The movie Desk Set opens (see here for a clip) with a close-up of a computer printer which is pre-loaded with paper containing the film's opening credits. While the printer doesn't appear to actually printing anything, the print mechanism is visible at the bottom and appears to be attempting to print (my guess would be that it was fed data to print in order to delay the paper advance). The type bars look similar to those on an adding machine, and they move by a comparable amount. Would this have been a numeric-only printer that was designed for filling out pre-printed forms, or would the bars have been long enough to output 47 symbols, but with the ones near the bottom of the bars being much slower to print than numbers which were near the top, or what?

  • 2
    A screencapture would be helpful.
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 17:07
  • @DrSheldon: Sorry, I meant to post a link to a video clip.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 17:08

1 Answer 1


You mean this one?

Still from the first scene showing the machine

(taken from this sequence on Youtube)

Well, it isn't 'a printer', but rather the 'computer', at least as far as it goes for that setup :))

It's an IBM 403 Accounting Machine, a mechanical tabulating machine.

As so often the Columbia University pages offer more details.

A quite successful device, available since 1949. It had the great advantage that a very simple (plugboard) program was all to be doneto print out whatever the director needed. All they had to do is punch it first on one of the IBM 026 keypunches as well visible in this opening still:

Still from the first scene, still part of the title sequence

A master piece of lighting and field of depth lenses. Lovely how this captures the Zeitgeist.

The title text is of course pre-printed ... err VFX. But you got to love that they kept the print bars moving, even in different sequences for each page.

Unusual for a movie setup, it does not only show an impressive lineup, but also related machines that would be found in an up to date accounting office in the mid to late 1950s. They seem to have had good consulting and an even better budget.

Here an annotated version (mostly clockwise starting at the 403):

Annotated Version with all, well most, devices named

  • IBM 403 Accouting Machine

    The hero of our story :))

  • IBM 026 Keypunch

    Three of them in a row, but only two keyboards shown, the middle one also missing a cover piece. The fourth standing solitaire. Looking close shows that it's operating, duplicating cards. Quite an effort to get that done, they must have had an IBM field engineer at site.

  • IBM 083 Sorter

    Without the often seen chute (operation seen here).

  • IBM 523 Gang Summary Punch

    I'm not entirely sure, as it could as well be a 533 or 537 Card Read Punch as delivered with an IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Data-Processing Machine, or an IBM 535 delivered with the IBM 608 Transistor Calculator. They all look very similar. Since the remaining setup is quite accounting centred, I'd tend toward a 523.

  • IBM 726 Magnetic Tape Reader/Recorder

    These are 4 units, the fourth being turned by 90 degree to make it look better.

    While not the very first tape drive (Remington Rand did beat IBM with the UNISERVO for the UNIVAC by almost a year), it was IBM that first used coated plastic based tapes (UNISERVOs used thin metal tapes, much like wire recorders). I would believe that not the machine or it's speed, but the tape was the real reason why the 701 and thus IBM became a success. It was the perfect step up from card processing as its developer, Byron Phelps, recalled, "We had tried more dense paper cards for data storage, but the improvement was only a few times better. Punched paper tape offered no great advantage either. Magnetic tape had just come into its own in audio and offered the most promise".

  • IBM 702 or 705 Operator's Console

    Hard to tell. If it's a 705, then it's an early model due the way the IBM tag extends over the top rim. It's kind an outlier here, as there is no IBM 702/705 Data Processing System anywhere to be seen, but it still fits the over all theme of accounting.

    The 726 tapes do fit the picture, as they were, unlike often noted, as well used with the 702/705, albeit in a different format. While the 701 and follow ups, being computers, wrote word data, the 702/704/7080, being accounting machines, wrote character data.

  • IBM 727 Magnetic Tape Unit

    Better Picture (click to enlarge). Note the controls bellow the reels as all later units had them always on top. These tapes were used with IBM 701/2/4/5 computers but as well with a stand-alone tape-to-printer (IBM 757), tape-to-card (IBM 758) or card-to-tape (IBM 759) setup. All of them usually to be found in a 704 environment, linking the computer tape based in/output to existing accounting machinery.

    The boxes beside the tapes are not the IBM 752 or 753 tape control units used with 702/701 computers (704 had an integrated tape controller), so I suspect them being 757, 758 or 759 controllers - which again would fit the accounting setup. Sorry, no pictures so far. With their blue colour scheme and square design, they do fit the brand new design introduced with the IBM 608, not long before the film was made. The design that made IBM's nick name Big Blue.

This leaves three mystery devices:

  • Lower left, only partially visible:

    Might be another accounting machine.

  • Middle, between the 403 and the 726:

    Really, no idea. there are many boxes like that It could be anything from a some interpreter to a 650 box (unlikely)

  • Lower right:

    This might be some 632/633 Electronic Typing Calculator configuration. It's clearly a 614 typewriter, but I can't identify the box beside it. Most known is the 632, composed from a fridge sized 630 Arithmetic Unit, the 614 typewriter and a 638 Companion Keyboard, but there were countless addons, from card readers to printing and non printing punches, tape readers and tape punches, all in multiple versions.

    Best think of it as a Friden Flexowriter 2201 on Steroids.

So yes, an impressive accounting office setup.

  • I suppose it makes a lot of sense that they would use a self-contained machine, since that would avoid the need to run any kind of wiring to it besides power. I wonder if the print mechanisms from any of those machines were adapted for use with computers, since the print speed would be much faster than that of a teleprinter and interfacing could probably be pretty simple. If any were used for that purpose, that might be worth mentioning on the question about numeric-only output.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 17:53
  • 1
    The Wiki for the IBM 402, with very similar appearance, says that some columns did have alphanumeric type bars, and the rightmost columns had numeric-only type bars. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_402
    – Nimloth
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 18:03
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    Oh, and in case anybody's wondering about the floor tiles : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet_Mondrian#Paris_(1918%E2%80%931938)
    – Nimloth
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 18:08
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    @Nimloth Ofc, it is an accounting machine, made to print inventory lists, orders, any kind of bills. All usually having numbers on the right side and often lines with only entries on this position. using shorter, numeric only bars coudl thus speed up printing.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 18:26
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    Re, "They seem to have had good consulting." The "Trivia" page for "Desk Set" on IMDB says that IBM sent consultants. It's all one big product placement. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 2:46

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