Introduced in 1959, the IBM 1401 was never the most powerful computer on the market. But : It was the first computer that ever made it into medium-sized businesses with a reasonable rental price. Pre-silicon, 1401s offered a magnetic core memory for storage and could hold 16,000 characters. Computer historian Ken Shirriff offers a great lesson in how the old computer worked by .
In a bit of an upgrade, Shirriff uses a USB-controlled relay box to keypunch holes in the cards necessary for the 1401 to read his instructions, taking minutes off of his time. However, that doesn't mean the print job was trouble-free:
Once the cards were ready, we loaded the deck into the card reader and hit "Load", causing the cards to start flying through the card reader at a dozen cards per second. Unfortunately, the reader hit an error and stopped. Apparently the alignment of the holes punched by the keypunch didn't quite match the alignment of the card reader, causing a read error. The card reader contains sets of 80 metal brushes (one for each column of the card) that detect the presence of a hole.
To see how Shirriff and his team were able to fix the problem and get the 1401 working again, . But if even these experts had trouble with the machines, it speaks to the difficulties that those trying to do payroll and accounting on them for the first time might have encountered.
While tech today can still cause headaches, some of them completely new, it still generally gets the job done a lot faster than a 1401. And that's something to be grateful for.