IBMs early computers
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Ibms Early Computers
Computers as theatre. Programming Psion Computers. Introduction to Quantum Computers. Simulating physics with computers. Composing music with computers. I was a bit skeptical since the machine in the photo is much smaller than IBM's first room-filling computers, and there aren't any vacuum tubes visible. I investigated this machine and it turned out to be not a computer, but an IBM "Alphabetic Accounting Machine" from , back in the almost forgotten pre-computer age of tabulating machines.
A common photo on Twitter shows a woman wiring an early IBM computer.
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The image is from photographer Berenice Abbott who took many scientific photographs from to She photographed everything from basic magnetic field and optics experiments to research on early television tubes, and many of these photos were used in physics textbooks. Surprisingly for an art book, it didn't even give a date for the photo.
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Note the similarities with the Abbott photo: the thick laced wire bundles, the vertical wire bundles in the middle for the counters, and the hinged doors that swing open. Back view of an IBM accounting machine. A second Berenice Abbott photo shows the machine from a slightly different angle. The dangling cables from the counters in the middle look right, as well as the thick cable between the counters and the circuit breaker unit. The diagram above shows a large printing carriage on top, while the Abbott photo just shows a base, presumably because the carriage hadn't been installed yet.
Although the machine in the Abbott photo looks very similar to the IBM , there are a few differences if you look carefully. One clear difference is the IBM had caster wheels attached directly to the frame, while the machine in the photos has stubby curved legs.
In addition, the doors of the IBM were hinged at a different place. In the Abbott photos, the doors are attached just to the left of the counters and to the right of the card feed circuit breaker unit. But the IBM has some bulky components to the left of the counters such as the "Bijur pump" an oil pump , and components on the right such as the drive motor. Overall, the machine in the Abbott photos has a narrower cabinet than the IBM Additionally, the thick cable snaking down between the IBM 's circuit breaker units appears to go straight down in the photos.
Thus, although the machine in the photos is very similar to the IBM , it's not an exact match. In addition, the has a narrower main cabinet than the , with bulky additional components attached to the left and right, outside the legs.
This matches the narrower cabinet in the Abbott photos. The was an improved and modernized , explaining the overall similarity between the two machines.
An IBM accounting machine. Photo courtesy of Columbia University Computing History. Punched cards were a key part of data processing from until the s, used for accounting, inventory, payroll and many other tasks. Typically, each column punched card held one record, with data stored in fixed fields on the card.
The diagram below shows a typical card with columns divided into fields such as date, vendor number, order number and amount. An accounting machine would process these cards: totaling the amounts, and generating a report with subtotals by account and department, as shown below. Example of a punched card holding a 'unit record', and a report generated from these cards.
The accounting machine can group records based on a field to produce subtotals, intermediate totals, and totals. From Manual of Operation. Punched-card data processing was invented by Herman Hollerith for the US census, which used a simple tabulating machine to count census data, stored on punched cards.
Tabulating machines steadily became more complex, becoming feature-laden "accounting machines" that could generate business reports. Businesses made heavy use of these electromechanical accounting machines and by , IBM had 10, tabulating and accounting machines in the field. Accounting machines were "programmed" with a removable plugboard. By switching the plugboard, an accounting machine could be rapidly reconfigured for different tasks. Each wire corresponded to one character or digit. Wires plugged into the plugboard connected columns on the input card to adders.
Each column on the printer had an associated wire controlling what got printed. Other wires had control functions. I explained the tax preparation plugboard below in detail in this article. Plugboard to generate a tax report on an IBM accounting machine. Courtesy of Carl Claunch. It had more complexity than you might expect from the s, able to generate three levels of subtotals, intermediate totals, and grand totals.
It could process up to cards per minute; that's remarkably fast for an electromechanical system, reading and summing more than 2 cards per second. Renting out these machines and selling the punch cards was highly profitable for IBM, with the IBM accounting machine called "the most lucrative of all IBM's mechanical glories".
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IBM is imagining a world where quantum computers sit neatly beside traditional PCs and server farms. That might sound feeble -- Google announced a qubit machine last March -- but it's the quality, not quantity that matters, according to Sutor. IBM wanted to focus on error mitigation, and overall reliability, before increasing the system's power. One day, a company might have many "cubes" stacked horizontally or vertically in a room. Or the necessary equipment to change and upgrade the innards of a single system.
Quantum computing is, for the most part, uncharted territory. And while the technology is still in its infancy, IBM is trying to show what a mature product can, or should, look like. The Q System One is experimental hardware -- you can't buy one in Walmart -- but the company has tried to package it up like the original iMac; beautiful and self-contained, with an obvious window to peek inside and marvel at what the engineers have put together.
It's hoped that creating something beautiful will maintain, and possibly increase, interest in the technology. It also gives people something real and tangible to admire. That's important while quantum computing is stuck in a murky research period. Work is clearly being done -- experiments are being run and academic papers are getting published -- but many of the technology's advantages are still theoretical. Quantum computers aren't breaking financial encryption, for instance, or running complex weather simulations just yet.
If you're not keeping up with the latest research, it's hard to know if quantum computing is real, or complete vaporware. New hardware like the Q System One, however, is easy to appreciate. For one, it's massive -- a stark and refreshing contrast to smartphones and laptops, which are constantly getting smaller. The glass case and steel beams won't be to everyone's tastes, but they show a clear evolution and progression from what the company has built and exhibited before.
It's 7. IBM also removed the protective cover that normally surrounds the quantum computer so attendees can gawp at the pipes and wires that keep the qubits cool.