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Nostalgia from the Computer Centre
Roger Woolnough , IT/User Support
History and anecdotes as remembered by one of the Computer Centre Operators.
30 years ago when the Computer Centre was in 510 there was
really close touch with Users and Operators alike. I wonder what
happened to the rolling racks where users sent their jobs in
punched cards contained in small cardboard boxes? Priority jobs had
We had characters that we remembered, the Wim Kleins, those who only came in at night, those that never went home and of course the famous pipe smoker of 513. All these people had cause to pass by whereas now they remain in their offices to work.
We had characters too, one who could tear a phone directory in half, one that worked at a beach and couldn't swim, one who chewed garlic constantly, where are they now? We had CDC engineers with endless patience; I'd seen them clean huge disks over 12hours only for the heads to crash when they land them again, a further 12-hour cleaning job. We had a CDC analyst who spent 3 months in his office to find a bug from dumps and even one that had a station masters hat! In fact we had so many characters then when one wanted to take holiday if the team was not forty strong we were refused. I can see the operations manager counting names in the afternoon and refusing two half days as there were only 38 operators available... But where were they when you needed them?
The machinery has changed slightly. No more one inch magnetic tapes that weighed 8pounds each and took 4 minutes to rewind having been written at 220bpi. No more paper tape that wrecked and was full of static electricity. The punched cards, the box of binary cards so lovingly stacked and then dropped on the floor accidentally. Remember the printers with chains and hammers, pre-printed paper that had carbon in between, anything over 4ply and you couldn't read it...
Even the infamous RIOS (Remote Input Output Stations) that were scattered around the site had tales to tell. The operator who returned without the Renault 4L van he had driven there but had the L-shaped gear stick in his hand having walked back from West Hall. Not to mention a 4L on its roof in the car park on Restaurant no 2 at 2am... Printers that regularly wrecked paper, people found asleep waiting for output.
One of the engineers left the company and became a pinball engineer. There were also the traditional parties that produced their fair share of notoriety. The yearly "fondue" party at the Café de Renfile in Vernier was always well attended, even by the assistant division leader at the time. "Fondue" was not always confined to the pots and one member arrived dressed in a polythene dustbin bag for protection. Naturally with the consumption of alcohol being fairly copious it was always the aftermath that produced the most laughs. Various modes of transport (for those still capable of standing) were then used to continue the festivities in Town, fortunately no members of the Group then had to come to work until the following morning.
Once in 513 the Centre lost some of its' character although the football team still did well. The rolling racks for input jobs were still present although now they came through a wall and you couldn't see who sent them. The famous television set, which projected an image of a white board with magnetic letters, these had to be updated during breakdowns, this happened often. The paternoster device, like an ancient dinosaur that spat out boxes of tapes that came from a dark and mysterious basement area where people came and went independently of other teams, one just hoped they were there when needed. We had a fireman on permanent duty, he turned out to be very useful. The day we had a fire he had to call the fire brigade while the author who was present had to fight the fire! Plastic wrapping around tubing that caught alight in the vault causing extensive damage to the top of the range Newbury terminals we had at the time; never mind, there was always the card-reader.
With innovations came a micro-fiche device, this meant dozens of readers had to be bought, some can still be seen around the site in dark and dusty corners. Still operators came and went. We recruited one person from CERN, later to run away back to England with a female friend. One returned to be a policeman in England, some went to France, Sweden and South Africa, one even became a salesman for ladies underwear. All spreading the word of the great team spirit we had then. Like many other activities it is now out-sourced and instead of the 40 or so persons per team we are down to 1, that's progress but the characters are missing!