South Africa’s first computers

South Africa has a rich computing history, with some of the first machines in the country dating back to 1921 when tabulating equipment from the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company – IBM’s predecessor – was used in SA.

The next milestone for South Africa was when the government bought a modern “electronic tabulator” from IBM in 1952. It was also the year IBM South Africa was formed.

The most desired machine at the time was the IBM 407 Accounting Machine – the last and best of the all-electromechanical IBM accounting machines (also known as tabulators).

The IBM 407 prepared reports and records from punched cards. The Columbia University explained that it read a deck of punched cards on its integrated card reader at a rate of 100 to 150 cards per minute.

The computing device then accumulated totals, subtotals, and other statistics in counters made of gears, and printed the results on its integrated 132-column line printer.

The IBM 407 had a control panel which was wired to specify the details of the desired operation: what card columns to read, what to do with them, and how to format the report.

Early programmers also found ways to make the IBM 407 act as an input/output device, making it more than a mere calculating unit.

IBM 407
IBM 407
IBM 407 on the inside
IBM 407 on the inside
IBM 407 in operation
IBM 407 in operation
IBM 407 panel
IBM 407 panel
Plugboard for the IBM 407
Plugboard for the IBM 407
IBM 407 without a front cover
IBM 407 without a front cover

The first “real” computers in South Africa

IBM told MyBroadband that the first IBM 305 RAMAC in South Africa was delivered to a brokerage firm in 1959.

The IBM 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) was the first commercial computer that used a moving-head hard disk drive for secondary storage.

The IBM 305 RAMAC was an electronic general purpose data processing machine that maintained business records on a real-time basis.

The 305 was one of the last vacuum tube systems designed by IBM, and more than 1,000 of them were built before production ended in 1961.

IBM 305 RAMAC
IBM 305 RAMAC
IBM 305 RAMAC
IBM 305 RAMAC
IBM 305 RAMAC mechanism
IBM 305 RAMAC mechanism
RAMAC platter
RAMAC platter

First IBM 1401 in South Africa

In 1960, the first IBM 1401 data processing system in South Africa was installed in the IBM Service Bureau in Johannesburg.

The all-transistorised IBM 1401 data processing system was first unveiled in October 1959. The computer weighed about five tons and had 16 kilobytes of memory.

The IBM 1401 was the company’s first affordable general-purpose computer, and placed the features found in electronic data processing systems at the disposal of small businesses.

IBM 1401
IBM 1401
IBM 1401 Advertisement
IBM 1401 Advertisement

First computer at a university

Rhodes University was the first university in South Africa to install a computer – an ICT 1301 in November 1965.

Mike Lawrie was the customer engineer for the computer, who said one of the “fun” things run on the device was a dating program for the Arts and Science Ball in September 1967.

“The idea was that the computer would give you a shortlist of possible partners to invite to the Ball,” said Lawrie.

Towards the end of 1969, the 1301 computer was replaced with an ICL 1901A, and a few years later by an ICL 1902T.

ICT 1301
ICT 1301
ICT 1301 computer
ICT 1301

More on the history of IT in South Africa

The History of Internet access in South Africa

South African broadband speeds: 2008 to 2014

How the internet started in South Africa

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South Africa’s first computers