[TUHS] Corbato dead

ron minnich rminnich at gmail.com
Tue May 9 02:11:42 AEST 2023

ah, the flexowriter, for those who never saw it, was literally a
typewriter with solenoids at the bottom. I owned one, it was a miracle to


On Mon, May 8, 2023 at 7:19 AM Douglas McIlroy <
douglas.mcilroy at dartmouth.edu> wrote:

> Although it dates from four years ago, MIT's obituary for Corbató was
> still interesting to reread. It couldn't bring itself to mention
> Unix--only the latecomer Linux. It also peddled some mythology about
> Whirlwind from the decade before timesharing.
> "Whirlwind was ... a rather clunky machine. Researchers often had
> trouble getting much work done on it, since they had to take turns
> using it for half-hour chunks of time. (Corbató said that it had a
> habit of crashing every 20 minutes or so.)"
> "Clunky" perhaps refers to Whirlwind's physical size. It occupied two
> stories of the Barta Building, not counting the rotating AC/DC
> motor-generators in the basement. But it was not ponderous; its clean
> architecture prefigured "RISC" by two decades.
> Only a few favored people got "chunks" of (night) time on Whirlwind
> for interactive use. In normal business hours it was run by dedicated
> operators, who fed it user-submitted code on punched paper tape.
> Turnaround time was often as short as an hour--including the
> development of microfilm, the main output medium. Hardware crashes
> were rare--much rarer than experience with vacuum-tube radios would
> lead one to expect--thanks to "marginal testing", in which voltages
> were ramped up and down once a day to smoke out failing tubes before
> they could affect real computing. My recollection is that crashes
> happened on a time scale of days, not minutes.
> "Clunky" would better describe the interface of the IBM 704, which
> displaced Whirlwind in about 1956. How backward the 60-year-old
> uppercase-only Hollerith card technology seemed, after the humane full
> Flexowriter font we had enjoyed on Whirlwind. But the 704 had the
> enormous advantages of native floating-point (almost all computing was
> floating-point in those days) and FORTRAN. (Damn those capital
> letters!)
> Doug
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