From 1960—“All About Polymorphics”: TRW's Vision of Distributed Computing

You don’t think of TRW (formerly Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, Inc.) as a player in the computing business, but in the late 1950s, with optimism about the wonders of the emerging “electronic brains” everywhere, many companies were exploring different, sometimes radical, approaches to computing systems. You might say that in the technology sector, computers were the Current Thing.

TRW co-founder Simon Ramo, a technological visionary considered one of the fathers of the intercontinental ballistic missile and leader of General Electric’s development of the electron microscope, had a different view of computing than the consensus that mainframes would grow ever larger and more complex. Rather, he foresaw the advent of what he called “polymorphic systems”, assembled from numerous components, working together or independently to process multiple tasks. Such systems could grow (or shrink) organically with the requirement rather than forcing their operators to endure disruptive, costly, and time-consuming step function “upgrades” to incompatible systems.

This animated film, made from a “doodle essay” by Simon Ramo, describes, rather eccentrically, the concept. If you look at this from the right angle, you can see the seeds of distributed network computing, parallel systems with heterogenous processors, and scalable cloud computing as a service. This was not to be until many years later: IBM’s System/360 series, announced in April 1964, took the approach of a family of (more or less) software compatible mainframes spanning a wide range of performance, allowing customers (many of whom leased their equipment) to upgrade their centralised systems relatively easily.

It would take the development of inexpensive computers and high performance local and wide area networks for Ramo’s vision to be realised. When Sun Microsystems adopted the motto “the network is the computer” in 1984, it was considered cutting edge. Ramo was one of the first to see and communicate this vision.