USC IBM computer

Nick Johnson, Phil Lohr and Richard Ashley, students of the University of South Carolina, look as C. Brian Honess, graduate student in the School of Business points to some features of the 7040 computer. The group, in January 1969, had just purchased the forerunner model of the 704. AP Wirephoto

COLUMBIA — In January 1969, a group of enterprising University of South Carolina students would bid on — and win — a first-generation IBM computer at auction. Their venture to reassemble and operate the machine on the college campus would ultimately fail, but an insatiable interest in technology would follow them throughout their lives.

Nick Johnson, then a mechanical engineering student, had made a habit of scanning government surplus auctions in search of a machine shop and foundry he was building in Hemingway. It was in one of these auction notices that he came across the IBM model 704 being sold by a naval research base in Panama City, Fla. 

"It was an obsolete computer then and today," said Johnson, 72, who lives in Columbia.

But it was unique in the sense that those early IBMs weren't mass produced. Because of cost — this 704's original price tag was $498,700, according to the Associated Press, but some cost as much as $2 Million — they were mostly owned by government agencies and universities, said Ed Hickman, a former USC professor. The students would scrape their money together and pay $2,200 for the machine. Though they were never able to get it running, their idea, in some ways, would shape the future of computing education in USC's business school, Hickman said.

"We've made a deal with the university's school of business to lease the computer to it for one dollar a year in exchange for a place to put it and for the air conditioning the computer will need," Brian Honess, a doctoral candidate, told The Associated Press at the time. "We'll work out a deal here to share program time with the school."

When Honess, who died in 2015 at age 81, approached his long-time friend Phil Lohr with the idea, Lohr had been building computers in his basement.

“But those were tiny compared to this computer,” Lohr said.

The group rented a moving van for what would be the first of three 400-mile-plus trips.

The computer was kept in a building three or four stories tall, said Dick Ashley, a friend of Honess and Lohr’s who came to help load the machine.

“We had to go to the top floor to get all this equipment,” he said, loading it onto a service elevator for the trip down.

The students had given USC all the weight information for the computer before they left on their trip. It was decided that a roughly 20-foot by 50-foot room in the business school should hold the machine with no problem, Lohr said.

“When we got to the base, the room it was in was bigger than most houses,” Lohr said.

Among the 13 large crates of equipment were about 10 tape-drives, each weighing 500 pounds and measuring 6 feet tall, 30 inches wide and 2 feet deep, Lohr said. There were four power supplies, each about 1,500 pounds, which the group secured by screwing 2-by-4 pieces of lumber into the floor. This would lead to a harrowing experience for a few students.

"Brian was conservative with money," Ashley said. "So before we went up the hill to the hotel, he said to get in the back and close the door so we wouldn't have to pay for extra rooms."

The heavy units came loose.

"I could hear them rolling. Me and another guy had to jump blind. If we hadn't, they would have crushed us. We rode around on top of them until they parked the truck," Ashley said.

The problems wouldn't end once the computer arrived on campus. They purchased the machine disassembled but were denied the guides for putting it back together.

"We did eventually get the manuals," Johnson said. "That stack of manuals was taller than I am."

Then there was the question of how to keep the machine cool. Johnson did the calculations and said it would have required 40 tons of air conditioning.

"I showed it to my thermodynamics professor and asked him if I'd done it right," Johnson said. "He told me it was, which was disappointing. 'But I'm glad you learned something in my class,' he said."

In 1969, there was only 4 tons of air conditioning for the whole business school, and there was none in the classrooms such as the one housing the IBM.

"We were naive at the time," said Johnson, whose time with the group would end here; he was drafted by the Army to serve in the Vietnam War.

The next issue would be the computer's weight.

“It was starting to break the floor,” Lohr said. In the room below, one of the light fixtures had broken loose from the ceiling.

When they examined some of the machine's innards, Lohr said it appeared wires had been cut so it couldn't be used again.

"That really put a stop on the whole operation," he said. "It was a disappointment to everyone."

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The group would end up "parting" out the machine: scrapping and selling off parts to other enthusiasts.

"I kept the memory frames," Lohr said. "I traded them to another guy trying to build a computer. I used the money to get my wife’s wedding ring."

Honess did wire up the mainframe, where the operator would sit, so its lights would flash, Lohr said.

"I know it was in a museum for a period of time," he said, though neither the South Carolina State Museum nor the McKissick Museum on the USC campus have any record of it.

The IBM 704 would not be the Honess and Lohr's only venture. They made a habit of scanning the surplus sales, buying old machines and selling them for parts.

"It was one of the ways we paid for our college tuition," Lohr said.

Hickman said that when the students brought the IBM to the business school, USC had another, newer computer on campus, but the 704 came with the hope that the college of business would have a computer of its own.

"It was a good idea, but it wasn't able to materialize," Hickman said. "It was more of an interest because of their ingenuity and them trying to figure out how to get us into the computing business."

Honess' interest in the machines would lead him, when he became a USC professor himself, to design the basic computer course taught to all business students to this day.

Lohr would make a career building computer control systems for cloth dying equipment until the Great Recession led him to shut down his business in 2007.

Johnson, after the war, went back to graduate school and spent his whole career in computers. He would open a hobby computer store and then build a computer systems company to serve the health care industry.

It’s hard to know what the value of the IBM 704 would be today, said Dag Spicer, senior curator of the California-based Computer History Museum. The museum has a complete 704 in its collection but the majority of the 123 that IBM built of this model were scrapped by metal dealers who found value in their components, Spicer said.

“This is why it’s called the era of ‘Big Iron,’ “ he said.