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Computers used to be so rare that they got their own retirement parties

The Philco on its retirement day.
The Philco on its retirement day.
Computer History Museum
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Back in 1981, computers were still rare enough that one particularly special machine was given a retirement party — after 20 faithful years of service.

The Computer History Museum recently released this video from December 1981 of the Philco 2000 Model 212's retirement party. Used by the Ford Aerospace & Communications Corporation (which acquired and later sold Philco), the computer began operation in 1962 and was one of the first commercial computers to use transistors.

You can watch the full video below:

The machine wasn't just rare, it was also significant: because it used transistors, it represented a leap forward from early IBM mainframes that used vacuum tubes. It also featured a large number of spinning tapes, which provided additional storage and a means of input and output for the computer. The noise from the tapes, mainframe, and fans makes it difficult to hear much of the conversation from the Philco's big party, but there are a few discernible bits, including:

  • The computer's signoff, a primitively displayed message reading: "PHILCO: FAMOUS FOR QUALITY THE WORLD OVER. EAT DRINK & BE MERRY FOR TODAY I RETIRE."
  • A selection of Christmas carols, including "Hark, The Herald Angel Sings" and "The First Noël’." Engineers also had programmed it to play "The Star Spangled Banner."
  • A speech that noted, "a day of mixed emotions where we're saying hello to some new friends and goodbye to a friend who served us well."
  • Operator Bill Moore performing the last rites before turning the Philco off.

A few of the speakers note that Ford had actually been trying to retire the computer for more than a decade (which my be why the party is actually a cross between a retirement party and a very happy funeral). But the fact that the Philco 2000 could have stayed relevant that long illustrates what a different era it was.

As Saul Rosen recalls in his informal history of the Philco 2000, Philco only briefly tried to expand from its base in radio and television production. It quickly found itself overpowered by IBM's computer division and withdrew from the business in 1965, shortly after the Ford merger.

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