IT Management

Big Iron:  The Mainframe Story (So Far)

If you were going to create a documentary about the mainframe, where would you start? You could reasonably start with the birth of Alan Turing in 1912, or with the “birth” of ENIAC in Pennsylvania in 1946. How about when Turing’s Pilot ACE ran its first program in London in 1950? 

Other schools of thought might point to Konrad Zuse’s Z1 in 1936, a mechanical calculator considered the first binary computer; others could point to the earliest general-purpose, stored-program electronic digital computer known as the Manchester “Baby,” which performed its first calculation in 1948. IBM’s 701 in 1952 might even get a few votes as well.

My colleague David insists you should start with Stonehenge (yes, he’s English), and I must admit he actually makes a good case that it’s a precursor to the first electronic calculator and deserves consideration.

Non-IT folks who love the movies might first think of the 1957 movie, Desk Set, which introduced the concept to many, many Americans long before the HAL 9000 hit Hollywood.

I think most people would probably point to IBM in the ‘60s as the real start of the “mainframe era.”  They could point to the year 1961, when IBM’s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) was first demonstrated, or to 1963, when the IBM 7000 series replaced vacuum tubes with transistors. But really, most people I’ve asked agree that 1964 is the year because that is when the IBM System 360 family of mainframe computers was launched.

Just five years later in 1969, a mainframe guided the Apollo 11 moon landing. So much history to consider, and we haven’t even mentioned Burroughs Corp., DEC, NCR, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, UNIVAC, Control Data Corp., or independent software vendors such as  Computer Associates International (now just CA Technologies).

All this mainframe history—what came next and what’s in store for the future—got me to thinking  there should be a documentary about this groundbreaking platform; a story that captures the thoughts, ideas, and images of the men, women, and machines that revolutionized businesses and organizations around the world and created what is now just referred to as “IT.” There should be one and now there is one. 

The new documentary film, Big Iron: The Mainframe Story, can be viewed at ca.com/bigiron and at ibmsystemsmag.com/bigiron. The documentary has a 33-minute running time and is divided into five chapters. The project was developed and produced by MSP Communications, Inc., CA Technologies, and IBM Systems Magazine, but it involved the assistance of many people from a variety of organizations, including SHARE, MainframeZone, Inc., NASA, and IBM. Check it out and let me know what you think.