Blog - Project X

Technology Project X

FACOM 100This week I watched an interesting documentary from the Project X series, about Japan's pioneer computer inventor Ikeda Toshio of Fujitsu. This is not about computers like those that sit on a desk today, but rather ones that took a whole room of space.

For a while, to his bosses, he was a real problem employee being always late to work and disappearing around noon, but it turned out he was a genius writing detailed schemas of his ideas while at home and at his favorite tonkatsu restaurant. It's when he once gave his boss the exact reason of a tough problem no one could figure out, that he finally gained a bit of credibility.

Later, after IBM released its first commercial scientific computer, Ikeda was given the challenge of building Japan's first computer, which he accepted with interest. There was about no budget though, and he only had two other people in his small team. Once again he became a slacker and never met his partners, always being off to the onsen. It's only after many months that they decided to spy on him at night and found out that he had been writing out tons of schemas of his to-be computer. The computer was built and matched IBM's specs, but right then IBM released a faster machine.

This race to catch up with IBM would continue on and on, but at some point IBM's computer genius Gene Amdahl quit to create his own company, and came to Japan where he became friends with Ikeda. They then started to work together on more powerful systems.

They got very close to the completion of a satisfactory one that would beat anything else on the market, aside from some serious heat problems (some components would reach 200°C and could not be easily cooled down to a viable level). However in 1974, at age 51, Ikeda collapsed suddenly from overwork when about to meet a client at the airport. He never saw the completion of the the computer he had been working on, but it was successful which was later released and even bought by the NASA.

One impressive thing about the documentary is that it shows the FACOM 128B (1958) in operation, which is thought to be the oldest computer in the world that still works! It's apparently still sitting somewhere in a memorial room at Fujitsu. On the show they feed it the math instruction "1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8x9x10" and a few seconds later, after a lot of rumbling, it spits out the answer. Quite a sight (for a geek like me)!

Some interesting links:
Miwa Osamu's personal site (who worked at Fujitsu with Ikeda Toshio all along) (in Japanese) and his galleries of old computers
Information Processing Society of Japan's Computer Museum with lots of info in English and photos

Posted on December 21, 2006 at 23:19 | Tweet |

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cool! that sounds like a great documentary. there's something special about those computers that take up an entire room.

Posted by william on December 24, 2006 at 13:58

Yeah! I'd love to see a real one. :)
There was an Orson Welles movie (The Trial?) that featured a similar one I think.

Posted by Patrick on December 24, 2006 at 17:07

hmm, i wonder what orson welles movie that is. the trial is based on the kafka book, so i'm pretty certain there is no computer in it.

however, have you ever seen the spencer tracy/katherine hepburn film "desk set"? there's a big computer in that one. i think there's a pretty good sized one in the disney film "the computer that wore tennis shoes".

Posted by william on December 24, 2006 at 20:21

Hmm, I might be completely mistaken... I'll try to figure out what it might have been. Maybe it wasn't even an Orson Welles movie. :)

Posted by Patrick on December 24, 2006 at 20:44

"Desk Set" (1957) has a major plot development concerning a room sized computer threatening the jobs of Kate Hepburn and her staff. Definitely a first in a non-science fiction film

Orson Welles "the Trial" (1962) was set in a fairly ambigious but modern era and has a big computer. Though to me it wasn't that memorable other then it's adding dehumanizing aspect of it being in on determining K's fate.

I have a souvenir of a later generation FACOM -

Posted by nick on December 27, 2006 at 19:40

Wow! Quite a niece piece!!

"Desk Set" sounds interesting, though films of that era often make me a bit sleepy. :)

Posted by Patrick on December 27, 2006 at 19:53

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