SI Vault
April 13, 1959
Season of Prophecy
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April 13, 1959

Events & Discoveries

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The winter trials at Squaw Valley this March were a time of test and reconnaissance for many a stranger expected back next year for the Olympics. One of the most promising of all was a character called RAMAC; full name, IBM RAMAC 305, an 8,925-pound calculator, worth $189,950, which International Business Machines has lent for the Squaw Valley Olympics. Along with RAMAC came seven directing spirits, the chief of them a tall University of California graduate named Selmes Paul Funkhouser, who loves his machine so much that his hands shake when he talks about it. At least they did at the March trials as he explained why he and RAMAC were there.

"A year and a half ago the Olympic Committee asked IBM what we could do for the Games. We decided scoring was where we could help most. Do you know anything about figure skating? It can take six hours to figure out all those points. At Cortina it took them two and a half hours to figure out the ski jumping scores. And in Squaw Valley next year there are going to be 1,000 newsmen, 600 of them in the foreign press corps, and all waiting for these scores."

With RAMAC, they won't have to wait long. RAMAC will give the scores instantly, pausing to think no more than a split second and forgetting nothing. In fact, since it was born two and a half years ago, RAMAC has never forgotten anything it has been told—unless it was told to forget.

RAMAC's brain is divided into two parts. There is a processing unit, a magnetic drum that whirls at 6,000 rpm. Then there is the memory system, a stack of 50 metal disks covered with a material very like the tape on a home recording machine. Memory whirls at 1,200 rpm.

When you ask the machine a question by punching its keyboard or poking a card into a slot, Processing takes first crack at the question. If Processing doesn't know what to do, it asks Memory. If Memory doesn't know either, the machine acts like any good soldier and replies via its automatic printing device that it is an IBM RAMAC 305 from Reno, Nevada—in other words its name, rank and serial number. On the other hand, if Memory knows—and likely it does, since Memory has absolute recall on anything up to 5 million characters or about one million words—then Memory tells Processing what to do.

Suppose, for instance, the ski jump is going on, with an entry of 50 contestants. It is near the end of the second and final jumping round, and Lars Schmidt has just jumped 89 meters, with point scores from the five judges of 18�, 18, 18�, 16 and 19�. A keyboard operator punches all this into the machine. Then Funkhouser pokes in a card that says, in effect, "How is the jump coming?" Processing relays the question to Memory, and Memory replies something like this: "Record the length of the jump in meters. Convert meters to feet. Then decide whether this is the longest, second longest, etc., jump so far, and score the jump on a maximum of 60 for the longest. Then take the five judges' scores on style, throw out the high and low, add the other three together, add the total to the jumping points, add this total to Schmidt's previous jump and decide who is ahead. If this is the best jump, or the second best, or whatever, change the points and positions of everyone who hasn't done as well. Then print up the answer for Mr. Funkhouser." Within 10 seconds Processing has done it—finished—for the top 10 jumpers.

If the jumping event is now over, Funkhouser pokes in another card, asking the machine to please print up 250-word biographies of the five best jumpers including what he told the machine that morning about Schmidt having been a Hungarian freedom fighter. The machine does so, all on duplicating stencil paper; and within 10 minutes each of the 1,000 men in the press corps has a copy of the results and the biographies.

Next year, when the machine at Squaw Valley grows up, it will have a 10-million-character memory instead of a mere 5 million. And besides printing the results in English (the home language) and French (the official Olympic language), it will punch out a special teletypewriter tape which automatically transmits the results to spectator centers, news centers and newsmen's living quarters in the surrounding towns.

Perhaps a calculator that can do all this should be praised and then destroyed before it learns too much. Then again, perhaps RAMAC should be spared, because its operators are quite human, and RAMAC itself is, after all, a very human-type machine.

"Sometimes people leave messages on it," said Funkhouser. "One time we asked it something, and the message came out, 'My name is' whatever her name was. 'My measurements are 37-26-37. My phone number is so and so. Call me.' And other messages."

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