1977 commercial for the IBM5100

This 1970s commercial for the IBM5100 is really funny.

[via AllThingsD]


    1. Yah, if you check a couple of freeze-frames you can see the APL symbols on the keyboard. I saw one of these things at an Ur-SF convention in Toronto in the late 70s: Beta Draconis, I think. Some guy had hauled it in from the office and was running a D & D character generator program on it. I think I still have the printout for a Grey Elf character from it lying around somewhere.
      Yikes was APL a trippy language! By the mid-80s it had developed the capacity for full OO programming (the second wave of it, not the earlier one from the 70s or the later, stunted one from about 13 years ago) and just about every other computer science concept. Too bad it was never really pushed by IBM and was always saddled with that horrible source code editing system. It was a great way for beginners to learn programming as it had such a flat learning curve at the start and made much more sense to a tyro than other languages would. For example the assignment operator is “<-” not the stupid “=”. You don’t have to explain what “a <- b + c” is doing but you do have to explain that “a = b + c” doesn’t have its mathematical meaning but is an operation transferring the results of “b + c” to “a”. The completely typeless arrays were fun too:
      myArray <- “fred”, complex(8 7i), file(dog.tiff), 4, ‘load workspace payroll’
      I think I wrote my first programs ever on it at the University of Waterloo on some outreach program they had where they’d sit high school students in front of fan-fold paper APL terminals.

  1. Oh dear. I still have a tape cassette from one of those somewhere. I taught myself to program in basic on that machine.

    It had a very nice keyboard

  2. Wht’s “fnny” bt tht? nly crtn wth Bvs & Btthd mntlty wld fnd nythng t lgh t. t’s sd tht w’v pprntly gt n ntr gnrtn wtht ny sns f hstrcl prspctv.

    1. What’s “funny”? How about the mantra “decisions are hard, so I’m glad I have the computer to help”.

    2. Hear hear. When the past serves primarily as a source of ironic jokes and derisive comparisons, it’s a sign that you’ve reached a level of unsustainable ignorance.

      1. I think its a sign that you’re getting old. Its a computer that weighs 50 pounds and can’t even run NetBSD, which is an OS that you can even install on a toaster. I have a more powerful computer in my pocket right now. If you don’t find this funny, you’re getting old, simple as that. Kids today grew up with the internet, computers everywhere. There are kids right now who probably have never even seen a CRT monitor. This shit is hilarious to them, and for good reason. Its like watching a family sit around a giant radio in their living room, captivated by some campy Western program in 1930.

  3. I really enjoyed watching this, but also has trouble identifying what was funny. The production values and testimonials were awkward, but no more so than much of the advertising media that was contemporary. Maybe my humor just isn’t aligned with the bloggers since this is the second “funny” post today that I didn’t think was particularly humorous. Anyways, it was neat to see a machine dedicated to running APL, which I was using into the late nineties at an insurance company. It’s amazing to think that anyone outside of that industry would have used that archaic language.

    1. APL was used everywhere where you just want to sit some kind of mathematician (Actuary, Physicist, Social Scientist) in front of a computer for their first time, spend 10 minutes explaining how to store and run your programs, and then let’em rip. No one but the original author had a hope of ever modifying the resulting programs (and even them not for long) but no one cared as you could make another one just as good in a couple of minutes anyway. I used to work at the big APL shop here in Toronto and we would routinely set up systems in a week that the COBOL boys would take 6 months to do. We did avionics systems, finance systems, image processing and so on and so on. We were trading stupid jokes on a general purpose world wide computer network’s BBs long before ARPAnet or the the later InterNet and were consultants for building the former.
      APL is “archiac” in terms of its ergonomics. You think PERL has a dopey syntax? Hah, you ain’t seen nothing! In terms of its functionality and ease of programming we have yet to see anything approaching it. Unfortunately the general trend in programming languages, and operating systems for that matter, is to dumb things down for marketing purposes.
      I think APL survives as “J”.

  4. I think the printing manager, with his giant goatee and wide-ass tie, is very entertaining, even funny.

  5. “It only weighs about 50 pounds.” “Has the same storage capacity as a regular computer a few years ago.” It’s funny. Come on, try saying those things today in an effective marketing campaign.

    Printing manager’s sunglasses are back in style by the way.

  6. I honestly thought I misheard the voice over when he said it weighed about 50 pounds. Quite amazing how much has changed in just 33 years.

  7. At the very end you see Menachem Begin former Prime Minister of Israel on Face the Nation. I remember once seeing Begun on FTN. He was on FTN a week or so after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor and he was there to defend Israel’s action. The Osirak reactor was destroyed in June 7 1981. So it is likely that is when this commercial was taped.

  8. I know being a pompous arse is kind of a badge of honour here, but really lighten up guys.

    I completely appreciate the importance of things like this in their historical context, and this was really interesting, especially as my first computer was one of the Compaq “portable” PCs (it was only portable if you didn’t mind getting a hernia).

    But it was also a little funny. I love the way they won’t say what the capacity is, or how much it costs, just that it’s “reasonable”, talk about dodging the important questions :)

  9. I think what gets me the most about this is its matter-of-factness. There’s a complete absence of any hype. “It weighs about fifty pounds.” “Its storage capacity? The same as much larger computers from a few years ago.” Also the deadpan, almost depressed expressions of all the people. And the soundtrack is amusingly dire.

  10. I particularly like the Power Switch. Red and in the middle of the front panel. Also, just flip the switch when your are done! No “Windows is shutting down” etc.

    On-Off. Nice.

  11. Nothing funny about it. I worked on on of these for the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in about 1977. It was great because we could pick it up and transport it to the exhibition, and just plug it in.

  12. Many advertising campaigns from the 1970s featured a folksy honesty–probably the times. Computers were seen as an elite good– and it was the advertising agency’s goal to change that.

  13. I think the ironic humor is around 1:45, with the print media guy being all, this computer thing… great, gonna really help our industry, no problem there… whatsa copyright?

  14. Here’s one for you: This is the 5100, and if I’m not mistaken, the original IBM-PC in ’81 was the 5150.

  15. This computer ad seems to be aiming at the same people that HP did with their HP-85 BASIC computer (which looks nearly identical). People to whom the ability to solve problems is worth a lot of money.

    So it’s not funny in that sense.

    It is funny in the sense that any picture of any man from the 1970s with facial hair is funny.

  16. I find kind of funny, with today’s laptops, to hear a commercial for a portable computer that weighs in at only 50 pounds!

  17. Part of the laughter (and yes, I laughed out loud) is respectful awe at how far we have come in the past 30(+/-) years. Sure, sure, there is some amusement over the production values and the clothes– but what got me was the notion that the computer was going to tell her when to paint her rental property. How was it supposed to do that? I mean without a lot of fuss and bother setting up data tables and cost comparisons, to say nothing of the headache of learning how to use the thing. How is that possibly “more efficient” than having a few contractors give her bids and doing some very simple math to figure out if she could afford it? That is what is funny. And don’t even get me started with the farmer and his wife at the kitchen table having coffee with a computer.

    1. It would take a farmer about an hour to learn how to use it. If they’d ever used paper accounting ledgers they’d already know all they needed to know about data tables. APL would handle all the computer science bullshit about storing and manipulating them invisibly in the background. I could get a farmer creating the APL equivalent of custom spreadsheets from scratch in roughly an afternoon.

  18. This is the computer that John Titor came back from the future to acquire. I hope it worked out for him.

  19. “Helping put information to work. For people.”

    Early test-marketing indicated that other species had less use for information.

  20. Ah, the days of good, solid switches that go *ka-chunck* ! I also miss the tank-like metal casings. Today’s laptops by comparison feel like they’d break just by looking at them…

    As for the funny: I think, like with so many things in culture, if you are old enough to have been there and to experience it, the humour gets diffused with memory.

    Still, awesome shirt on the Linear Tech guy.

  21. Data from Wikipedia:
    Price ranged from $8975 (BASIC with 16KB) to $19,975 (BASIC+APL with 64KB). If those are 1975 prices (date of intro), then it’s $35,390.10 to $78,765.14 in 2009 dollars.

    1.9MHz IBM PALM processor

    16KB to 64KB RAM

    1. $78,765 adjusted? Man, that must be a well-subsidized farmer to keep one on his breakfast table, right next to full coffee cups.

      How this thing could command the price of NINE 1975 Honda Civics is beyond me.

  22. I don’t know about “funny” (I suppose that’s relative) but it was interesting nonetheless to look back at the not-so-distant past.

    And the farmer isn’t reading the line off his hand – he appears to have some feed in his hand, so when he says the line about “feed,” he (awkwardly) looks down at his hand as if to highlight his point or something.

  23. Beautiful. I worked a computer recycling gig back in college. Machines like that were a huge sunk-cost, but went obsolete so fast that they would have zilch resale value. People would just tuck them away when they upgraded, not knowing what else to do with them.

    So I was pulling Osborne 1’s and 5150’s and the like out of university closets well into the mid 90’s. I can say with some confidence that the thing weighs fifty pounds because most of the parts inside it are either steel or aluminum — and I don’t mean flimsy stamped pieces, either. When an old-school computer guy says “Big Iron”, he is not necessarily being figurative ;)

  24. OMG, this thing is fantastic. From back in the days when the on-off switch went “clunk.” What I find particular interesting about this advertisement is the assumed competence of the potential users. This was a computer that you would *program*, not just use a canned app. And they expected (probably very realistically) that a farm manager would be able to do it.

    Nowadays nobody would have that expectation. So to me, this ad is instructive and a bit sad, but not really very funny.

  25. Aside from how humorous the actual video is, I appreciate the deadpan humor of the “I don’t find this funny,” crowd. I realize you’re just making a straight-faced sardonic reference to the fact that there are people out there who are unaware that the internet is vast and nobody is required to read/view, much less comment on, every article out there. Good jokes all around. Thank you. I wish I were that clever.

  26. I’m watching this video on a computer that weighs a TWENTIETH of the 5100, and not only cost less than my car, it cost less than the TIRES on my car.

    Oh, it’s funny, all right.

    For one thing, I LIVED through this time period, and it sure didn’t seem so ARCHAIC at the time.

    Oh, and ’70s fashion is ALWAYS good for a laugh.

  27. I didn’t find it particularly funny either – IBM’s ads were generally pretty straight laced and all -business. That’s why they had to trot out a fake Charlie Chaplin for a few years when the IBM PC was new: to make them less scary.

    The 5100 was an interesting device – note that to go from APL to BASIC, it was a hardware switch – that’s because these languages were in ROM and APL required a rather cryptic looking character set. APL’s commands, in their native environment, which was a Selectric typewriter with a special typeface golfball, required you to overstrike some characters to properly create them. I also used Dartmouth Timesharing’s version, which transliterated the special characters to two or three letter commands. APL was famous for its vector processing and highly compressed syntax.

    See if you retro-hounds can come up with Symbolics LISP promotional materials or AT&T Pixel Machine stuff!

  28. I happen to know a guy who ran a print shop from the 70s up until the present day (though his operation is much smaller now). I’ll have to ask him what he thinks about this ad. I’m sure he’d appreciate the laugh.

    For the record, he does have a mustache, smokes Marlboro 100’s and used to wear aviator-style glasses. Must be a pressman thing.

  29. What’s with all the Captain Bringdowns commenting today? Geez, people, lighten up! It’s really OK if folks find certain things humorous. Seems like some people get really irked and others having a little harmless fun with something.

  30. Here’s what’s funny: the combination of it all, the narration, the music, the bad acting, and most importantly, the sense that at any moment somebody is going to say something so ludicrous that we finally realize it was an SNL sketch all along.

  31. I would have loved to have this at past jobs where I had to support people who were frustratingly lazy at learning rudimentary PC usage. The familiar refrain was “sorry, I didn’t grow up with computers like YOU did”. I could have shown them this and said, “look even this feed farmer guy could program his computer before I was born, what’s your excuse?”

    and @goldmineguttd #9 – I think he was just checking with the bit of feed in his hand to make sure they were working in unison. It probably helps him learn how to use that sweet computer too.

    AND – I couldn’t help but notice that all the shots of fingers typing on it were so non-realistic… one there they don’t even leave the home row and it looks like they’re too gentle to actually be pressing any of the keys.

  32. I was rather intrigued by the fact that the business jet wouldn’t look out of place in a 2010 ad; in fact, there’s a good chance that that particular airframe is still in use today. Interesting how much some technologies have changed in 33 years, while others have barely changed at all (yes, I know, the avionics and controls on a modern business jet have evolved, but the basic technology of the aircraft is still essentially the same).

  33. Sheesh. It’s funny because *how* exactly are all these non-programmers supposed to do such wonderful things with it? Even now if you put the modern equivalents of these people in front of a modern PC they still wouldn’t be able to do any of those things with it on their own without 3rd party software.

    I have a feeling a lot of these machines were proudly purchased, then languished gathering dust, serving only as a conversation piece to impress clients who walked into the office.

  34. I used one of those to crunch numbers in grad school, in APL. The professor didn’t want us to waste valuable mainframe time on *gasp* graphics, so I’d do most of the work on the 5100 and then copy the graphs to real graph paper.

  35. Paul • #14

    I suspect it was more that their target market (management) wouldn’t understand it. Even when the Tandy 1000 came around, almost none of it’s users had any idea of it’s specifications.

  36. I spent a few years programming this thing in the late 70’s. That tape cartridge was its virtual memory! It wound and rewound, wound and rewound, finding things in your APL workspace. The most interesting thing about this device, and one reason it cost so much, was that it actually ran the full IBM S/370 APLSV language (and BASIC). How? It had a full S/370 emulator inside! The unit was utterly crammed full of circuitry, and ran 370 microcode which loaded the APL system. At the time this gadget was designed, IBM was seriously toying with making APL the machine language for a line of advanced mainframes. I guess this came out of it.

  37. Definitely retro-taining. I remember the 5100 with a smile. APL was a great language. It was sort of the Matlab of its day, great for throwing stuff together. HP had a box like that too, the 9000 series? It ran something like FORTH which is basically Postscript.

    For context, think of it as a VW beetle of a computer. The beetle was a great car, but it got 20 mph. I think an SUV gets 20 mph nowadays. 20 mph was a revelation back then.

    Still this 5100 ad doesn’t top the WWII era ads for the Monroe calculator being hauled into combat by some grunt in full combat gear. Of course, someone had to add everything up so the unit had the right number of bullets, grenades, and K-rations. Then, there was that $20 a month. An army has to be paid.

  38. It’s good we have YouTube. Now we can point and laugh at people from our past who wear funny clothes and lack our sophisticated technology, instead of pointing and laughing at people from other countries who wear funny clothes and lack our sophisticated technology. Satisfies the same basic human urge for superiority without all that nasty racism.

    Still, even though no living human’s feelings are hurt by any of this, it strikes me as a little ungrateful and unjustifiably smug. The people who bought into computing this way were making both a large monetary and time commitment to giving their businesses an edge, and in the process, pushed the state of the art forward. Buying a Macbook with a student discount and daddy’s credit card hardly compares.

    1. True enough: and how lucky we are that fashion and technology have both reached their peak in our own time, and future generations will find nothing to laugh at about us!

  39. I’m mostly amazed that people were willing to plunk down $10,000 just to run simple numerical models on the road.

    From the perspective of 1970, it would probably be even more funny that we all have computers that are 1% of the mass and price, and hundreds of thousands of times faster, which we mostly use to look at pornography and write badly spelled letters.

  40. One of my professors (Ted Edwards) at Simon Fraser University in 1976 / 1977 had already worked on developing a briefcase APL machine with some company in Toronto (MCM computer I think). It had a one line LCD display, and used cassette tape drives for storage.

    APL was the second language I learned after PL/1 in university, and it’s still one of my favourite languages today. I drooled over the ads for the IBM 5100 then, but couldn’t afford it as a student. I did have APL for Windows about 12 years ago. But now I have a little 6 year old iPAQ 4150 running a full version of APL with room for 32MB workspaces, that I can still get my APL fix from. From 50+ pounds to something you can fit easily in your pocket. Nice!

  41. What’s incredible to me is not so much the terrible specs compared to today’s computers, but that scientists and other people could actually get a heck of a lot of use out of these things.

    You try giving a computer with just 16 Kb of memory and, what, a 1 MHz processor to a researcher today, and they would just stare at you blankly. They would have absolutely no clue how such a thing could *ever* be any use to them in their lab.

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