IBM Mainframe Computing at AT&T in 1973

AT&T has posted a wonderful historical film produced by Bell Labs in 1973. The film introduces employees to the services available at the Holmdel, New Jersey, computing center. At that time you could submit batch jobs on punched cards, typically resulting in printed output, or you could interact with the system through TSO (Time Sharing Option) and interactive terminals, some connected via telephone lines.

Note the photograph attached to the IBM System/370 that appears at about the 5:30 mark in the film. Many things have changed in 40 years, and many things have not.

UPDATE: One thing that has changed is that the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex closed in the mid-2000s. The property is available for occupancy if you're interested. Bell Labs has been largely dismantled through a series of corporate reorganizations and cutbacks beginning with the AT&T breakup in 1984. There are a few vestiges of Bell Labs still operating as part of Alcatel-Lucent and (separately) as part of Ericsson.

I'm not the sort of person who looks back on the past as necessarily better. In most respects it wasn't. For example, unleaded gasoline arrived after 1973 in the United States, eliminating a serious public health hazard especially for children. There's some evidence that the reduction in lead exposure has contributed to a large drop in crime rates. As another example, smallpox was still afflicting some of humanity in 1973 but was eradicated a few years later. Also, back in 1973 you couldn't send an e-mail or an SMS to practically anyone, and a one minute "long distance" telephone call from New York to Los Angeles cost about $0.25 (in 1973 dollars, only if you called on nights and weekends), excluding the monthly service charge. Now you can talk and text as much as you want using a mobile phone for as little as $19 per month. So is the loss of Bell Labs worth the benefits to consumers with the explosion in Internet and mobile services at affordable prices? Yes, to the extent it was a trade, that was a trade worth making, and that's what the market decided — with a little help from Judge Harold Greene perhaps. That doesn't mean the loss of Bell Labs wasn't a loss: it certainly was and is. Continuing, long-term investments in research and development are critically important to the success of consumers, a company, a nation, and all of humanity. How best to support those ongoing investments is another question.

by Timothy Sipples April 10, 2013 in History


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