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My life in computers 5d, ICL System 4, Bulgaria and Greece: adventures

8 Jul

(Continued from 5c)

Strictly this and the last two posts are not very much about computers, but none of what’s reported here would have happened without my involvement in them. In this last post, some additional adventures that happened.

The Western Easter Sunday that year fell on 29 March, 1970. Although the Bulgarians were still working, some folk in the British embassy proposed a trip down to Thessaloniki for the Easter weekend. I think there were a couple of cars. I do remember the change as we crossed the border, leaving the ramshackle Bulgarian housing behind and seeing the whitewashed Greek houses. I also remember the crunch as we unavoidably ran over migrating tortoises! This was the period when the Colonel’s Junta was running Greece as a right wing, authoritarian state… but we still enjoyed our weekend by the sea on warm sunshine. That was quite a memorable weekend.

Boats in Thessaloniki

Boats in Thessaloniki. Werra 1, ORWO NP20, CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

On the way back (or maybe the way there, I’m not sure) we visited the Rila Monastery with its remarkable black and white architecture in the shadow of the mountains…

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria. Werra 1, ORWO NP20. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge

I also remember the occasion when the London to Mexico Rally came through Sofia. This shot was taken from a window at the Institute, and shows car no 22, an Alfa Romeo Giulia riven by Bob de Jong… not one of the finishers! This was probably 23 April 1970, a few days after the start. The marathon rally had started at Wembley, travelled through Europe to Lisbon in Portugal, then by sea to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, down to Argentina, across to Santiago in Chile then up the East Coast of South America to Mexico. I don’t know where car 22 withdrew, sadly.

London to Mexico rally passing through Sofia, Bulgaria.

London to Mexico rally passing through Sofia, Bulgaria. Werra 1, ORWO NP20. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

Our work must have finished just after that, with the converted ICL System 4 Structural Analysis suite successfully delivered to the Institute!

The others flew back to Britain, but I decided to fly down to Athens. I spent a day there (taking a whole roll of out-of-focus photos of the Acropolis area!), and then took a boat to Mykonos, where I stayed another few days (the header image of this blog was taken there). I found a little, spartan room above a bar, right on the harbour-front (I think it’s above the awning in this image, just beyond the little church).

Mykonos, Greece

Mykonos, Greece. Werra 1, Kodak Plus X. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

On 26 April, it was the Orthodox Easter Sunday, marked by long, mass processions through the little town, and lots of singing. As in the Cathedral in Sofia, this was a more heartfelt celebration of religion than I had ever experienced in the UK!

This last image was from another day in one of the back allies in Mykonos… I think I won a second place in ICL’s photography competition with this one!

Back alley in Mykonos

Back alley, Mykonos. Werra 1, Kodak Plus-X. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge

After returning to Athens, I went out to the airport to catch my plane back. There was a lot of terrorism at that time, and the airport at Athens was reckoned to be one the security weak spots. They made us walk out to the plane, where the checked luggage had all been laid out. We had to identify our bags, which were then loaded as we got on the plane. After we had been sat there for some time, I glanced out of the window, to see my bag alone on the ground, with worried looking officials backing away from it! I had to run down and tell them it was mine; someone must have missed my indication.

There was a sequel to this whole Bulgarian adventure. Later that year, we got some bug reports from the Institute for Constructional Cybernetics; our suite was giving incorrect results. We got them to send us their data, ran it on our computers, and the results were perfect. Suspecting a machine fault, I was sent back to Sofia for a few days, in the company of one of the development engineers. I had to debug the problem right there, inserting print statements through the code, and eventually isolated it to one line of FORTRAN that was giving incorrect results. The engineer then opened up the machine, and proceeded to single-step the corresponding micro-code until he identified the fault. I thought between us that was a pretty reasonable bit of customer service!


My life in computers 5c, ICL System 4, Sofia: the people

8 Jul

(Continued from 5b)

"Presspunkt" kiosk

“Presspunkt” kiosk. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

A kiosk in the centre of Sofia on a sunny afternoon, selling newspapers, cards, tobacco and cigarettes, maybe a little alcohol… Telephone kiosks to the right. This is still some 20 years before the first brick-sized mobile phones!

The Bulgarians we worked with were pleasant people, perhaps a little wary of us. There were frequent “name days” to be celebrated with food and fierce spirits (slivovitz?). These colleagues were discouraged from socialising with us, however, and we spent quite a lot of our evenings at either the British or the US embassies. Every Sunday we went out for lunch at a particular restaurant with some of the embassy staff. The favoured dish was “Givetsch” which was a casserole dish (I think related to the Hungarian Goulash, but IIRC from a base of lamb), which we very much enjoyed. (I can’t find a recipe for this!) Every table would have a little jar in its centre, in which were a number of small green chillies. On one occasion one of the embassy staff bet that he could eat a dozen of these chillies… which he duly attempted. He managed very well for the first half dozen or so, then began to struggle. In the end he succeeded, but I seriously thought he might die!

The regime was relatively benign, as communist regimes go, at least for us Western visitors. However, there were limits. I had a birthday while we were there, and a group of about 10 dined out at a very nice restaurant. Afterwards, we split up a bit, and I wandered back to the hotel. The next morning,  my colleague Richard Were failed to turn up at breakfast. He wasn’t in his room either. So when I got to work I rang the Consulate and got them on the case, and they rang round the local hospitals, without success. I was getting quite worried (panicking even) that someone I was responsible for had disappeared (I was just in my mid 20s…). But shortly after lunch a rather sheepish Richard re-appeared, clutching a broken pair of glasses. Apparently after the meal he’d decided to go on to a night club, had become best mates with someone from another Eastern Bloc country (with whom he had no common language) and, well, not too put too fine a point on it, had been arrested for the equivalent of drunk and disorderly and assaulting a police officer. He’d been kept in a cell overnight (without his trousers, apparently!), and in the morning had been given a severe talking to. They said if he’d been Bulgarian they would have been informing his employers, and put him on a warning. I was extremely happy to see him, and we did become a bit more cautious after that.

On one occasion at a weekend, I remember we decided to try a local (cafeteria-style) café. We couldn’t really decode the menu, so the idea was to queue up with the rest, stick our heads through the hatch and point. When we got there, we discovered that around half the surface area in the kitchen was covered in cooked sheep’s heads! One of our party (not me) was brave enough to try one; it was put on a board and split in two with a cleaver, before being transferred to a plate…

Generally we didn’t have much interaction with the locals, other than the Name Days. One waiter however did get friendly with us, chatting to us on successive days for a period (probably practising his English). One day he decided to invite us to his apartment on his day off. We duly went to his tiny one bedroom apartment in which around 8 people lived, and were treated like honoured guests. Unfortunately, we didn’t see that waiter again for a while, and when he did come back a couple of weeks later, he refused to come anywhere near us. We reckoned that the authorities had taken a dim view and he had been “re-educated”.

This wasn’t the only example of authoritarian action. I had to fly back to London for progress meetings once a month (via Vienna). On one occasion as I got into the departure lounge, I was hailed by one of the US Marines, who was waiting there with the “diplomatic bag”. He pointed out a distraught young lady sitting nearby, beside a large Bulgarian man. The latter was apparently holding her passport; she was being deported. She had taken up with a young Bulgarian man; this was frowned on but tolerated. Unfortunately she had fallen pregnant. There was a danger they might marry, which at the time might have given her husband a right to British citizenship. So when the pregnancy became known there had been a dawn raid, she had been held for a couple of days, and here she was. The Marine wanted me to look out for her on the flight back. The Bulgarian security guy accompanied her to the foot of the plane steps, then handed her the passport. Unfortunately we were on different flights from Vienna, so I wasn’t able to be much use to her.

In the previous post there is a picture of a rather ruined-looking building, with a hotel just near. Here are the other 3 members of our team in a stairwell of that hotel, looking out over the city.

My colleagues looking out over Sofia

Richard, unknown team member and Andrew looking out over Sofia. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

And here are the 3 of them up on Mount Vitosha giving me a hard time!

Team throwing snowballs at me

Andrew, unknown colleague and Richard giving me a hard time on Mount Vitosha. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

(Continued in 5d)

My life in computers 5b, ICL System 4, Sofia: the place

8 Jul

(Continued from 5a)

So what was Communist Bulgaria in winter like? In retrospect, and looking at my photos, the word that springs to mind is “grim”. Not that winter in the UK in the late 60s had been anything very fancy!

We could take a tram into work (which was in the very centre of Sofia), but after being crammed in tight with a hundred or so Bulgarians a couple of times, we preferred to walk. The, um, differences in diet and, um, personal hygiene made the rush-hour trams an ordeal. (I’m sure, looking back, the Bulgarians found us decadent Westerners just as much of a problem!)

Tram in front of the mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria

Tram in front of the mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

At the centre was the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral. Officially Communism rather frowned on the church, I think, but the Bulgarians were a bit more open. I went there once, and found it a remarkable experience. Unlike any English Cathedral I’d been in, there were no chairs or pews, just lots of people milling around and chatting. From somewhere above and behind, ethereal singing emerged, soprano voices alternating with deep basses enhancing a quite religious experience (I learned later that the singers were from the Bulgarian Opera). The religious ceremony itself seemed to be taking place behind deep screens, which were occasionally opened so that the congregation could see, presumably some significant part of the ritual. I found myself quite moved.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria. Werra 1 with FP4. Image CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

Elsewhere near the centre was the mosque (I believe named Banya Bashi), a remnant from the time when the Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria.

Mosque, Sofia Bulgaria

Mosque, Sofia Bulgaria.. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

Some parts of Sofia were pretty run down. Here’s an example (the tall building to the right of the frame was our hotel).

Building near our hotel, Sofia Bulgaria

Building near our hotel, Sofia Bulgaria. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge, 1970

Just outside Sofia is Vitosha, a mountain with a ski resort. We went there a couple of times; tram out to the end of the line, then cable car up to the resort area. The ordinary folk down in the streets were clearly struggling, but up here the favoured youth were enjoying their skiing in (relatively) fancy clothes, drinking in the cafes and socialising.

Cafe on Mount Vitosha, Sofia.

Cafe on Mount Vitosha, Sofia. Werra 1, FP4. CC-BY Chris Rusbridge

(Continued in 5c)

My life in computers 5a, ICL System 4… and Bulgaria

8 Jul

I mentioned previously that ICL was formed from the (forced) merger of ICT with English Electric Leo Marconi. Later I was told that, in anticipation of the merger, EE’s salesmen had been sent out to sell as many of their System 4 computers as possible, including with promises of ICL 1900 series application software running on them. Apparently this was to inflate the book value of the company, and therefore presumably shareholder compensation for the merger!

As a consequence, not long after the merger we were faced with the task of making our software on a computer we knew nothing about and had no access to. Luckily they soon found a couple of System 4 programmers who were seconded to us, and began working with me on the structural analysis suite. The work was tricky for all sorts of technical reasons, none of which I can remember, but also because we did not have access to an on-site System 4. It was bad enough with our batch approach and overnight turnarounds, but with the System 4 we had turnarounds of several days. Meanwhile, some of the customers were taking delivery of their computers, and beginning to demand their software.

ICL System 4 in Poland

ICL_system_4,_ZIPO,_Trójmiasto-Przymorze_(I197505). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons,_ZIPO,_Trójmiasto-Przymorze_(I197505).jpg

At some point towards the end of 1969, my boss called me in to a meeting with his boss. They had a proposition: would I be willing to go on-site at a customer with our small team? The catch was that the customer was the curiously named Institute for Constructional Cybernetics… in Sofia, Bulgaria! I can’t find any reference to the Institute on t’Internet, but I’m pretty sure that was (the English version of) its name.

So, to cut the story a bit shorter, some time in January 1970 saw 4 of us installed in a hotel in Sofia. We lived in various hotels over the next few months; we had to move on from time to time as our rooms were needed for delegations from different Communist countries. Because, yes, Bulgaria was thoroughly Communist at this time.

To step back a bit, the System 4 was a quite different architecture from the 1900. Instead of 6-bit characters and 24-bit words, the System 4 was based on the RCA Spectra 70, an approximate IBM System/360 clone, with 8-bit bytes and 32-bit words. The character set was EBCDIC, rather than a 63-character subset of ASCII. It was a card-based entry system, like the 1900, but by now was more oriented to removable disk drives (of a few megabytes), although we still kept our source code on magnetic tapes. My job was team leader, and expert in the application suite, so I was able to leave most of the System 4 details to my colleagues. One of these was Richard Were, another was Andrew, and I can’t remember the name of the third! A 4th fellow joined us after a while, with long hair and a very casual attitude, maybe named Hugh. I was rather worried about him, and I don’t remember him staying long.

Like the Soviet Union, Bulgarian currency was “soft”, which meant that it couldn’t be used to buy goods from overseas. They had to spend real “hard” currency for things like Line Printer paper… which had real effects on us, as our program listings would come back on multiple sets of re-used paper (usually, but not always on the back). They weren’t used to the environmental requirements of these computers either, and were constantly in trouble from the ICL engineers for running the computer room too warm. However, we were lucky to have priority access to the on-site computer. Nevertheless, the work took a long time, the best part of 4 months in Bulgaria.

These days it might not be obvious why converting a suite of FORTRAN programs from one computer to another might take so long. It wouldn’t be so bad if the 1900 and System 4 were similar architectures, or designed to be compatible or migratable (as the ICL “New Range” was, later). But they were fundamentally different: word lengths, bytes versus characters, floating point, memory size, input/output and temporary storage architecture. And so on. As well, the dialects of FORTRAN were different; although the core of FORTRAN was standardised, different companies added different add-on features. Interoperability not being a big thing before this, many of those add-ons had been used, and had to be re-implemented in different ways. I’ve also mentioned that computers were incredibly small and slow for the job of structural analysis (despite being physically huge); the result was that all sorts of techniques were used to lever bigger problems into smaller memory, and speed up execution. This often meant tricky games like re-using storage areas from the input phase in a later phase of a program. If the second use isn’t quite the same size as the earlier one in the new environment (maybe over-writing something else), that’ll give you a serious headache finding it!

(Continued in 5b…)

My life in computers 4, the Russian “R Series”?

3 Jul

Some time in mid 1969 I got a surprising invitation… to go to Moscow! Apparently the Russians were interested in building a new range of computers, supposedly dubbed the “R Series”. They had been snubbed by the Americans (sanctions?), and had decided to probe a deal with ICL. They were interested in the architecture and technology of the ICL System 4 Series (based roughly on the IBM System/360, and of which more later). So a party was to go over and meet with some computing bigwigs there.

I knew nothing about the System 4 at the time, but they were interested in engineering applications, so I was invited along to talk about the ones we supported on the 1900 series. As will become clear in the next article, there were company discussions starting up about converting our applications to work on the System 4, and we were pretty sure it could be done.

I was told to meet a couple of guys from Head Office at Heathrow, and off we went on a packed British European Airways flight to Moscow. Until quite recently I still had a BEA flight bag from then lying about in the loft. I think I got a window seat, and was transfixed as we flew lower and lower on the approach to Moscow airport. Some of the little settlements and farms we flew over looked very primitive.

We stayed in the Grand Hotel in Red Square. I’d been warned that much of what we said to one another would be picked up by Russian security, but I admit I hadn’t expected the table lamps in the hotel restaurant to have two wires coming from them! There was a babushka sitting near the lift on each floor; I had no idea what her duties were (apparently to “look after the needs of the guests”?).

Added: I had spent a little time beforehand trying to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. The first morning I laboriously transliterated a breakfast menu item as “chemendecks”, before it dawned on me that it was ham and eggs! I was pleased to see “chai anglyski s limon”, expecting English tea, but was a bit surprised to get black tea in a glass with a slice of lemon. Quite enjoyed it, however.

I did get a little time for exploring, in the immediate Red Square area. I remember going into a shop at one point (GUM?); it took a while to work out the system. You had to go round and identify what you wanted to buy, get a ticket, then queue to pay for it, then queue somewhere else to pick it up. I had decided not to risk taking a camera, so I’ve no photos to share.

We soon discovered that we couldn’t buy anything useful with roubles; we had to spend “hard currency” (US dollars or perhaps pounds), and we got change in roubles. In one restaurant after a gargantuan 4-hour meal, the guys didn’t have enough hard currency to pay the bill. The server was distraught; I gather he had to pay the kitchen for the food. Then he spotted a lighter one of the guys had, and agreed that would make up the difference… provided it came with some more flints! The guy went back next day and provided them.

I made my presentation, but I never learned much about the Russian’s computing plans. There was a marathon session on our last day, where some sort of joint statement was agreed, but I was too junior to be involved, other than to help consume the vodka, caviar and smoked fish that was brought in to sustain us through the evening.

At the airport on the way out, we discovered that we couldn’t change our excess roubles back into hard currency. I used mine up buying caviar and vodka, which went into my (cheap, cardboard) suitcase. I was very annoyed on getting home to discover that my vodka bottle had smashed, marinating my clothes and other possessions!

In stark contrast to the packed BAE flight on the way out, our Aeroflot return flight on an Ilyushin 62 (referred to in Britain as a VC10-ski, after unsubstantiated allegations of design theft) was almost completely empty, so we enjoyed first class meals with Georgian red wine and brandy on the journey!

I always assumed that nothing had come of this exploration, but it was interesting to read this in a Wikipedia article on the History of computing in the Soviet Union: “An alternative option, a partnership with the Britain-based International Computers Limited, was considered but ultimately rejected.”

My life in computers 3b, ICT/ICL 1900 Series: Engineering software

24 Jun

As mentioned in the previous post, sometime in my first year at ICT, the department moved from Putney to Reading Bridge House (and about the same time ICT merged with English Electric Leo Marconi to become ICL). Graham Allen chose not to move with us. At some point after this, the department head Bill Morrison made me team leader of the Civil Engineering team. This was vaguely terrifying… I asked Bill how on earth I could make the decisions he wanted, since there never seemed to be enough information. I’ll not forget his advice: do your best to find out all the relevant information you can, make the best decision you can on the evidence, but then, crucially, make it work! I’ve tried to live up to this, but it’s not easy.

The software I was now responsible for included Cut and Fill (*), helping work out how best to balance cuttings and embankments in road design to minimise transport costs; Slip Circle Analysis (**) which helped work out how to avoid embankments collapsing; and Storm Sewer Analysis and Design (***). At one point we got a TELEX from the ICL office in Brisbane, Queensland, to say that the latter program wasn’t working properly. We asked for evidence and they replied saying that it predicted storm drains smaller than the ones that were already overflowing! We realised eventually that the programs had implicit assumptions that rainfall fell in the relatively gentle way common in the UK, that could safely be averaged over (perhaps) a day. In Brisbane, these assumptions didn’t hold, as the day’s rain could easily fall in 10 minutes.

In those days, this applications software was a free giveaway to persuade potential customers to buy ICL’s machines rather than someone else’s. I don’t remember if Brisbane City Council had already bought their machine, or whether an order was dependent on the problem being fixed. However, we couldn’t see an easy way of fixing it that wouldn’t unduly burden existing users. So in the end, we sent them the source code, and let them modify it themselves! This would never happen these days.

On the evening of Friday, 16 October 1970, I was driving home and heard the news on my car radio that the Westgate Bridge, then under construction in Melbourne, had collapsed, resulting in the death of 32 workers. The consulting engineers Freeman Fox were mentioned. I knew that they were users of our structural analysis software, so I spend a very anxious weekend wondering if I had somehow made some errors that had helped cause their deaths. On Monday morning a flurry of TELEXes and phone calls helped establish that their design was done with different software. Sigh of relief on my part, but a salutary lesson: software can kill people (the enquiry alleged the design was one of the two main contributory factors).

At that time there were no “computer science” courses, so there were very few trained programmers (hence the residential training course). Companies found people from all sorts of disciplines… although they were primarily graduates, and hence nearly all white middle class. I don’t remember seeing a person of colour working at that time (though my practical partner at Imperial for the first two years had been of Pakistani origin). Not all male; there were certainly quite a few women (though far less than 50%), and there was one truly amazing disabled guy working in the Putney office. He had the use of only one arm, and moved around in an electric wheel chair, that charged up in the entrance hall overnight, when he drove himself home in his modified car. He did everything with a combination of his one good arm and his bad one, which he would use as a prop to push a deck of cards against, so that he could find and extract some cards and insert others (the manual equivalent of the editing program). I had huge admiration for that fellow, though it was too difficult for him to move to Reading.

As young programmers, we had quite a good life. My starting salary was £1,100 per year, several times more than my University grant of £300 a year (OK, Boomer!). There was enough money to live fairly well, to socialise (mainly pubs, we tended not to go to restaurants), and buy a car.

I remember an American visitor to work, perhaps named Kurt Lemon; a group of us decided to take him to the pub, and there was then a back and forth discussion about the merits of different pubs, how well the landlord kept his beer, and so on. Kurt looked at us rather bemused, and suggested we had quite a beer sub-culture going on, quite as much as the wine sub-culture back in California. I’d never thought of it like that, but yes. Thinking back some 50 years, we certainly did not realise how much of a charmed generation we were!


* 1900 Series Cut and Fill

** 1900 Series Slip Circle Analysis

*** 1900 Series Storm Sewer Analysis and Design

My life in computers 3a, ICT 1900 Series: Engineering software

24 Jun

I joined International Computers and Tabulators the summer after University. After an initial 7-week residential training course at Moor Hall, in Cookham, Berkshire, I was assigned to ICT’s Engineering Software department at Putney, and then Reading. Naturally, given that I’d spent the best part of a year studying Electrical Engineering, they put me on the maintenance of 3 suites of Structural Analysis programs (*)! The late 1960s were a time of huge expansion, and in particular motorways needed curved bridges, which were too complex for engineers to analyse by hand. They needed help from programs like these. However, the limitations of the computer system put real constraints on what could be done.

ICL 1900 series computer and console

ICL 1900 series with a Westrex teletype as the operators console. CC-BY Andy Roberts,

The 1900 series computers were 24-bit word, 6-bit character machines, and the smallest (1901) had 16K (that’s Kilo, not Mega or Giga) words, of which 4K were reserved for the Exec, a very primitive operating system with which the system operators (humans!) interacted via a console. To make our software applicable to all machines in the range, it had to run in those 12K words. Yes, I was supporting engineering software that real civil engineers used to help them analyse bridge designs, for a machine with less memory than the Apple II (many years later)! To make it worse, none of the machines at that time had disks. Each one would have at least 2 magnetic tape drives, a card reader taking 80-column cards, and a line printer. That lot would require an air-conditioned space bigger than most people’s living rooms.

It’s hard to imagine now how different computing was then. This was a thoroughly batch-oriented world. We worked from line printer listings on 11×17” paper, writing out our programs or amendments on coding sheets that were sent off to be punched. Source code would be on magnetic reel to reel tapes; we each would have at least 3 tapes for each suite, in a grandfather-father-son cycle. IIRC the line editing program was called #XKYA; it would take a sequence of commands and lines of code, something like: go to line 346, delete the next 15 lines, insert the following lines instead. Pretty much all the code in our department was FORTRAN, which was helpful! Anyway, once we got our cards back from the punch-room, we’d make out some job sheets and submit them with the deck… and get on with something else until the job was finished, usually the next day (sometimes later)! We would usually get back a sheaf of line printer paper, and maybe some comments from the operators, like “we thought this was probably looping, so we stopped it”. Then it was back to the desk to figure out what we’d done wrong.

At some point in any structural analysis, you need to do a matrix inversion. Large memory or fast disks give you lots of options on how to do this, but we had neither. So the matrix inversion was done tape to tape, by Newton’s iteration. There would be a tape with the data on it, processed by the first of 6 programs in the suite. Then at some point the matrix would be written out to a new “scratch” tape, processed across to a second tape, then back to the first, back and forth, one pass for each line of the matrix (up to 600). It was no wonder the operators thought the program was looping! To stop them aborting perfectly good jobs, I had to output a decreasing count to the console; they were then happy to leave it running at least until the count got down to zero!

As you can imagine, the kind of computing environment I described above makes software development very slow. We did have one other option, when deadlines were pressing. The larger machines in the 1900 series were built at ICT’s factory at West Gorton in Manchester, and were left running test programs on the machine floor for several days to make sure they were working properly. From time to time we were able to get permission to use the test machines overnight for a few days in a row. We would travel up to Manchester, stay in a guest house, and work overnight, as operators, card punchers, etc. These were bigger, faster machines, and we could get several runs each night… almost interactive development!

On one particular occasion we had been working overnight all week, and on Friday afternoon headed off back to London, with me as the passenger in the Lotus Elan driven by my team leader, Graham Allen. For some reason he chose to drive down the A6; I used to think this was because the northern parts of the M6 had not opened, but on checking it appears it had opened; perhaps it was just easier to get to the A6. This was winter, and it had been snowing, and up in the hills somewhere we got in a queue on a single carriageway road, behind a slow-moving truck. At some point Graham spotted a clear road ahead, and pulled out into the oncoming traffic lane, putting his foot down as he did. He completely misjudged the snow and ice, and combined with the power from his rear wheels we were very quickly doing a slalom back and forth as he struggled to get control. I could see the big wheels of the truck to my left, and oncoming traffic ahead. Luckily, the car got into a bit of a spin… off the road to the right!

We ended up facing backwards. The car had flexed so much that the passenger door had opened, slammed round and pulled its hinges out through the fibreglass body. We had to trudge back 50 yards in the snow and bring it back, and once we got the car turned around, I had to hold the door closed with my scarf. So, this story could well have ended just there. I was pleased that he drove a lot more carefully for the rest of the journey (including having to drive backwards up a hill somewhere!).


* 1900 Series Plane-frame, Grid and Space-frame Analysis, part of the 1900 Series Structural Analysis Suite. The first two were flat, 2-dimensional structures, vertical and horizontal respectively, while the 3rd was full 3-dimensional.


My life in computers 2, Facit calculator

17 Jun

Yes, that’s right… the first computing practical I was officially required to take during my 3rd year EE option was to solve numerical problems using a Facit mechanical calculator (similar to the one in this page and the Facit CI-13 shown above). The target problem was, if I remember correctly, solving partial differential equations by Newton’s approximation. Imagine it, a small room with rows of 20 or so desks, with a calculator on each one. 2-3 hour sessions, twice a week for 3 weeks. If anything was going to persuade me of the value of electronic computers, this drudgery was it!

Of course, historically this was probably a sensible practical, although right at the end of its usefulness. My father was a mechanical engineer in the Army. I’d used his slide rule as a kid, and played with his nifty planimeter, a device for measuring the area of an arbitrary shape, both precision mechanical analogue computing devices. Both these were simple to use, but limited in their application.

The numerical calculator and the numerical techniques that went with them, allowed engineers to address a much wider range of problems, even if they were unwieldy and required painstaking care over many hours. Meanwhile out in the world, engineers were addressing every more complex problems that needed solutions. There is a quote attributed (probably falsely, and quite a lot earlier) to Thomas Watson, then head of IBM: “I think there is a world market for about five computers”. The existence of these rooms full of mechanical “computers”, and the demand that they represented, showed that there was indeed a much wider market… if computers could become cheap enough!

My life in computers 1, IBM 7094

17 Jun

I studied Physics at Imperial College in the mid 1960s. At that time, as far as I know there was only one digital computer in the whole College, an IBM 7094. In the Physics honours degree, only the Theoretical Physics course in 3rd year were taught any programming, at all. I didn’t make the grade for that course, and ended up in an Electrical Engineering course instead. However, I was very interested in the idea of programming, so I moonlighted at the back of the computing lectures, learning some FORTRAN, and persuaded one of my smarter friends to get my code sheets punched, and run my card decks for me. No course credits, and it probably contributed to my getting a worse degree than I should have (as I wasn’t concentrating on the course I was supposed to be taking), but that moonlighted course certainly changed my life. After the “milk round” interviews (in those days keen employers sent recruiters round Universities to interview prospects), I was offered a physics job at EMI or a computing job at International Computers and Tabulators (ICT, that later became ICL), and decided to take the latter.

I never saw the 7094, or knew much about it. I did hear, either at that time or later, that the 7094 ran some programs that emulated the even older IBM 1401, and some administration programs were running under that older system. I was told later on, that the IBM 360 emulated the 7094 while it was emulating the 1401. Crazy!

AARNet, the Pilots’ Strike, and an earthquake

17 Mar

The previous two articles, resurrected from last century (!) tell a bit of the story of the creation of AARNet, the beginning of the Internet in Australia. There’s a lot more in “20 years of the Internet in Australia” by Glenda Korporaal, published in 2009. But here is a (possibly) amusing little anecdote about some work towards the establishment of the network, in 1989.

At that time I was Academic Computing Services Manager at the South Australian Institute of Technology (later part of the University of South Australia), and was also the sysadmin for our first Unix box, and established our first ACSnet (intermittent) connection to Melbourne (see previous articles).

In the second half of the year, the infamous Australian Pilots’ Strike began. At about the same time, the AARNet project was given the go-ahead. I was part of a small group working on the equipment purchase. Tenders were drawn up, probably by Geoff Huston, and then in October a meeting was called in Canberra to evaluate the tender responses. I was one of the group of 6. The strike was still on, so getting to Canberra was still a challenge. At that time the RAAF was operating some Hercules transport aircraft for commercial flights on the Adelaide to Sydney route, and I managed to get a “seat” on one of these. It was quite an experience. We were seated in webbing seats in 4 rows along the length of the aircraft, two rows facing one another. A strapping Flight Sergeant introduced himself as our lovely cabin crew, and reminded us of the (complete lack of) facilities on board, and the safety procedures, which consisted of a reminder that there were only 3 parachutes on board, his and the two in the Flight Deck! Anyway, that was the noisy, uncomfortable and slow journey to Sydney, and from there I had a seat in a smallish plane to Canberra (I think the leader of the strike was on the same plane).

Anyway, our meeting was over a couple of days; on about the second day one of the guys got a message to check his email. Apparently there had been an earthquake in San Francisco (and surrounding areas), where the far end of Australia’s internet connection to the world was located (at FIX-WEST, IIRC). That earthquake was the terrible “Loma Prieta” earthquake, in which 67 people died, on 17 October, 1989, which I guess pretty much fixes the dates for our meeting!

I remember there were reasonable tenders from cisco and Wellfleet (then based in Massachusetts, I think, later subsumed into Nortel). We were split down the middle, 3 for each, and all convinced of our positions. Eventually one of us changed his vote (I’m not saying who, but I know his name!), and cisco won. Probably a good choice.

The journey home was similar to the one out… but worse, as when the Hercules was half an hour out of Sydney a passenger was taken ill, and we had to turn back to Sydney, and wait in the plane on the tarmac for a couple of hours, while he was evacuated, and the fuel topped up.

Still, quite an adventure!