Sunday, May 19, 2013

System 360 and the Light of Ancient Computing

Once upon a time, a long time ago, April 7, 1964 to be exact, IBM announced the System 360 family of computers.  (1) It was a bold move, to create a unified line of computing from small to large, with a compatible operating system and set of peripherals. It was fabulously successful and used in industry, research and education throughout this country and the world.

The IBM logo of the period which was also designed by Paul Rand as is their current logo.

This was so long ago that computers were not mere vehicles of commerce, shallow consumerism, crime and government oppression and surveillance, as they are today.

Back then, computers could be seen in a more naive and positive way, as a force of positive social change. Of course, IBM was not seen as a force of social progress back then, not at all. It would take a real idealist to see them in that light and only a few did. But there were a few who recognized and appreciated their role as part of a larger movement that might one day help to change the world. I doubt anyone serious could hope for a positive role for computing today, with its squalid consumerism and oppressively bad design, but back then there was an elite who hoped for and worked for that day, a day which never came.

The front panel for the IBM 360 Model 75

Say what you will about IBM and its role as a pillar of Decadent Western Capitalism, as we used to affectionately call it, they knew a thing or two about design and a lot of good research and development took place on their computers which set the stage (in part) for other well-intentioned initiatives of our so-called civilization.

I remember that one day in the 1970s, leftist radicals took over the Computing Center at UCSB to protest something or another. They were so stupid that they thought that by turning off the main console that they had turned off the computer. Those of us who knew better used remote consoles in Physics and elsewhere to keep working while Campus Security was negotiating the removal of this would-be revolutionary vanguard.

Had our well-intentioned lefties only noticed the big glowing bank of lights on the IBM 360/75, they might have deduced that in fact they had not turned off computing for the campus as they had hoped, but that the work of the military-industrial complex, as the 360/75 symbolized to them, went on, uninterrupted.

Today, no working IBM System 360 is said to exist.

I doubt that this is completely true, but it is true that only a few remain, the rest being melted down for their copper or otherwise disposed of, their bulk making them very difficult for all but a few to store for the long term. Perhaps we will find a few front panels stashed in the garages of the world, waiting like arrays of diamonds in the night to be rediscovered.

An antiquarian has collected for us an array of symbolic representations of the System 360 front panels. Each model had its own front panel, which represented the internal implementation of that particular design in some abstract manner.

You may find his web page with its various graphics representations here:

The front panel of the 360 / 75 that I have included above is from his page.

Today, the front panel is a concept of the past, destroyed by manufacturing principles of cost reduction. Gone without discussion. Gone beyond any hope of retrieval, like our hope that these technologies of which they were a part would be used one day to help people and not merely oppress them.


A good introduction to the System 360 can be found here:

The Wikipedia page on the System 360:



1. The Press Release from IBM for the System 360 may be found here:

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