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Mad Men’s 1960s Handbook – The IBM System/360 Computer

This week’s 1960s Handbook takes a closer look at the IBM System/360-30 mainframe computer installed at Sterling Cooper & Partners in Season 7, Episode 4.

The IBM System/360, introduced in 1964, was the first mainframe computer to incorporate a unified system of hardware and software adaptable for multiple purposes. Prior to the debut of the S/360, as the product was also known, computers were designed for specific commercial or scientific uses. Because those earlier computers’ instructions were integrated into their hardware, every time a user wanted to add a new function, the hardware (or the computer) had to be replaced.

In what Fortune magazine later described as a $5 billion bet — about $38.5 billion in today’s dollars — IBM’s chairman, Thomas J. Watson Jr., authorized a plan to research and develop a family of computers of that would interact with each other and that could be programmed for any use. He chose the number 360, representing the number of degrees in a circle, to emphasize the product’s flexibility. The “System” part of the title was intended to call attention to the compatibility of the disk-storage drives, printers, and other peripherals.

As Watson touted at the S/360’s debut press conference, a business could start out with the inexpensive Model 30, and if it outgrew the system it could trade up to one of several other models while still using the same software and peripherals. Watson’s sales pitch worked: IBM received orders for more than 1,000 computers during the first month of release and another 1,000 before half a year had passed. (In 1966, when Fortune reported on the S/360, there were about 35,000 computers total in the United States.)

The various S/360 models performed well for IBM throughout the 1960s, helping it maintain a two-thirds share of the computer market. By the end of the decade, the company saw its biggest threat as coming not from other computer manufacturers, but rather leasing companies that purchased IBM equipment outright and then rented it to businesses at lower rates than IBM charged.

IBM retired the System/360 series in June 1970, replacing it with the System/370 — its number a nod to the new decade. Watson suffered a heart attack a few months later and retired as IBM chairman in mid-1971. Vincent Learson, an early management proponent of the System/360 project, succeeded him.

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