From the Vault: 1958 - Dawn of the Fed's Computer Age
In today’s technology-driven world, it might be hard to imagine that momentous developments in computing were happening more than 60 years ago.
In 1958, the Defense Department launched a patchwork of military computers (ARPAnet) that laid the foundation for the internet.
In December of that year, the Kansas City Fed’s head office made its own groundbreaking step into the computer age by installing the IBM RAMAC, the first computer deployed in the Federal Reserve System. The 16 foot-square RAMAC—Random Access Method of Accounting and Control—weighed more than a ton and was the first computer to use a random-access disk drive.
The machine stored about 5 million characters of accounting data and had storage capacity of about 5 megabytes. That storage capacity was a major breakthrough at the time, but by comparison a single picture on today’s mobile phones can take up more space.
In January 1959, the RAMAC installation was featured in 10 J News, a Bank publication for employees. The article noted that the Bank allocated nine employees to a new department in charge of the computer. This team included key-punch operators who prepared accounting records that were fed into the machine.
In perhaps a sign of the times, the 10 J News article included a section labeled “What is a Computer?” to explain data processing—and assuage concerns about an “electronic brain” acting on its own. “The machine cannot think for itself,” the article assured.
Even in those days, technology moved fast. By the time IBM ceased production of the RAMAC in 1961, the Bank was switching to a more advanced computer—the IBM 1401. Those early machines eventually gave way to personal computers, enterprise networks and cloud-based systems.