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Computers Ain't No Fun No More


by John S. Krill

In the beginning there were these great big oversized heaters that somehow did computations. The tape drives were as large as refrigerators, disk drives that look like washing machines; printers that sounded like a Mack truck driving through your living room; and a typewriter that thought it was a console.

Lets start with that typewriter console. As a typewriter it was one of the best ever made. IBM had to have made millions of them. The first typewriter with font selection. That's right the reliable old Selectric typewriter. IBM thought this thing would make a great system console for their computers. The problem was it operated at full speed when used as a computer console. This means that every mechanical adjustment had to be perfect. The most common problem was the print head would get chipped away. That was $25 a pop. We kept 3 typewriter consoles at ready. One working, one being repaired (by yours truly of course) and one in standby.

This typewriter console has now been replaced by a $50 keyboard that is totally sealed and gets junked if any problems occur and a graphical monitor that is beyond the scope of this former field service engineer. Computers just ain't no fun no more.

Those refrigerator size tape drives were another Rube Goldberg classic. Whenever 'Mission Impossible' needed to show some kind of computer device it was these tape drives moving tape back and forth between two 12 inch reels of tape that would get all the attention.

The way these things worked was by running the tape from one reel down and up a vacuum column between a capstan and another wheel over the read/write head past another capstan down and up another vacuum column and onto the take-up reel.

The capstan was used to move tape past the read/write head at a constant speed. Magnets were used to force a wheel against one of the capstans. Not only did the adjustments of the magnets have to be perfect but they also had to be clean. This is where I learned the most important rule of a field service engineer: If it ain't broke don't fix it. After I did preventive maintenance on one of these tape drives it never really worked right again.

With today's streamer tape drives you still have problems. You still have to clean the tape heads. But if the tape drive fails then just replace it and junk the old one. Computers just ain't no fun no more.

That printer, standing 5 feet high and 3 feet deep, I mentioned earlier eventually had a special cover installed to cut down on the noise. This cover was the problem. The cover normally lifted up from the from the front so computer operators could load paper. If any service had to be done then the cover had to be raised from the rear. This involved a couple of levers. Sounds easy - not so. If you didn't move the levers properly the cover would try to raise from the front and rear at the same time. I can't begin to tell you how much fun that was! Computers just ain't no fun no more.

Every morning when I arrived at the computer center I always had at least one disk drive that needed adjusting. I can only say that with all electromechanical devices they are constantly changing because of wear and tear. Me, my stool, oscilloscope, and tool kit could be found in front of these creatures every morning. Usually before coffee. There were 27 (3 were off-line and used as spares) of these disk drives at the computer center. At 40 Megabytes each that's about 960 Megabytes of storage.

Today you can go down to any computer store and get a gigabyte of disk for under $300. The disks are completely sealed and no one can repair them. If the disk fails and you need to get the data off you must send it to a repair facility with a clean room. Computers just ain't no fun no more.

Besides the disk, tape, and printers there was the trusty IBM 2540 card reader/punch. Remember when government checks came on a 80 column punch card. Well it was the 2540 that did the hole punching. At my computer center the paychecks (80 column cards) would be delivered with the check number already printed and punched in the card. The local site would print the payee's name and the amount of the check. Then the card punch would punch in the amount. On this one occasion I was checking the punch for the accuracy of the holes it created. When I read the check number printed on the card and compared it with the check number punched they didn't match. They were one digit off.

A military jet had to fly to somewhere back east and get replacement checks and fly back to the west coast and get the checks printed and punched before the following morning. I can't tell you how upset a US Marine can be if his payroll check doesn't arrive. I found the punch error at 5pm. At 8am the next morning the helicopters were taking off with the newly printed and punched checks. Computers just ain't no fun no more.

I could go on but it just more of the same. Computers have become more reliable, faster, more efficient, less costly, and accomplish much more with a whole lot less. But are they as much fun? I don't think so. Its just another machine waiting to be junked in 6 months for a newer, faster model.

Oh well, computers just ain't no fun no more.

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