Examining a technology sample kit: IBM components from 1948 to 1986 @IBM @kenshirriff

Ken Shirriff received a vintage display box used by IBM to illustrate the progress of computer technology. This display case, created by IBM Germany in 1986 included technologies ranging from vacuum tubes and magnetic core memory to IBM’s latest (at the time) memory chips and processor modules.

This technology exhibit box was created 35 years ago. Looking at it from the present provides a perspective on the history of both IBM and the computer industry. The box’s date, 1986, marks the peak of IBM’s success and influence, right before microcomputers decimated the mainframe market and IBM’s dominance. What I find interesting is that the technology box focuses on mainframes and lacks any artifacts from the IBM PC (1981), which ended up having much more long-term impact. This neglect of microcomputers reflects IBM’s corporate focus on the mainframe market rather than the PC market (which, ironically, IBM created).

In the bigger historical picture, the technology box covers a time of great upheaval as electromechanical accounting machines were replaced by three generations of computers in rapid succession: vacuums tubes, then transistors, and finally integrated circuits. In contrast to this period of rapid change, nothing has replaced integrated circuits over the past 50 years. Instead, integrated circuits have remained, but improved by many orders of magnitude, as described by Moore’s Law. (Compared to the room-filling IBM 3090 mainframe, an iPhone has 1000 times the performance and 50 times the RAM.) Will integrated circuits continue their dominance for the next 50 years or will some new technology replace them? It remains to be seen.

Read about all the components of the kit and their significance in the post here.


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