Marshall McLuhan, IBM & the Transition From Mainframe to Personal Computers


IBM System/360 Model 50 introduced in 1964.

The Mainframe Was The Message

May 2, 2016   –   Hesh Wiener

In 1964, as IBM announced the System/360, Marshall McLuhan, a professor at the University of Toronto, published a remarkable book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He said each medium, independent of its content, is a powerful social force with characteristics that reshape the way people are interconnected.

McLuhan distilled his thesis to a single memorable phrase: the medium is the message. Like print, radio, movies, and television, computing technologies, from the punch card to the mainframe to the mobile internet, are media, too. IBM doesn’t fully understand this; consequently, it flails and struggles.

Marshall McLuhan: Canadian academic who changed how the world looked at communications media and their impact on society.

One of McLuhan’s observations about media is that they generally carry as content older media. For example, the medium of theatre and the medium of print publishing are the content of films. Films can be the content of television. Television has become part of the content of website presentation. But as one medium uses a predecessor for content, the nature of the newer medium may differ a lot from that of the older one.

As an example, McLuhan characterizes film as a hot medium, by which he means that film in a theatre shown on a big screen with its rich images floods the main sense, vision, with information. The viewer doesn’t have to do much work to catch all the details; on the contrary, the viewer may be overwhelmed. Add in surround sound and even without 3D or VR presentation, the audience is awash in stimulus. By contrast, the same film presented on a small television screen, the kind that was the norm during McLuhan’s time, 50 years ago, requires the viewer to psychologically lean in, to do some mental work to catch the detail. McLuhan calls the low-res TV of his time a cool medium, his term for a medium one that demands effort from a viewer…..

Punch Cards: The prevailing data medium before the System/360 captured the corporate market was the punch card.

Before 1964, IBM had built its business on technology that read a card and printed a line. Some of this technology was still largely mechanical, processing paper cards and sorting or selecting the cards using brushes that felt for punched holes and paper guides that sorted cards into banks of hoppers. The technological high end of IBM’s product line was still migrating from electronic systems based on vacuum tube triodes to circuit cards using discrete transistors. Magnetic tape was the emerging storage medium; disks were not yet sufficiently capacious or adequately affordable to displace mag tape. Tape is still a widely used archiving medium, possibly awaiting extinction by disks in the cloud but by no means assured of consignment to the dustbin of history.

IBM’s corporate thinking, like that of the contemporary industrial empires that were its customers, mirrored the information processing machines it built. Computing, even as it went electronic, involved breaking a problem down into processing components the way an industry assembly process was divided into tasks. The components were executed in sequence, each receiving as input the output from a prior stage of work, each yielding as output the transformed batch of data.

Until very recently, IBM personnel at work were largely shielded by the transition of computing from punch cards to richly interactive mobile multimedia activity. IBM’s System/360 was at first an electronic embodiment of punch card systems and the batch processing technology of earlier computing systems like the IBM 1401. It took IBM a decade to upgrade the 360 to the 370 and even then the early 370 models didn’t feature what would quickly become their defining technological advance: virtual memory. Still, by the mid-1970s IBM was showing customers that computing via CRT terminals was a key step on the path to the future. IBM’s mainframe processor business and, in parallel, its lines of small and midrange systems, was thriving. But by that time, IBM had begun to lose touch with developments in semiconductor manufacturing, communications technology and software that would trip it up during the 1980s.

Just as the mainframe seemed in some ways to be the cinema version of punch card apparatus, a development that was for all practical purposes unknown to IBM management, the personal computer was turning into the television version of the glass house system. The first personal computer that became known around the world was the MITS Altair 8800, featured in Popular Electronics magazine in 1975. In just a few years, dozens of companies were selling hundreds of thousands of small computers. These computers were truly a different medium than the glass house systems they would soon transform and, eventually, as servers developed that used the technology popularized by personal clients, largely replace. Read this entire article at . (Thanks to Martin Speer for this article.)

 DSC09836.JPG Altair 8800

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