‘The IBM mainframe is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The first System 360 mainframe was unveiled on 7 April 1964’
I noticed this news story this morning on the BBC news page. I used to be a mainframe operator, back in the 1980’s and used an IBM 360/135, then we had a 145. Those numbers are probably meaningless to most; model numbers. The mainframe took up a huge room, with lots of what looked like metal cupboards with doors, and it even had flashing lights back then. We worked a 3 week shift rota with 3 to a shift to allow for sickness or heavy workloads. It wasn’t all fun, but we had some good times. Back then, the computer would only run one job at a time and a certain program took almost an hour; that was the time to put the kettle on and break out the playing cards or go out for a takeaway. We also found working so closely with 2 others made for quite an intimate team and on quiet nights, when there were only 2 or 3 of you, conversations became pretty personal and deep. It was a wrench when shifts were split up and moved around, and thankfully it wasn’t done too often.

After working there a while, some of us could actually ‘read’ the flashing lights and determine when a job was due to finish, or if it was in a ‘loop’ and could be cancelled. Nothing like that on modern computers. Initially I worked with all men as it was, and still is I feel, a mostly male dominated career. After a while a few more women joined but it wasn’t the same. I was the youngest there, at only 19, and the lowest paid, and a woman. Let’s just say on our frequent outings to the pub, I never bought a drink. I’d offer, but the ‘boys’ wouldn’t hear of it. Back then the humour was different too and I grew up very fast. Some of what went on would have been classed as sexual harassment now, but I was young and naïve, and eventually started to give back as good as I got. It was sink or swim!

We went to London many times to the IBM training centre in Harrow on the Hill and spent many enjoyable days with like-minded people in a great training centre with great facilities and good food. One time I was called over during a coffee break and told I had to phone the office back in Cardiff to help deal with a problem. My ‘street cred’ went up enormously after that incident! We had ‘state of the art’ printers that nobody else in the industry had; all they couldn’t do was make the tea. All our machinery was new and replaced frequently; a far cry from where I work now!

I loved the job, and had a great time working there with some wonderful people. The IBM guys (engineers) were great too and often good for a laugh. Happy times. Over time, the job became more and more automated and we ended up being ‘tape deck monkeys’, just feeding tape cassettes to the machine to back up the work. It lost all its appeal and I eventually moved to Help Desk Support which was good in its own way, and a story for another day. In all, I worked for 12 years on shifts as a mainframe operator. It played hell with my sleeping and eating patterns, and social life too, but it’s a time in my life I often look back on with fond memories. So, thank you IBM, for some very good times, good memories and friends, and a job (not with IBM) that paid very well for the day :)

I tried to post a picture but can't seem to do it. If you Google IBM 360 you'll see images of the machines I used to operate.