Oct 19, 2012

The Most Famous Computer You've Never Heard Of

This is the most famous computer you've never heard of.

You've seen it, however, many times, on countless movies and television shows, performing functions it couldn't possibly be capable of performing.

Producers keep using this computer as a visual prop because it looks impressive. Indeed, they keep using it even though it is outdated for the movie or TV show in which it appears.

The computer is technically called the IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, or Q-7, also known as the SAGE Q-7. 

It was a computerized command and control system developed in the 1950s for Cold War interception used in the Air Force's Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense network.

Each of the 24 centrals weighed 250 tons and had two computers. The AN/FSQ-7 used a total of 60,000 vacuum tubes and up to 3 megawatts of electricity, performing about 75,000 instructions per second for networking regional radars (source: Wikipedia).

To give you an idea of how dated this system is, it used punch cards: cards with strategically placed holes that, once fed into a slot in the computer, would call up information related to that card, fed by reel-to-reel tapes placed in banks of machines.

Below is a video from someone who acquired and restored a Q-7:

This two minute long 1960 film shows the SAGE computer in action, punch cards, spinning tape reels and all, a real nifty piece of retro goodness:

This is a picture of the SAGE Q-7 from an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (image credit: Mike Loewen)

The Q-7 has appeared in movies and TV shows, and continues to be used, because nothing is as impressive as all those lights, knobs and switches, even when the tasks the Q-7 are supposedly doing are impossible, or can be done by a computer a fraction of the size. 

The first time the Q-7 was used on TV was in a preposterous Irwin Allen show called The Time Tunnel about a secret government time machine that sent two scientists back through time, at, coincidentally, the exact dates of momentous historical moments. The ridiculous premise involved the scientists bouncing from time to time trying to prevent historical tragedies (not acknowledging the effect this interference would have on the current time line, but whatever...). 

Below is a trailer for The Time Tunnel that shows the Q-7 being used on the show:

This website has a large index of all the movies and television shows the Q-7 has starred in, sorted by decade, with screen caps, along with lots of other interesting information. No doubt you've seen many of these movies and shows.

Wired magazine has an interesting article about some of the more ridiculous uses of computers as props in the movies, read that article HERE.

This website has a large amount of technical information and photographs of the Q-7 SAGE system, which is by now an historical artifact worthy of preservation

Here's one more look at the Q-7 in action, this time from the movie Independence Day

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