Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they’ll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948.
Sparkler Filters’ IBM 402, with self-employed field engineer Duwayne Leafley in the foreground. (Photo Courtesy Ed Thelen / IBM 1401 Group)
Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards.
Companies traditionally used the 402 for accounting, since the machine could take a long list of numbers, add them up, and print a detailed written report. In a sense, you could consider it a 3000-pound spreadsheet machine. That’s exactly how Sparkler Filters uses its IBM 402, which could very well be the last fully operational 402 on the planet. As it has for over half a century, the firm still runs all of its accounting work (payroll, sales, and inventory) through the IBM 402. The machine prints out reports on wide, tractor-fed paper.
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I remember them well… I used to maintain an IBM 403 at my High School… Taught it how to multiply by chaining registers… Scared the heck out of people! Sad to think that so may of these went to scrap.
Beautiful machine, and a piece of history, but can it really be worth the time it takes to maintain it, and the cost of the real estate that machine and the punch cards take up?
When I was at the Univ of Wisconsin as an undergrad in the 1970’s, they had one of these IBM machines in the card punch room and used it simply for printing out listings of your punch card deck. It was built like a battleship. You could have hit it with an axe and would not have broken. I think it could be programmed only with a wiring panel.
The 402 was the first computer I programmed. I was a VoTech student in high school, electronics, and talked the instructor into letting me visit the computer science lab once a week. If I remember correctly, the 1401 is a reproducing punch (reads and punches those IBM cards where you fill in the oval with a #2 pencil). That cable visible in the photo may be leading from the 402 to what looks like a 1401 in the background.