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Example with a context (Object-Oriented Design in Java by Bill Mccarty and Stephen Gilbert (1998)):

If you remember your first programming class, this might set off a light bulb. Before the advent of structured programming, back in the days of "iron men," when "big-iron" was not merely metaphorical, computer programs were largely monolithic—they had no procedures at all. Thus, when a programmer needed to execute a piece of code in another part of the program, an unconditional branch was used; such branches were called gotos. As programs got larger, the typical path of program execution began to resemble a large web. Such code became known as spaghetti code, code that was difficult or impossible to understand and thus difficult or impossible to maintain, fix, or change.

Big iron is a slang expression that computer-savvy people use to describe those large mainframes that were used by first computer scientists during the dawn of the computer era. But who were those iron men the author is talking about?

  • Not absolutely sure if this is it, but I remember that I've heard the term "iron man" (or men) used once in a movie about American football. When they go iron-men, it means that the same players will play both defense and offense, which is very demanding, and only tough men can do it. I think it was the same about programming way back then, i.e. only tough guys could made it. I searched a bit for "ironman" in the NFL context, and found this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-platoon_system. – Damkerng T. May 13 '15 at 8:41
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    Even as the authors were writing, many of these "big iron" programs were managing the data of companies all around the world. The pace of change was much, much slower back in the green-screen days, before Windows, and then the internet, arrived on the scene. The emphasis was on stability and reliability. Operating systems did not get weekly patches, and when an O/S vendor introduced a new feature, it had been thoroughly tested before being released to the public. Many of these pre-GUI programs are still running, many of them bug-free, after 30 years. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 13 '15 at 10:44
  • I am not convinced that the quoted passage is historically accurate. Given the dubious nature of some of the other assertions in the passage, it would not surprise me if the authors invented this particular meaning of "iron man" themselves. On the other hand, "big iron" is a well-known term in the field of computing. – David K May 13 '15 at 13:24
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Iron man, in many contexts is the 'best of the best', the toughest in that situation.

The obvious parallel to draw is with comics - both the US Marvel comics' Iron Man & it's indirect predecessor, Japan's Tetsujin Nijūhachi-gō [Iron Man number 28]

It is often used in sports - From Damkerng T.'s comment - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-platoon_system

The one-platoon system, also known as iron man football, was a system in American football where players played on both offense and defense.

It is also used in athletics - there are several versions of the Triathlon
- from the easy one, a mere 750m swim, immediately followed by a 20km cycle ride, then a 5km run…
Up to the Iron Man version - 3.8km swim, 180km cycle, 42km run

In the context of computing, then there is the double-parallel.
These men were not only the best of the best, but they actually worked with machines known colloquially as 'big iron'.
The comparison was unavoidable - iron men they became.

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  • Ahh... Surely Tetsujin 28 must know the answer. ;-) – Damkerng T. May 13 '15 at 9:17
  • /me grins - it's actually been my nickname since the early 90s in Japan… so, yes, I've been there, done that, wore out the t-shirt long ago ;-) – gone fishin' again. May 13 '15 at 9:19
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It's a bit of a double-entendre. It's meant to evoke the conventional meaning of "iron man" meaning someone who is strong (literally or metaphorically) and determined — compare the phrase "wooden ships and iron men" used to describe the Age of Sail. Then, half a sentence later it brings up the "big iron" mainframes and you get the literal meaning that the "iron men" were the programmers and operators who worked with the big iron. But the previous meaning is transferred on top, and you're meant to be left with a sense that these iron men were Real Programmers who did legendary things with no tools but a pencil and their bare hands.

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