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Tech Time Warp

It’s ironic that a computer deemed “not good enough” could have reigned as the world’s fastest computer for three years and made a lasting impact on the tech industry. But that’s the story we dive into in this edition of Tech Time Warp: The IBM 7030, aka “Stretch” because it took computer design to such new heights.

The Stretch Project began in 1956 and was led by engineer Stephen Dunwell, who during World War II had developed a top-secret computer that could decode intercepted radio transmissions. Dunwell’s team undertook the task of creating the world’s fastest computer for use in nuclear laboratories. According to IBM, evaluating a weapon’s design took 100 billion math operations, each of which could take existing computers up to six months to complete. In 1961, when the IBM 7030 debuted, it cut down that time span to one day. The first Stretch went to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Key Stretch characteristics

Several characteristics made Stretch powerful. It relied on transistors, instead of less-reliable vacuum tubes, and had advanced random access disk drives. Using the principle of simultaneous operation, it processed tasks in an assembly line fashion. This freed up the computer’s main arithmetic unit. The IBM 7030 also had a “look-ahead” feature so it could prepare for one task while completing another.

But with the ability to perform more than 30 billion multiplications in 24 hours, Stretch fell short of IBM’s goal of 100 billion calculations per day. IBM had to cut Stretch’s price from $13.5 million to $7.8 million—below the cost of production. IBM pulled the plug on the Stretch project, and in the end, only nine IBM 7030s were made. The last was decommissioned in 1980 at Brigham Young University.

All was not lost, however. Stretch’s capabilities inspired IBM’s next supercomputer: the IBM System/360, which made Big Blue big time.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Tech Time Warp? Check out others here.

Photo: DimaBerlin / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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