Gustav Tauschek’s lightbulb went off in 1932. He had been thinking about some way of storing data for some time, and ended up patenting the magnetic drum. He could not know it, but that ended up being fundamental for the development of modern computing.
There were several projects that used that concept, and among them was the IBM 650 RAMAC, the first mass-produced computer. He had a storage unit derived from that Tauschek concept, and that monster was so expensive that it wasn’t even being sold: companies “subscribed” to the IBM 650 and rented it for months.
What you could get in the 50s for $3,200 a month (at the time)
It was 1953 and IBM was going all out: it presented its IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Calculator, although it would not be available until December 1954. That prodigy was based on a magnetic drum or roller, and was based on decimal logicand not binary.
The huge ibm 650 It consisted of the console —900 kg—, the IBM 655 power device —1,350 kg—, a card reader and puncher, and peripherals such as the query terminal or the magnetic citation units.
One of its great peculiarities was its memory system, based on a rotating drum capable of storing up to 4,000 10-digit words. Its operation made it necessary to wait for the head to be placed in the correct position, and in fact the programmer almost had to “guess” when an instruction had just been executed in order to place the next one so that the drum had quick access to it and not had to wait longer than necessary.
That machine ended up becoming a success in all kinds of fields, and was applied, for example, to calculate risk premiums in insurance, in structural calculations, in accounting or in ballistic missile design. In 1957 there was already a FORTRAN compiler (although the initial version compiled FORTRAN to SOAP —Symbolyc Optimal Assembly Program—, the “native” assembly language of the 650), but other arcane languages such as RUNCIBLE or ADES II were also supported.
IBM expected to install about 50 such systems, but the demand was much higher than expected. The IBM 650 was relatively compact for the time (fits in a room, all good) and was “friendly”—decimal arithmetic, reduced instruction set.
That seemed to trigger its use: in 1955 there were already 75 machines installed and working, but the figure rose to 300 in 1956. By 1962 the number had grown to 2,000and at that time they were discontinued, although their components were supported until 1969.
Another surprising fact about the IBM 650 was its cost: it was around $500,000 at the time, which would be equivalent to about 5.3 million dollars todaywent That meant that the companies and entities that used this computer did not buy it, but “subscribed” to it by renting it.
The price of that rental was $3,200 at the time, which means that those who used it they would pay 34,300 of today’s dollars a month to enjoy that calculation capacity.
Cast not counting the accessories: You could rent the card reader/punch ($550/month) or a 60-word memory stick for another $1,500/month.
Some say that one of the factors of IBM’s success was a really curious one: had a lot of flashing lightswhich allowed users to identify what was happening at all times.
A curiosity: the IBM 650 was the first computer that arrived in Spain: Renfe bought it in 1959, and by then its price had dropped considerably: it cost 250,000 dollars at the time, equivalent to 1.9 million euros today.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism