The late 1950s and 1960s are a fascinating time in IBMs history. In those early days, innovations in business were achieved with physical machines… yes… actual weird and unique machines that did things mechanically. Huge gains were achieved with both mechanical innovations and just as importantly, through materials engineering, (which was hugely important) and new materials were constantly being considered.
The thing that really stands out looking back is just how bat shit crazy some of these machines and materials were. It is quite clear that regardless of how conservative you think IBM is or was, no idea was off the table and some of those ideas literally paid for the tables.
Now while its well understood that magnetic tape meant the end of punch cards, while the first magnetic tape drives shipped by IBM came out in 1952, by April 1955, IBM was making 72.5 million punched cards per day and in 1965, the number of cards being produced by IBM was still in the tens of billions a year.
Clearly the data explosion of our age was happening then, just at a different scale and onto different media. There was a constant challenge – how to store all of this punched card data?
One totally off the wall idea was to turn punched cards into 35mm microfilm, and so the IBM Vestal lab in New York State developed a set of machines to do exactly that. These were manufactured by IBM in Dayton New Jersey and announced on December 4, 1964.
This was a Micro-Processing System that used microfilm as a space saving method of storing documents that allowed you to still process and retrieve that data on punched cards. It consisted of several different machines:
- At the front centre (to the right of the standing lady) is the Micro-Copier/Reproducer that copied punched cards to microfilm.
- To the left of the standing woman (on the small desk) is the copier that turned microfilm into punched cards.
- At extreme left is a punch card interpreter, that could read punched cards and print information on them.
- At centre rear is a punched card sorter.
- Next to the sorter (on the small desk) is IBM’s copier for thermal film, which was developed by heat and light rather than chemicals.
- The key punch operator at extreme right scans the Micro-Viewer with roll film attachment to obtain descriptive data to be punched onto a master aperture card.
There was some immediate challenges. The product used ammonia to develop the microfilm. This ammonia had to be refilled by the client into a bottle that looked like this:
If they over-pressurised the gas storage tank, it could explode and at at least one client it literally blew the doors off the unit. Michael Caine would have been very impressed, but I am unsure what the client thought. Queue the classic scene from the Italian job:
Ammonia leak issues were common and IBM engineers used sulphur sticks (or their noses) to try and find them. This sounds impressive till you realise that the way a sulphur stick works is you light the stick and if it starts to produce a white smoke, you know there is ammonia nearby. I love the witch doctor image of an IBM Customer Engineer waving a smouldering stick around in the hope of producing white smoke. Again… Lord knows what the clients thought.
The bigger issue was simple – this was a way of putting punched cards onto a different medium. It was solving the wrong problem. Smarter solutions were needed.
Just before Labour day in 1969 IBM informed their customers they were getting out of microfilm business, although in classic IBM Style, some of these machines remained in service well into the 1970s.
Amusingly those ammonia bottles are also part of a fine tradition of IBM CE recycling. The one pictured was used to chill beer kegs and is now used as part of a nail gun. So not everything was lost.
Now if you are thinking, this was a little crazy, well just you wait! You aint seen nothing yet! In my next post we will go way down the rabbit hole with an IBM Product that makes exploding microfilm copiers look tame!