Saturday, January 13, 2018

For IBM Retiree Eyes Only

If you think jargon and ridiculous products are a post IBM phenomenon, I submit this little story.

There is a guy on Lopez Island who works at Sunset Builders Supply – our hardware store – who is an IBM retiree. 

Mysti got to talking to him awhile back about the fact that we are IBM retirees also, and inevitably it got into war stories. 

Mysti came back from the encounter saying that the guy had worked on a gigabyte data storage device during his career. 

Given that when he did that was when either a tape drive or a 2314 were the max sized data storage devices that we had, and that neither of them was anywhere near gigabyte size, I was pretty interested.

I had no idea what the product could have been.

Given that its capacity boggles the mind, given the date of its supposed existence – the late 1960s – I had to find out more about it. 

The next time I went to Sunset I found him and we talked. 

It turns out the product was the IBM Data Cell which was a Defense Department RPQ that I don’t think ever got really taken seriously as a product, for reasons I will elaborate, below.

I think it is complete happenstance that I knew what my fellow retiree was talking about.

It happened  that the Data Cell was the subject of the final project in one of my advanced IBM classes: we had to do a timing of the thing in relation to some specified data retrieval exercise.

Timing a seek/read function for a disk drive is pretty straight forward.

Since the Data Cell was an essentially mechanical (as in not very electronic) nightmare the timing was complicated enough to be a good exercise with which to bedevil IBM trainees.

The device was a massive array of Mylar strips that were hung in compartments. There were lots of strips per compartment and lots of compartments.  Each compartment and strip had an address that a computer driven mechanical arm could interpret, access and grab – so the theory went – and wrap the Mylar around a cylinder with the cylinder then being inserted into a read only device to retrieve whatever it was that was written on the strip.

It worked occasionally; mostly it just scrunched up strips of Mylar into unusable flotsam.

When it did work people mostly wondered why they didn’t just have a tub file of cards with some expert human clerks to access information from it.

Because it was slow when it wasn’t scrunching.

But it still lurks in my memory as an example of the ingenuity of our engineers.

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