From the IBM 360 to today

IBM 360

My wife and I were watching Mad Men last night.  If you’re not a fan of the show (or live under a rock), it is a drama based on life in an advertising agency in the 60’s and 70’s.  Anyway, in the episode we were watching the agency had just installed a new computer.  In this day and age that involves spending a few hundred bucks, unpacking a box, plugging in a few things, turning it on and off you go.  Back then it involved a team of technicians coming out and basically pulling an entire floor of a building apart and installing huge metal boxes, the culmination of which had less computational power than your average mobile phone does today.

The computer was an IBM 360.  A monster of a thing that ran using reel to reel tape drives, had lots of lights and switches, I don’t even think it had a screen or a keyboard!  More like something out of a sci-fi movie than a computer.  In fact, any resemblance to today’s computers was barely there at all.

Upon seeing it I was immediately transported back to my youth.  When I was about 18 or thereabouts I worked for Australian Associated Press.  I ran the night shift in the “Picturegram room”, an office where we would receive photos from all around the world and send them out to all the Australian newspapers for publication.  I doubt that office even exists anymore.  We’re talking pre-internet days.  I remember there was an entire floor of the 2GB building in Sussex Street where AAP was housed that was dedicated to these sort of computers.  Not sure whether they were IBM 360’s or something else.  That wasn’t my department, but one of my mates that also worked there was a tech who maintained them.  I remember visiting that floor to catch up with him all the time as we tried to fill the long and boring hours of the midnight til 8am shift.  (He was a guitarist too and often we’d bring our axes in for a jam when nothing big was going down in the news.)  I remember that hum.  The noise these machines made could drive you quite mad.  It was consistent and relentless.  Mad Men’s producers seemed to recreate that frequency perfectly.  To me it was a trip back in time.

The machines, to a gear-junkie like me, were nothing short of magnificent.  I’m not sure how they worked or really even what they did exactly but they sure looked impressive.  There were banks of them that stretched on for what seemed like forever.  Big reels of tape whirring back and forward at super speeds, accessing data.  No hard drives here folks.  Really analogue stuff.  Lights would flicker, big Bakelite switches would click.  They weren’t built by robots in Chinese factories, they were built by artists.  Engineer boffins who assembled them by hand.  Nothing like what we have now.

I remember too that in the picturegram room itself, the equipment we used was quite amazing… for its time of course.  We actually did have screens and keyboards….. and a patch bay.  (you know those things you plug a lead into to send a signal from one patch to another?  Interesting side story, I actually have, and still use those very same patchbays.  The exact ones in fact.  They came to me in a roundabout way through a number of different hands many years later but I knew them intimately when they got to me and I got quite a rush out of installing them in my studio to route audio from the desk to the rack gear.)  In those days, the patchbays were used to connect five telephone lines to  telephone lines that were connected to every single newspaper office in Australia.  One was a constant feed from a London office.  The other four were there for photo journalists to phone in to and then they could be connected through our office to any one (or several) of those papers.  These lines were used to send photos.  (remember, no internet, no Instagram, no twitter, no Facebook… in fact… no digital anything!)  The photo was sent similarly to a fax (remember those?).  A series of beeps would come down the phone line.  Each one representing a dot’s “level” in a photo.  It’d take seven minutes for a single black and white photo to come down the line.  If it was a colour photo, it would be sent in three separate versions.  One in cyan, one in magenta, one in yellow.  Twenty one minutes later you could combine them together in a special machine and turn them into a colour photo.  Only twenty one minutes?!?  Can you believe it?  That seemed so super fast!

There was another piece of gear there that was equally amazing.  The “Leaf Desk”.  This thing looked like something straight out of an old James Bond film.  It was a huge silver suitcase that, when opened up, revealed this crazy machine that you could put a negative into and scan it into the machine to turn it into those beeps.  You could then put one of those old style telephone handsets into this cradle doo-hickey and it could transfer the images out.  There was also an attachment that could send the signal via satellite.  This was used by photographers that may have been in a place without phone lines, such as war zones, etc.  It was basically an umbrella with tin foil on the inside of it.  You’d laugh if you saw it now, but at the time it was very high tech.

Now I’m not that old.  (I’m 42.  I don’t call teenagers whipper-snappers or anything.  I don’t consider myself even as a grown up really.)  This technology is something that really seems incredibly outdated and distant in history but it really wasn’t all that long ago that we were using it.  It’s amazing just how far we’ve come in such a short time and we really do take that for granted.

I saw a Youtube clip recently of a bunch of kids being presented with a Sony Walkman.  It seemed completely alien to them.  Most of them couldn’t figure out how it worked.

When we first started Continuumusic, you didn’t have computers in a recording studio.  We didn’t have the internet.  Well, it was around but it was in its very early stages and it really hadn’t been adopted on any kind of wide scale.  I remember the CEO of AMCOS showing it to me.  He was one of the early adopters.  I actually said to him, “I can’t see that catching on.”  (something I really still laugh at myself about.  How wrong could I be??)

The studio had a computer for doing word processing and spreadsheets on.  That was in the office though.  The recording studio wouldn’t see a computer in it for almost another ten years, and even then it hardly resembled what’s in there now.  Multitrack recording was all done to two inch, twenty four track tape.  We still have the machine, it’s still one of my favourite ways to record.  Like the IBM 360, it has that feel of majesty.  It’s about as big as a washing machine but weighs about five times as much.  You can only record about 15 minutes of audio onto one tape and it has to be meticulously cleaned between each tape being loaded.  Now the old girl sits in a corner.  We don’t even have it plugged into the studio anymore.  Tape costs have gone through the roof and the time it takes to do a project on a tape machine compared to a computer has seen it become pretty much redundant.  (except for the sound, which in my opinion is still the nicest you’ll ever hear.)  Hard drives have been able to fit so much on them.  Computers have become so fast and capable that you can have an unlimited track count.  There just seems to be very little need for this equipment now.  That’s a pity but the technological revolution has moved so quickly that this kind of gear has nostalgic value but little practical use.

I remember my first mobile phone.  It was a brick.  You could use it for phone calls.  That’s it.  Just phone calls.  It didn’t have a screen at all.  Still, it was pretty groovy that you didn’t have to be connected to a wire to use it.

I remember monochrome screens.  I remember my first computer that I owned.  I don’t remember what brand it was but it had a monochrome screen.  Lovely green text on a black background.  The screen was built into the computer.  It didn’t do a lot.

I remember my first PC.  An actual IBM that had a colour CRT screen.  I think the hard drive in that was a whole 240 MB!  And that was massive at the time.  Real cutting edge stuff.  I don’t remember how much RAM it had but I’m pretty sure it was counted in kilobytes not gigabytes.  This was when windows first came out.  It was pretty amazing.

I still remember black and white television, cassette tapes, VHS, Game-and-Watches, Pac-Man machines, TV remote controls that were attached by a cable, telephones with dials rather than buttons, Teddy Ruxpin.  None of this stuff was all that long ago!

We have come so far in such an incredibly short period of time really.  We have barely noticed it whiz past us and our expectations for technology have become almost insane.  No matter how fast or how smart it gets, we want and expect more from it.  What was super groovy yesterday, seems slow and obsolete today.  I can only imagine what may be to come.  I can remember a time when I thought things just couldn’t get more “Star Trekky” than they were.  That was long enough ago for me to know that I must keep an open mind because my mind has been blown over and over again with the changes that have gone on around us in technology.

I’d be really interested to hear about your first experiences with technology that truly wowed you.  What are some of the machines you have fond memories of that, at the time, you thought were the “be all and end all” of technological advancement?  I’m sure I can’t be the only geek out there who got hooked on this stuff.

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