The IBM 1401
A more affordable, smaller machine with advanced technology became a mainframe for the masses
A woman in a room of IBM 1401 computer components

The first relatively affordable and widely popular mainframe, the IBM 1401 Data Processing System has been called “the Model T of the computer industry.” Just as Henry Ford introduced the automobile to the masses, the IBM 1401 opened the information age to thousands of small and medium-size businesses. It changed the construct and outlook of the computer industry, from design to production to use.

Introduced in 1959, the IBM 1401 quickly made inroads into the business community. By the mid-1960s, it comprised more than half of the world’s computers. The 1401 family spawned an entire generation of programmers who first learned computing on these machines.

There were several keys to the 1401’s popularity. One was affordability. The 1401 could be leased for as little as USD 2,500 per month — at a time when comparably equipped computers leased for USD 10,000 per month and large mainframes cost more than USD 1 million to purchase outright. The 1401 was also considered a real value because of its advanced technologies. It was one of the first computers to run on transistors instead of power-hungry and fragile vacuum tubes, making it far more reliable and compact than existing mainframes. To input and store data, the 1401 could accommodate both the widely used punched cards and the newer magnetic tape, which could accelerate data storage and retrieval.

The 1401 changed perceptions among business executives. A computer didn’t have to be as big as a room and at the service of just large corporations — it could fit comfortably in the office of a medium-size company or lab, and each department could afford to have one of its own. The 1401 convinced enterprises of all sizes that a computer was essential to their daily operation. It also spurred IBM and other technology companies to scale up production for a future defined by computing.

The 1401 convinced enterprises of all sizes that a computer was essential to their daily operation
Small business computing
Tapping a new market with an affordable machine

Through the 1950s, computers had undergone significant advances. Vacuum-tube electronics had replaced the electromechanical elements of the tabulating machines that dominated information processing in the first half of the century. Vacuum tubes in turn gave way to smaller and more efficient transistors. Magnetic tape and disk drives began to replace punched cards. Programming languages such as FORTRAN, developed by IBM, made it faster and easier to instruct machines to do ever more complex tasks.

Still, computers touched few lives directly. There were only about a thousand computers installed worldwide by the late ’50s, and most were owned by big corporations and government agencies that could afford the high cost of purchasing and maintaining the machines. A large untapped market of smaller businesses and organizations continued to perform labor-intensive tasks, such as accounting, inventory control, billing and payroll, with adding machines and paper ledgers. The world was ready for an accessible and affordable computer — a mainframe for the masses.

The world was ready for an accessible and affordable computer — a mainframe for the masses

IBM scrambled to develop a machine to meet the demand. In the mid-1950s, French computer upstart Machines Bull released its Gamma computers, which were small and fast compared with goliaths like the IBM 700 series. The Gamma line prompted IBM and others to realize that organizations with smaller budgets had a use for computers. During the summer of 1957, IBM engineers and planners gathered in Germany to propose several new accounting machine designs. The anticipated product of a seven-week conference was known thereafter as the Worldwide Accounting Machine (WWAM).

In September 1957, IBM’s Charles Branscomb was assigned to run the WWAM project. In March 1958, after Thomas J. Watson Jr. expressed dissatisfaction with the WWAM project in Europe, a proposal for a stored-program computer was given formal approval to meet IBM’s need for an electronic accounting machine. Big developmental challenges needed to be addressed, namely to conceive an architecture devoid of the plugboard, a spaghetti-like array of cords and plugs that told a computer what to do.

Plugboards dramatically slowed computing because they required a complete rewiring by a skilled programmer for each new program. Underwood succeeded in eliminating the plugboard control panel entirely and designed a “stored program computer,” which enabled programmers to write and share applications loaded into the machine from punched cards or magnetic tape, all without physically reconfiguring the machine.

The 1401 System would consist of three components — a central processing unit that controlled all computational functions, an input/output device known as the 1402 Card Read-Punch that could read up to 800 punched cards per minute and punch 250 cards per minute, and the high-speed 1403 printer that could print 600 lines of text per minute. The 1401 could transfer input data from cumbersome punched cards to faster and less bulky magnetic tape drives, and many used the 1401 to make the switch from cards to tape.

Big developmental challenges needed to be addressed, namely to conceive an architecture devoid of the plugboard
Instant popularity
The 1401 addresses a pent-up demand for data processing

The IBM 1401 Data Processing System was introduced on October 5, 1959, via a splashy closed-circuit television presentation seen by more than 50,000 prospective customers in 102 cities across the United States. On presentation day, IBM had only one working model, sequestered in a test lab, and company executives were reluctant to move it to a television studio. Instead, they hastily constructed a dummy mock-up of the machine for the presentation. It had battery-operated lights flashing on an empty box and tape reels being spun by engineers standing behind the machine.

The instant popularity of the computer surprised even the most optimistic IBMers. More than 5,200 orders arrived in the first five weeks — besting the company’s projections for the entire life of the machine. By the mid-1960s, more than 10,000 of the 1401 systems were installed, making it by far the best-selling computer up to that point.

The 1401 addressed a pent-up demand for data processing. Business functions at companies that had resisted automation were quickly taken over by computers, driving information technology deeper into everyday life. With the 1401, payroll processing could be completely automated, down to the printing of checks — the accompanying IBM 1403 printer could produce more than 230 checks per minute. Retailers used the 1401 for merchandise control, greatly improving sales and inventory decisions. Time-Life purchased one of the first 1401 models and transferred 40 million punched card subscriber records to just several hundred magnetic tapes.

The IBM 1401 also struck a creative chord. It was used to craft some of the first crude computer-generated images made up of the letters X and 0 and produced by the 1403 printer. Musician Jóhann Jóhannsson and choreographer Erna Ómarsdótti, whose fathers were IBMers, devised a musical dance piece, “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual,” in 2007. After it was performed in more than 40 countries, Jóhannsson orchestrated the music for a standalone album, which was performed and recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and mastered in Abbey Road.

In 1971, the IBM 1401 was officially retired from service. It had been replaced by the IBM System/360, which consolidated software, peripherals and support in one computer family that could more easily be expanded. Even decades later, the 1401’s legacy is undeniable. Computer enthusiasts have lovingly restored vintage 1401s for exhibition, including one on permanent display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

About a dozen retired IBMers brought a mothballed 1401 back to life for the museum, which now holds demonstrations of the machine in action for a new generation of enthusiasts. It’s a fitting tribute to a machine that gave the world a glimpse of a future in which computing would be accessible to everyone.

Business functions at companies that had resisted automation were quickly taken over by computers
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