back to article How Brit computer maker beat IBM's S/360 - and Soviet spies

IBM announced the System 360 in 1964 and started selling its family of modern mainframes 12 months later. But how do you outsell a problem like IBM? The S/360 cost IBM $5bn to develop, overshooting its estimated budget in 1962 by more than $4bn. Yet IBM need not have worried. Such was rate of sales for the S/360 family that …

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3.142

Don't worry? We still have the Raspberry Pi

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Re: 3.142

Actually it's not a difficult argument to say that the most successful processor the world has ever known is a British design (ARM CPUs ship in billions of devices per year).

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Re: 3.142

And, of course, the IBM S/360 was a part British design - a lot of the work on the smaller models was done at IBM Hursley, some people even claim that the first working S/360 was at Hursley:

"Endicott and Poughkeepsie were months later"

-- John Fairclough

IBM was sometimes described as the largest British computer company.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 3.142

I've had more recent experience of a system that first worked at Hursley (PureFlex) and the problem was getting it to work anywhere other than Hursley - it had the firmware equivalent of chewing gum and baling twine.

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Re: 3.142

Yeah quite true, pity it's founding company Acorn was left to rot. If Acorn had got some real good backing from say the government then I think it would have been a force against the likes of Intel, IBM and Microsoft.

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Them were the days....

PM Harold Wilson in his Gannex Raincoat, smoking his pipe waffling about the white heat of technology.

That same PM (along with Dennis Healy) also put us in hock to the IMF, the 6quid a week pay rise and cancelled my Graduation ceremony. Yes it still pisses me off almost 40 years later.

My first program was written in SOFOR (Southampton University Fortran) running on an ICL 1901-A. Punched cards naturally... September 1972.

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We 'ad it really tuff

My first program was written in 1969 on punched (5-hole) tape from a Creed teleprinter (not unlike the beast that used to produce the footy results on BBC until a decade or so ago) to run on a Ferranti Sirius. The language was Sirius Autocode - none of your namby-pamby compiled languages for us.

Try tellin' that to t'youth of today ...

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That's Nowt!

You were lucky!

When I were a lad we ‘ad ter toggle t’ bootstrap into t’PDP front panel, BY HAND, ‘til us fingers bled.

Then us system manager used ter kill us in COLD BLOOD for setting off t' halon in t’ computer room which were a shoebox in t’middle of the M1.

Try telling that….

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No mention of the ICL1900? Surely that was contemporary to the S/360 (announced in September 1964) and was our most successful competitor to it.

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ICT 1900

Before the S/360 announcement ICT was dawdling along, selling the ICT 1300 and wondering what new machine they were going to need somewhere around 1968, maybe something based on the FP6000, maybe something based on the machine RCA were planning to compete with the upcoming IBM 8000 range.

BLAM! 7/4/1964 - IBM announce the S/360.

ICT wake up, decide to drop cooperation with RCA (as RCA were redoing their machine as a 360 compatible and wouldn't be ready in time) and go all out on the FP6000.

ICT started development of 4 machines, the 1901, 1902 (new machines, much smaller than the FP6000), 1904 (more or less a FP6000) and 1906 (bigger than the FP6000). They announced the new range on 29/9/1964, demo'ed 2 working machines two weeks later, and delivered the first system to a customer in January 1965, *before* the first S/360 was delivered.

Tell that to the kids of today and they won't believe you.

"The initial 1900 range did not suffer from the many years of careful planning behind the IBM 360."

-- Virgilio Pasquali

(The EE System 4 was based on the RCA Spectra that ICT turned down - it was pretty good, but suffered from not being totaly compatible with S/360 - it was compatible at a user level, but couldn't rin the same operating systems.)

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Devil

Plus ça change...

"...English Electric was forced into a marriage by the British government of the time that led to the creation of ICL, as masterminded by then-government minister Tony Benn..."

Similarly the takeovers/mergers of banks & building societies masterminded by Brown & Balls...

Similarly the takeovers/mergers of almost any other companies masterminded by politicians of all parties...

How many of these shotgun marriages have ever worked?

...err, approximately none.

Why are these third-rate incompetents allowed to bugger about with things which they don't understand and haven't got a snowball's chance in Hell of ever understanding?

Oh yes, that's it. Absolutely no personal liability whatsoever, but it's we plebs who pay the price for their inevitable cock-ups.

</rant>

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Holmes

Re: Plus ça change...

...then of course there was the brilliant GEC which was allowed to take over most of our electrical engineering industry, in order to remove its competitors, to great applause from City slickers, then refuse to perform R&D unless the taxpayer forked out. After we joined the 'Common Market', to avoid competition yet again, it put all its subsidiaries, apart from GEC Marconi into consortia, mostly German which now own the whole shebang, leaving GEC Marconi to be absorbed into BAe. Then there was the British Leyland Motor Corporation eventually sold to the Chinese fro £50m. That's what happens when engineering businesses are at the mercy of inept polititians (tautology) and spiv accountants (tautology).

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Re: Plus ça change...

The usual approach was:

"We see that Leyland are making loads of money building trucks and buses"

"We also see that BMC/Austin Morris are losing loads of money building cars"

"I know! Lets 'persuade' (i.e. order) Leyland to buy BMC, then it'll all work out fine!"

7 years later, when BLMC (the combined company) has fallen to bits...

"I've got a great idea chaps, lets buy the whole thing with public money!"

Repeat for the IT industry, Aircraft, Shipbuilding...

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Re: Plus ça change...

There's the assumption here (it seems) that the ICL 1900 and 2900 were, in some way, poorer hardware/software compared to that being offered by IBM. I can't agree with that idea. I spent about 10 years programming on ICL mainframes (mostly 2900) and when ICL lost bids it was rarely on a technical basis.

ICL had problems. They had far more to do with rivalries between different groups and generally poor senior management.

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Re: Plus ça change...

Another example of the downsides of forced amalgamation. I bet the rival groups were originally from separate firms that were amalgamated. British Leyland had massive problems with their factories and development teams seeing each other as the "enemy" rather than the real competition.

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We also see that BMC/Austin Morris are losing loads of money building cars

As a Brummie working in design in the car industry during its turbulent years I know your description is overly simplistic. Profits are almost what an accountant wants to make them.

Like the old saw the Mini never made a profit (apart from being a shite Issigonis design) is to an extent true, but it made a great contribution which then made the 1100/1300 massively profitable.

BL’s fail was an amalgam of poor middle management, run away labour relations and lack of coherent vision. You could have got that synopsis from most of the line workers, the shit middle management, the designers and engineers and the two senior management I knew

Why did they sleep walk into disaster is the real question.

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Facepalm

Re: Plus ça change...

Indeed, the wonderful Peter Bonfield split ICL into several competing divisions which then spent the next decade or so fighting with each other rather than cooperating to get outside business. In the mean time ICL slid slowly into obscurity. Bonfield of course jumped ship to BT and did the same thing there! Master stroke, give the man a knighthood; oh, they did...

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Re: Plus ça change...

Well the 1900 had some disadvantages compared to the S/360:

1. It had a 6 bit byte, so you only got lowercase with a lot of faffing around (shift characters).

2. It had a 24 bit word, only 22 bits of which were available for addresses, so you couldn't address as much memory.

There were, however some major advantages:

The 1900 had limited virtual memory from day one - each program ran in its own address space, defined by a base and limit register. The S/360 ran all programs in the same address space (with protection against overwriting another programs memory). This made relocating programs on the fly impossible on a S/360, so having multiple programs in core was harder and needed fixed memory allocation.

IBM fixed that with the 360/67 and the 370 series which introduced real virtual memory.

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@Getriebe

I agree I was being very simplistic, but in my opinion Leyland was dragged down by BMC and all the other amalgamated companies. Any part of the business that succeeded was starved of funds to prop the rest up.

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Re: Plus ça change...

@John Hughes

Agreed, but the 2900 dealt with all that and with a far superior architecture. My brief exposure to CICS programming and comparing it to ICL TPMS made me wonder how anyone ever got anything done on an IBM machine.

My main experience working within ICL was a five year period spent developing software using CAFS. We really struggled to get technical information on CAFS despite us being in the same company. Everyone lost out.

When combined with CAFS, we had something unique in the market. It didn't sell well because customers almost always had to buy hardware to run it (special disk drives at least) and ICL wouldn't bundle the software to sell the hardware or vice versa. Despite the potential to get them a foothold in otherwise solid IBM sites.

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Re: Plus ça change...

There's the assumption here (it seems) that the ICL 1900 and 2900 were, in some way, poorer hardware/software compared to that being offered by IBM. I can't agree with that idea. I spent about 10 years programming on ICL mainframes (mostly 2900) and when ICL lost bids it was rarely on a technical basis.

They also had a wonderful (for its time) OS, George IV. 1900s were so well liked and used that many (most?) 2900's sold were actually used to run a 1900 emulator to keep old software running.

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Windows

Re: Plus ça change...

>Why are these third-rate incompetents allowed to bugger about with things which they don't understand and haven't got a snowball's chance in Hell of ever understanding?

It's their job to fuck up our economies, milk us dry, as long as they can help the mates build up savings, they will remain ... and, look at the queue of guyz who wanna do the same line up on election day, they are no better.

The job of your dreams, playing real life monopoly with other taxpayers money and get healthy pay check; without any risk when all goes wrong, well, when shit hits the fan there's always a slot in the shadow cabinet.

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Re: Plus ça change...

Why are these third-rate incompetents allowed to bugger about with things which they don't understand and haven't got a snowball's chance in Hell of ever understanding?

It's called democracy. It's hard to believe but the alternatives actually seem to be worse.

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English Electric Lightning

Don't know about their computers, but the Lightning jet interceptor has to be one of the most striking and iconic aircraft ever flown. 100% British, and gave the Yanks a scare when one *over*flew a U2.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

you can see one outside the Farnborough Aerospace Museum (FAST).

http://www.airsciences.org.uk/

Reputed to be able to break the sound barrier in a vertical climb. Sadly it had a very limited range/endurance.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

"Sadly it had a very limited range/endurance."

It didn't need it - it was an interceptor. Take off , shoot down enemy , land.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: English Electric Lightning

IIRC Prof. Brian Cox went in one in South Africa (now sadly no longer flying) as it was one of the few aircraft to reach the upper atmosphere.

Pilots likened flying one as being akin to strapped to a rocket.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

There was a story of a pilot from one of the Arabic countries who came across to evaluate the Lightning. There was no two seat version so he had to read the manual and be given a pilot briefing. He was told "don't use reheat during your takeoff run", but chose to ignore that. He reached 20,000 feet before he managed to get the landing gear up.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

Well, the "land" part was optional.

In a real shooting war the Lightning would have nowhere to land on.

Take two Bears out with the missiles, one with the cannon and the last with the plane.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: English Electric Lightning

"It didn't need it - it was an interceptor. Take off , shoot down enemy , land."

It's actually better to do the shooting when they're as far away as possible.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: English Electric Lightning

An airshow in Wem in the 1960s announced that the Lightning fly past was delayed. The next second it came in almost hedge hopping - then climbed steeply with the afterburners glowing. The shockwave was enormous - and unforgettable.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

Vivid memory, 1980, walking from Steineke Hall to ARAMCO admin building, heard a thunderous roar, looked up, saw two EE Lightnings with full missile kit enroute for a Persian Gulf Combat Air Patrol. Loved the clipped delta wing and tail, and the over and under engines on afterburner. You chaps can create great kit when you want to.

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Re: English Electric Lightning

And if Farnborough is the far end of the country, there's one at East Fortune, the museum of flight in East Lothian, just outside Edinburgh.

And a Harrier.

And a Concorde.

And a Vulcan. A VULCAN!!

And loads of other stuff too - good day out with the kids, so long as you can foist them off on the grandparents and actually indulge in some propheadery.

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Translation.

“IBM had a simple argument: ‘We are by far the biggest. It’s a safe decision to come to us’,”

I believe that this was more usually and succinctly expressed as; "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.".

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Holmes

Brunel

Thanks god no english engineering entered the worlds stage of mainframe IT otherwise we would all carry steam machines to power our steel enforced Brunel style mobile devices today.

USSR gave up on 360's soon and let the Hungarians clone 43xx VM/DOS/VSE while concentrating on VAX cloning.

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MrT
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Oh, I don't know...

...steampunk mobile phones look pretty cool... ;-)

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The story of 20th century britain

So we invented the programmable electronic computer but the usual government and managerial incompetance stopped us becoming a world player until the 80s micro revolution (which itself only lasted briefly). Yeah well, thats the story of Britain.

Some other national tech missed opportunities:

Back in the 40s we handed Whittles jet engines designs to the yanks on a plate and they ended up trouncing and eventually destroying our commercial aircraft industry (though the Comet crashes didn't help but crashes haven't put Boeing or Airbus out of business). Oh , but we make the wings for a few airbus airliners. BFD.

In the 60s the government scrapped the Blue Streak rocket project and in effect our entire space program (sorry , satellites don't count, they can't launch themselves into orbit). Meanwhile the yanks went to the moon and even the french created Arianne.

We invent public private key cryptography but good old HM Govn keeps it classified for decades and meanwhile Rivest and co across the pond rediscover it in the 70s and claim it - perfectly legitimately - as their own invention. Uk govn eventually declassfies our version in 97. Long after the horse has bolted , settled down , had a few ponies of its own and gone to the glue factory in the sky.

Britain - lions led by donkeys. Every. Fucking. Time.

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Happy

Re: The story of 20th century britain

And you sold warm water bottles even in the 1970s, any reason to blame the government for that too.

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ICL

I worked on 1904 and 1905 's and the ME29's - we took walking sticks and floppy discs in part payment from Bulgaria in the early 1980's

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KDF9

Ah the English Electric Leo Marconi KDF9 - happy memories. 48-bit word length (split into 8 6-bit 'syllables' - 'bytes' hadn't been invented yet) and an arithmetic unit with a push-down stack so you programmed arithmetic in RPN. I owe most of my career to the machine at Birmingham Uni in the late 60s.

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Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

Take the Boeing 787 for example. If you were to believe the table bashers around here, you'd imagine that the americans are wrapping themselves in star-spangled glory with a home-made product whilst Blighty just shakes its head and gets on with bad singing on BGT.

The reality however, is that such things are global enterprises:

http://www.businessinsider.com/graphic-boeing-787-dreamliner-suppliers-2013-1 . We may not build airliners anymore, but we sell a hell of a lot of undercarriage!

We live in an increasingly globalised world, and rather than moan about how we don't build everything for everyone else anymore (and that somehow this is unfair), let's just concentrate on trying to play our part in this new world and worry less about 'johnny foreigner'.

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

"We may not build airliners anymore, but we sell a hell of a lot of undercarriage!"

Oh whoopee, lets get out the champagne. Supplying parts is all well and good buts its not the same as building the final product. When you look at a car , do you think Ford/Audi/BMW/Whatever or Unipart?

"let's just concentrate on trying to play our part in this new world"

Yes, lets continue playing the part of the plucky underdog as usual. You ever thought of getting a job in the civil service?

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

One word...

Concorde.

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

Concorde: The answer to a question no one asked.

IMO the UK aircraft industry would have been better off working on a decent wide body jet to rival the 747 and McDonnel-Douglas equivalents.

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

Untrue, lots of people were asking the question. The US were working on their own supersonic design, the Russians pinched much of the Concorde data for themselves etc, but the introduction of the 747 by Boeing changed the economics of flying and that was mid-way through the design process.

The second factor was in the rapid improvement in telecoms, there was much less need for passenger travel at those speeds.

Those two together are what killed it, not that the idea at the time it was proposed was bad.

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

" When you look at a car , do you think Ford/Audi/BMW/Whatever or Unipart?"

Well, when I look at the UK car industry, and the fact that it's producing record numbers of cars at a record per-vehicle cost, I think it's a bloody miracle, given that the table bashers were declaring the death of the car industry 20 or 30 years ago.

Sure. We make Toyotas, Nissans, Land Rovers, Jaguars, engines for all sorts of 'foreign' cars and components for even more 'foreign' cars, but who cares?

This is the modern world. The interconnected, globalised, post-Thatcher world, where all that matters is that you do things well, and at a cost which attracts business.

Truly, the day we wave goodbye to the needy people who think the world owes us a living and embrace the people who just want to survive in the modern world, the better it is for all of us.

We can be rightly proud of the fact that in the 21st century, the old hasbeen country that gave birth to the industrial revolution is quietly getting on with doing a variety of world-class engineering, be it pharma, aerospace, software, cpu design or fire-breathing sportscars.

God if I had a penny for every talentless pessimist who is constantly trying to do the country down.

My advice: Shut the fuck up and get out there.

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Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

>IMO the UK aircraft industry would have been better off working on a decent wide body jet to rival the 747 and McDonnel-Douglas equivalents.

Airbus! Beating Boeing since its inception ... despite Boeing's heavy assistance from US MilitaryInstustrialComplex ;-)

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Happy

Re: Sorry: Not impressed with aircraft industry rants

Supplying parts is all well and good buts its not the same as building the final product. When you look at a car , do you think Ford/Audi/BMW/Whatever or Unipart?

So does this mean you consider the Honda Jazz (built in Swindon) to be a British car?

I mean it's fine by me if you do. It's a great car to claim 'ownership' of. It's just that I think you might have a bit of a fight on your hands from some people over such a statement.

As one other commentard has written here - this 'we build the...' is just old fashioned nationalistic crap. It's a big world and a connected world. Yes we can take some pride in our work but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we are partners with other countries. Together we are stronger.

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Blue sleeves?

"The stuffed shirts at IBM were more reluctant to dirty their starched blue sleeves with such deals."

Did anyone ever meet an IBM salesman in the 60s or 70s who didn't wear a *white* shirt? I never did in twenty years dealing with them...

I thought IBM's dress code of blue suit and white shirt was part of IT mythology.

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Re: Blue sleeves?

And regulation thin very dark blue tie.

No button down collars, and no big belt buckles

Two days on the std. IBM course on how to dress.

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