IBM Celebrates 50 Years Since Its First System 360 Was Unveiled
April 7, 2014

IBM Celebrates 50 Years Since Its First System 360 Was Unveiled

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

While Apple’s iPhone is refreshed yearly, and a new desktop or laptop computer system is seemingly introduced every week, IBM’s System 360 reached a true milestone on Monday. It was 50 years ago, on April 7, 1964 that the first System 360 mainframe computer was unveiled.

This system was most notable in that it featured upgradable processors that still kept using the same code and peripherals from earlier models.

“The mainframe is a revolutionary computing system that is transforming business, whole industries, and the world as we know it,” IBM noted on the official website marking the 50th anniversary of this mainframe system. “By continually adapting to trends and evolving IT, we’re driving new approaches to cloud, analytics, security and mobile computing to help tackle challenges never before thought possible. We do that by collaborating with our clients to build better technology every day.”

Big Blue has also announced that it will hold a Mainframe50 event in New York City, which is scheduled for Tuesday, April 8 at 2pm ET.

The System 360 Mainframe is also credited with launching the modern computer era as we know it, and it actually didn’t begin in IBM’s corporate offices. As PC World noted on Monday, it began in the New Englander Motor Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.

It was there that a group of IBM engineers gathered in a secret meeting to determine how to build the next-generation IBM computer. While the company had already sold a number of different computer lines these were increasingly difficult to upgrade or even maintain.

“IBM in a sense was collapsing under the weight of having to support these multiple incompatible product lines,” Dag Spicer, chief content officer for the Computer History Museum, which maintains a digital archive on the creation and success of the System/360, told PC World.

Just as “video killed the radio star” in the 1980s, the System 360 killed off any potential rivals – at least at IBM. Tom Watson, Jr., IBM’s then president stopped production of other IBM computer lines and bet solely on the System 360. It was a bet that paid off.

IBM’s revenue swelled to $8.3 billion by 1971 and throughout the “Me Decade” of the 1970s more than 70 percent of all mainframes sold were from IBM. By 1982, more than half of the company’s revenue came from its mainframe business.

Of course IBM wasn’t the only maker of mainframes. The BBC noted that the British-made ICL 1900 mainframe will also celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, and the British new service also reported that despite the age of these systems, mainframes are still very much in use.

“I don’t think people realize how often during the day they interact with a mainframe,” Barry Heptonstall, a spokesman for IBM, told the BBC.

Heptonstall added in an interview to The Telegraph newspaper that many IBM customers are still running systems that have software that was written in the 1960s.

“If you sat a 2014 mainframe next to a 60s mainframe they would look completely different, and that’s probably true of the software. But they would be compatible,” he told The Telegraph. “Back in the 60s, even when I joined IBM in 1990, the machines were huge. The computer took up an area the size of a squash court. Now a machine is about the size of a large fridge. But the power of that is about 800 times the original machine.”

While mainframes certainly have a legacy – and could have a future depending on what IBM will announce on Tuesday – the use of these large computers has ended in some sectors.

In February of 2012 the last of NASA’s mainframe computers was shut down, which ended an era of the space agency’s dependence on the supercomputers.