In an office in Numazu, a coastal city in Japan near Mount Fuji, there is a computer that is already 60 years old. It weighs three tons and it could just be a museum piece, this also works like the first day. It’s loud, it makes rattling sounds every time you have to calculate something because it opens and closes switches using mechanical electromagnets. In spite of everything, it still works, partly thanks to a man passionate about computing and technology, who wants to keep the old computer alive forever. Scheduled obsolescence? Not for this computer.
Tadao Hamada is an employee of Fujitsu Tokki Systems Ltd., a subsidiary of Fujitsu Ltd. Among its activities within the company is to preserve this old computer created in 1959. As indicated in Ashai, Tadao Hamada graduated from a school technique because he liked to work with computers since he was little. He comes to describe the care of this machine as his true vocation.
In 2006, Fujitsu launched a project to preserve and transmit the culture of its technology and history. Tadao Hamada was chosen to lead this project together with other technicians, he is not only taking care of the machine but also keeps it running and operating.
Fujitsu FACOM128B, the computer that does not retire
To understand why it is important for Fujitsu to maintain this computer, we must understand what the computer it. This is the Fujitsu FACOM128B model (FACOM stands for Fujitsu Automatic COMputer), a computer developed in 1959 that sought to compete with US computers especially International Business Machines Corp (IBM), from Japan.
The FACOM128B was a later model (hence the B) of the FACOM128 launched in 1956. The FACOM128 marked a milestone because it was the first commercial relay-based computer manufactured in Japan. The fact that it worked with relays and not with vacuum tubes as the computer industry began to evolve is something important. And even though the vacuum tubes were faster, the relays were still more stable and reliable. In the mid-1950s, the transition to vacuum tubes began, but Fujitsu opted to continue with the relays for the FACOM128.
The decision to use relays made it have a good performance and reliability, over time it was used to manufacture camera lenses and even the YS-11, the first Japanese passenger aircraft produced after World War II. After World War II Japan experienced what is possibly the greatest economic and social growth in their history, Fujitsu FACOM128B contributed to it.
In August 2018, the National Museum of Nature and Science of Japan decided to register the Fujitsu FACOM128B as “essential historical materials for science and technology”. The objective of this decision is to preserve the country’s scientific and technological history, the Fujitsu FACOM128B being a key computer in this history.
Tadao Hamada is responsible for ensuring that the legacy of FACOM128B is not lost. He says that at first, he did not know how the computer worked, because it does not work with semiconductor chips like current computers. Little by little he was researching and learning with the computer design and construction manuals. Currently, he visits the office where he is in FACOM128B once a week to verify that everything is still working correctly on this computer with six decades behind him.