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A database of SMS cards: The technology inside IBM's 1960s mainframes (righto.com)
114 points by kryptiskt on March 7, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 20 comments

DEC got it's official start making their own versions of these (well, from the TX-2 computer a couple of the founders worked on as graduate students): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Equipment_Corporation#...

So many computer companies had gone bust by then that, per their own observations and the advice of the legendary Georges Doriot, "the father of venture capitalism", they changed their business plan to doing that first, and if they got enough business, to then do a computer with them. Hence the names "Digital Equipment Corporation" and "Programmed Data Processor", no "computers" here. Or indeed no mainframes or 1401 class machines.

Heh, per the Wikipedia article, they sold a lot of these to other computer companies who used them to test their own stuff. I suppose it doesn't necessarily hurt to sell shovels while you do your own gold mining.

And, yeah, I remember these IBM modules. I obtained an decimal addressed (units 0-9) very fast, like 124 inches per second 7 track IBM tape drive for a computer center. It was filled with these boring, beige cards, DEC's looked much better ^_^.

Hmmm, and the PDP-6 was a ... less than stellar success because it's CPU wasn't made with these in the old fashioned way and was very hard to maintain (see this PC board: http://ljkrakauer.com/LJK/essays/pdp6plaque.jpg). Something they corrected with the first PDP-10, the KA-10, which used diode-transistor logic and huge wire wrapped backplanes.

An amusing story about DEC's cards from Grant Saviers:

At DEC "deep sixing" NTF cards had real meaning. Since the mill [that held DEC] had a mill pond, NTF repeat cards would often take flight out an open window into the pond. Probably thousands of them there as Ken Olsen wrote a memo that was posted along those windows, "Any employee who throws modules out the windows will be summarily dismissed."

[NTF is "No Trouble Found", indicating a card that was returned as defective, but worked fine when tested. If this keeps happening, destroying the card would be very tempting. Compare with analog IC genius Bob Widlar, who would "Widlarize" offending parts by pounding them to dust with a hammer: http://hackaday.com/2014/04/08/heroes-of-hardware-revolution...]

Pictures three and four explain why so many sci-fi megaputers have drawers full of cards^H^H^H^H^Hchips^H^H^H^H^Hcrystals that can be pulled out and swapped around in order to fix a broken AI or something.

Agreed! It sure feels like HAL (https://henryherz.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/05-robots-hal....)

I thought there was a similar style in Star Trek: The Original Series, but while they had card-loaded computers, it wasn't as an array of cards. Their hardware idiom is more like http://tosgraphics.yuku.com/topic/409/The-Type7-Console-Comp...

ST:TNG has an example at http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/memoryalpha/images/b/bd/... but I suspect it was more directly derived from HAL than a 1960s era computer.

It's carried over into modern sci-fi. Check out these pictures from Stargate SG-1 (which is what first popped into my mind when I saw those photos):




I'd love to talk to set designers on these shows to find out what their influences were. I would not be at all surprised if these kinds of props originate in the Daisy Bell scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I would bet any money that set in 2001 was an extrapolation of the SMS card.

Here's a "logic module" from ST:Enterprise - http://www.startrekpropauthority.com/2011/10/star-trek-enter... . It's apparently from "In A Mirror, Darkly", where the Terrans from the mirror universe acquired the Constitution-class Federation starship USS Defiant. So it's definitely an homage to the 1960s series.

At some point it's hard to know the specific lineage. Consider "Land of the Lost" from the 1970s, which had a control panel of colored crystals: http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20150109000245/villains/i...

They are colored crystals in an array, though unlike the scene from 2001 and the Babylon 5 images you found, these are not slotted.

I'm pretty certain there's a book or web site somewhere which goes into the details of the design sense of at Star Trek.

"Information on particular SMS cards is surprisingly hard to find, so I made a database of SMS cards, collecting information on 900 different cards. Given the historical importance of SMS cards, I think information on this technology should be preserved. "

I often wonder what motivates someone to spend the time to do something like this. Extremely time consuming and with no obvious market for the information relative to the time of "collecting information on 900 different cards". By "market" I'm not saying "way to profit". How many people are actually interested or need this?

I mean, look at this:


There are people who collect butterflies, birds, and beetles. There are people who research the genealogy of people who lived in a specific small town in the US 100 years ago. There are people who memorize the statistics of major league baseball players. There are people who travel to places to experience solar eclipses, and do so dozens of times. People who research stamps produced by Weimar Germany. People who fix antique tractors, go to antique tractor fairs, and subscribe to magazines on the topic. There are people who run a marathon in every state of the US, or play golf at every course in Scotland. There are people who collect license plates, and will go to license plate swap meetings, and people who collect cans, and spark plugs. (Collectors of the last were handy in identifying the Coso artifact as a 1920s Champion spark plug.)

I can easily continue. Do you wonder what specifically motivates someone to research SMS cards but not wonder about all of these other interests? Or is it the entire concept of non-profitable interests which throws you for a loop?

Good points and good examples but to me this is a bit different.

First, most of the things that you have mentioned there are other birds of the same feathers (or whatever the expression is). So it's an experience that can be shared. That said I have certainly done many things that I could never share with someone in the past (or current) but not something along the lines of what the OP has done.

Second, the examples you gave are done typically over long periods of time. While I don't know the amount of time that the OP spent doing this activity I am speculating that it was over a short period of time not over 20 years.

In the end the OP gets something out of compiling this info.

However he did and say and what I was questioning was when he said "Given the historical importance of SMS cards, I think information on this technology should be preserved." Ok, why does it matter? What will people learn from this relative to the effort?

So he is doing it for a different reason then someone who is collecting butterflies or in my case taking photographs of "anything and everything" something I enjoy doing. Or running marathons in every country. They don't claim to be doing it for any other reason other than "it makes me feel good to do so.."

At the bottom of the link you posted is the following:

> The information on these pages comes from a variety of sources, especially old IBM documents on bitsavers.org, as well as information from the IBM 1401 restoration team, especially Tim Coslet's SMS data and Jim Hunt's data. Images courtesy of Randall Neff, also rolyath and maisorbus. ...

That's definitely a shared experience with many birds of the same feather. The IBM 1401 restoration team is pretty famous, with public demonstrations.

It could be completely one-sided. It could be a labor of love for something that was important to the OP but which no one else would ever care about. (Marathons in every country.)

Or it could be useful for a future historian trying to puzzle out some aspect of history.

I am at best an amateur historian of my field. I am trying to understand how changes in computing technology from the 1950s-1980s affected how people thought about certain problems. Almost I have to work with is published or archived papers. Some of the clues I have to work with are oblique, like combining an oral history made 20 years later with a footnote in a paper, or using advertising materials ("can support over 10 million molecules") with records of the hardware of that era to estimate the amount of memory needed and the storage cost per molecule. Someone from that era would have known it on the top of their head, but it's not information I have. I've even contacted the archivist at the Charles Babbage Institute because the information I wanted was only available there.

As a result of this work, I now want to reproduce a 1950s era manual punched card system, to get a more visceral feel for that era. The book "Punched Cards" is invaluable in explaining the details, but putting things into practice sometimes makes it easier to understand the details. (Buying punched cards is almost impossible these days. OTOH, now we have stencil machines, which might be able to automate the production side for me.)

I can easily believe that some future historian of the 1960s era computing center will want to understand aspects of how the hardware works. I am not a hardware expert to guess what that might be, but it's pretty clear that other fields find interest in the historical development of their field, like clocks, engines, ships, bridges and buildings, and study old systems for an understanding or appreciation of certain problems. I've no doubt the same will be true for computing hardware.

It's hard to know what people in the future will want. Watch videos of Jason Scott ("Rogue Archivist" for the Internet Archive) to get an idea of how some of the ways assembled and archived information is used, like "Rescuing The Prince of Persia from the sands of time" or "So You Want To Murder a Software Patent".

What are your thoughts on this, then?


Ntim, but I think that has much wider appeal and for that matter it has visuals that are practically art in themselves. Almost like back in the day what was known as a "coffee table book" something that would be a conversation starter or allow someone viewing to pass some time.

I can see the person who has compiled that db has not only put in effort but has done so over a period of time and has apparently developed it into an enjoyable hobby. And collection that has value and could be resold. (I'd pay to buy that website but not the SMS card one..) Or someone would pay for the typewriter collection.

Back in the 70's many of us scavenged our first Transistors from surplus computer cards. We went to great trouble to catalog the different boards so we could know what we were getting.

see the old EEB magazine at: http://www.rochester-engineering.com/EEB/

"There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge." - Bertrand Russell

I think I have been waiting for this sentence for my entire life. My brain retains irrelevant details like an inappropriate metaphor.

Great quote, thanks.

I personally like any 'old' computer information; I read magazines/books from the 60s/70s/80s (it starts to get boring after 1993 or something when the nice computers mostly made way for boring PCs that were hard to understand all the hardware and software off from the lowest hardware level to the top OS/user software). I think there are many people who are interested in this information; obviously not millions but enough to keep a lot this kind of information gathering going. Must say that I too find this information should be collected somehow, because if it disappears (which it kind of did do already apparently), we lose a bit of the fundamental starters of what became computers everywhere and the internet.

you will like this too I guess:



I've been sort of a computer history enthusiast lately. Read about 7 books in the last few months. I found this read very interesting. Always wondered how these where built inside.

It seems IBM replaced this technology with SLT in 1964, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Solid_Logic_Technology .

SLT is an interesting technology since it falls in between discrete transistors and integrated circuits. IBM's SLT hybrid modules were metal packages 12mm on a side. Inside a module they put a few separate semiconductor dies (transistors and diodes) and precision-trimmed thick-film resistors on a tiny circuit board. It's like an integrated circuit on the outside but separate components on the inside.

For a while, IBM built SMS cards that used SLT modules in place of the discrete resistors and diodes. They needed to keep the discrete germanium transistors though because the SLT modules were silicon-based. A picture of one of these SMS cards is here: http://righto.com/sms/DGW.html The result is extremely space-inefficient, but it was a cheaper way of building backwards-compatible cards.

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