IBM's $10 Billion Machine

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IBM’s SAGE is a large semi-automated air defense system from the Cold War era. It would analyze radar data in real-time to identify Soviet bombers. And it has built-in cigarette lighters and ashtrays at each console. It is the subject of Puzzle 47.

Here you can see about half of the wall of vacuum tubes; the other half could not fit in the frame.

Weight: 300 tons
Cost: ~$10B
This “company-making” sale was made personally by IBM founder Tom Watson, Sr.
Built in 1954, deployed in 1958, obsolete by 1960.

The last of 27 installations was shut down in 1983 (in Canada). In the final years, to the chagrin of the USAF, replacement vacuum tubes had to be bought from Soviet bloc countries.

The software development “employed about 20% of the world’s programmers at the peak of the project. When it was complete, the 250,000 lines of code was the most complex piece of software in existence.” (Computer History Museum details)

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  1. Matt Stevens 109 months ago | reply

    Hey, was that $10 billion in 1954 dollars, or 2005 dollars? Even in 2005 dollars, that's one whopping huge contract. But, if it was 1954 dollars, then the SAGE development effort dwarfed even the Manhattan Project in cost.

  2. jurvetson 109 months ago | reply

    I think it is current dollars. The docent told me that the console was $5B at the time, and that it was the company-making sale for IBM. When I looked online, I saw the $8-12B range quoted on the museum site (in the box that appears when you scroll to the right). But those don't quite reconcile, as a 1954 dollar is about 7.2x a 2005 dollar. Maybe it's a blend of system and service revenue into the 80s.... =)

  3. Shorty Harris 87 months ago | reply

    Speaking of HEAT, it's the major enemy of "tube" systems (i.e., the vacuum-tube era). Kinda makes you wonder - what with all the THOUSANDS of tubes evident in this photograph - what percent of the time this behemoth was actually operational. I'll bet they spent a lot of time replacing tubes that had burnt out. Back in the mid-1970s my dad worked on an older tube-radar set at Kodiak, Alaska, and it was down for repairs probably half the time. Solid-state is much more reliable.

  4. dastpor2000 [deleted] 78 months ago | reply

    it is interesting to.

  5. funtaday 76 months ago | reply

    My dad was a patent examiner on this project. A lot of modern technology got it's start here.

  6. Ryoga2K 68 months ago | reply

    Well a lot of problems regarding vacuum tube technology are resolved simply never turning off the device, actually hot is not the enemy of vacuum tubes but the change of temperature when you ignite or power down them.

  7. CatsFive 66 months ago | reply

    Ha. Now Microsoft Solitaire has more lines of code. OK, unlikely, but a fun joke.

    I'm enjoying your stream.

  8. wcbrown_2001 63 months ago | reply

    I actually operated a SAGE air surveillance console like the one in the above picture when I was in the Air Force back in the day ('73-'77). I was stationed at the 25th NORAD Div. near Tacoma, WA and also spent a year at Cold Bay, AK. The system as described above used 1st generation computer technology (vacuum tubes). Now I work in a data center for a national health provider using 4th generation technology. One rack server (out of the 1,200 we have nationwide) would have the same processing power of more than 10,000 SAGE computers, and this is a very conservative estimate.

  9. jurvetson 63 months ago | reply

    Love the first person perspecttive.

    ...reminds me of the 110-year abstraction of Moore's Law. The fundamental drivers of tech innovation continue their exponential pace of progress completely exogenous from the economy.

  10. davesdigitalphotos 63 months ago | reply

    I remember the SAGE building during my days at KI Sawyer AFB. It controlled the F101s. We never knew when the Canadians might come over Lake Superior...LOL

  11. theodordh 62 months ago | reply

    Hi, I'm an admin for a group called Great stock shots, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

  12. jurvetson 62 months ago | reply

    I just met with a former IBM exec who remembers this program well.

    The debug protocol was poetic. Downtime was common. The diagnostic steps were:

    1) Visualize it. With the room lights off, the active tubes could be seen glowing. A dark patch was indicative of a power rail connector problem.

    2) Listen to the technology. Each of the SLT logic modules were wired through an OR gate and connected to an audio amp. So, as each logic module fired, it added to the acoustic summation. The engineers would listen to the song of the computer and could often recognize common variations.

    3)Whack a Mole. If the acoustic pattern seemed erratic, out comes the rubber hammer. Each of the circuit modules would receive a hammer tap to see if the song remains the same. If it changed, then that indicated a loose connector had just been banged back into place.

    A fascinating exercise in pattern recognition across the emergent melodies of complex systems...

  13. benjiman 62 months ago | reply

    Vaguely reminiscent of how home users would typically address television signal issues, among others. WACK, to the side of the device.

  14. jamica1 51 months ago | reply

    Hi, I'm an admin for a group called Science, Technology, History, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

  15. Tom Raftery 51 months ago | reply

    i used your image on this page

    I tried to email to let you know but got a reply from boxbe asking me to click to be put on your priority guest list. As I dislike systems which place the burden of stopping spam back on the sender) I didn't click and decided to leave a comment here instead.

  16. opium_den 46 months ago | reply

    Hi, I'm an admin for a group called Robots, Automatons, Mainframes and the Silicon Revolution, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

  17. Kaets Ebut 34 months ago | reply

    > And it has built-in cigarette lighters and ashtrays at each console.

    Well, of course! Cigarettes were practically government-issued equipment back then. You wouldn't want your monitoring officers to miss an incoming raid because they went out for a smoke. IBM probably considered a built-in commode!

    > In the final years, to the chagrin of the USAF, replacement vacuum tubes
    > had to be bought from Soviet bloc countries.

    Much more to the chagrin of guitarists!

  18. AlyHarrold 3 months ago | reply

    Great image! I used it on our client’s post Telltale Signs of Data Compromise. The post will be published on January 22, 2014.

  19. Donmac24 2 months ago | reply

    I worked in the SAGE environment in 1962-64 at Norton AFB IN California the concrete bomb resistant blockhouse is still there out on 3rd street. The computers were ANFSQ/7 with twin sides A & B. There was a humongous air conditioner that kept the computers cool. The computers took up the entire second floor. I always thought the enemy could take us out buy shutting down the air conditioner rather than trying to bomb us. The console pictured has the aux console on the left used by a technician to assist the intercept officer who sat behind the screen. The tech pushed buttons and made phone calls and radio calls for the officer. The Light gun was used like a mouse to place the cursor on the target and access information. Radar blips were extrapolated and the lead blip was active with the light gun. The computer stored history of the blips and showed a course. Our raw radar came from Palmdale, Mt Laguna in San Diego, Santa Rosa Island, San Pedro, Alamaden, Madera, the computer merged all the radars together. We had no radar at Norton, just the operational center. It was great duty, indoors, airconditioned, clean.

  20. jurvetson 2 months ago | reply

    @Donmac24 - Thanks for much for the first hand report!

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