back to article BOFH: The Boss gets Grandpa Simpson syndrome

"...And we used to do pretty much everything from the switches on the front panel – bootstrapping, diagnostics, machine code reprogramming – all on toggle switches!" the Boss burbles happily "...those were the days!" "I'm sure they were," the PFY says dryly, rolling his eyes out of the Boss' view. "Oh, that was just the tip …


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  1. Anonymous Coward


    Just realised my role. I'm the boss...

  2. Adam Foxton
    Thumb Down


    the BOFH is losing his touch and starting to ramble! He'll be joining Management and shifting paradigms in no time!

  3. Gerrit Tijhof


    of the way we weeeere...

  4. call me scruffy

    Just in the nick of time...

    If the PFY hadn't administered the emergency ECT Simon might have become, I'm not sure I can say the word, a Maaaa, a Maaannnaaj, a maanaagsherr.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    Normally, this would have been great, but after last week, well, I guess it didn't have much of a chance, did it?

  6. mark Silver badge

    floodgates open

    Give it an hour , there will be 50 cattle-prod worthy stories below...

  7. alyn

    I remember....

    A PDP 11/34 with a 12" removable platter disk drive. It had a massive 2MB of storage and we had a VAX 11/750 with the"washing macine" removal disk drives. Theses stored 45MB per disk pack.


    Sorry must go. The men in white coats want me

  8. Anonymous Coward


    I had a VAX system once... it was good for cleaning 'spillages'.

    How long before they invent a perpetual energy machine to power that cattle prod... it always seems to need it's batteries changing.

    I'm envisaging either nuclear power, or a mag-lev flywheel attachment!

  9. JimC

    Can you be a *real* Bastard Operator

    If you didn't start out on a proper box like a Vax (or in my case Prime), or maybe even bigger iron...Course the 11/780 we had at college had this feature that [crackle] [no carrier]

  10. David


    ... I've just realised that even though I'm the good side of 30 (actually, the good side of 25, just about) I sound exactly like that when I speak to local computer science students. That's really, really, really worrying,.

  11. Mike Smith

    Re Can you be a *real* Bastard Operator

    You 'ad a VAX? You were lucky! We 'ad to manage with a PDP11 and long persistence screens. I remember I wrote an app to display "THE BOSS IS A WINKER" all night so that it would burn the message into the phosphor...oy, gerroff &%*%)("^£$NO CARRIER

    (We apologise for the interruption in transmission. It's time for Mr Smith's medication)

  12. Ted Treen

    More nostalgia....

    Yup, I started with Burroughs 30 years ago.

    I surely recall "customers" paying loads for an upgrade, which consisted of removal of the restricting "cripple-card".

    Not just Burroughs, but it was standard procedure in the days when the IT industry was the DP industry.

    Ah, those wood-burning steam-powered computers.....

  13. david


    No wonder they keep needing to change the batteries - keeping it in a damp place like a toilet is abound to cause a certain amount of discharge.

    mines the one with the tin foil hat and anti static strip trailing behind

  14. Pete

    Ah, the Burroughs

    Haven't heard that name in a while - brought the memories flooding back of the Burroughs B6930. And do the youth of today believe you when you talk about writing your programmes on punch cards and sending them away with an elastic band around them, only to receive them back the next day with a huge red circle on the card containing the line you got wrong... the heck they do. Me, I used to live in cardboard box in t'middle of motorway...

  15. GrahamT

    Did I tell you...

    about the time me, Babbage and Ada Lovelace had this great idea about using Jacquard cards in the difference engine?

    Ah... Nostalgia's not what it used to be.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    rise of the pfy?

    could this be the start of the pfy's election campaign to become the BOFH?

    lets face it, the BOFH is getting soft in his old age, seems like forevever since we last had a beancounter roasting and this boss must be a record holder in bofh vs boss life expectancy terms!

    bring on the pfy - unleash the psychopathic fury within!

    mines the coat hanging on the suction tube of the black and orange VAX multi purpose wet and dry carpet cleaning device

  17. Dave

    Did I tell you about the time...

    That I had a PDP-11/03. Now that was a machine! It was the industrial control version of the PDP-11. Came with a whopping 4K of SRAM (None of that silly DRAM stuff). It had a pair of 14 inch drives that about caused me to kill myself lugging them down the stairs.

    Oh, you want to hear about computer room stories? Well, there was the time the contractor showed up and replaced some of the shot light bulbs in the computer room. Then, as he was leaving, he leaned his ladder against the door, and one of the steps hit the EPO (Emergency Power Off) button, shutting down the entire room. Ouch! Well, the logical thing to do was to was to put a shield around the EPO button. So, a contract was let, and the contractor showed up. The first thing he did was to bring his ladder into the computer room and lean it against the wall. KLUNK! Yep, right on the EPO button again.

    Oh, wait, you wanted stories about the insides of computers? Well, they used to use these little Iron doughnuts for storage. This was called core memory. Want to see my core plane?

    That should be enough to keep y'all satisfied for a while.


  18. Anonymous Coward

    Speaking of Burroughs...

    ...that reminds me of Algol 68, of which I have fond memories (sniff).

    I used a B6700 - before that an ICL 1904 (yes, the UK used to design and build mainframes). All with punched cards, of course.

    OK, I'll go now...

  19. Keith Williams

    Honeywell Series 200 model 128

    Shall I share with you the joys of upgrading this machine from 16 to 24K?

    PS, the PDP11s wre NOT a peice of cack. Many happy years on 11s with RSTS/E and RSX/11

  20. Jeff Rowse

    Listen up, sonny!

    I'll never forget the look on the college lecturer's face when he said about the paper tape that he'd used to load programs during the early days of computing, and I held up a strip of mylar "paper tape" I'd punched the day before...

    Saddest thing was, he could still 'read' the programe from the patter of the holes!

    And then there was lef kwh bqoeyg hl nhqh qh'h9u gy]t 1[]'] yy p it

    Damn my card punch just clogged again!

  21. Philip Alexander

    HUH! In my day...

    We had a Honywell 3200 and a 2015 complete with SORT disks weighing 10kg each that needed to be moved around the systems, 6 2400ft tape drives on each partition and JOY of JOY nearly 100 punch girls, Christmas parties were great!!

    Young operators don't know how well off they are these days!! Bring back the '70s that's what I say!!

    Mine's the coat with the read/write rings in the pockets

  22. John Gamble

    Those Were The Days

    Lemme tell you about paper tape. And the bin that held the little punched-out dots.

    And the air-conditioning unit the dots were poured into.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Yes those WERE the days!!!

    Operators had fun back then, sticking print room operatos into blue bins full of carbon paper from multipart stationary, pushing said bin into a lift, turning the light out and sending it to the top floor!

    Unfortunate that the guy was scared of the dark!!

    Read/write ring fights, computer room cricket and my particular favourite roller chair races

  24. A J Stiles

    Ah ..... DEC nostalgia

    My first encounter with anything bigger than a PC was a VAX 11/750 (or was it a 780? No, I'm sure it was a 750). Not my own, though; it was at uni, in 1989. VAX/VMS was a bit like MS-DOS, only all grown up with versioning and stuff. Not that you could keep many versions kicking around in 3 megabytes. Then I got an account on the VAX Cluster: a pair of 8650s. It had this thing on it called VAX NOTES, a distant forerunner of a blog. And a whopping 5 megabytes of personal storage each!

    The '750 was decommissioned in 1991 or '92. I'll always regret not taking it off their hands, but I was young and had no sense then.

    Oh, and I often used to beige-box a payphone in one of the student residences to connect an Amiga running a VT100 terminal emulator to the VAX, via a 1200/75 modem. I'd have loved to have used a real VT220 (you could do some amazing display hacks with them .....), but it was too heavy to lug on the no. 16 bus.

  25. Conor
    Paris Hilton

    That reminds me of the time...

    ...actually, I'm smart enough to stop before I go to for and get hit with the cattle prod.

    In any event, I think that we're all the 'Boss' in this story in some way, if we weren't, we probably wouldn't be the type reading The Reg!

    Paris, because like the boss, nobody cares what she says!

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Operator Fun!

    Hahaha- too right AC- I once broke a finger catching someone out batting a 28k USR modem at my head

    Our favourite game involved "Who can give the boss the most fantastic explation of how this works" To this day he is convinced that processors have an organic base to "speed up calcualtions" made of extracts from animal brains.

  27. John Uhercik

    @ Dave... Lucky Bastard!

    That I had a PDP-11/03. Now that was a machine! It was the industrial control version of the PDP-11. Came with a whopping 4K of SRAM (None of that silly DRAM stuff). It had a pair of 14 inch drives that about caused me to kill myself lugging them down the stairs.


    .... At least you HAD disk drives.. All I had was a dodgy papertape reader

    to load software. I did have core, though. So as long as none of the

    lusers managed to break anything, all I had to was press HALT, and

    turn of the power at the end of a week. Monday morning, just enter

    1000, deposit and RUN...

    It's the one with the large charged capacitors in the pockets

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ... Too funny. BOFH gets zapped. I love it.


    A PFY.

  29. John

    Old farts

    I'm a young bastard myself, but if any of you old farts want to join us at (the Deathrow Cluster) you can relive the glory days of VMS... unfortunately the cluster is composed of two Alphas (GEIN:: and DAHMER::) and only one VAX (MANSON::). Good stuff, though, I like to log in with the VT220 or my spiffy new ADM-3A. NOTES conferencing is up and running, too.

  30. This post has been deleted by its author

  31. Eriel Ramos-Pizarro
    Black Helicopters

    On a smaller note

    Not to disrespect the legions of PDP & VAX fans, but my fondest story on the olden days was my first year at MIT (1973); during my Intro to Computing course, the professor starts to talk about new developments in computer technology, and he pulls out a then-state of the art HP-35, proceeding to call it "the neatest little hand job he'd ever seen!!"

    (cue hysterical laughter from 200 freshmen!)

  32. Fluffykins Silver badge

    Computers? Bloody computers?


    We used ter dream about even a thermionic valve analogue computer an' we wouldn't 'a minded if it were always turned OFF

    We used t'ave t' use t'slide rules WI'OUT markings on, mind AND we 'ad t'get us own pencils AN' chop t'trees down ter do it.

    An' we used ter 'ave ter drink COLD urine 'cos there were no tea in t' cubooard an' we didn't 'ave a kettle an' no water.

    An' we used ter use BARBED WIRE instead o' a cattle prod 'cos electric 'adn't bin invented then.

    You tell that ter the kids terday an' they just larf.

    It in't fair, it in't

    But we did 'ave FUN, din't we?

    Paris 'ilton 'cos PHWARRRRR!!

  33. Herby

    Punch cards, chad and keypunches (Oh My!)

    The biggest fun was invoking the "shower of chad" on your enemy. The sharp edges of the chad (yes, like that famous hanging chad of Florida fame) would stick in everything. It took forever for it to get out. If one had a machine that produced punch cards (not a silly keypunch) it usually didn't take long to fill up the chad bin to a capacity for the task. Other fun was making of lace cards (if you could get it done). It wasn't very easy.

    All of this migrated to these silly things called terminals (ASR-33's were a favorite) that ran at 10 characters/second. These gave way to units with IBM Selectric typewriter mechanisms which were MUCH faster (by about 50%) and ran at 134.5 bps (not 110 like the teletypes).

    Oh, and stuff like lower case was a luxury!

    Must go now. Time for my Prozak......I think it is in the left pocket.

  34. Steve


    Hearing an 11/780 boot floppy came a long time after the crash. The first thing you heard was that unmistakable LA120 console printer rhythm










    of crash info followed by kernel stack dump. I can still hear it...

    Ah, maybe I should go and boot my 11/73, that was a real co{{~{{{{~~{{{


  35. André


    No "walking drive" races???

    mine's the one with the custom 60ft channel cable hanging from the side pocket...

  36. Anonymous Coward


    The chad was useful for training the new PFYs: we'd have them sort a week's accumulation of the little buggers into numerical order.

    "Right, who's turn is it to sort the chad?"

    "Not me, I did it last week. Have the new lad do it."

  37. Barry


    Please, it's Pr1me, not Prime. Well, was, I guess. :)

    Ours had the drive with the replaceable 150MB disk pack (washing machine top load variety). We kept a spare on the shelf because we had about a 30% chance of a head crash whenever the drive had to powered down. As a matter of fact, I remember one time when-- KZEEEEEERT!!

    It's a good thing I have my own PFYs around to keep me in line.


  38. Eric Werme


    I was working on a contract software job - my desk was in the lab space and all the employees were swapping tales. One, who thought he knew everything mentioned that core memory used odd parity so it would catch a read cycle that didn't rewrite the data (reading core data had a side effect of zeroing it). He then noted that async serial communications usually used even parity and wondered if anyone knew why.

    I looked up from my desk and said "Paper tape."

    One seriously deflated ego....


    PDP-10s forever.

  39. Mark Honman

    Obligatory disk crash story

    Financials system goes down at a time of high pressure (month-end). HP engineer duly comes to attend the failed "washing mashine" 400MB drive. Diagnoses likely head crash. Boss thinks maybe the disk pack is bad, persuades engineer to put backup pack in drive....

    nope, looks like it was a head crash all along.

    P.S. Last resort, lets see if there are any backup tapes that the operators bothered to verify....

    P.P.S. don't get me started on DN10000 X-bus terminators

  40. Rhys

    My first computer was dads retired work machine.

    Apple IIe running Applesoft basic, no HDD, just a twin 5 1/2" floppy drive dock.

    I still have it, it was even still running last time I packed it for a shift.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    RE: Ted Treen - More nostalgia....

    >> I surely recall "customers" paying loads for an upgrade, which consisted of removal of the restricting "cripple-card".

    I wish we could take a "cripple-card" out of our pc's today to upgrade lol

  42. Svein Skogen

    Some word associations

    First words: "Micromation M-Box", followed by "Sattelite Z64". Ring any bells?

    I'll sign off before the batteries are charged.


  43. OffBeatMammal

    an OS called VULCAN

    happy days punching cards, then the joy of upgrading to a terminal that said Vulcanising when you wanted to execute anything.

    cricking your back pulling platters from a top loading drive.

    de-magnetizing backup tapes. only to realise you'd got the wrong one ;)

    the joy of moving to a new site with an IBM 4381 - but realising nothing really changed

    nostalgia is a frightening thing as I sit at my 3Ghz multi-core machine with a phone on my desk that has more computing power than anything I used in the first few years of work!

  44. David Mullenix

    It was the fashion of the day.

    And the important thing to remember is that I had onions hanging from my belt.

  45. Antony Pearce


    not one single mention of DG in this whole thread!

    My first role was at a Polytechnic operating a DG Eclipse and a PDP11/73. A massive 210Meg of disk on the DG. Had to bootstrap the thing with the switches on the fr...@#$^zzzzzzzttt

  46. Tuomo Stauffer

    Kids, give some respect

    Some respect to UK computer history - Elliot 503 (and 803) was a machine! Even Tony Hoare said so! The only problem was to collect the paper tape from floor after run but the machine itself had a real nice voice when processing. Full Algol besides.

  47. John Lodge

    Am I that bad?

    Ye Gods, I have loads of stories - the famous KDF9, 8k IBM 360/20 with only an MCFM & a 2501 reader, used to hate getting E02 errors on the console after a 2 hour batch run on a Friday night. And for that matter the very impressive card wrecks you'd get on the 083 sorter.

    Magnetic media? That's for woosses

  48. TeeCee Gold badge

    @John Gamble

    Our moment of glory was pouring the contents of same into the ventilation intake of a colleague's Granada. Nice hot summer's day it was.

    He jumped in, started her up and wound the ventilation up to max. From outside it looked just like one of those "snow-globe" ornaments that'd just been given a good shake. No pollen filters back in them days.

    Or there was the time that the Chief Operator left his sunroof open, providing a suitable home for all the polystyrene packing wotsits we'd been saving in huge bin bags for just such an occasion, but that's another story with lots of Anglo-Saxon terminology in it.

    I could go on, but I fear that I already have.......

  49. Sandra Greer

    Anybody remember Univac 1108?

    It was pretty advanced, actually. But the main storage was FastRand drum storage. Huge iron cylinders rotating on a horizontal axis. I don't remember how much storage they had, but it was transient. We loaded and dumped tapes. There was a disk drive somewhere that was used for sorting.

    Then I downgraded to a little RCA Spectra 70, with washing machine drives. Load cards, go over to the console, type MON 56K (the entire partition), or 32K for a COBOL compile without sorting.

    I could go on, but just hand me my granny shawl there..

  50. Robert Davey
    Thumb Up

    Ahh, Memories

    You're bringing back memories. I used an 11/750 and 11/780, and just about remembr a PDP11. I do remember the 8 inch floppy, and a software house sent me a system upgrade by putting one in a magazine and posting it to me - the disk arrived U shaped.

  51. A J Stiles

    @ AC

    Today's equivalent of the "cripple card" is implemented in software, not hardware, and it's called Windows.

  52. Tim99 Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    Antony, I drove a DG Nova3 using RDOS. The machine was later replaced with a Nova 4C with a 25MB Winchester Drive. DG sent people out just to see it because they had never installed one with such a large fixed disc. The down side was we backed up and archived everything on 8" floppies - It was used to acquire and process data from mass spectrometers.

    I remember that in the month I ordered it, I bought a 3 bedroom detached house in the UK - The Nova was about twice the price of my house, so say half a million quid in present money.

    The disc unit was huge (19" rackable). You could see everything because the top case of the drive was transparent. Yes, obviously, the heads crashed on the HD after a year or two. The damaged aerofoil head had buried itself deep into the gouges in the platter. Of course these young-uns don't know that the heads in disc drives actually flew on the thin layer of air that was carried along with the rotating disc surface. I need to lie down now for my afternoon nap...

  53. On Dego

    Wusses - all of ye!

    You pussies, I've been doing enterprise programming... on a Timex Sinclair 1000 since the early 80s & don't get me started on the tricks we pulled with the Commodore PET

  54. Simes
    Paris Hilton

    God this makes me feel old....

    First interaction with the new and wonderful world of computing was with a CTL Modular 1 connected to a teletype over a 300baud acoustic coupler. And an ICL 1904 to which we posted punched cards - no syntax errors in our programs in those days.

    Then in 1978 a PDP 11/05 (IPL from front panel switches) and a PDP 11/34 running Unix. We were so proud that our little box occupying 10 feet square in the corner of the machine room could support 25+ simultaneous users while the B6700 occupying the rest of the room could support about 10 and the cafe batch system.

    Anyone remember the Burroughs memory units that displayed a Burroughs 'B' on the status lights while they were idling? I never worked out how they did that.

    I can't believe there are people I look up to now who have never heard of this stuff!

    Paris, because she wouldn't remember either...

  55. James

    The Boss?

    How about having your own mother telling you about how much easier it was to program the LEO III when they got the new *automatic* punch card sorter?

  56. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    11/70 was a sack of cack?

    I'll agree with that. You never knew for certain if it would work again if you opened the rack for one of the multitude of fan changes it invariably needed. I liked the 11/44 though...

  57. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    PDP 11/34!

    I'm hurt.

    I loved all of the PDP 11/34's I used. Of course they were not as reliable as more modern machines (or even 11/03s and 11/44s), but then they were built out of LS7400 TTL with a wire-wrap backplane with literally thousands of individually wrapped pins. If I remember correctly, the CPU was on five boards, with the FPU (optional) on another two. Add DL or DZ-11 terminal controllers, RK or RP-11 disk controllers, and MT-11 tape controllers, and you had a lot to go wrong.

    I suspect that all of the Prime, DG, IBM, Univac, Perkin Elmer, HP systems of the same time frame had similar problem rates. Especially as they were not rated as data-centre only machines, and would quite oftern be found sitting in closed offices or large cupboards, often with no air-conditioning.

    It was quite normal for the engineers to visit two or three times a month, and we had planned preventative maintenance visits every quarter.

    But, the PDP 11 instruction set was incredibly regular (I used to be able to dis-assemble it while reading it), and it was the system that most Universities first got UNIX on. It had some quirks (16 bit processor addressing mapped to 18 or 22 bit memory addressing using segment registers [like, but much, much better than Intel later put into the 80286], Unibus Map, seperate I&D space on higher-end models). OK the 11/34 had to fit the kernel into 56K (8K was reserved to address the UNIBUS), but with the Keele Overlay Mods. to the UNIX V7 kernel, together with the Calgary device buffer modifications, we were able to support 16 concurrent terminal sessions on what was on paper little more powerful than an IBM PC/AT.

    It was a ground-breaking architecture that should go down as one of the classics, along with IBM 360, Motorola 68000 and MIPS-1.

    Happy days. I'll get my Snokel Parka as I leave.

  58. Duckorange
    Dead Vulture

    Them's were the days...

    Of course, we had a Honeywell DPS4, and disc crashes were particularly violent decapitating-the-cleaners stuff of legend.

  59. Johnny FireBlade

    You what?

    What is all this old school jargon he's babbling on about? Was that back in the day when a computer took up an entire room? Waaaaay before my time!

  60. Christoph R. Hawley

    Bah! (waves paw)

    IBM 1401 - a napkin-sketched prototype for the 360, with all the power of the same ill-used bar napkin and Shiny! Radix_40! Addressing! to access its four thousand (not 4k, four zero zero zero decimal) native storage locations made of ferrite beads. Yes, they were eight bits wide, and no, they weren't bytes. (Hint: parity bit.)

    SCO XENIX86 - ten users on a vanilla XT (4.77 MHz, 640kB). Never actually sold as an official product AFAIK, but *small* ==> less opportunity for suckage.

    BTDTGTtoo-small-to-wear-anymoreTS. Someone hand me the large coat, willya?


    And the men and women (well, the men) who went to the moon? Well God bless 'em, they did it with no mouse, and a text-only black and white screen and THIRTY-TWO KILOBYTES OF RAM. Hah!

    -- Three Dead Trolls, "Every OS Sucks"

  61. Matthew Malthouse

    Dropping the PDP11

    Would be harmless enough were it not enclosed in half a ton of "Mini" computer.

    It was an ATEX system. It was the Irish Times.

    And it was from the second floor to the pavement.

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