The Machine as Art and Craft and The Art and Craft of the Machine
What the media missed covering about the 50th anniversary of the launch of the IBM System/360.

April 07, 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the announcement of a family of computers[1] designed and built by IBM called the System/360. On and since April 07 newspapers, magazines, and blogs described the "beauty" of the idea and its implementation, and touted the many achievements that led to April 07 in 1964, but they missed something and it"s staring right at them. Before 2014 ends we should stop gazing at the innards of the /360, by closing the doors of the cabinets, and start admiring the skin, face, and form of the System/360.

The compliments so far given to the /360 are directed to the internal ‐ the art and craft of computing technology and business strategy. Nearly everyone has ignored the external ‐ the industrial design. The IBM System/360 is simply a beautiful machine ‐ it is art and craft.

Do you see the irony of this situation? Aren't we celebrating a computer product line that enshrines completeness? Yes, but the celebration is incomplete. The "360" in the name IBM System/360 represents the 360 degrees of a complete, encompassing circle and the circle represents a complete line of upwardly and downwardly compatible computers, peripherals, and software. Why even the first advertisement for the System/360 stylized this 360 degree concept in a photograph of many different, yet compatible, peripherals arranged in a circle. Unfortunately the celebratory circle has a gap and the only way to complete it is by recognizing just how good these machines looked and fit into the culture of the time.

Let"s check off the list of what seems to be the essential celebratory themes: architecture, check; byte introduced to mainstream (along with the cute nibble), check; the bold business move by IBM management, check; elevating names like Gene Amdahl and Fred Brooks into the history of computing, check; the concept of a single product line offering a complete family of compatible computers, peripherals, and software, check;do you see my point? We can't see the tree for the forest. We've drawn attention, and rightly so, to what we can't see when we look straight at a System/360 product and simultaneously ignored what we can see.

Knowing whether the /360 had instruction pre-fetch or not doesn't have the same initial and lingering impact as the fetching colours, form, and control panels of all /360's.

It was the control panel on a 360/75 (System/360 Model 75) that drew me into becoming a lifelong techie of sorts[2]. Ask around and you'll find others who had similar experiences. I jokingly claim that real computers have control panels so it's no wonder that it felt like the /75 put a spell on me because this massive control panel on this massive machine is enchanting (Fig. 1).

Am I biased? Of course, but consider this: was the well designed and crafted appearance of /360 products a factor in IBM flourishing while its competitors floundered? What I mean is that if you compare the external attributes of all computers and computer products on the market (made by the BUNCH/Seven Dwarfs) after IBM announced the /360 and conclude (as I do) that the ones offered by IBM were the most attractive, and then discover that IBM is the only computer company to have survived you could conclude the prettiest computers won. Seriously though, beauty is only skin deep, so we recognize the many other measurable factors (e.g. performance, reliability, and service) that were responsible for the overwhelming success of the /360, but I'm just saying…

Please allow me to take another run at that argument. Don't we uphold the philosophy that real beauty is internal? Don't we teach "it's what's on the inside that counts" and "don't judge a book by its cover"? Indeed we do and rightly so. This wisdom can't be refuted thus no matter how effortlessly a computer might fit one's corporate colour scheme it must also be a powerful, efficient, easy to program, reliable, and easy to maintain number cruncher. What if you could have both ‐ beauty inside and out ‐ wouldn't you buy that computer? Of course you would. In other words when the insides yield the same return on investment does the industrial design of a machine influence which one is purchased? You bet.

Code and circuits cannot compete with colour and form though. Both are designed ‐ one is invisible and the other is visible. Anyone can have a good eye for good design whereas it takes a devoted techie to appreciate the "beauty" of good code or circuitry. Even within the ranks most developers are content with code that simply works no matter how that is accomplished (read "how beautiful it is"), so since most buyers were not techies the tidy appearance projected by /360 products easily grabbed the managerial decision makers.

When I think back to when I saw my first computer, I must admit that it wasn't the control panel hanging on the wall[3] of a /75 that is responsible for me joining the techie ranks. The real credit goes to Eliot Noyes, the man behind the overall industrial design of the System/360 (and who is often called the father of the concept of corporate identity programs). Whenever a historical account of the /360 is written Mr. Noyes should be noted as often as Mr. Brooks and Mr. Amdahl are.

Today we want to hide technology. Noyes didn't. How does one hide large (Fig 2), colourful (Fig 3) bulky cabinets? Just how big was a typical /75[4] installation you ask? It was so big that CE's (IBM Customer Engineers) worked in tandem using NASA-style headsets to communicate because, not only were these sprawling machines very, very noisy forcing one to shout, the cabinetry nearly formed a maze blocking any possible line-of-sight between them. The only way to communicate while diagnosing or checking the system was through the headsets.

1964 was a time when complexity was chic. The race to the moon was a public example of this meme. We learned how to manage space flights by watching ECOM, FIDO, CAPCOM, and other masters of complexity at their consoles in Mission Control. In the world of the /360 knowing JCL (Job Control Language) ‐ the epitome of unnecessary complexity ‐ was once cool and so was knowing how to add and subtract in hexadecimal. Companies with computers willingly showcased their membership in the complexity club by proudly building data centres with floor to ceiling glass walls for all to see in.

Noyes too wanted to dramatize inherent complexity of these mammoth computers[5]. He understood the mystery of computing technology which switched the power from the visible to the invisible ‐ from hardware to software. For example one can understand how a hole is dug by an excavator by just looking at the excavator, but how in the world does a box that is plugged into the electrical outlet come to print a person's paycheque? This brilliant insight manifested in the exquisite art and craft of the /360. Noyes designed the /360 to both confirm that something ‐ something exciting ‐ is happening inside via control panels[6] on the outside, and, via colour and form, soothe any fears caused by the invisible quality of computing.

Further proof that the /360 is uniquely beautiful are the sculptures made of them. I don't know of any other IBM or non-IBM mainframes that have been bestowed that honour. The control panels from a /40 and /65 have been sculpted in metal[7]. Art begets art.

Perhaps I'm overzealous. I might be the only cheerleader for the industrial design of the /360. As they say: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." If I am accused of being a crank, then I am forced to point out that the /360 architecture might not be as advanced as reported. For instance the famous "mother of all demos" given by Douglas Engelbart (the interactive technology demonstrated eventually led to, well essentially, the iPad) took place in 1968 or the fact that DEC[8] introduced the powerful, low cost, multi-user PDP-10 (KA-10) in 1967 yet most /360 installations were devoted to punch card batch processing when, as the evidence shows, IBM could have much sooner introduced a form of personal computing. Therefore the art and craft of the machine might not be as remarkable as is typically reported, but there is no doubt that the /360 is art and craft. The industrial design behind the /360 was unique, brilliant, original, and advanced ‐ the beauty is genuine.

Let's not confuse our definition of art as represented by the /360 with photographs of backplanes and the masks of integrated circuits. Any resemblance to art is purely co-incidental. Twisted and random patterns formed by heaps of thin, colourful wires or the colourful right-angled, parallel patterns etched on silicon are fascinating, but they are unintentional. No engineer tries to make an artistic statement through backplanes or masks whereas Noyes and his team pursued a corporate aesthetic for IBM if not the industry. The resulting art and craft is very much intentional.

There, the circle is complete. The celebration has travelled a full 360 degrees. We've examined and celebrated the IBM System/360 from the inside and out. Thank you[9].


Figure 1 Kevin Stumpf with control panels from *his collection. The one on the left is from an IBM System/360 Model 75 and the one on the right, a Model 65. /360 enthusiasts might notice the unique, non-IBM controls running along the left edge of the /65 panel. This panel sported additional controls from Ampex since the processor this panel was taken from also used Ampex core storage.

Please watch a video about an exhibit about the "face" of vintage computers called The Art, Science, and History of Computer Control Panels. It was featured at Comdex Canada 1996. Photo credit Adam Stumpf.

Figure 2 imagining the size of a System/360 using pushbuttons and the famous thimble as a reference. A thimble filled with micro-sized electronic circuits was distributed with the System/360 press release. The meaning here lies in the size of the pushbuttons ‐ they are huge and this is only the external part; there is an internal part too. Imagine then all the space needed just to mount these pushbuttons. The space needed for pushbuttons on an average /360 processor would equal the same volume of space taken up by an average 15.4 inch laptop ‐ just the pushbuttons!

These pushbuttons are translucent. They snap into an assembly that housed a lamp, and a Microswitch with a spring wrapped around the stem of the switch. This style of pushbutton was first used on late models of the 7xxx series of computers that pre-dated the System/360, and on the 1130, 1800, and 3705. Photo credit Adam Stumpf.

Figure 3 IBM offered three colours for the System/360. There was the easy to see, but hard to find examples of, Sun Yellow (much brighter in real life), and also Flame Red (the original and only colour available at the time of the announcement), and finally the popular Sky Blue. These same colours were first offered on the 1401 product line and were also available on the 1130 and 1800. Note: the moniker Big Blue was not coined until years after the System/360 was announced so it should not be associated with the System/360. These photos, taken from the Internet, also show the sizes of the cabinetry.







[1] Notice how the IBM press release didn't, in 1964, refer to the System/360 as anything other than "computer"? That's because in 1964 there was no need to categorize them since a computer was a computer; they were all big. There were no minicomputers or microcomputers (e.g. personal computers). There was just big, old computers which we now call mainframes.

[2] I once collected 60 tons of mainframes and minicomputers

[3] A wall in System/360 parlance is a type of cabinet that connects other cabinets.

[4] U of Waterloo's (Ontario, Canada) famous Red Room Model 75 installation circa 1969

[5] Eliot Noyes is quoted saying this in a film of an Industrial Design Progress Report in 1957.

[6] The debate over the necessity of control panels continues. Some believe they were glitzy public relations tools while others explain that they definitely helped diagnose and test these those unreliable machines. Control panels were prominent on some machines (the /360 for example) while others where hidden behind doors. Why still have them and then conceal them if they didn't have a purpose? They are the icons of the early mainframe era and they are so much easier to collect than entire systems.

[7] Sculpture of /360 control panels.

[8] DEC ‐ Digital Equipment Corp is famous for bringing computing to the masses when in 1965 it introduced the first minicomputer. DEC fans are probably even more devoted to the DEC PDP lines of computers than /360 fans. The PDP-10 was a 36-bit word machine (the /360 word sizes varied by model, but were all multiples of 8, e.g. 32 bits or 64 bit words) and so DEC fans coined the joke "If it doesn't have 36 bits you're not playing with a full DEC."

[9] This article has been mounted at


Another idea of Kevin Stumpf   •   1 Cor 15:58   •   2014Dec24