The mainframe had a Hollywood moment Sunday night when AMC’s Mad Men introduced an IBM System/360 computer to the office of Sterling Cooper & Partners.
With all its mystery and potential, the mainframe provoked a mixed reaction from the ad shop’s team. Some cheered the promise that it would accelerate business, while others worried it would replace humans. (It did, literally, displace the creative team from their communal workspace.)
"This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information and that's threatening because human existence is finite,” said Lloyd, whose company leased the computer to the office. “But isn't it godlike that we've mastered the infinite? The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime."
This season takes place in 1969, the year of radical change that heralded the first ATM, the Boeing 747’s first flight and the first manned mission to the moon (with an assist from the mainframe).
As we celebrate the mainframe’s 50th anniversary, its Mad Men cameo crystalizes how it revolutionized not just computing but the very culture we live in. Not too many other devices have served as a major plot point in a television show that treats American history with such meticulous, tender attention.
“Why not let every client that enters the door know that this agency has entered the future,” partner Jim Cutler proudly says when introducing System/360 to his colleagues.
Other thoughts from around the web on the mainframe’s guest role on Mad Men:
- AMC offered a history lesson on the mainframe in Mad Men’s 1960s Handbook.
- In “Make mainframes, not war: how Mad Men sold computers in the 1960s and 1970s,” Ars Technica delivers some insight into the early mainframe market.