The SABRE airline reservation system went online in 1964, astonishing the world by being among other things the first large-scale interactive computing system.

Once the IBM 3270 video terminals were introduced, of course SABRE would have started using those, but they were only introduced in 1971. What did it use for user interface before then?

If the answer is a paper-based teletype, what was the actual workflow? What did data entry and viewing look like? There is a picture of an airline reservation desk in the SABRE entry near the end of this page but it doesn't give a clear view of the user interface. Looks kind of like a paper teletype under something that is shaped like a video screen but isn't?

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    It probably worked the same but with a printer for output instead of a CRT. youtu.be/S81GyMKH7zw Feb 5, 2021 at 6:25
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    Great interview on SABER/SABRE from the salesperson who pitched it to the president of American Airlines, and later became project manager.
    – Davislor
    Feb 5, 2021 at 7:00
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    Although there turned out to be an interesting answer, the premise of the question feels like a misunderstanding: most of the workflow in a GDS is still based purely on typing a command, and receiving a response. The same is true of a lot of system administration tools, e.g. logging into a server and typing "sudo apt upgrade" will reply with a list of packages being updated. This is "interactive" in the sense of having a real-time conversation with the computer, not in the sense of moving a cursor on the screen or having permanently visible elements that update over time.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 5, 2021 at 17:36
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    Video terminals didn't start with the 3270. IBM introduced the popular 2260 Display Terminal in 1965. Feb 5, 2021 at 22:01

1 Answer 1


Wikipedia, unsurprisingly, gives incomplete information. A number of important new technologies were developed as part of the five-year R&D of SABRE, including a disk drive capable of storing that many reservations, a new transaction-processing system, a frequency-modulation system to send data over the phone lines, and a new model of terminal, pictured here. It was a teletype with a keyboard that printed both results and tickets on paper. There were originally 1,500 of them.

A retrospective in Wired Magazine describes the workflow:

Take a tour of a SABRE console. The agent places a coded card with a list of flights to the destination airport to the right of the console's buttons. By pressing a "need" button, the agent queries SABRE's New York reservation center. The lights, located just right of the buttons, light up if the requested flight is unavailable. The agent uses the keyboard to enter the customer's name and personal information.

Original Answer

Wikipedia claims,

Teleprinters would be placed at American Airlines' ticketing offices to send in requests and receive responses directly, without the need for anyone on the other end of the phone. The number of available seats on the aircraft could be tracked automatically, and if a seat was available the ticket agent could be notified instantly. Booking simply took one more command, updating the availability and, if desired, could be followed by printing out a ticket.

This, however, is followed by [citation needed]. So take it for what it’s worth.

Although you describe it as “the world’s first large-scale computing system,” it was based on SAGE, which the US Air Force used to dispatch interceptors.

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    Did you improve the Wikipedia entry now you researched the subject better? Feb 5, 2021 at 15:41
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen If I went down the rabbit hole of correcting every error I found on Wikipedia, I’d never do anything else.
    – Davislor
    Feb 5, 2021 at 17:02
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    then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Feb 5, 2021 at 18:16
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    Not only was SABRE based on SAGE, it was named after it. Semi-Automatic Ground Environment -> Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment. Feb 5, 2021 at 22:04

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