From what I understand of ENIAC, it had a very large number of manually-operated rotary switches which behaved as ROM. While programming ENIAC in the early days required a plugboard, the machine was eventually enhanced to allow it to be programmed entirely via the switches. The speed at which the machine could change programs, however, was limited by the need to have operators manually set all the switches.

Given that electronic information storage was bulky, hot, and power-hungry compared with mechanical switches, it would seem like it should have been possible to construct mechanically-set electronically-read storage elements which could be read electronically just as fast as the manually-operated switches, but whose state could be set via automated electromechanical means. Did any machines ever actually do such a thing, or did magnetic core memory become available soon enough to make such an evolutionary step unnecessary?

  • Makes me think of telephone exchanges - and I'm not sure if I imagine seeing ex-exchange switches build into diy computers or not... – Sean Houlihane Oct 28 '16 at 20:03
  • @SeanHoulihane: I have seen an adding device built from phone dials and decimal steppers, but there was nothing electronically-addressable about it. My main thought was that loading a program into ENIAC using manual rotary switches would have been rather slow, and that being able to load a program from a stack of punched cards would have reduced the amount of down-time while the machine was being programmed. – supercat Oct 28 '16 at 21:35
  • You mean, like punched cards? Or punched stripes? Those were common from the very beginning. – Janka Oct 30 '16 at 17:02
  • @Janka: Punched cards and paper tape (is that what you meant by punched stripes?) are not electronically read-addressable. – supercat Oct 30 '16 at 19:43
  • Each row, they are. And row-by-row, they are automatically-operated mechanical storage. Sorry, why have you sorted out them? – Janka Oct 30 '16 at 20:02

Removable plugboards were a common form of read-only memory which I think fits the criteria. ENIAC plugboards were not removable, but later computers used low cost removable ones. They were adapted from the plugboards used for unit record equipment, which were simple frameworks for holding programming wires. An installation would have many of them "offline", each holding a program or part of a program. For a particular program run, the appropriate board(s) would be slipped into the machine and clamped against an array of contacts of the machine.

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  • Removable plugboards are of interest, since they would greatly reduce the time to change programs, but I'd still be even more interested if anyone had used something like telephone steppers which--unlike plugboards--can be set automatically and take only microseconds to read (if that), even though they would take hundreds of milliseconds to write. – supercat Nov 14 '16 at 22:31
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    Well, if you want electrically settable storage, early main memory devices are like that, such as Williams tube, delay line, and magnetic drum. – mgkrebbs Nov 14 '16 at 23:01
  • My question was inspired by the discovery that the ENIAC, in its later years, fetched programs from ROM which consisted of manually-operated switches. Many forms of automatically-writable storage were either much bulkier (e.g. vacuum-tube RAM) or were incapable of handling random reads as quickly as the manually-operated-switch ROM, but telephone steppers could have been read electrically in just the same way as the manually operated switches, despite being much smaller than vacuum-tube RAM. – supercat Nov 14 '16 at 23:17

I think core memory is what you are looking for. You may not think of it as a mechanical solution however it was. Core memory is electrically set and read, the read is destructive so part of the read initiated an automatic write if the bit was a 1.

Core retains its state after power loss through the mechanical position of the magnetic toroids. If at power up you didn't initialize the memory bank then the memory would still contain the last running state. If an application could run completely within core space, then after power restoration the application would continue operating, provided boot strapping of the system without initializing that portion of ram was possible.

I have seen demonstrations of this phenomenon on PDP-8 systems where people built a best of everything system with large amounts of core memory, ran an application that displayed output on a screen and then removed power. If one particular switch on the primary chassis was not toggled, upon application of power the program would continue operation.

During the time of the power loss it is possible for to change the position of some of the bits with mechanical means so it wasn't completely fool proof. They could conceivably be set by hand when not powered, but you would have to paint the rings to tell the bit states apart.

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    Core memory is not mechanical on a macro scale; it involves moving nuclei around molecules, rather than moving electrons around a relatively fixed pattern of nuclei, but I was more interested in forms of storage between the time of the vacuum tube RAM and the invention of the magnetic core. Incidentally, I'm also curious about what if anything has been done with neon storage (exploiting the fact that an arc can be held with a lower voltage than would be required to start it). – supercat Nov 13 '16 at 7:57
  • Welcome to Retrocomputing Stack Exchange. Thanks for sharing an answer, however supercat did ask in the question, "or did magnetic core memory become available soon enough to make [automatically-operated mechanical storage" unnecessary," implying that they wanted technology before, and not including, core memory. Don't be dissuaded from answering more questions though; if you've seen PDP-8 systems actually running you could probably help a lot of people! – wizzwizz4 Nov 13 '16 at 8:57
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    True core memory actually caused the magnetic torus to rotate around the interseting wires. It wasnt on the molecule level. The way it was read was destructive to the data that its storage contained. The read was done by setting the bit to a '1' and measuring the flux difference between a torus that was already at the '1' state and one that needed to move to the '1' state. The follow on to restore the data to the current state set it to a '0' or '1' as needed. It is completely possible to mechanically rotate the torus to change its position. – Rowan Hawkins Nov 18 '16 at 23:05
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    Rowan -- you have to provide a reference to your statement that the magnetic torus actually, physically rotated. All sources I have seen, says the the cores were magnetized differenttly (see for example wikipedia, not always a source of absolute truth). To me the physical rotation makes absolutely no sense. – ghellquist Sep 9 '18 at 7:14

There are a number of possibilities, though most of them involve stretching the definition of "computer" somewhat:

  • The Zuse Z1, Z2, and Z4 computers used slotted metal strips as memory. Of these, only the Z4 was Turing-complete.
  • The Harvard Mark I and Mark II, the Zuse Z3, and BARK all used relays for storage, but only the Z3 was Turing-complete.

All of these used read-only paper tape for storing their programs. I've been unable to find examples of stored-program computers using mechanical means to store their programs, but if you stretch the definition of "mechanical" somewhat, delay-line memory stored data as mechanical pulses in a medium, typically mercury, and was used in a number of stored-program computers.

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  • And some kinds of delay line used metal springs that let the information travel around them to be picked up some milliseconds later. youtube.com/watch?v=N9cUbYII5RY – OmarL Nov 13 '16 at 13:03
  • Delay-line devices seem interesting, and from what I understand they continued to be used for quite awhile in things like adding machines. They are certainly mechanical, but I don't think they qualify as read-addressable in the fashion I intended, since they are limited to sequential access. – supercat Nov 14 '16 at 22:02
  • The Z4 is a relay based computer. It doesn't use the same mechanical construction as its predecessors as far as I'm concerned. – fuz May 4 at 12:20
  • @fuz, according to Wikipedia, the Z4 used the same mechanical memory system as the Z1 and Z2, with relays handling the processing. – Mark May 4 at 21:07
  • @Mark Interesting. Let me ask Horst Zuse if that information is accurate. It's certainly not what I remember. – fuz May 4 at 22:10

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