Postcard from - Mainframe Operations

Many years ago I worked at an engineering company in the UK. It had an old wooden computer room in the middle of an equally old building. The operations staff were largely ex-miners who wanted an easier and safer life. Because the machine ran 24/7, so did the operations shifts, although the workload was a lot lower over night.

The main job was keeping the big, noisy chain printers fed with boxes of fan-fold paper. Each of the printers had a small stool carefully positioned at the back so that an elderly operator could sit and lean back, dozing until the "paper-out" signal woke him.

On one memorable night, the stool was shifted to a more comfortable position, the head leaned back, and suddenly the noise level in the room dropped, apart from a series of loud "thunk" sounds.

A couple of minutes later the site fire brigade broke in through the emergency exit looking for the fire. The stool was now directly beneath a large, red mushroom-shaped button on the wall. It was the "emergency off" switch, one of several, all carefully positioned at head height when you were sat on a stool.

Press the button and power to the machine room is cut, and the "thunk" was the emergency head retraction on the disk drives as they powered down. An alarm went to the site fire station, and excitement ensued all round.

By the following evening, each of the red mushrooms was encased in a plywood box with a large hole in the front. It was still easy to hit them if need be, but they were now safe from sleepy operators.


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