Retrotechtacular: Military Graphics In The 1960s

While you might think the military doesn’t have a sense of humor with names. Take the AN/MSQ-19 “automated tactical operations central” for example. (Video, embedded below.) But then, when you find out that the truck-sized computer at the heart of it was MOBIDIC — yes, that’s pronounced Moby Dick — you know someone had a good chuckle somewhere. The video below was a promotional video from the early 1960s, and although it shows the unit in operation, it was most likely a mockup and not fully functional.

The MOBIDIC program ran from 1960-1964 and cost a whopping $25 million in 1960-era money. In 1964, testing revealed the system was too unwieldy, requiring at least five tractor-trailers, eight generators, portable buildings, and several large trucks to move around.

Graphical Output?

We doubt the system could have been very reliable, either. It relied on a Rube Golbergesque system to record and file transparencies that were projected on maps. These transparencies were stored in some sort of automatic filing system and carried around in pneumatic tubes. No kidding, watch the video. You can’t make this stuff up.

A 1966 report from an Army research lab discusses using parts of AN/MSQ-19 in a laboratory, so at least some of the high-tech equipment did find a home. The designers of the system weren’t wrong, they were just a little early and needed better graphics capabilities along with smaller computers. The MOBIDIC weighed about 12,000 pounds, although at least the “B” version used by this project did have dual CPUs! There was a unique input device called a Grafton which was sort of like a modern digitizer. Sort of.


The MOBIDIC was built late in the 1950s as part of a larger Army strategy to computerize. You can watch a video about the solid-state computer in the second video below. It even includes a contemporary film about the computer. The base machine had 32,000 transistors, 6,000 diodes, and 311,200 bits of magnetic core. That’s less than 40 kB, to save you the math, and the narrator on the Army’s film calls that a “huge memory.” Perhaps he was really referring to the giant tape drives, which could hold about 10 MB. Not huge by today’s standards, of course, but still.

The trailer/computer had six tape drives, several cabinets for memory with space reserved for future upgrades, and an air conditioner. With power and extra equipment, there were actually four trailers together. There were several variants of these computers produced, and some saw actual use, particularly in Germany. The National Bureau of Standards bought the MOBIDIC-B used in this system and you can read about its retirement in 1973.

They Simply Fade Away

Sylvania, the MOBIDIC’s developer, also produced the 9400, a commercial variant of the machine. What was it like to program? Well, you used BASICPAC, which didn’t look at all like BASIC, if you were wondering.

Looking back over the 60-some-odd years between this system and our modern computers, you could choose to be amused at how primitive the systems were. Or, you can stand in awe that people could look at this new technology and see what could be possible, even if they weren’t quite able to get there right away.

28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Military Graphics In The 1960s

    1. At least modern computers take a bit less space, than 4 trucks.
      I wonder, are these Army machines still used only for data management, communications and logistics? Or are they programmed to generate a valid tactical or strategic plans to be used in the field?

      1. It may take up just as much volume when you consider all the rack mounted servers and network gear, and all the laptops and desktop systems. Not to mention all the generators and UPS that go with them. A DIV TOC may have 100 people working in it…

  1. At the very end, it seems to say that it was developed by the Ford Motor Company (and by the “Aeronutic” division thereof)
    This might explain why it needed quite so many trucks :-)

  2. I kept hearing “generates slides” and I immediately imagined staff running around arguing over what information should be shown on which map and all I could think was “Powerpoint. They invented Powerpoint before Powerpoint even existed.”

    Powerpoint, no matter the era, truly one of the universal constants of the military experience.

    1. Something the military (and first responders) never figured out is the old adage about giving a good sermon; “Talk about God. Talk about 10 minutes”

      Basically stick to your subject and don’t belabor the point. If you can’t do it in 10 to 12 content slides with a few critical bullet points and clean graphics then it probably needs to be a more involved presentation than a power point. Information overload is a serious problem for anyone working at the pointy end of operations. Its no less an issue in meetings and class rooms.

    1. It does computations, too. But it is limited to do mostly data management by the requirements it fulfills. The computations are limited to figuring out, how much stuff there is, where it is and how it can be moved. So the computer mostly generates tables and makes slides. Actually combining digital image generation with photography to store huge amounts of visual data in small space is quite impressive and clever solution to the problem of limited data storage of the era.

  3. Everything has to start somewhere and only ten years later in the 70s you could have a, albeit expensive but still, computer on your desk that could even do primitive graphics and that ran circles around these systems.

    Computers evolved so fast back then that it could make your head spin, every year could bring something new or make something old tiny and cheap(er). And by the end of the 70s you could have the power of the 60s at home for money a normal person could somehow cough up with your spanking new S100 Bus computer with a then powerful 8080 inside.
    And what did most people do with it? The same they do today, play games. :)

  4. The program MOBIDIC was developed under was called FIELDATA, at attempt to use computing technology in the battlefield. Until I learned of this program a few years ago, I only knew fieldata as the name of the character set used by the UNIVAC 1108 and 1106 we had a the University of Maryland (late 70s). The fieldata character set strongly influenced the ASCII character set standard we still use today.

  5. Very interesting, though I’ll admit my mind did sort of fixate on the moment in the second video when the requisition and inventory system was dealing with “atomic artillery”.

    1. I don’t think that is entirely fair. Periscope have sourced, scanned and archived the film. They will sell you their files without the time codes if you want. That’s their business model.
      Alternatively you can borrow the original film and scan it yourself. (maybe…)
      There is a great practical difference between “public domain” and “readily available”

  6. BASICPAC was not the programming language of the system as implied by the article. BASICPAC was a smaller computer than MOBIDIC, which was developed by the Philco Corp. It was intended as part of FIELDATA to be a pre-processing point for data entry to MOBIDIC. BASICPAC was an entirely different computer than MOBIDIC, with smaller main memory and I/O capacity. BASICPAC was programmed in its own form of assembly language, much like MOBIDIC was programmed in its own assembly language. BASICPAC was a mobile computer, but was considerably smaller (but still housed in a trailer) than MOBIDIC and required less support equipment to operate. The implication that BASICPAC was the programming language of the MOBIDIC computer is factually incorrect.

    1. I made a few statements above that are incorrect. BASICPAC used the same architecture as MOBIDIC, so it was program compatible, but was a separate machine with smaller main memory and I/O capabilities. The MOBIDIC architecture developed at Sylvania was passed to Philco for their design of BASICPAC. The were both programmed using the same instruction set (with BASICPAC having subroutine-based implementation of some of the more complex MOBIDIC instructions), and could be programmed using the same assembly language translator that would run on either machine. The goal with both machines was for them to be a family of compatible computers sharing the same basic architecture allowing a choice of machine based on the size/complexity of the tasks to be performed. Aksi BASICPAC wasn’t really housed in a trailer as was MOBIDIC. It was installed in the back part of a military truck with a covered cargo area.

  7. What we currently call BASIC, including that monstrosity Visual BASIC is also nothing like BASIC.

    Long ago the NSA experimented with a mobile semi-truck contained AM radio station.

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