A night with the IBM 1401 (and a brush with a computer legend)

Last night Jenny and I headed to the Computer History Museum for a night with the IBM 1401. It had been a while since I checked out the exhibits there. The last time I toured the museum was in 2009 when I was living in Mountain View. At that time it was pretty much a giant warehouse with shelves full of old computers. Now, it feels more like an actual museum, with exhibits and interpretive displays.

The IBM 1401 is one of the Computer History Museum’s new exhibits. They’ve got a restored 1401 along with peripherals like card reader, tape readers, and a printer set up in a recreation of a computer room from the 1960s. For last night’s event, they bought the entire stock of punch cards (they are no longer being made) and let people punch a card with their name on it to run through the 1401.

An older gentleman helped us punch our card at the IBM 026 key punch machine.

IBM 026 key punch

Then we waited our turn for the demo. The volunteers showed us how the computer worked and its peripherals, then loaded up the BigPrint program cards and data cards (our names). Everyone got a print out with their name:

IBM 1401 printer

Afterwards, I was checking out the museum’s PDP-1 exhibit. The museum has a working PDP-1 with a copy of Spacewar! (one of the first video games – if not the first). On the video, I saw the man who had been helping me with the key punch machine. It was Steve Russell, one of the creators of Spacewar. I was amazed. The guy who wrote the first video game helped me use a punch card.