Today, a new computer. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
1961: I'd just begun teaching
at Washington State University. I'd done three
engineering degrees and never even seen a computer.
Only one student around me had, and he had to
master machine language to use it.
Washington State was ahead of the game. They
already had a computing center. When I arrived, the
main frame was an old IBM 709. It still used
vacuum tubes, and integrated motherboards
were no more than a gleam in a few visionary eyes.
But transistors were now reaching the American
scene like a tidal wave. Many versions of Sony's
new transistor radio were now on the market, and a
few months after I arrived, the University replaced
their 709 with IBM's new transistor version, the
I was slow to learn Fortran programming, but that
computing center was a huge agent of change. Its
card-fed machine was far slower than even a modest
PC. Keyboard communication with computers was
hardly known. Dealing with any computer meant
subjecting yourself to pain; yet it still drew us
like a distant magnet.
Meanwhile, IBM engineers were locked in a death
struggle over the next generation of computers. The
rate of computer evolution was roughly the same
then as it is now. But we're accustomed to that
evolution. We expect it. In the 1960s, we all
thought we'd fallen into the maelstrom. IBM's
obvious course was to finish its next model, the
8000. But then, a frightening gamble surfaced in
the company. Writer James Strothman tells about it.
A battle raged between incremental improvement and
putting all the eggs in one basket. In the end, the
all-eggs strategy won out. IBM set out to create a
wholly new machine with qualities unlike any
previous one -- a strategy that would make every
other IBM computer obsolete. They even gave it a
discontinuous number. They called it the 360. It
was the first business computer with the huge
advantage of being compatible with both smaller and
The IBM 360 finally reached the Palouse wheat
fields of Eastern Washington. It cost the
university two million dollars in 1966. I began
using it and the world opened up. Right away, I
solved a differential equation numerically and
found myself staring at a Butterfly Effect. It'd be
decades before that term entered our vocabulary.
These new machines led us into a brave new world.
The 360 went to market against a new GE computer
that could do embryonic multi-tasking.
Both MIT and Bell Labs bought GE's com-puter. The
360 missed out on that feature, but it captured the
market anyway. It drove GE out of the business.
I look back on all that turbulence and think, "What
exciting times!" Then I realize: I could've gone
into engineering in any age and the story would've
been the same. It wasn't the times at all. Rather,
that's what science and technology are all about.
Go into those areas, and you'll always find
yourself in the center of complex and far-reaching
alterations of the human condition.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Strothman, J. E., The Ancient History of System/360.
American Inventions: A Chronicle of Achievements
that Changed the World. New York: Barnes &
Noble Books, 1995, pp. 152-158.
For more on that equation solution leading to a
Butterfly Effect, see: Lienhard, J. H., and Newton,
T. A., Effect of Viscosity upon Liquid Velocity in
Axi-Symmetrical Sheets, Zeit. f. Ang. Math. u.
Phys (ZAMP), Vol. 17, No. 2, 1966, pp.
348-353. Or look at Episode
For more in the IBM System 360 see:
IBM System 360 Model 67 c.1969
Listener Fabian Gonzalez had an interesting
addition to this episode. He wrote, "You mention a
GE computer that was on the leading edge of
interactive computing. Actually, IBM forced the
sale of GE Information Systems, GEIS, to Honeywell
Information Systems. That series of system
eventually morphed into Honeywell's DPS systems. I
started in the computer business here in Houston in
1979 and my first job was with Honeywell
Information Systems as a 'field engineer.' I was
assigned to what was regarded as the 'GE' side of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.