If you’ve ever worked for a company, you’re probably aware that they tend to keep computers running after they should’ve been replaced with something newer, faster, and/or less buggy. Fujitsu Tokki Systems Ltd, however, takes that concept farther than most. The company still has a fully functional computer it installed back in 1959, the FACOM128B. Even more impressive, it still has an employee on staff whose job is to keep the machine in working order.
The FACOM128B is derived from the FACOM100, described as “Japan’s first practical relay-based automatic computer.” The 100, an intermediate predecessor known as the 128A, and the 128B were classified as electromechanical computers based on the same kind of relays that were typically used in telephone switches. Technologically, the FACOM 128B wasn’t particularly cutting-edge even when constructed; vacuum tube designs were already becoming popular by the mid-1950s. Most of the computers that used electromechanical relays were early efforts, like the Harvard Mark I (built in 1944), or one-off machines rather than commercialized designs.
Relay computers did have advantages, however, even in the mid-to-late 1950s. Relay computers were not as fast as vacuum-tube-powered machines, but they were significantly more reliable. Performance also appears to have continued to improve in these designs as well, though finding exact comparison figures for performance on early computers can be difficult. Software, as we understand the term today, barely existed in the 1950s. Not all computers were capable of storing programs, and computers were often custom-built for specific purposes as unique designs, with significant differences in basic parameters.
Wikipedia notes, however, that the Harvard Mark I was capable of “3 additions or subtractions in a second. A multiplication took 6 seconds, a division took 15.3 seconds, and a logarithm or a trigonometric function took over one minute.” The FACOM128B was faster than this, with 5-10 additions or subtractions per second. Division and multiplication were also significantly faster.
The man responsible for maintaining the FACOM128B, Tadao Hamada, believes that the work he does to keep the system running is a vital part of protecting Japan’s computing heritage and making sure future students can see functional examples of where we came from, not just collections of parts in a box. Hamada has pledged to maintain the system forever. A year ago, the FACOM128B was registered as “Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology” by the Japanese National Museum of Nature and Science. The goal of the museum, according to Fujitsu, is “to select and preserve materials representing essential results in the development of science and technology, that are important to pass on to future generations, and that have had a remarkable impact on the shape of the Japanese economy, society, culture, and the lifestyles of its citizens.”
A video of the FACOM128B in-action can be seen below:
The FACOM128B was used to design camera lenses and the YS-11, the first and only post-war airliner to be wholly developed and manufactured in Japan until the Mitsubishi SpaceJet. While the YS-11 aircraft was not commercially successful, this wasn’t the result of poor computer modeling; the FACOM128B was considered to be a highly reliable computer. Fujitsu’s decision to keep the machine in working order was itself part of a larger program, begun in 2006. The company writes:
The Fujitsu Relay-type Computer Technology Inheritance Project began activities in October 2006, with the goal of conveying the thoughts and feelings of the technical personnel involved in its development and production to the next generation by continuing to operate the relay-type computer. In this project, the technical personnel involved in the design, production, maintenance, and operation of the computer worked with current technical personnel to keep both the FACOM128B, which is fast approaching its 60th anniversary, and its sister machine, the FACOM138A, in an operational state.
Hamada has been working on the electromechanical computer since the beginning of this program. He notes that in the beginning, he had to learn how to translate the diagrams the machine’s original operators had used. Asked why he believes maintaining the machine is so important, he stated: “If the computer does not work, it will become a mere ornament,” said Hamada. “What people feel and what they see are different among different individuals. The difference cannot be identified unless it is kept operational.”
It’s always interesting to revisit what’s been done with older hardware or off-the-wall computer projects, and I can actually see Hamada’s point. Sometimes, looking at older or different technology is a window into how a device functions. Other times, it gives you insight into the minds of the people that built the machine and the problems they were attempting to solve.
One of my favorite off-the-wall projects was the Megaprocessor back in 2016, a giant CPU you could actually see, with each individual block implemented in free-standing panels. Being able to see data being passed across a physical bus is an excellent way to visualize what’s happening inside a CPU core. While maintaining the FACOM128B doesn’t offer that kind of access, it does illustrate how computers worked when we were building them from very different materials and strategies than we use today.
Update (5/18/2020): Since we first ran this story, YouTuber CuriousMarc arranged for a visit to Fujitsu and an extensive discussion of the machine. You can see his full video below. It’s a bit lengthy, but it dives into the history of the system and Hamada himself.
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