An 8-tube module from a 1954 IBM mainframe examined: it's a key debouncer

IBM's vacuum tube computers of the 1950s were built from pluggable modules, each holding eight tubes and the associated components. I recently came across one of these modules so I studied its circuitry. This particular module implements five contact debouncing circuits, used to clean up input from a key or relay. When you press a key, the metal contacts tend to bounce a bit before closing, so you end up with multiple open/closed signals, rather than a nice, clean signal. The signal needs to be "debounced" to remove the extra transitions before being processed by a computer. (Perhaps you have used a cheap keyboard that sometimes gives you duplicated letters; excessive key bounce causes this.)

Front of an IBM tube module. This module contains five key debouncing circuits.

Front of an IBM tube module. This module contains five key debouncing circuits.

The module is apparently from an IBM 705, a powerful business computer introduced in 1954.1 The 705 was a big computer, weighing 16 tons. It contained 1700 vacuum tubes and consumed 70 kilowatts of power, with 40 tons2 of air conditioning to take away the heat from the tubes. A typical system cost $1,640,000 ($15 million in 2017 dollars), but was normally rented monthly for $33,500 ($300,000 in 2017 dollars). A few dozen 705 systems were built, mostly used by large companies and the US government. 8

The CPU of an IBM 705 was a massive unit. Photo from Farmers Insurance, showing their first computer.

The CPU of an IBM 705 was a massive unit. Photo from Farmers Insurance, showing their first computer.

IBM introduced multi-tube pluggable modules in 1953 as part of the 700 series of computers.3 Pluggable modules were an innovation that simplified manufacturing and maintenance, as well as providing a way to pack circuitry densely. Computers were built from hundreds of pluggable modules of many different types. The photo below shows how the 8-tube modules were packed in the IBM 709.

Closeup of tube modules in the IBM 709. Note that the modules are installed "sideways" with the tubes horizontal.

Closeup of tube modules in the IBM 709. Note that the modules are installed "sideways" with the tubes horizontal.

IBM hoped that they could manufacture a small set of common pluggable modules, but this didn't work out since the computers required many different types of modules. Instead, IBM settled for modules that were built from standardized design rules and circuits. The main circuit classes were the inverter, the flip flop (which IBM called a "trigger"), diode logic,6 the multivibrator (pulse generator), and the cathode follower (buffer).75 Unfortunately even this level of standardization didn't work too well. For instance, they ended up with dozens of different types of inverters for special cases, everything from an "Open-filament neon inverter" to a "Line capacity yanker". Thus, each computer ended up with hundreds of different types of tube modules, built from a multitude of circuits.4

A single tube module could contain a couple dozen of these simple circuits. You might wonder how eight tubes could support so many circuits, but there were two factors. First, the tubes were typically dual triodes in one package, so the module had the equivalent of 16 simple tubes. Also, AND and OR logic gates were implemented in the module with compact semiconductor diodes, so complex Boolean logic could be implemented almost for free.

I've seen claims that an 8-tube module represents an 8-bit byte, but that's not the case. The eight tubes don't generally map onto eight of anything since functions can take more or less than one tube. For instance, the module I examined contains five circuits. I have another module that stored three bits. Also, the byte wasn't a thing back then. These computers used 36-bit words (scientific models), or 6-bit characters (business models) so 8 bits was irrelevant.

Vacuum tubes

This module was built from a type of vacuum tube known as a triode. In a triode, electrons flow from the cathode to the plate (or anode), under the control of the grid. The heater, similar to a light bulb filament, heats the cathode to around 1000°F, causing electrons to "boil" off the cathode. The anode has a large positive voltage (e.g. +140V), which attracts the negatively-charged electrons. The grid is placed between the cathode and the anode. If the grid is negative, it repels the electrons, blocking the flow to the plate. Thus, the triode can act as a switch, with the grid turning on and off the flow of electrons. The module I examined used dual triode tubes, combining two triodes into one tube for compactness. 9

Schematic symbol for a triode tube

Schematic symbol for a triode tube

Vacuum tubes required inconveniently large voltages; this module used -130V. -60V, +140V and 6.3VAC. Tubes also had high power consumption—note the many large (1 watt) resistors in the module. The filament was hot enough to glow, using a couple watts per tube. In total, each tube module probably used dozens of watts of power.

A 5965 vacuum tube from the module. The pins plug into a socket on top of the tube module. This tube is a dual-triode; the two plate structures are visible.

A 5965 vacuum tube from the module. The pins plug into a socket on top of the tube module. This tube is a dual-triode; the two plate structures are visible.

The module's circuitry

I closely examined the tube module and found that it consisted of five copies of the same circuit. I traced out one of these circuits, which was a bit inconvenient because the module has components on both the front and the back. I came across a manual of 700-series circuits, and found a circuit that was an exact match, down to the values of the resistors. The circuit is called a "Contact-Operated Trigger" and was used to interface a mechanical input (key, relay, or cam) to electronic circuits.1

Schematic of one "trigger" circuit of the tube module.

Schematic of one "trigger" circuit of the tube module.

The schematic above shows one of the trigger stages. The basic idea of this circuit is a resistor-capacitor filter (left) smooths out the input, removing any short glitches. This signal goes through two inverter circuits, creating a sharp output. Both inverters are part of the same 6211 tube and are wired as a Schmitt trigger.12 To understand how the inverter works, when the input (pin 2) is high, the current through the tube pulls the plate (pin 1) low. Conversely, when the input is low, the electron flow is blocked and the resistors pull the plate high.10 The output from the first inverter (plate, pin 1) is fed into the second inverter (grid, pin 7). This inverter works similarly, with its output on pin 6. The final output is buffered by a "cathode follower" circuit (not shown) to drive other modules. It also drives a neon bulb for a status indicator,

The tube module showing how the five debounce triggers are divided among the tubes.

The tube module showing how the five debounce triggers are divided among the tubes.

The tube module contains five of the above debounce circuits. The diagram above shows how these circuits map onto the eight tubes. Each cathode follower (CF) uses half a tube so one tube implements two cathode followers.11

One amusing component I found in the tube module was "Vitamin Q" capacitors. Presumably this is related to the quality factor or Q factor in radio, and these capacitors were designed to improve the Q.

A Vitamin Q capacitor in an IBM 705 tube module.

A Vitamin Q capacitor in an IBM 705 tube module.

A brief history of vacuum tube computing, with a focus on IBM

It took longer to get from the invention of the vacuum tube to the development of electronic computer than you might expect. The triode vacuum tube was invented in 1907 and started being used for radio in 1912. The vacuum tube flip-flop, able to store one bit of data was invented by Eccles and Jordan in 1918, but it wasn't until about 1937 that flip flops were connected together into binary counters.

IBM started investigating vacuum tube counters for calculations in 1941 and built an experimental vacuum tube multiplier in 1942. In 1948, IBM introduced the IBM 604 "Electronic Calculating Punch", which implemented high-speed arithmetic operations for punch-card systems by using vacuum tubes. It was IBM's first product with pluggable tube units, using simple modules with one or two vacuum tubes in each module (as seen below).14

Two tube modules from the IBM 604. By Jud McCranie CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two tube modules from the IBM 604. By Jud McCranie CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, vacuum tube computers were being invented, with Atanasoff's linear equation solver built in 1942 and the Colossus codebreaking system in 1943. But it wasn't until the programmable ENIAC computer was announced in 1946 that the vacuum tube computer revolution really started, leading to the development of numerous computers by the early 1950s.

In 1952, announced the 701, IBM's first commercial scientific computer. The 701 introduced multi-tube pluggable modules, the focus of this article. These modules were used in the 700-series computers until they were obsoleted in 1958 by IBM's transistorized 7000-series computers, which used germanium transistors. The transistorized computers were built from printed circuit boards the size of a playing card, called SMS cards.13 Thus, although vacuum tube computers were highly influential, their lifespan was short. (Transistorized computers also had a short lifespan of a bit over a decade. Integrated circuits, on the other hand, have been powering computers for more than 50 years, with no signs of being replaced.)

A tube module implements more logic than an SMS card, but the cards are much smaller and use less power. Photo shows a "DGT" SMS card implementing four AND gates on top of a different tube module.

A tube module implements more logic than an SMS card, but the cards are much smaller and use less power. Photo shows a "DGT" SMS card implementing four AND gates on top of a different tube module.

How the modules are built

One important advantage of the tube module is the circuitry is somewhat three-dimensional, compared to components soldered on a circuit board. This allows the circuitry to more efficiently fill the volume of the computer. The module has four layers of contact boards with terminal strips attached, allowing four vertical layers of components (resistors, capacitors, etc) to be soldered to the terminal strips.5 The solder terminals are connected together by thin horizontal metal strips, which can be cut. Thus, neighboring tabs can be electrically connected or not, as required by the circuit. Jumper wires are used to provide additional connections as needed.

The module has four levels of components between the tubes and the connector. In addition, there are components on the front and back of the module.

The module has four levels of components between the tubes and the connector. In addition, there are components on the front and back of the module.

The tube module has 64 metal contact tabs at the bottom, providing connections for power and signals. The tube module doesn't simply plug into the socket as you might expect, but uses a two step mechanism. First, the module is placed in the socket but the pins don't make contact. You may have noticed the rod sticking up from the top of the module. To lock the module into place, the rod is rotated 180 degrees with a special tool, causing a circular cam at the bottom of the module to rotate. The force of the cam against the socket causes the module to slide sideways so the pins mesh with the socket contacts. This reduces the force required to insert the module and minimizes the risk of the module coming loose.

The module has 64 metal tabs that plug into the socket. The circular cam (rusted) rotates to slide the module (and the tabs) sideways into the socket.

The module has 64 metal tabs that plug into the socket. The circular cam (rusted) rotates to slide the module (and the tabs) sideways into the socket.

The contacts are carefully positioned to establish the ground connection first, then the negative-voltage connections and finally the positive connections. This allows hot-swapping, replacing a tube module while the system is powered up. (The manual does say, "However, it is wise to drop DC voltages before removing or installing pluggable units.") Interestingly, USB connectors use the same idea. If you look at a USB connector, you'll see that the middle two contacts (data) are shorter than the outside contacts (power and ground), so power and ground connections are established first.

Patent 2,754,454 describes the tube module mechanism in detail.

Patent 2,754,454 describes the tube module mechanism in detail.

The tube module has locking tabs that holds the module into place after it slides sideways. I noticed that these tabs are broken off on the module I examined; compare with the intact module below. Probably the rusted cam couldn't be moved, so the module had to be forced out of the socket, breaking the tabs.

When the tube module slides sideways into the connectors, the locking tabs engage to keep it from being pulled out. In this tube module, the locking tabs are broken off.

When the tube module slides sideways into the connectors, the locking tabs engage to keep it from being pulled out. In this tube module, the locking tabs are broken off.

More evidence of the module's hard life is there are at least four resistors missing from the module, and two resistors with broken solder joints. (This made it considerably harder to figure out what the module did.) Positions where two components are soldered to the same tabs seem especially prone to having a component knocked off. The photo below illustrates one of the missing resistors; one trigger circuit has a 91K (white-brown-orange) resistor soldered across the capacitor, while it is missing in the second circuit.

The arrow shows one of the missing resistors in the tube module.

The arrow shows one of the missing resistors in the tube module.

Conclusion

The tube module is an interesting artifact from the era of vacuum tube computers. Studying it revealed its function, five contact debouncing circuits for use with keys or relays. Part II of this blog post will describe powering up the module and getting it to work. For a sneak preview, you can watch CuriousMarc's video:

Thanks to Carl Claunch for providing the module.

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Notes and references

  1. I found the circuit for this module in a manual of circuits for IBM's 700-series computers (page C35). Chapter C has information on circuits for the 702 and 705 business systems (which use different voltages from the scientific 701, 704 and 709 systems described in chapter B). Since the 705 was much more popular than the 702, it's more likely that the module is from a 705. 

  2. Strangely, a ton of refrigeration means cooling equal to one ton of ice per day, not an air conditioner that weights one ton. This unit probably made more sense in the 1900s when people were switching from ice-based cooling to refrigeration. In more sensible units, one ton of refrigeration is 12,000 BTU/hour or about 3500 Watts. For comparison, a typical window air conditioner is one ton of cooling, while a central home air conditioner is 1.5 to 5 tons of cooling. 

  3. Several detailed articles on the IBM 701 computer, written by the designers in 1953 are here.  

  4. IBM went through a similar failed standardization process in the 1960s with their transistorized Standard Modular System (SMS) cards. They hoped to build computers from a small number of standard cards but ended up with thousands of different cards

  5. IBM's 700 Series Data Processing System Component Circuits provides extremely detailed information on the circuits used in tube modules. If you want to know all about tube modules, this is the document to read. A couple other pages of interest are the IBM 709 CPU Diagrams with schematics of the 709's tube modules and IBM 705 Drawings with a few 705 tube modules. The 1952 patent, Multiple Pluggable Unit, describes the mechanical structure of the tube modules in detail. A few drawings of 705 circuits are here, and 709 drawings are here. Bitsavers has some information on the 704 including details of the circuitry, but not to the tube level. Bitsavers' information on the 701, 702, 705 and 709 is less relevant. 

  6. The development of the semiconductor diode significantly reduced the size of computers, as small diodes could perform logic functions (AND, OR) that previously required vacuum tubes. The IBM 706 contained many more diodes than vacuum tubes: 4600 germanium diodes versus 1700 vacuum tubes. I think the importance of diodes is underestimated, with people focusing on tubes versus transistors. 

  7. The tube modules are described in more detail in the book IBM's Early Computers, pages 147-151. 

  8. The BRL Report has details on most computer systems as of 1961, including the 705. Take a look at this report if you want to know the size, price, features, or number of components in old computers. 

  9. The module uses two types of vacuum tubes: five 6211 tubes and three 5965 tubes. Both tubes were designed for computer applications, able to handle the stress of constantly turning signals on and off (unlike radio applications, where tubes handled analog signals). They are both dual triodes, but the 5965 is a higher power tube. The 5965 tube is IBM number 317261. The 6211 tube is IBM number 252551. The 5965 tube handles up to 300V, while the 6211 only 200V. The 5965 also handles more current and has higher gain, which is probably why it is used in the cathode follower driver circuit. For full details on the tubes, see the 5965 datasheet and the 6211 datasheet. These tubes are both similar to the more common 12AT7 tube

  10. The various resistors adjust (biasing) the voltage levels from the high plate voltage to the lower voltages used by the grid. (That's why the -130V supply is needed, to pull the voltage down enough.) 

  11. The triggers are implemented with type 6211 tubes, while the cathode followers are implemented with the more powerful 5965 tubes. From the photo, it may appear that the tubes don't match the locations since there are four tubes with metallized tops and four tubes with metallized sides. However, the tube markings indicate that all tubes were in the right locations. The location of the shiny getter is independent of the tube type. 

  12. The tube is wired as a Schmitt trigger. When the input becomes sufficiently high, it will rapidly switch to the on state. The input will need to fall to a lower level, at which point it will rapidly switch to the off state. The key to the Schmitt trigger is the resistor connected to the cathodes. When one tube turns on, the voltage drop across the resistor will raise the the cathode voltage close to the grid voltage. This will force the other tube off. You can also look at it as a differential amplifier, where the higher grid "wins". 

  13. If you want a quick summary of IBM's machines from the 701 through the 370, see The Architecture of IBM's Early Computers and "System/360 and Beyond". 

  14. The book IBM's Early Computers has extremely detailed information on IBM's pre-360 machines. Also see IBM's web page on the 603

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Those modules are exactly like the ones I and some friends "liberated" from a scrap metal yard th Waterbury CT in the mid 60s, along with tubes sucah as 5881, 5691, 1nd 5693, all with aplications in radio, TV and audio. Relays, huge transformers, and banks of caoacitkrs were also part of the "loot". I didn't save much, just a couple of tubes now in use in radios. Ah, the felonies of youth...

David Cortesi said...

"It contained 1700 vacuum tubes..." Are you sure there isn't a zero dropped from that? Because on docent rounds I tell people ENIAC had 18,000 and the UNIVAC I had 20,000.

Ken Shirriff said...

According to the BRL report, the IBM 705 had 1,700 tubes and 4600 diodes in the arithmetic unit. (I assume that is the main computer excluding the core memory unit, power supply, and tape.) Looking at the 705 diagrams, the main system had four panels, each holding two rows of 40 modules. That would be 2560 tubes, but many spots where empty, so the 1700 number seems believable. The core memory unit had two more panels, so probably 1000 more tubes there.

20,000 tubes in the UNIVAC I seems too high. The BRL report says UNIVAC I had 5,200 tubes of 15 types, along with 18,000 crystal diodes. UNIVAC used largely 25L6 tetrode tubes while the 705 used dual triode tubes, which probably cut the number of tubes in half.

The 18,000 tube number for ENIAC matches what I've seen elsewhere. The ENIAC was extraordinarily inefficient with tubes, though, and later computers did much better.

JL said...

Thanks, Ken. I really enjoyed the pictures and the entire video. Can you tell me where the neons were located in the module? I can't see them from here; maybe they're hidden behind a resistor. Were the neons visible from from the "front panel" of the module, or would the CE need to have the module out on an extender card to see them?

Did IBM have its own colour code for resistors?

"IBM's Early Computers" is a great book (along with "IBM's 360 and Early 370 Computers" by the same author.

Fatan Gaboo said...

Very surprising that this analysis does not call attention to the hysteresis / Schmitt Trigger action. This 2-tube circuit is exactly the "classic emitter coupled Schmitt Trigger" shown in Wikipedia's article entitled Schmitt Trigger, with cathodes coupled and tail current set by a 3.0K resistor. Dunno if this will turn into a clickable link or not:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schmitt_trigger#Classic_emitter-coupled_circuit

Ken Shirriff said...

JL: The neons were located on a console, not on the module itself. The module had the resistor for the neon but not the bulb itself, which would be somewhere more convenient. For the video, we wired up an external neon bulb. Also, IBM used the standard color code. E.g. the blue-red-red resistors are the 6.2K resistors on the schematic, connected to +140V.

Fatan: Footnote 12 describes the Schmitt trigger, but everyone seems to have missed that so maybe I'll make it more prominent in the article.

David Cortesi said...

Now I can't find where I got that 20,000 number for UNIVAC 1. But it appears you are right, and I've been lying to innocent museum visitors. Dang it.

Unknown said...

It can take only 2 in guitar amps, and make infinite tones of beauty unlike transistors. : )

Lord of the Cats said...

On Ken's comment on uneven amount of tubes, From what I remember the ENIAC used 6-tube flip flops as its entire memory before it got a more advanced memory upgrade a few years later. The 1700 tubes in the 705 could also have more "tubes" per tube than ENIAC or UNIVAC had, the ones in this module had two per physical tube. Another difference is that unlike ENIAC, the 705 was a commercial system, so it had a smaller word size instead of scientific precision levels.

Well, can't wait for part 2!

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on why SMS failed to reduce the number of parts while the 7400 succeeded?

Ken Shirriff said...

Good question about why there were so many types of SMS cards, and a limited number of 7400 ICs. I think it's because 7400 ICs could implement (say) 90% of a computer, with an assortment of resistors, capacitors, transistors, and analog ICs filling in the gaps. But SMS cards were pretty much a 100% solution: if you needed filter capacitors, it was an SMS card. If you needed power supply monitoring, SMS card. If you needed special-purpose amplifiers for tape, SMS card. There wasn't an alternative to an SMS card if you needed some weird circuit. So you ended up with a "long tail" of SMS cards to do random stuff.

dawson tennant said...

Thanks for posting this. I so enjoyed it. I used to toy around with transistor circuits ... well, I still do, I've designed a few tube amps, but haven't built them. Fun.

Richard said...

Incredible, brilliant, brilliant and brilliant!

I have been following your work for more than a year and I have become increasingly fond of it.

You have rescued and cataloged much of the history of computers and that is of great contribution to all.

Few books offer such an in-depth subject on the subject.

You rescued a hiatus from my knowledge of the valves in computing.

Thank you very much for the material.

Amr Koptan said...

Dear Master Ken,

your Blog is so "ethically" and "authentically" made, your talk on "hackaday" on IC reverse engineering was spectacular and lots of people whom i know loved it, I hope two or three blogs are as ethically good as yours and so beautifully presented, your videos with marc is also brillant! god bless you and keep up your extraordinary work.

Globe Collector said...

That 91K is in the grid circuit of the second valve with a 33pF in parallel, this would pass the logic direct to the second grid for a second inversion. The second valve is being held strongly off by the 180K down to the -130v rail, but when the first valve is cut off (i.e, no anode current) then the voltage at the second grid is set by the potential divider of 180K to -130v and 109.4K up to +140v. Using Ohm's Law, 932uA flows through the whole stack and develops 167.7v across the 180K at the bottom, so the grid voltage at pin 7 would be 167.7-130 or +37.7v more than enough to drive the second valve into saturation.
NOW...looking at the picture of the circuit next door...look at the solder where the leads of the 33pF cap are wrapped around the tagstrip...There NEVER was any 91K there...that is how it is from manufacture, the 33pF alone is the coupling component turning the circuit into an edge detector...when the positive pulse hits the grid of V1 (Pin 2) the anode is pulled down (The saturation of a 12AU7 at vg=0 is about 80-100v, so the anode will come down c35v and the cathode up by 5-8v, that 35v high falling edge will go straight through the 33pF capacitor and drive the grid of V2 down to around 0v...but the cathode rises up too, making the fall about 38v, enough to cause the anode of V2 to rise up suddenly..but the 33pF will rapidly charge up and V2 will turn on again...so the positive going pulse at the anode of V2 will be very short...but your counter should grab it. When the pulse goes from the grid of V1 its anode rises and cathode falls, this rise is communicated by the 330pF if it is rapid enough, but as V2 is already saturated, any rise on its grid will have no effect at its anode!!
So this unit contains rising edge detectors with some sort of hysteresis/one shot action by the 3K in the cathode circuit...not inconsistent with the multiple functions of these plug-ins as you describe above.

One thing we tend to forget in this over-transistorized age every valve had to earn its keep and in many valve circuits a single valve might be called upon to perform multiple functions (often frequency domain separated) but that is not the case here with such simple circuits.

What is that last "floating" cathode follower used for, or does that valve simply just float?

I have never seen such a complicated stack of bench supplies in my life...really, if you had built a purpose made +140, -130, -60v supply it would have been a lot less cumbersome, and the bench a hell of a lot less cluttered.