School job opened door for brand new IBM 1130

My first job after graduate school was teaching mathematics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. The college was one of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” where young ladies were sent to earn their degrees. This was back in 1964, and it was quite a change for me going from the all-male Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland to the all-female Smith College. It was also quite a change going from a school that installed its first computer in 1954, to a college without one.

I quickly resolved that Smith should acquire a computer. One of the senior faculty members took me aside to offer her encouragement. She explained how her campaign to establish a new program had succeeded…and it only took 20 years. Fortunately, there was a greater sense of urgency at the U.S. National Science Foundation. They were prepared to help smaller colleges and universities acquire computers for instructional use, and as such I spent considerable time on the Smith proposal. I subsequently learned that ours was one of the strongest proposals received from a college.

So we had the money. Next came the computer. IBM had unveiled the 1130 in early 1965; it was “the first IBM computer to rent for less than $1,000 a month.” I spoke with several vendors, but only IBM had a proposal appropriate for a college located in Western Massachusetts.

It was a good match, but things were different back then. You paid for the hardware; the software was free. The IBM 1130 came with “more than 50 application programs for use in such fields as civil engineering, publishing, mathematical and statistical problem-solving, and petroleum exploration and engineering.” Fortran, APL, and Assembler were the programming languages.

Back then, computers were expected to last at least seven years. One consequence of this was that while a basic IBM 1130 with disk would cost $41,230, it would only cost $895 per month to rent (1/48th of the purchase price). And the list price was the price, there were practically no discounts. As a point of comparison, I remember that my first new car in 1965 cost less than $2,500 — it was an original Ford Mustang (wish I’d kept it).

Even though the IBM 1130 came in three floor-standing units, each the size of a desk, it was really an early personal computer. It ran one program at a time. The operator interacted with the computer through an IBM typewriter keyboard mounted on the main console unit. The computer responded using the low-speed console printer, the high-speed line printer or the card reader/punch. The advanced versions came with a 16,000 character high-speed memory and a removable disk that stored over one million characters.

Younger readers may have never seen an old computer card. They were the high-volume way to feed information to early computers such as the 1130. Separate card punch units were used to prepare a deck of cards with the program you wanted to run. Physical order was important and reordering a dropped deck of several thousand cards could be a real pain. I miss the computer card era — the “holes” made great confetti and the cards made great bookmarks.

Students who were interested were drawn mainly from math and physics, and they used the computer to learn about computers and to do basic scientific calculations.

Fortran was the main programming language on Smith’s machine. However, Basic, the early computer language, was born at Dartmouth about the time the 1130 arrived. Smith became one of the very first remote Basic sites.

In fact, that era also saw a number of computer “firsts.” Smith, all female, was located just south of Dartmouth, all male. Some enterprising couples discovered that they could avoid long-distance charges by sending each other notes using Basic terminals. I like to think of this as one of the earliest example of a computer-mediated romanse.

Smith continued using its 1130 for more than a decade. Today, the college has its own Computer Science Department and has launched a pioneering Engineering program for women.

I came from Smith to Toronto’s York University in 1970. By that time universities here were using the IBM 360. Smaller machines like the 1130 went into specialized departments in large universities. Service was always a problem, specifically service in the more remote corners of North America. And smaller vendors were often practically locked out of remote sites because they could not promise responsive service. I experienced the problem in western Massachusetts, and it was only a few hours away from Boston by car. I can just imagine the problems of servicing a computer in northern Ontario, for instance.

The IBM 1130 has been relegated to the memories of those of us who were active back then. And it seems even IBM has “forgotten” the 1130 — today it uses the number for a lowly desktop laser printer. How times change.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at

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