Control Data Australia Memories compiled by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

Introducing the 1604


WALL STREET JOURNAL, October 22, 1959 :  The first advertisement sighted for a Control Data product, although there were possibly earlier ads. not collected as part of Bill Norris’s scrapbooks.  The announcement followed a letter to stockholders in February, 1959 that suggested amongst other topics “the 1604 prototype is nearing completion”. Later reports after the release suggested a “typical configuration” at around $900,000 to $1.25 million.

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Facts for the technical staff Facts for Management Facts for Management Control Data Corporation

The “1604” - why 1604?

The 1604 model number has an interesting history.

One theory popular at the time suggested it came from adding CDC's street address (501 Park Avenue) to Seymour Cray's former project, the ERA-Univac TRANSEC 1103 (the machimne was never marketed, but yep, the numbers compute, folks!), but an oral history interview in 1975 by a Charles Babbage Institute representative with a group of ex-CDC engineers refuted this ...

"... the insiders laughed and responded: "It was quite popular at the time that this was the origin ... We've never been able to substantiate it. However, there's still lots of people who believe it."

Page 21 of the oral history provides the official CDC explanation for 1604 : rather less glamorous - the original goal was to support 16K of memory and 4 tape units.

Ron Bird, however, recalls a CDC 501 line printer, he believes the model number was derived from the Park Avenue address.

IBM’s 360 series took its name from the company’s belief that it would sell right around the globe, hence 360 degrees

Seymour Cray at the console of the 1604, serial number 1

(Charles Babbage Institute), and the badge (below) and a circuit board (bottom)

1984 : Robert M. Price presents a prototype of the earliest CDC computer, “Little Character” built in 1957-58,  and the prototype for the 1604 to Gwen Bell and the Computer Museum of Boston

The 1604 and “Little Character” - how!

I guess those of us with many years in the industry tend to think of the concept and creation of a new computer system coming as a result of months of high-level planning, market research and in-depth technical design sessions …?

Well, perhaps not - there are strong suggestions that the 3200 emanated when, although 3600s were ideal for the central hub in Canberra, CDC did not have a machine suitable for the CSIRO and Census and Stats “satellite” sites in the the various capital cities, and as a result, Trevor Robinson and CDC’s visiting Vice President of Western Region, Ray Whitney “designed” what became the 3200 by drawing up a configuration linking existing 160-A components on an A4 pad, the concept sufficiently sound to convince the corporation to build a modified version.

The 1604 had a story of its own, coming shortly after CDC was incorporated and at a time when Government business in the U.S. was severely depressed , leaving the new company with a huge cash flow problem that saw most of the senior executives rolling over part (or in Norris’ case, all) of their salaries into debt owed to them by the company rather than cash in hand.

Senior Vice President of the time, Frank Mullaney in an Oral Interview with the Charles Babbage Institute’s Arthur Norberg in June, 1986 gave an insight as to how “Little Character”, the 1604, and perhaps even CDC as a computer company came into being …:

MULLANEY : (on the earliest operations of the company) : “… I think we saw ourselves as doing what we liked to do and had done successfully ,building special equipments and satisfying some customers with it.

NORBERG: I see, rather than trying to approach a broader market.

MULLANEY: That's right.

NORBERG: When did that all change, or did it just sort of creep up on you rather than change?

MULLANEY: It changed because we couldn't get any jobs to work on. The concepts changed. In 1958, early '58, we were in a pretty deep recession as I recall and there weren't a lot of government contracts being let. We had some people working. We had enough money to keep it going at a low level. Really, the idea came from Seymour Cray.

Seymour was tinkering in the lab. We set up a little lab.  We came in at night and we put together the benches because they were cheaper that way and so forth. We didn't even have a quarter inch drill -- Bob Perkins brought his drill in so we could get these benches and things put together and so forth. By that time Seymour was with the company and he was working on some new transistor circuitry. The idea being anything we were going to build was going to be digital, we'd need computer circuitry and he might as well go ahead and design some standard circuits. Well, in addition to doing this, he designed a very good circuit that used some very ordinary transistors that we could get cheap. At the same time, he was working on the logic of a new machine.

NORBERG: Just for the hell of it?

MULLANEY: Just because that's what he does, you know. He had all the Boolean equations and so he came to us and said, "Look, we don't have any jobs anyway, why don't we build a computer?" And I believe maybe he had even built a prototype of a little machine, a little one-character wide machine called Little Character at that time, built out of this circuitry to show the feasibility of the thing. So we agreed that that was a good thing to do, that this might sell. Shortly after that I think we got the Bureau of Ships interested and I don't know at what time, but we did get a contract for this machine eventually. But before that time, we had cut salaries and that kind of thing to conserve the cash.

NORBERG: And this machine was the first 1604 that was constructed?

MULLANEY: Yes, right.



CDC 1604-A computer, installed in the Hannover Technical Institute in Hannover, West Germany in 1964.