had Pentiums in 1994. The article is about a time when CPU cycles were more expensive than programmer time and text data took a lot of space.

    The UI itself hasn't got significantly better since Windows 95. (Hands up if you would actually consider using a graphical interface without a task bar.)

  • Wow (Score:4, Interesting)

    by John Pfeiffer ( 454131 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:09AM (#29228031) Homepage

    I think I've seen one of those 27 kilo HDDs before. I volunteered at a local computer recycling program, and among many usable machines, they'd get old stuff that we were to dismantle, and separate into different kinds of materials for disposal. The one I saw was an IBM, and the outer housing for the HDD was roughly the shape and size of a washer or dryer. The host machine was similar but twice as long. It had an 8-inch floppy with what I think was some kind of auto-loader. I think, all told, it had hookups for THREE 220V circuits. (Two on the host, and one on the HDD) I wanted to get one of the drive platters for myself, but the best I could do was the 'Unit Emergency' killswitch off the host computer. (I had set aside the control panel from the host machine, but didn't have room to take it home that day, and someone tossed it.)

    Also, holy crap. I never knew silicon wafers came from hugeass things of silicon like that, I always assumed they were made more or less in their final wafer form artificially from smaller pieces. o_O I guess it makes more sense that they're cut from massive homogeneous chunks of solid silicon.

    I wish they had a better shot of the RCA tube memory. I've seen pictures of those before, the dies look cool in a vacuum tube like that. They look very intricate, like miniatures of space station solar panels or something, heh. (Like the die in an EPROM, but MUCH bigger)

  • by Dadoo ( 899435 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @04:49AM (#29228227) Journal

    There's one still open in Bozeman, Montana.

    I've been to the one in Bozeman. It looks cheesy on the outside, since it's in a strip mall, but it's actually pretty cool. It's also more a museum of information technology, than a computer museum (since it starts out with stone tablets), though they do have a lot of old computer equipment.

    Surprisingly, the coolest part isn't the computer equipment; it's the Gutenburg press. They actually have original stock (paper) that, unlike most museums, they allow you to touch. Very cool.

  • by Ciggy ( 692030 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:07AM (#29228305)
    A lot of work was done on breaking Enigma BEFORE WWII - by the Polish.

    The wheel wirings had been discovered (whether by fair means or foul - ie capturing the actual wheels - I can't remember). Enigma was basically hacked^Wcracked by using the fact that a lot of the German messages had key, crib phrases at the start or end of the messages, and that no letter could encrypt to itself. It was Bombes which were the set the task of finding the starting position of the wheels given a possible crib match.

    The German Navy used an enhanced enigma machine which used 4 instead of the normal 3 rotating wheels and so was harder to crack. That was helped by the capture of the settings books (about 2 years before the US entered the war).

    It was the Lorentz cypher, as used by Hitler and the high command, was the cypher that was decrypted with the aid of the Colossi. A Lorentz machine was bult at Bletchely Park by modifying a British cypher machine.

    Bletchley Park is well worth a visit to see the reconstructed Colossus and the computing museum - it was most odd to see the computers I used as a wee lad in the museum.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:10AM (#29228321)

    Very cool indeed. Back in 3rd grade, I really wanted a Cray.

    The one at the CHM is neat. they let you look into the center of the circle. Pretty amazing -- the thing is a rat's nest of cables draped from one segment of the machine to the other segments. They're draped that way so that the electrical path from one place to the other is the same, to keep the signal timings right. If a signal went from one segment to an adjacent one, it draped in a loop that went nearly to the floor. But if a signal were going to a segment 180 degrees away, directly across the core, the ends were farther apart and the sagging part did not get as close to the floor. Kinda like holding a jump rope with your hands together, then moving them apart while keeping the same distance above the floor.

  • by toQDuj ( 806112 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:19AM (#29228359) Homepage Journal

    Also notes that it has a big red "emergency off" button in case it revolts against mankind.


  • by Fred_A ( 10934 ) <> on Friday August 28, 2009 @05:42AM (#29228459) Homepage

    I really don't know, but there are several monitors that can pivot. If you have a VESA monitor, you can remove the stand and put it on a VESA arm in a portrait manner.

    Any monitor can do that as long as it has a VESA compliant attachment at the back. Then it's only a software issue.

    What's nice is a monitor that can pivot on its own stand (typically in that case it can also twist and swivel, be raised and lowered). Although to lower costs a lot of makers only offer crappy stands on all but the very high end models these days. My Dell 24" can pivot on its stand (it can mess the numerous connectors a bit though).

    It's less convenient if it's stuck in just one position. Although I don't pivot it all that often... 1200 vertical pixels is usually enough.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @08:54AM (#29229485) Homepage Journal

    What got me and should give everyone pause is the 1972 Cray, the fastest computer in the world at the time, was less powerful than your phone. That was only 35 years ago, for you young folks, what will computers be like when you're my age?

    My daughters grew up with computers, computers grew up with me. []

    I remember my mom bringing an IBM luggable home from work back in the early eighties (I was in my early thirties and lived down the street from her, rather than in her basement like the stereotype would have it). She needed help turning it on. It was damned heavy, the size of a small suitcase, with a five inch monichrome CRT monitor and two five inch floppies and no hard drive.

    At the time I had a Timex-Sinclair 1000, 4k of ram with a 16k expansion pack and no drive at all, tape only. I learned to program the thing in assembly, because it was too slow for games written in BASIC.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:03AM (#29229579) Journal
    I was offered a Cray a few years ago - free if I paid delivery, ex-MoD. Unfortunately, it was about as big as my house and, if I wanted to turn it on then it cost something like 5K in liquid nitrogen to keep it cool per day.
  • Re:5 meg @ 27 kilos (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mostly a lurker ( 634878 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:31AM (#29230659)
    It is worth noting that the disk drives at the museum are not first generation. An original IBM 350 [] weighed over a ton! It had a capacity of about 4.4 MB and a peak transfer rate a little over 8KB per sec. It is amazing to realize that a modern consumer 2TB drive has the capacity of about 400,000 IBM 350 drives and a transfer rate over 10,000 times faster.

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