The Brilliant “Baloney Slicer” That Started the Digital Age – Facts So Romantic

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force Supply Depot in Ohio was looking for a faster way to store and fetch information from its sizable inventory. They had 50,000 items in their records and wanted instant access to each one of them. The dominant storage technologies of the time—punch cards, magnetic tape and magnetic drums (and filing cabinets)—were unreliable and slow. The information on magnetic tapes, for instance, was largely sequential, and one could wait seconds, minutes, or more for the roll to unravel to the right point. Even the depot’s expensive mainframe computer had a huge lag time since it collected lists of the depot’s parts count and then processed it in batches. As data piled up between the processing batches, the computer records were out of date. 

The Air Force sent a request to IBM, soliciting a bid for a “material information flow device.” Coincidentally, IBM had recently set up an advanced research lab in San Jose in 1952, partly to look into ways to speed up information storage. The problem simmered in IBM’s satellite lab in what would soon become Silicon Valley, but was then still dotted with orchards.…
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