Computers in the 1960s

floppy disks

Computers in the 1960s

Key Points

  • During this decade, the programming languages COBOL and ALGOL were introduced.
  • The mouse was also invented although it would take the intervention of Apple and IBM to make it an essential input device in the 1980s.
  • By 1964, computers began to rely on integrated circuits.

Throughout the 1960s, computers went through a series of major advances in technology, design, speed, price, storage, and more. IBM truly led the way throughout this decade, with its computing hardware accounting for over two-thirds of the early computer market at the time. Frankly, no other competition even came close to the kind of reach and the kind of demand that IBM had at the time. However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t innovation happening outside of the company in the 1960s. 

As early computers expanded beyond the small business-to-business sales model that defined computing hardware sales in the 1950s, more and more people began to get acquainted with the advancements being made in the world of computers. As they entered more workforces, more homes, and more businesses, computers continued to grow increasingly popular and in demand. No longer were they these impractically big, extremely heavy early computers that took up dozens of cubic feet — computing hardware had gotten smaller, lighter, and more affordable. 

Read on to learn more facts about the history of computers in the 1960s — including facts on their features, design, speed, storage, and price. The following will help make it clear exactly the journey computers took throughout the 1960s and toward the 1970s.


New Decade, New Programming Languages

COBOL code
COBOL was one of the first programming languages designed for use in business and finance.

The year 1960 brought with it a new decade of innovation. This began with several new programming language developments. COBOL (or Common Business-Oriented Language) and ALGOL (or Algorithmic Language) are just two programming language examples to come out of 1960, each with its unique pros and cons and advancements. These new and improved programming languages effectively set the stage for a decade of advancements to come. 

Meet the PDP-1

Also in 1960, the Digital Equipment Corporation debuted the PDP-1. This computer went for nearly $125,000 at the time, and this price tells you just how many advancements came with this technology. The PDP-1 — with its cathode ray tube (CRT) display and its lone operator — was essentially the first step toward the minicomputers to come later in the decade. The PDP-1 even features the first computerized video game in history and a music-making program.


IBM Continues to Dominate

In 1961, IBM continued to rule the playing field in terms of features, design, speed, and storage — from the introduction of the 1400 series to the completion of the 7030 and everything in between, the company made countless advancements with each new release. This was especially seen in 1961.

Computers Get to Work

General Motors was the first to adopt a mass-produced industrial robot into their workforce in 1961. The robot, UNIMATE, weighed two tons and was used to stack pieces of metal that had just been die-cast but were too hot for humans to touch. 


Supercomputers to the Rescue

You’re familiar with superheroes, so it’s not hard to imagine the kind of heroic work supercomputers were capable of. The University of Manchester’s ATLAS computer was one of the very first of its kind, a supercomputer that pioneered all kinds of new advancements in technology including storage, programming language, and more. At the time, the ATLAS was the most powerful computer ever seen in history.

Innovative Storage Solutions

If 1960 was the year of programming languages, then 1962 was the year of storage solutions. NCR’s CRAM (or Card Random Access Memory), IBM’s Disk Storage Drive, and Sperry Rand’s thin-film memory are just three examples of new storage solutions released in 1962, each with its unique pros and cons but both seeking to make major improvements to the storage status quo at the time.

Computers Get Personal

After the behemoths that ruled much of the 1950s, there was a clear demand for smaller, more manageable, more affordable, and more conveniently sized computers in the early 1960s. The LINC — developed by MIT in 1962 — was the first to be made specifically for individual users in the home, complete with a lower (but still astronomical) price of just under $45,000. It might not have caught on like laptops today, but it was the first step in a long journey toward the personal computer.


The Arrival of the Mouse

While it wouldn’t catch on for another 20 years, 1963 saw the invention of the computer mouse. The invention sat dormant until Apple and IBM eventually circled back to the ‘60s with their inclusion of the mouse in their personal computers in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

The ASCII Standard 

More computers entering the workplace and the home meant that more computers were in desperate need of a way to communicate with one another. Thus, the ASCII — or American Standard Code for Information Interchange — was born. ASCII allowed different computers from different manufacturers to exchange information with one another using the same basic symbols.


The Third Generation Begins

The year 1964 is the start of what historians refer to as the third generation. Stretching between 1964 and 1972, third-generation computers all tend to be reliant on integrated circuits. This is the main thing that distinguishes them from previous and future generations.

IBM Makes an Even Bigger Splash

With the announcement of the System/360 and the debut of SABRE, IBM made some of the biggest waves in computer history thus far. System/360 consisted of five models and 40 novel peripherals for the newly announced family of products. Designed with both business and science in mind, IBM hoped to create a system of compatible computers that blurred the line between work and play. In other words, the same computer used in a science lab could be placed at a receptionist’s desk or in a person’s home. The System/360 also saw the debut of the byte memory unit, which is still used to this day. The release of SABRE in 1964 was equally as influential, used by travel companies and agencies the world over to monitor, track, and reserve flights.

A BASIC Language

An acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, the BASIC programming language was initially created in 1964 for a group of college students hoping to learn programming. It quickly spread to schools, businesses, and home computers around the world, allowing a new generation of hobbyists and professionals alike to learn programming for themselves.


Computers Go Big and Small

While the PDP-1 was a major development for the year 1960, the PDP-8 was just as influential for the year 1965. Widely considered to be the world’s first minicomputer, the PDP-8 aimed to bring all the power and features of a PDP to a smaller, more accessible version. The minicomputer sold for just under $20,000 at the time, which was still astronomical, but not nearly as expensive as most other computers that sold for at least twice as much. At the same time, the Control Data Corporation developed the CDC 6600, the new most powerful computer — or supercomputer — known to man. 


HP Enters the Playing Field

Now a titan of the computer industry, Hewlett-Packard first emerged on the scene in 1966 with the release of the HP-2116A. Offering the kind of power typically only found in bigger computers, the HP general-purpose computer supported a range of programming languages and offered a variety of basic functions for casual users.


Storage Gets Floppy 

Developed by IBM in the late 1960s, floppy disks were eight inches in diameter.


1967 saw the release of the floppy disk, invented by none other than IBM. Initially conceived as a load device for microprograms for the System/370, the floppy disk eventually caught on as the most dependable method of portable storage at the time.


The Scientific Calculator Debuts

Not long after entering the world of computers with the HP-2116A, HP released another equally as innovative product: the 9100A. A programmable calculator, the 9100A was the very first scientific calculator the world had ever seen.

A Demonstration for the Ages

December 9th, right before the end of the year and inching ever-closer to the end of the decade, Douglas Engelbart of SRI International put on a demonstration the likes of which audiences couldn’t have even fathomed beforehand. Complete with real-time showcases of the computer mouse, windows on-screen, collaborative word processing, and even rudimentary video conferencing, the showcase was an early indication of what awaited the world in the 1970s.


ARPANET Goes Online

Before there was the Internet, there was the ARPANET. Created as a way for the US Department of Defense to establish a virtual network across the nation, the project — spearheaded by Stanford and UCLA — set the stage for the world wide web that computer users would depend on in the decades ahead. Several other (smaller) networks also came online at this time, including the UK’s NPL network and Hawaii’s ALOHANET.

The Invention of UNIX

While UNIX is the foundation for a majority of the planet’s computer infrastructures in the modern world, here are the facts: It didn’t exist until 1969, and it didn’t take long for it to catch on and spread far and wide. Created by programmers at AT&T’s Bell Labs, UNIX brought together timesharing software with file management technology.

Up Next:

For more information on computers throughout the decades, check these out:

  • Computers in the 1950s: During this era, computers entered the workforce. Find out what devices were created and what innovations they brought to the tech sector.
  • Computers in the 1970s: This decade saw the advent of the personal computer. Find out what exactly it entailed and which brands ruled the tech space.
  • Computers in the 1980s: During this era, computers metamorphosed to become faster, in addition to featuring improved design. Find out the one innovation which made it possible as well as the luminaries which transformed the decade and the tech sector.

Computers in the 1960s FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How powerful was an IBM computer in the 1960s?

With the release of the System/360 line in 1964, an IBM computer could perform as many as 34,500 instructions in a single second and had a memory that ranged from 8 to 64 KB depending on the model. Larger models that came later in the decade were capable of up to 8 MB of memory.

What were computers used for in the 1960s?

The 1960s saw public opinion of computers shift from nothing more than a big, fancy calculator to a machine for processing information. Instead of just discussing its calculating capabilities, advertisers and marketers in the 1960s homed in on the computer’s ability to make logical decisions.

What were computers like in the 1960s?

Computers in the 1960s came with a unique set of pros and cons. They were smaller in size and lower in price, but they were still pretty big and pretty expensive. They could do more than they could in the 1950s, but they were still far from the computers we know and use today. This third generation of computers acted like a bridge between the computers of the past and the computers of the future.

What were computers called in the 1960s?

Computers went by all sorts of different acronyms in the ‘60s, including LINC, PDP, CDC, and more.

How fast were computers in the 1960s?

The fastest computer in the 1960s was the CDC 6600, and it had a clock speed as fast as 36.4 MHz.

How much did a computer cost in the 1960s?

Computers in the 1960s cost anywhere from just under $20,000 to as much as a million dollars or more. That’s just in 1960’s money, too — when accounting for inflation over the past 60 years, even the cheapest computer would cost well over six figures by today’s standards.

How big were computers in the 1960s?

While computers no longer required an entire room’s worth of space, computers in the 1960s were not exactly tiny. They often came out to be about the size of a television or small desk and would weigh just as much as one of these things, too.

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