LBHS Tour Stop: The IBM 604

Welcome to the Little Beaver Historical Society

The IBM 604

[Listen Time: 2:16 minutes]


[Read Time: 3:00 minutes]

What you see before you is the “IBM 604,” a very rare example of an industrial computer built decades before the desktop office computer.  This exhibit is one of only three units known to exist in the world.

The International Business Machine Corporation produced the IBM 604 between 1948 and 1952.  IBM never sold these computers; instead, they only leased them to businesses, such as the St. Joe Lead Company here in Beaver County.

Technically, the IBM 604 is known as a “control panel programmable electronic calculating punch.” This machine only did 4 things: it added, subtracted, divided, and multiplied.  It did these calculations with the use of paper punch cards fed into a special card reader.

You can see the large card reader apparatus next to the even larger vacuum tube calculating unit.

To perform mathematical calculations, the IBM 604’s electronic circuitry used 1,250 vacuum tubes.  The glowing glass tubes generated so much extreme heat that the computers had to be installed over large grated vents in the floor that forced cooling air upwards through the units to keep them functioning.

The computer before you was actually used by the St. Joe Lead Company—later to become Horsehead Industries—located in Potter Township along the Ohio River.  The site is now home to Shell Oil Company’s ethylene processing plant.

The Shell Company discovered this particular computer as it was demolishing the old Horsehead industrial facility to make way for its new cracker plant.  Thankfully, Shell recognized the historic significance of the computer and donated it to the Little Beaver Historical Society so that it could be preserved and displayed as part of the museum’s mission educate the public about our local history.

The IBM 604 is a very rare artifact of early industrial computing.  There are only three known to exist world-wide, and only one unit is still operational.  This computer is so rare that not even the IBM Corporation owns one.

Thank you for visiting the Little Beaver County Historical Society, where local history matters.

For more audio tour stops throughout our museum, simply use your mobile device to scan the QR Code on select exhibits.  If you need assistance, please contact our staff.