by Christopher Lindquist

Mainframes – A Work of IT Art Turns 40

Jun 01, 20042 mins

Four decades ago, Erich Bloch was busy developing the technology that would become IBM’s first true mainframe, the System/360. Unveiled in April 1964, the System/360 represented a dramatic shift in the nature of computing?and a unique opportunity for Bloch and his colleagues to be at the center of the action.

“Technology moves along on a gradual kind of curve,” Bloch says, “but every once in a while there is a major kind of discontinuity.” He notes that just a few years prior to the 360, such an upheaval had occurred during the move from tube-based computing to transistors. “The effect of that [transition]?not just on computing but on technology in general?was very great,” Bloch says. “There was an equal kind of expectation that the move from discrete components to microelectronics [like those in the System/360] would create a major kind of discontinuity again. It would allow you to do things that you couldn’t afford to do before.”

Mission accomplished, the System/360 went on to establish IBM as the dominant player in the mainframe market?a position the company holds to this day. IBM continues to ship mainframes even in this workstation and server era, thanks in part to such unexpected partners as the Linux operating system.

As for Bloch, he went on to other achievements, including the directorship of the National Science Foundation from 1984 to 1990. He also now serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And he’s not looking to roll things back to the old days of ivory tower computing. “Computers are so ingrained in our lives that people feel comfortable with them,” he says. “It’s no longer the exception behind the glass wall. I consider that a very good thing.”