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
This typewriter console has now been
replaced by a $50 keyboard that is totally sealed and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
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
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
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