Iconic consoles of the IBM System/360 mainframes
April 7, 2019 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Although the S/360 models shared a common architecture, internally they were completely different to support the wide range of cost and performance levels. Low-end models used simple hardware and an 8-bit datapath while advanced models used features such as wide datapaths, fast semiconductor registers, out-of-order instruction execution, and caches. These differences were reflected in the distinctive front panels of these computers, covered with lights and switches.

By modern standards the System/360 computers were unimpressive: the Model 20 was much slower and had less memory than the VIC-20 home computer (1980), while at the top of the line, the Model 195 was comparable to a Macintosh IIFX (1990), with about 1/1000 the compute power of an iPhone X. On the other hand, these mainframes could handle a room full of I/O devices and dozens of simultaneous users. Even with their low performance, they were running large companies, planning the mission to the Moon, and managing the nation's air traffic control.
posted by jenkinsEar (52 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I love this 60s computer aesthetic. All those orderly buttons and lights still command attention even if the computer these days people interact with is a slab of black glass.

FWIW the System/360 is very much alive and kicking. Although it's called z/OS today. The architecture has expanded over time to allow for more computing resources but in important ways there's a straight line of backward compatibility going back to 1964. My partner is on a plane to Poughkeepsie today for IBM's annual briefing on the latest new features coming to z/OS.

The hardware styling is just as antiseptic and machinery as always, but now sports a sort of tacticool and menacing look. And of course there's no more affordance for a human interface; all the console needs are virtual.
posted by Nelson at 2:43 PM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

FWIW the System/360 is very much alive and kicking.

I believe FORTRAN is still the backbone the entire banking industry. Or some legacy language like that.
posted by hippybear at 2:47 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

We'll never be rid of fortran. Even if no one ever writes another line of fortran code, we'll still be carting around the g77 compiler for decades to come, because of LAPACK, BLAS, and ATLAS. There is literally no one that wants to tackle re-validating all those math functions for correctness.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 2:55 PM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

I would adore a line of modern personal computers done up in the style and coloring of these old IBM beauties. Seriously long overdue for a retro wave of design.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:56 PM on April 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

Beautiful photos, but I sorely wish they blew up into high-res.
posted by mykescipark at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

FWIW the System/360 is very much alive and kicking. Although it's called z/OS today. The architecture has expanded over time to allow for more computing resources but in important ways there's a straight line of backward compatibility going back to 1964.

And there's software written in the '60s for the 360 that's still running today. When I left IBM, I was working in their "cash cow" division (I don't remember what it was really called) which was full of all these ancient software packages for which Big Blue had been collecting license fees for decades without doing anything more than bug fixes on.
posted by octothorpe at 3:23 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


I believe COBOL is still the biggest.
posted by parm=serial at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thank you, COBOL! That's what my brain wasn't retrieving.
posted by hippybear at 3:40 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are a number of people trying to recreate the aesthetic of blinkenlight panels for old school mainframes - including programming arrays of Neopixel LEDs to match the response curves of the original incandescent indicators. I can't immediately find the Youtube video I saw last week on this exact topic, which is annoying, but I can at least direct the interested to the middle of the Apollo Guidance Computer restoration project, which is now entering its own blinkenlights phase...
posted by Devonian at 3:46 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The ophthalmologist I went to growing up had equipment that had old school light-up buttons like from old NASA or IBM machines. Some of them even changed color when pushed. He was short with a bald head and a grey goatee and a stoop in his shoulders and going to him always felt like visiting a mad scientist's lab. My vision is terrible so I was seeing him sometimes twice a year. I miss him, in an odd way.
posted by hippybear at 3:52 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

For at least a year after our 360/44 was replaced by the DECSystem 20, the console lurked in the back hallway sprawl of Workman Center. Designed for scientific computation, the 360/44 was apparently incompatible with the rest of the 360 line. Perhaps the console never left the campus, and ended up in one of the boneyards.
posted by the Real Dan at 4:00 PM on April 7, 2019

IBM still sells this line of computers, although it's called "IBM System z" these days. The modern ones are of course vastly more powerful and efficient and don't come with an array of fantastic switches to poke at, but you can take the programs you wrote on your 360 in the 60s and load them up on the brand new z/Architecture machine you took delivery of yesterday and run them (more-or-less, with a few exceptions) unmodified. This is part of the reason extremely risk-averse business like banks love them. People who talk about the remarkable commitment to backwards compatibility in Microsoft Windows or Intel processors have never met a person who worked on mainframes. They also invented the concept of virtual machines long before the PC world rediscovered it. If you've made an airline reservation in the United States since the 70s, it has almost certainly passed through a virtual machine running on a mainframe. They're also available in hardware configurations that meet levels of reliability unimaginable in the PC world, on the order of "you could destroy more than half of this thing with an axe before anyone that was using it would notice there was a problem."

Unfortunately, all of this comes with an equally fantastic price tag, and unlike the PC world, IBM has been very successful in aggressively suing and/or acquiring anyone attempting to enter the market with compatible hardware. This strategy has protected their business, but at a cost; due to their expense and relatively closed nature, it is very difficult to acquire any mainframe experience organically. A teenager can get started with Linux with a $20 Raspberry Pi and an SD card, but they're going to have a much harder time finding or convincing anyone to give them an account on a z/OS machine. Most of the ones in the wild are rentals that IBM takes back when the contract is over, so there isn't really much of a market for used machines either; even if there was the nature of the beast is such that operating one without an active service agreement with IBM isn't really practical -- nobody is building the next Google in their garage on an old mainframe. The level of reliability you can achieve with a mainframe is also often unnecessary. For many/most applications, you could just fire up a bunch of virtual servers in Amazon EC2 or Google Cloud or Azure or all three and not care a whole lot if one or two fall over.

I've been poking my fingers into every computer in my sight since I was a small child but it wasn't until university that I was given access to one of these, and only then because I happened to be attending a school that IBM had partnered with. After graduating I took a mainframe job for a year, because they will accept basically any warm body that knows or is even willing to learn COBOL these days, but quickly relapsed into the Linux and Perl ways that I had learned on the streets. It's still an interesting platform with a lot to recommend it though, and people who might be tempted to dismiss it as obsolete or useless really ought to give it a second look - IBM still sells (or rents) a LOT of these things, they are still very heavily used, especially outside of the tech industry, and most of the people that know how to run them are retired or close to it.
posted by jordemort at 4:03 PM on April 7, 2019 [20 favorites]

I've been poking my fingers into every computer in my sight since I was a small child

posted by hippybear at 4:14 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I almost got a front panel off a small installation, was going to drive the lights with a Z80, but they were able to offload the klunky dino somewhere. Would've been cool but heck of a big art object to haul around.
posted by sammyo at 4:25 PM on April 7, 2019

These computers used core memory.
It's tiny magnetic donuts with fine wires strung between them, mounted on a frame. Each byte is eight donuts. So memory was expensive, large, and slow.

This wikipedia page on core memory is interesting. Shrinking core sizes eventually reduced the memory sizes to about 4k per cubic foot. And the cost reducing to about 8 cents per byte meant than 1 MB would have cost $83,000, or 1 GB around $86 million.
posted by jjj606 at 4:27 PM on April 7, 2019

Core boards are usually available for 20-30 on ebay, cool conversation item, beautiful, impressive engineering (all those tiny magnets with three wires threaded through each) mind blowing when looking at the connectors, thinking through the convoluted write to read memory cycle.
posted by sammyo at 4:33 PM on April 7, 2019

What, no built-in ashtray?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:36 PM on April 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

Core was hand made - strung in 3rd world countries - in the late 70s we bought 1.5Mb of core for out Burroughs 6700 for ~1.25M US$ ....

One day the Burroughs engineer (he got the machine for Friday afternoons for preventative maintenance) came back from a course on the core memory and thought he check out the core on our machine, he opened the boxs and it all fell out into a tangled mess in his lap (he was supposed to swing the box out and up so that that didn't happen). No one got any work done for a week
posted by mbo at 5:32 PM on April 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

MetaFilter: mind blowing when looking at the connectors, thinking through the convoluted write to read memory cycle.
posted by hippybear at 5:38 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Looking at the connectors especially.
posted by hippybear at 5:38 PM on April 7, 2019

I've seen a lot of weird servers, minicomputers, and workstations, but the closest I ever got to a System/360 was shutting down the Advanced/36 that had been sitting in the corner of the computer room several months after they transitioned to using a remote AS/400..err iSeries by then, barely. That and playing with System/36 mode on said server.

I guess that means I was doing cloud computing in 1999 since it was on the Internet. On second thought, no, that can't be true since my beard isn't gray.
posted by wierdo at 6:07 PM on April 7, 2019

Before my time, my big machine was a 3090 (which I never got to actually touch) and I think a Cray. But for a while around then ('88 or so) the campus radio station threw out their old scheduling computer, some sort of rack with some blinking lights, a tiny little burned in screen, and a 5Mb removable disk platter that was about 1½' around and 6" deep. We kept it in the room until we moved but by then I had scavenged all of the good bits off the boards for various EE projects. Sorta sad to be born both too late for the cool old stuff and too early for the cool new stuff.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:39 PM on April 7, 2019

I started college with an IBM 1620 (first introduced in 1959). My first professional programming job was at Security Pacific National Bank on model 360 machines.

The IBM 1620 console was a wonder of switches, lights, and a selectric typewriter for output. I've seen these console faces parted out and used as the front for "handwriting analysis" machines at a county fair. Our system was fairly full featured, and looked something like this one. We also had the 20,000 byte hard disk storage.

The IBM 360 had all kinds of exciting programming languages available. You could lease PL/1 with a compiler/debugger system which let you back up the program, modify the source, compile the changed lines, and continue from that point without restarting the whole thing. You could lease a Pascal compiler (I recall that was about $1500 a month in 1978.) IBM made wheelbarrows of money from the large institutions relying on these beasts.
posted by blob at 7:33 PM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I keep waiting for it to ask me WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:43 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

"Toggling it in" from the front panel, setting the switches for a binary word, then pushing go to put it into memory, and building the operation directly that way is a thing I can remember, from way back in the day.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:11 PM on April 7, 2019

If you like this aesthetic but don't want to learn FORTRAN or COBOL or save the financial industry from legacy code or even do anything useful at all - you may be interested in eurorack and other modular synthesizers, and synths in general.

It's like all of the fun of blinkenlights and mad scientist computer lab aesthetic with none of the stress of very serious business operations plus even more knobs, buttons and cables and then instead of running a business algorithm to decide who dies of preventable causes or gets their homes foreclosed it makes happy bleepy noises and sometimes even music.

I have a vintage rackmount synth with lots and lots of knobs and buttons and when paired with a computer, mini audio mixer and a kelp forest of wires it makes my desk look and feel like I'm hacking the Gibson or operating an Apollo era NASA Mission Control panel.

Heck, I've got knobs and buttons right in front of me right now labeled things like overdrive, speed, frequency, attack and even phaser.

When I use the appregiator (it plays a series of notes or chords for you) it has a row of lights that cycle pleasingly through each stepped note in the pattern and it looks everything like an 8 bit register display going through a sequence of bits. Other lit buttons also pleasingly blink, light off and on and cycle as different things happen.

You may ask yourself something like "why, I wouldn't know what to do with any of that I'm not a musician why would I want that?" well, if you like music, especially anything electronic/modern, and if you like doing things like maybe playing video games and mashing buttons and twisting knobs and even plugging things together - well, synths may be for you.

They're fun to have one or two around just as an art object and music source in itself, even if it's a simple, affordable little bare circuit board "toy" synth. There's a lot of cool, affordable little "toy" synths that make really cool sounds from companies like Korg.

It it can be a very rewarding and entertaining way to listen to music and spend time at home in ways that are much more interactive than watching TV, playing video games or listening to pre-recorded music.

A synth can be its own music source of its own kind and doesn't have to be more than something you just like to listen to at home. It doesn't have to be a recording project, a career in music or any goal beyond "I like listening to the sounds I can make with this and I like the blinkenlights and feeling like a mad scientist."

It might feel silly at first, but it's just as valid as enjoying an album or watching TV.

It's a lot of fun to introduce someone to a synth for the first time and let them play around and explore. The first time they make noise and sound happen their face usually lights up and you can see them going "Woah, I just made that happen." and it's really empowering.
posted by loquacious at 8:18 PM on April 7, 2019 [24 favorites]

Whenever I see one of those big computers with flashing lights I expect it to explode, like in the movies. Any time a film has one of those mainframe computers, it's on fire by the end.
posted by w0mbat at 8:51 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

That 360/44 is kinda wacky. According to Wikipedia: "it also had a rotary switch on the front panel which could be used to set the precision of long floating-point numbers". I can just imagine the Star Trek episode.
We gotta make those warp calculations right now! We can't wait!
Cap'n, the computer is running as fast as we can!
Dammit, we don't have time! Dial it out to less precision, we'll take the risk if it runs fast enough.
BTW if you want to hack in z/OS it's possible without buying IBM hardware. The Hercules emulator runs z/OS just fine on a garden variety Linux box. Last I heard there's no licensed copy of z/OS you can legally run on this emulator, but if you happened to have the bytes lying around on a hard drive they will work. I gather it's common for IBM's own folks to get work done this way.
posted by Nelson at 8:56 PM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

These are so sexy!

Maybe you had to be of a certain age to have seen on tv and movies that this as what things would be like in the future to appreciate, but...
posted by Windopaene at 8:59 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

And the really crazy thing is that someone had a job where they had to be able to interpret what these things were telling them!

So Star Trek
posted by Windopaene at 9:04 PM on April 7, 2019

These are neat. In Gene Wolfe's Long Sun books, the collapsed civilisation uses 'cards' and 'bits' as currency, which were clearly circuit boards and broken-up pieces but I never had a clear image of what he meant, and these boards with the very regular pieces look much more like what he's describing.
posted by xiw at 9:47 PM on April 7, 2019

Flashback to my required 360 assembler language course.

I'll go lie down now.
posted by pracowity at 1:45 AM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I completely agree about the elegant 60s aesthetic of computers such as these. They look like offices or apartment buildings from the same era, and I think this look suits computers much better than buildings made for human use.
posted by Termite at 4:51 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The computer I learned FORTRAN IV on as an engineering student was the Fujitsu FACOM M-160F, essentially a System/360 clone, at Swinburne College of Technology in Hawthorn.

My friend Chuck and I had taught ourselves a bit of BASIC starting the year before, our last in high school, by messing about on the Exidy Sorcerer on display at the Dick Smith Electronics store in East Richmond and the Commodore PET at Myers department store in the City. We'd take our own cassette tape so we could save the code we'd written between visits, and we just tied up the machines for hours on end until the sales managers threw us out. So the thing I remember most clearly about our very first college FORTRAN class was the incomprehensibility of the idea of a computer language with optional line numbers. How was the machine supposed to know what order to put the lines in?

That cleared up pretty quickly once the class shifted from introductory concepts to the nuts and bolts of actually getting stuff to run on the campus mainframe. First year engineering students were supposed to get our work done by writing code on coding forms in pencil, submitting those over the counter at the I/O Centre to be punched onto 80-column card decks, which would then get submitted in the overnight batch queue; we'd collect the resulting printouts the next day. Fixing errors required punching replacement cards.

There were two kinds of card punch available on campus: the really old ones with twelve individual keys, one for each hole in a column on the 80-column cards, requiring you to look up or memorize the card codes for every character and chord the keys to punch them; and the newer ones that worked kind of like a huge Dymo labeller, where you'd spin a side wheel to line up the character you wanted with a pointer, then thump the big punch button at the front to punch a whole character code into one column in one hit.

Chuck and I were pleased as punch when we found out that RMIT in the City had keypunch machines available for their students that just let you make cards as easily as typing on a typewriter. It was well worth our time to take the tram into the City from Swinburne College's campus in Hawthorn just to use those machines. There were no access controls of any kind; just knowing where the key punch machines were was enough. Nobody ever questioned us using them even though we were not RMIT students.

There were also a few interactive terminals scattered around the Swinburne campus. We had six really crappy glass TTY types in Engineering; the good ones were Teleray 1060 models and the Business Building had about a dozen of those. First year engineering students got no formal tuition on how to use the OSIV/F4 interactive time sharing facility, but at some point we were officially informed that we were allowed to. The lecturer told us that they had put up "walls" in the computer to stop us getting into trouble with it and that we should just look up the user manuals in the campus library and work out what to do. Which both of us did, in fairly short order.

What the "walls" boiled down to was user accounts, though none of us really had a clue what a user account even was. Mine was K74S333. I later worked out that K was Engineering, 74 was some kind of permission code, S was Student and 333 was me.

Disk space was apparently in short supply, so every Friday the system would go through all the K74S accounts and delete everything stored in them except for four blessed datasets (IBM-ese for "files"): FORT.FORT, BASIC.BASIC, FILE1 and FILE2. This didn't matter at all to most of the first years, who were still messing about with punch cards, but to a couple of kids with hobby personal computing experience who'd figured out how to work the terminals it was a pain in the arse. Even the shitty line-oriented editor that was all that was available for typing in our FORTRAN code was so much better than the punch card bullshit.

So we went back to the library, looked at manuals and tutorial videos (of which there were plenty, all on gigantic U-Matic tape cartridges) and worked out how to write scripts in the OSIV/F4 macro command language. Before too long I had a script that I'd run last thing on a Friday that took everything in my account and stuffed it into FILE1, and another one for Monday morning to unpack it all again.

Meanwhile, Chuck worked out how to modify the JCL cards we had to top and tail our FORTRAN card jobs in so that we could submit decks through the I/O centre containing OSIV/F4 command scripts rather than FORTRAN programs. And when he ran a script deck containing a CATALOG command we saw among others a dataset called SYSTEM; running another deck that dumped the content of that got us a complete list of all the user accounts on the machine and their passwords. The Unix analog would be a card job daemon set up to run as root and /etc/passwd being all in plain text.

So we started logging onto terminals with various accounts other than those we'd been assigned. One of the more interesting ones was A33XSTR, which seemed to have a hell of a lot of files in it that didn't disappear every Friday night. So we started using that logon pretty much all the time. This was cool because apart from surviving the weekends, the shared account let us collaborate on stuff. We rapidly taught ourselves Pascal that way.

One day we were happily working away in an obscure little room high up in the Business building that very few others seemed to know about, which was cool because the single terminal in there was usually free, and we got a tap on the shoulder from some guy we hadn't met before who said he was a system operator and we had to go with him. We got hauled into the presence of assorted high-powered admin types including the Computer Centre Manager and the Dean of Engineering and subjected to a very hostile grilling, demanding an explanation of what the hell we thought we were doing messing about with the main student records account and how the hell we'd "broken into" it.

A for Admin, 33 for quite high privileges, X for staff, STR for Student Records, apparently. We'd never thought about it, we were just using it for reliable storage. Had we been a little more on the ball we probably could have awarded ourselves degrees.

It was an odd and disconcerting thing, being accused of all kinds of devious mopery and dopery when really all we thought we'd done was follow our lecturer's instructions and worked out how to use the time sharing system. We'd been told there were walls to stop us doing anything bad. How on earth were we expected to know that the three inch kerbs we'd encountered were supposed to be the walls?

We very nearly got expelled. The head operator guy was seething; had us down as a pair of insufferable smartarses, which to be fair we totally were, but we were also genuinely naive and genuinely had no basis at all for understanding the seriousness of the breach we'd apparently committed.

And that's how I learned that computer security was even a thing, that high-paid management types can be so clueless about it as to leave holes so huge that even a pair of know-nothing first-years could drive a truck through them, and that security by obscurity works very badly when you make your standard user environment so blatantly limiting as to motivate potential attackers to avail themselves of the entire library's worth of manuals and video tutorials you've explicitly encouraged them to use.
posted by flabdablet at 5:05 AM on April 8, 2019 [54 favorites]

I worked with IBM 360/75. My god, I was so young! Interesting machines. Nothing worked the first time, or the second etc. It was old when I first started, but was still in use into the early 80's. NASA used the 75, and I wondered if they had the same problems we did. At times I wanted to take a sledge hammer to the bloody thing.
I had no idea it cost $50,000 a month! And the IBM reps/repair guys became good friends because they were there almost every day!
I worked with many, many IBM machines over the years, and just thinking about the 75 sours my stomach.
posted by james33 at 5:53 AM on April 8, 2019

If you like this aesthetic but don't want to learn FORTRAN or COBOL or save the financial industry from legacy code or even do anything useful at all - you may be interested in eurorack and other modular synthesizers, and synths in general.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Eurorack.

Generally, the aesthetic is a lot more mixed than what we're seeing here, if you choose modules with sound/functionality as the priority. But I'd kind of love to have a whole system that looks like the Orthogonal Devices or Verbos styles.
posted by Foosnark at 7:11 AM on April 8, 2019

They also invented the concept of virtual machines long before the PC world rediscovered it.

There is nothing in the midrange server world that IBM didn't already invent last century.
posted by mikelieman at 7:29 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Proper HA was arguably invented by Tandem, not IBM.
posted by flabdablet at 8:01 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

There was a nice write-up of the history of the S360's creation at IBM in IEEE last week.
posted by msbutah at 8:35 AM on April 8, 2019

My only contact with a System/360 was at Oberlin College in the early Seventies. We ran MUSIC 360 (adapted from Max Matthews' MUSIC IV). It was referred to as a "Scientific" model, and must have been a /44 from what I can tell from the specifications. The floating-point capabilities were ideal for music generation. We submitted decks of cards with Fortran-style P fields along with a reel of analog tape. With luck we could pick up our composition in the morning. MUSIC batch jobs ran overnight...

loquacious: It's like all of the fun of blinkenlights and mad scientist computer lab aesthetic with none of the stress of very serious business operations plus even more knobs, buttons and cables and then instead of running a business algorithm to decide who dies of preventable causes or gets their homes foreclosed it makes happy bleepy noises and sometimes even music.

For the analog "blinkenlights" experience, we had a Moog Series 900, an ARP 2600, and a lovely Buchla synth.
posted by Surely This at 8:39 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Eurorack - Wikipedia

Heart-eyes Emoji!
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:43 AM on April 8, 2019

Beautiful photos, but I sorely wish they blew up into high-res.
I did a post on the 360 5 years ago that included some console pictures, and at least some of them were higher res. The 360/195 is pretty impressive:
2030, 2040, 2050, 2065, 2075, 2091, 2195

I don't consider the 360/20 to be a true 360, because it was not compatible. Some of the instructions were the same, but many were not. The article says the 44 wasn't compatible, but I think that means there were some instructions that didn't work on other machines, but that was true for many of them. I'm pretty sure if you had a working Mod30 program, it would work on the 44, which I think is what was meant by [upward] compatibility.

I worked on a lot of the main ones- 30, 40, 50, 65, but was not trained on the CPU's. I think those models accounted for well over 90% of the machines out there. Long ago I found a chart for number of machines built, but I can't find it online any more. I also saw 1 each of the 22, 25, and 44 in my first office. The 44 was most interesting because of the disk drive stuck out the side.
One thing not mentioned in the article is that the Mod25 had a switch to change it from 360 mode to 1401 mode, so you could run your old 1401 programs easily.

In my previous post, my favorite part is the video of the Computer History Museum 40th Anniversary party, with talks by 2 of the project managers.
posted by MtDewd at 12:28 PM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

For the analog "blinkenlights" experience, we had a Moog Series 900, an ARP 2600, and a lovely Buchla synth.

*sighs wistfully*

Something I wanted to mention in this side-thread about synths as fun blinkenlights is the cost of them.

They can be pretty expensive to buy new, especially the more blinkenlights and buttons they have.

But on the other hand, some really nice synths are well within the price range of other home entertainment electronics like a gaming console, tablet or whatnot, especially when you start buying games.

And there's been a revival lately and so there's also a lot of new fun stuff at price ranges from entry level to advanced from all of the usual manufacturers including Roland, Korg, Novation, Akai, Moog and many more, plus many, many cottage industry and DIY kinds of things.

I was super lucky getting my synth. My dad found it at a garage or estate sale, bolted into some desk on sale for I think $10. He really just wanted the desk, but recognized the rackmount as some kind of audio device, but he thought it was a guitar effects processor so he tried plugging his guitar into the 1/4" input jacks for vocoder and CV gate control, and didn't realize it needed a MIDI controller of some kind to trigger it to make it go.

So he offered to mail it to me, and it cost more to ship the thing and insure it than he paid for it at that garage sale. And I've been putting it to work. (That piece sounds more complicated than it really is, it's almost entirely the synth and built in effects, just two tracks of it and some minimal mixing and post in audacity.)

So you can still occasionally find random vintage and even more recent synths out there if you keep your eyes out. I sometimes still see cool prosumer grade devices and MIDI controllers at thrift stores, and you can pair that with stuff like Ubuntu Studio and a rapidly developing galaxy of free linux audio production tools, so that can be a really low barrier to entry to playing at least with software synths if you can't find a stand-alone synth.

There are also now a couple of affordable DIY MIDI controller on a chip/board combos and Arduino things where you can easily build your own controllers using any of the blinkenlights and switches that you'd like to use for the task, be it industrial switches or arcade buttons and knobs or big fat toggles and knobs recycled from an old vintage Hi FI amp.

So, if someone were inclined to obtain a vintage IBM 360 console and turn it into a MIDI controller or Eurorack hardware analog synth, it wouldn't be that difficult to do. There's all kinds of room in that console for modern electronics, and you could update it with some new knobs and switches, replace all of those high load incandescent mini bulbs with warm white LEDs or even RGB leds, and so on.

If I had the money and time for that I'd do a Gemini/Apollo era KSC or Mission Control aesthetic with all the cool milled square plastic backlit switches, dial/strip indicators and knobs, and even a few monochrome CRTs (or CRT look-alikes in mini flat panel LCDs) for uselessly detailed spectrum analyzer data or running some of the vintage DOS/shell or hardware based sequencers and controllers out there. There was a vintage WinAMP skin that nailed this aesthetic and it was a lot of fun.

But anyway, yeah, having a synth in the home as a random art object and alternative, interactive music or entertainment device can be very rewarding, fun and even relaxing. It also has the benefit of being very headphone friendly unlike, say, practicing a guitar or drum kit, so your you don't have to feel weird or sheepish about bugging anyone with playing around with some space robot noises.

There are even some cool pocket sized battery powered devices out there, rather a lot of them. It's a great way to kill time on a public transit commute. (There are also even synth apps and stuff for your phone!)
posted by loquacious at 12:42 PM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've been working lately to recover the ROM data from an IBM 5100 portable computer.

At first glance it has little in common with the old blinkenlights IBM machines, but I think there's more resemblance than meets the eye. Flip the "DISPLAY REGISTERS" switch and see a live hex dump of all of the registers flickering away on the screen. Open up the case and you'll find extras for the customer engineer: a sturdy little metal toggle to switch the machine in and out of single-step mode, and a push-button to step through individual instructions. I don't have much mainframe exposure, but it seems a bit different to the otherwise similar interactive micro experience that was largely to come in the next few years. There's no easy hardware button for single-stepping a PET...

(Sure, a 5100 has no nice ways to see and alter values on the various busses. For that you clip pull-downs and probes onto the backplane...)
posted by tss at 12:54 PM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Only hinted at in the photos, but IBM mainframes of that era could be ordered in several colors. The red ("salmon") and blue were most popular, but yellow, green, white and gray were available. I always wondered if the Navy ordered gray because I couldn't imagine anyone else doing so.

The office equipment manufacturers made cabinets, desks, etc. with matching colors so you could have a nice unified look to your datacenter.

Now most datacenters are lights out and the machines are basic black.
posted by leaper at 1:03 PM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

A roomful of yellow boxes is not pretty sight. The account I worked in with the Mod44 was entirely in yellow. Thankfully it was the only one.
posted by MtDewd at 2:03 PM on April 8, 2019

I've been working lately to recover the ROM data from an IBM 5100 portable computer.

John Titor, is that you?
posted by ensign_ricky at 2:16 PM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

So the thing I remember most clearly about our very first college FORTRAN class was the incomprehensibility of the idea of a computer language with optional line numbers. How was the machine supposed to know what order to put the lines in?

I love this, and not in a "what a silly notion!" type of way, but in a way that makes me wonder about all the creative ways to structure computer systems that we've lost access to, maybe forever, by virtue of learning how things do and are "supposed" to work. I suppose that's the whole premise of "beginner's mind."
posted by invitapriore at 2:53 PM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Something I built a loooong time ago, and never really finished, was a 16x4 LED array that took the four words on the top of my computer's stack during the system clock interrupt. This was back in the days of the Z80, and I just fancied something that looked more like a proper computer and perhaps had some mild diagnostic possibilities. I thought of reviving it as a project when computers started to come with 5.25" blanking plates on the front, but LEDs were much more expensive then. I dare say that it's all much more affordable now and you could build quite a swish system console for mainstream PCs...
posted by Devonian at 3:00 PM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you like the aesthetic of old computer consoles, panels etc. check out https://www.flickr.com/groups/controlpanel/pool/ .
posted by thefool at 6:20 PM on April 8, 2019

Like blob, my first machine was a 1620, though I was a big school freshman. I recall getting the official price list from IBM and figuring out how long is need to with to afford one. (I think the basic system ran about $65,000 in 1971 dollars). Fortunately the Altair and the microprocessor revolution were just around the corner so I never had to hock my future to an IBM salesman.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:08 PM on April 8, 2019

The thing I remember most clearly about my first college FORTRAN class was, "Wow! this is fabulous", but it was my first programming experience. I started doing some of my electronics homework in FORTRAN.
I didn't think much about the [relative lack of] line numbers until I got to BASIC.

We had a 5100 (or something that looked just like it- we didn't call it a 5100) as a branch office tool for testing channel operations back in the '70's.
I don't think it was ever used in a personal computer sort of way- just a single-purpose test box.
And ensign_ricky's link talks about hidden APL and BASIC features. We had a machine in the sales office around 1975 that was specifically just BASIC and APL. It was about the size of a keypunch machine, was literally a desk top, and had a screen and keyboard, with a switch to choose APL or BASIC. I can't find anything about it online, but I taught myself APL on it.
posted by MtDewd at 6:49 AM on April 10, 2019

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