Sputnik, spaghetti and the IBM SPACE machine

The 50th anniversary of the 1401


The fall of 1957 was a low point not only for the United States, but for another high-minded world power: IBM.

As the US looked up at Sputnik, without a satellite of its own, IBM was haunted by a rival machine known as the Gamma 3. Built by an upstart French outfit, the Gamma had trumped Blue Blue's fledgling computer tech - not to mention its European sales - and the company lacked even the blueprint for a response. In the fall of 1957, the International Business Machines Corporation had no major business machine in development.

But just as the US would reclaim lost ground with the Mercury space program, IBM would battle back with the 1401, a seminal stored-program machine fated to become the most popular computer of the 1960s.

This year marks the machine's 50th anniversary, and last week, at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum, three of the system's founding fathers gathered for a night of nostalgia. Introducing the venerable trio - chief architect Francis Underwood, project head Charles Branscomb and planning manager Sheldon Jacobs - current Big Blue marketing boss John Iwata called them "IBM's version of the Mercury astronauts".

WWAM. Bam. No thank you, Ma'am

Shipped in 1953 by a French outfit known as Compagnie des Machines Bull, the Gamma 3 was an early electronic computer that served as both accounting machine and general purpose calculator. Big Blue had dominated the accounting machine market for decades, but according to Charles Branscomb - an exec in IBM's Endicott, New York lab at the time - its technology had suddenly fallen behind.

"It was a wake-up call. The Gamma 3 was a calculator that actually attached to an accounting machine, and the IBM Europe people were very concerned," Branscomb says. "They came to the corporation and alerted the corporation that there was a competitive threat - and that something had to be done about it."

Big Blue's initial response was to fashion a transistor-based system known as the Worldwide Accounting Machine, WWAM for short. Its processor was designed at IBM's French lab in Paris, its punchcard reader and printer at a German lab outside Stuttgart.

In 1957, Branscomb was appointed area manager for accounting machines at the Endicott lab, and his first task was to review the WWAM's progress. That October, he flew to France for a meeting with the product manager overseeing the processor design. And as Branscomb sat down, the Frenchman couldn't help but mention the satellite the Soviets had launched the day before.

"The Russians put up Sputnik yesterday, and it goes around the world saying 'Beep, beep, beep,'" the Frenchman said. "Then, when it gets to the US, it says 'Ha, ha, ha.'"

1401 trio

The IBM 1401 (right), with card reader and printer

The irony is that the IBM - including the Frenchman himself - was in much the same position as the Sputniked Americans. After Paris, Branscomb flew to Germany, and he soon told the corporation that the WWAM project should be terminated. Like so many accounting machines that came before it, the WWAM was programmed through plugboard.

"[The European labs] had done some creative work. They had tried to make the best use of a control panel, but it was still a control panel machine and technology was on the move and my conclusion was that it was not going to get the job done," Branscomb remembers.

"Here it was, late third, early fourth quarter 1957, and IBM's largest revenue base had no machine in development."

Next page: The chief architect

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021