back to article Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin. Hang on, the PDP 11/70 has dropped offline

As the weekend recedes and the workday begins, tarry a while with a beverage of your choice and today's entry in The Register's file of reader Who, Me? confessions. Today's comes from a reader we have elected to call "Pete" and returns us to the late 1970s. The Space Shuttle had yet to fly, Douglas Adams had penned The …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

    But not one inspired by the managers butt.

    1. hmv

      Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

      A manager was checking the delivery of a new Sun E450 (it was a while ago) when his butt encountered the power switch of an AlphaServer 4100 running a whole bunch of stuff. Yes the front cover had been removed (we'd been playing with disks).

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

        "we'd been playing with disks"

        You ran out of Frisbees?

        1. hmv

          Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

          But a Frisbee doesn't cause such a satisfying crashing sound when slamming into a concrete floor.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

      Molly covers. Is Molly a shorthand version of a longer name or did a lady call Molly invent it?

      1. bigmacbear

        Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

        According to the Jargon File at, Molly was the name of the programmer's toddler daughter who inspired the creation of the Molly-guard by pushing the Big Red Switch on a mainframe.

      2. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

        A developer brought his toddler daughter in one day. "Ooooo, What does THIS button do?" Molly Covers invented next day, named after the toddler.

      3. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: We’ve had plenty of these Molly cover stories

        molly-guard is also named after this. It's a bit of software that makes you acknowledge that yes, you really did intent to run shutdown -h now in an ssh session.

  2. TVC

    It was the 1970s and the end of a busy nightshift in an ICL mainframe computer room of a Datasolve computer bureau (anyone remember those?). The line printers were kicking up a row. The tape decks chugging back and forth, the EDS60 disks spinning and clicking, card readers doing what they did.

    In comes the caretaker and his vacuum. All of a sudden.

    Total silence. Power fail?

    All eyes focus on the caretaker, rapidly reversing towards the door still cleaning with his now dead vacuum.

    He had hit the emergency stop button with his elbow.

    The guy was a walking disaster: once scrapped a whole bin of punch tape that took hours to create because he thought it was rubbish.

    Those were the days.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Those were the days indeed

      Those were the days that taught an entire industry about the usefulness of clear plastic guards on on/off switches, manager's butt or no.

      What is surprising is that there still is kit today that is sold without any guard on the on/off button.

      We're not done reading this kind of story, I'll wager.

      1. DJV Silver badge

        Re: We're not done reading this kind of story, I'll wager.

        Indeed, for a while I had an HP tower with the (slightly recessed) on/off switch right at the top of the front cover. Maybe HP thought it was safe there. They didn't reckon on one of my cats who decided the top of the computer was a potential bedding down place and her well-placed heel was ideal for hitting that button without any problem!

        1. Remy Redert

          Re: We're not done reading this kind of story, I'll wager.

          This is why my power buttons do nothing. The reset button is recessed and needs a pin to be activated, so that's fine, but the power button is disconnected because PCs are warm.

        2. Martin-73 Silver badge

          Re: We're not done reading this kind of story, I'll wager.

          Still got a model with similar design (now running xp offline for ... gaming reasons). The number of times i hit it by mistake going for the mouse (on a keyboard drawer below the desk level...)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Those were the days indeed

        Hmm, I was visiting an Ambulance control centre some years ago, and was listening on to a 999 call. The Ambulance member of staff taking the call had a screen of boxes to fill in, and depending on the replies, different menus would appear. Like a programmed text, but on a PC. I leaned in a bit, and suddenly the computer shut down. The operator calmly pulled out a mechanical version of the screen, a sort of mini flip chart, and carried on as if nothing had happened. After the call, she bent down to where I was sitting a pressed the power button on the Dell PC thereunder. I had touched the feather-light power button with my knee. The Ambulance operator shrugged it off. Cool operator, very red faced me. (It was comforting to know that even in the middle of an emergency call, the Ambulance service can carry on regardless!)

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Those were the days indeed

        "[...] the usefulness of clear plastic guards on on/off switches,"

        The same systems programmer triggered the Red Button two weeks running while waiting for his hands-on test slot. The first time he leaned back against a section of the evening's stack of job card trays on top of the room's low cupboards - and the button was on the wall behind them.

        The next week he was very cautious and carefully avoided making that mistake again. He slotted himself into a convenient person-sized space between the cupboards and leaned back against the wall. That space had been newly created by re-organising the cupboards - to leave clear access to the Red Button.

        The solution was to protect the Red Button with a plastic ring core from a papertape reel.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "computer bureau (anyone remember those?)"

      These days they're called cloud vendors. Nothing's new.

      1. The First Dave

        Dunno, the phrase "spurious times of the day" is a new one on me - which times are those exactly? 25:61 PM ?

        1. rnturn

          ``25:61 PM ?''

          Is that what Digital meant when they came up with the message:

          ``vmunix: WARNING: preposterous time in TOY clock''

    3. Barking House
      Thumb Up

      DataSolve - Sunbury?

      Remember using their Mainframe bureau in Sunbury

    4. Flywheel

      Datasolve computer bureau

      Hmmm.. was that Hoddesdon, perchance?

      1. TVC

        BOC Datasolve Old Street - they were all over the place at one stage.

    5. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      In comes the caretaker and his vacuum. All of a sudden.

      Total silence. Power fail?

      All eyes focus on the caretaker, rapidly reversing towards the door still cleaning with his now dead vacuum.

      He had hit the emergency stop button with his elbow.

      This is a new one (to me at least) for a caretaker, at least he didn't pull the plug.

      1. TVC

        Plugs? A lot of this was three phase stuff!! Needed more power than a small town.

    6. TVC

      BOC Datasolve 88 Old Street London.

  3. Mast1

    Hand me no but(t)s......

    Back in the 1980's security guard had to make his rounds and log his presence at various points around the site by inserting a physical key into a body-worn time-stamper. For the computer room, the key was chained to a wall behind a VAX11-750 and its accoutrements, leaving only a small alleyway to squeeze through to get to it. To aid his squeezing he steadied himself on the front of the VAX, only to press a reset button........ in the middle of an overnight run.

    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge

      Re: Hand me no but(t)s......

      My sympathies are with the security guy. He was just trying to do his job - although no doubt he was given a hard time. My guess is the security system was set up before the machine was installed, so it's the latter that should have been carpeted.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have mentioned this one before.

    Some years ago I was involved in an EU funded project to put learning centres throughout SE Scotland in various small businesses, libraries and learning establishments. This involved installing a server, workstations and (if required) structured cabling and network kit.

    In one Uni in Edinburgh I was shown the cabinets in the server room and pointed to the space where the new server was to go. Except in this case read Dexion racking for cabinets and basement for server room.

    Now, I am not a particularly tubby guy but I struggled to manhandle an IBM Netfinity server down the gap between the wall and the back of the "cabinets" as they hadn't left a huge amount of space. Part way down my journey along the wall I felt a click on my backside. Looking round, I saw that the geniuses had put a PDU with a honking great rocker switch on the back of the racking which I had managed to switch off with my arse, turning half of their kit off.

    I pushed my backside against the switch again to turn things back on, dumped the server and left in a hurry. On my way out I heard one of the admins wondering what was going on with their DNS servers.

    1. ICPurvis47 Bronze badge

      A "Stern" warning.

      When I was working for a very large electrical engineering company, building motor control gear for a well known maritime organisation, I also caused mayhem with part of my anatomy. One of the units was in Test, and the testers were doing a heat run, running the equipment at full chat whilst the observers from the customer looked on. I had gone into Test to take some photographs for the Instruction Manual that I was preparing (I was in Technical Manuals Department at the time) and I had to scrunch myself up into one corner of the roped-off area in order to get all of the cabinets in shot. Suddenly everything went dark, and the high pitched whine of the invertors wound down the scale to inaudibility. Cue furious shouts from the Test Engineers, I had inadvertently backed onto one of the emergency shutdown buttons that were located at various points around the department, and that had shut off all power to the Test area and surrounding parts of the building. A complete morning's heat run ruined, and the customer's observers were distinctly unimpressed. The heat run had to be rescheduled for the next morning as it had to start from cold. Needless to say, I was NOT allowed into Test whist a heat run was being performed on that or any further equipments.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A "Stern" warning.

        We got into the habit of protecting EPO buttons with the cardboard tubes from the center of packing tape rolls. If sparks were truly flying, it's easy enough to press the button or to seat the roll out of the way. The tubes sit just high enough to deter most inadvertent presses.

  5. Alan J. Wylie

    It's not so bad when it's one of your own, but working on the Cambridge Science Park in the early 80's, we had lots of VIP guests (and I mean very). Margaret Thatcher and Prince Philip to name but two.

    A page with links to some photos

    A lot more embarrassing when one of their entourages' buttocks disrupted the demo.

    Not the first time I've mentioned this.

    1. Lloyd A

      Thanks for reminding me of a company that managed to keep reinventing itself as technology changed. And had a great bunch of people working for it.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        A great bunch of people or a bunch of great people?

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Did you ever identify the guilty - err - member?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not only Unibus

    the PDP-11/70 could also support MassBus. This was especially useful if you had any RP06's (256Mb) disk drives attached.

    A wonderful system for its time. It could support 48 users (using VT102's or the like) with three 16 port interfaces (DH11 without much effort.

    I got to know the innards of them very well during my time at DEC.

    1. RM Myers

      Re: Not only Unibus

      If this had happened on a PDP-11/70 with MassBus, would you say the Ass's Boss's ass busted the MassBus?

      Sorry, that wasn't very punny.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Not only Unibus

        Likely, yes. Unibus is a system bus, into which you wedge the interface boards; Massbus was one of the storage buses. If you had RM or RP series disks and/or TM series tape drives you were running Massbus. But AFAIK none of the RP disks had butt-accessible offline buttons. If you wanted that option you'd be looking at the RM03/RM05, or one of the RK series.

        Massbus cables were quite substantial, with a little over 60 twisted pair signals.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not only Unibus

      E Unibus Plurum ... I remember them well :-)

  7. Blofeld's Cat

    Er ...

    I once worked for a firm where the owner had a thing about equipment being left on and "wasting money".

    It was perfectly normal during the Winter to emerge from an office into a pitch-black corridor or stairway with the switches at the far end. Everyone used to carry pocket torches for this reason.

    The IT and telecom equipment all had labels over their sockets saying they must be left on, but he usually managed to turn off at least one server a month.

    Evidently he worked on the principle that if there was nobody there, it wasn't being used.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Er ...

      I once worked for a firm where the owner had a thing about equipment being left on and "wasting money".

      I've found security guards particularly bad for this. When I worked for the MoD all our labs and offices had emergency power off buttons outside by the door and the night patrols would wander along hitting them, sometimes even when you had an "experiment running overnight, leave power on" sign. I also know of one university that shall remain nameless where a security guard turned off power to a lab for the Christmas break. It was the lab full of freezers containing expensively obtained ice core samples.

      1. Mike 16 Silver badge

        Re: Nobody home, turn it off.

        At one (formerly) major corp, a minion thought he'd be energy conscious and exhibit that fact by turning off a whole room of semiconductor testers during the night shift. Despite costing a bundle to re-run tests of that batch (and figure out if any damage to the chips had resulted from the abrupt shutdown), apparently his zeal was noted. His "punishment" was to (eventually, but not that much later) be named V.P. of R&D.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge

          Re: Nobody home, turn it off.

          There was also some water-cooled IBM system at an University in the US where snow occurs in winter. Fair amounts of snow.

          Over Christmas the system was turned off as no one would be using it, indeed.

          Starting the system after the holidays demonstrated that you'd either simply keep such a system on, make sure there's sufficient antifreeze in the circuit or you fully drain the outside heat exchangers.

  8. chivo243 Silver badge

    Light Switches in Dataclosets

    We have two closets that have light switches at 'butt' level, we're constantly apologizing for butting off the light...

  9. IT's getting kinda boring

    ICL3930 with those little toggle switches to put drives in read-only mode. Seen those get tagged by people brushing past, causing all sorts of mayhem. Eventually fixed by ICL by replacing the plastic face panel with one that had a raised plastic bump where the switches were.

    Oh, and the old 2900 series operating stations with the reset button on the front (push up to reset). Saw someone catch that with a sleeve on his suit. That system was down for days (an ICL2976 I seem to recall)!

    1. abortnow

      As I recall, the reset button was originally the other way up, till frequent resets of one machine were traced to a buxom operator who often unwittingly depressed the switch when sitting down.

      1. Aussie Doc


        I can relate - rather obese, buxom young lady had issues with her keyboard.

        Every now and then whilst typing, the cursor would fly across the page.

        Of course, I couldn't replicate the error so watched her as she typed.

        You can guess where this is going - yep. Her breast(s) (didn't check out THAT much detail) were hitting the spacebar as she 'jiggled' slightly whilst typing.

        As an aside - she was an amazingly fast typist. She had (her words) the 'fastest, fat fingers around' although looked so uncomfortable seemingly crouched over her keyboard.

  10. trevorde Silver badge

    Clean Agile Development

    In a previous company, many years ago, they decided to move to agile development. We all went on agile training, were given a lovely whiteboard and a whole stack of Post-It notes. We wrote our stories/tasks on the Post-It notes and stuck them in swim lanes on the whiteboard. Only problem was the Post-It notes weren't quite sticky enough and fell down during the night, to be cleaned up by our over zealous cleaner!

    1. rnturn

      Re: Clean Agile Development

      Some coworkers and I were visiting a Silicon Valley company back in the '80s and their solution to saving the state of whiteboards was a Polaroid camera kept in the conference room. Apparently they'd learned that large "DO NOT ERASE" notices written on the whiteboard weren't good enough.

      1. BenDwire Silver badge

        Re: Clean Agile Development

        I was recently involved in a large design project that baffled the engineering team as it was stupidly complex with lots of conflicting requirements. We resorted to a brainstorming session, drawing on all the white boards we could muster, and even sticking self adhesive ones to the walls. When we eventually finished, all four walls were covered in diagrams, and it was clear that someone had to document the end results. As a stopgap I pulled out my phone and use CamScanner to photograph each board and convert it to a multi-page pdf, then email it to all the attendees. I was quite impressed - modern technology can actually be quite good at times.

      2. swm Silver badge

        Re: Clean Agile Development

        There was a janitor in the computer center (a very nice guy) who cleaned off the director's whiteboard. He was politely told never to clean a whiteboard in the building. He was just trying to do a good job.

  11. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

    Front panels and security keys...

    Useful things for stopping important buttons being pressed by accident.

    Naturally the key is never anywhere to be found when you actually need it (usually it's hiding in an old floppy disk storage box that seem to lurk in server rooms built outside of the last decade and a half).

    Fun times..

    Coat icon because you always check your coat for keys first..

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Front panels and security keys...

      "Coat icon because you always check your coat for keys first.."

      Always check your zip first.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Front panels and security keys...

        But Zip disks are quite obsolete these days.

        Getting my coat...

    2. Unoriginal Handle

      Re: Front panels and security keys...

      Key-related topic drift...

      I worked in the Newbury offices of Cabletron, and we had a lab with all sorts of kit in it to simulate a network for the Spectrum software my team and I was supporting. We kept the lab locked because kit would be raided for urgent customer requirements ( i.e. rapid replacement of broken kit on site). But the key sometimes took a while to come back or we'd havr to go and find it.

      Until the day the 8 x 4 metal door sign with "Lab" on it no longer stuck properly. So I used a split ring to attach the key to the sign, and funnily enough the key was always promptly returned from then on.

      1. 2+2=5 Silver badge

        Re: Front panels and security keys...

        > Until the day the 8 x 4 metal door sign with "Lab" on it no longer stuck properly.

        Please tell me that measurement was in feet not inches?

      2. HWwiz

        Re: Front panels and security keys...

        Ahh Cabletron.

        I remember when you guys won the contract for AWE not far from your office.

        I was one of the guys installing the many hundreds of Fibre switches across the 2 factories. Good times.

    3. Vometia Munro Bronze badge

      Re: Front panels and security keys...

      Keys are awesome things. Our minis didn't have reset buttons, you needed the key to do that. Which was always left dangling from the lock, right where some daft bumbling halfwit with a hangover could get it to full turn before realising that it's the wrong machine. In fact it's doubly the wrong machine because it's the one the CEO's PA is using. Was. Was using.

      Still, not as bad as the time I left the comedy error routine lurking in the root profile to wind up one of our ops, promptly forgot about it, went home and left it to be triggered by the night shift who escalated it at about 2am to... well, it was bad. Worse than the reset incident because at least one of them wasn't deliberately being a halfwit, just the type that comes naturally.

    4. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Re: Check your coat...

      Good advice. Wish I had taken it one time I was leaving late (like, midnight) having just finished a task on deadline. As I heard the building door click shut behind me and reached into my pocket for my car-keys, I realized I had left them in a lab-coat, in the lab, with my access card...

      This was before mobile phones, so I had to walk a mile or so to a service station with a pay-phone to wake a friend to come get me. Next morning, bus to work, explain to security, get boss to vouch for me...

    5. swm Silver badge

      Re: Front panels and security keys...

      I was working in the college computer center about 2 AM around 1970 over the Christmas break. I was the only one in the building except for the operator. I heard a funny "clunk" and was puzzled as to what it could be. I investigated and discovered the operator lying in a corridor breathing but otherwise totally unresponsive. Who to call?

      I called the campus police who arrived quickly in their cruiser. The campus policeman said to get the stretcher from the cruiser. While I was fiddling with the stretcher a dean of the college, walking home, spotted me and thought I was ripping off the cruiser. I figured the best way to get him to hurry was to ignore him. When he showed up I told him he could carry the other end of the stretcher into the building. The operator was carted off to the hospital about a block away.

      Then we discovered that the operator had all of the keys on his person and we had to do some fast talking to get the keys out of the hospital safe.

      The operator had had a stroke that was so sudden that he fell, bumping his head on the wall on the was down. He did recover fully though.

  12. Roger Kynaston Silver badge

    emergency BRB

    I was working for a local authority a decade and a half or so ago when some workmen doing stuff to the computer room door hammered things so hard they triggered the emergency cut out. Most of it was on a UPS but some of the windows stuff fell in a heap. Ten minutes of frantic invocation of init 0 followed by a nail biting half an hour or starting it all back up again.

    I wasn't in the meeting where the facts of life were explained to the workmen though the BRB was relocated after that.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I worked on the directory enquiries system used at the MOD in the 90s. We had a call one day to say the system wasn't working, and after having no success diagnosing it over the phone, I went in to central London to have a look myself. After getting in to where the server was located, I asked if anything had changed recently and was told that some light building work had just been done nearby. When I looked at the server, it was unplugged, and plugged into its socket was a kettle.

    1. Tim99 Silver badge

      Re: Workmen

      It was the Civil Service? Obviously tea is more important than computers.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Workmen

        By the 90's a lot of this stuff was contracted out - so completed paperwork was more important than reality.

    2. Keith Oborn

      Re: Workmen

      Well Known National Daily Newspaper (OK, the Mirror): I worked for the supplier of the shiny new first-into-production computer controlled pre-press system. There were two CDC 60Mb washing machines.

      Colleague and I walked up to the machine room door, looked in and saw two chippies. One of them was using a drive as a saw bench to shorten a 4x2. The other was using the second drive as a bench to hammer some old nails out of another bit of 4x2.

      We looked at each other and slunk off.

      The drives survived - and also survived betting rained in when the roof leaked. They made good kit, did CDC ;-)

      1. rnturn

        Re: Workmen

        I'd never heard my boss yell (I mean //really// yell) at anyone until the day he encountered a group of contractors working on a data center expansion project in the process of sweating new piping for additional cooling equipment... without notifying anyone in charge of the data center who could have temporarily disabled the Halon system.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Workmen

        I jad a similar incident in a new data centre commissioning an ICL S3930, these had low level cabinets with a fibreglass cover.

        Th machines were always left with protective film on until we were ready to hand them over. Sometime between me signing off the factory acceptance test suite and the customer taking formal poseeion someone used one of the cabinets as a saw horse.

        Cue massive fight between the customer and out account manager, including some attempt to blame me or the commissioning engineer. Surprisingly neither of us had a bloody great saw in our briefcases (and I was software not hardware so only had a briefcase full of manuals). Once the customer accepted that it could not have been us they decided to live with the large groove across the corner of their £250,000 machine. Post go live we had a number of critical calls from them which necessitated me driving the breadth of the country. 1/ Complete power down because the machine overheated, the chippies had put hardboard covers over the vents in the fake clock tower on top of the data centre trapping the output from the AC. 2/ The first poll tax bills (yes I am that old) came out as gobbledy gook because they had only purchased an upper case print band then used lower case all the way through the app. 3/ their 'special stationary for the bills couldn't be used properly as they had had it made up to 160 characters wide and had on;y bought a 132 character printer.

    3. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

      Re: Workmen

      Mister Teh-ah-tim-eh was there!

  14. Handel was a crank

    Comparatively minor compared to turning off servers, but one large open plan office in which I used to work had the light switches right next to the door release button, and they looked very similar. It was a frequent occurrence for the lights to go out immediately followed by a thump (and often cursing) as somebody (usually management) tried to exit the office and walked into the door. You would think that it was something an individual would do only the once, but...

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      You would think that it was something an individual would do only the once, but...

      Individuals yes, induhviduals a bit less so.

    2. J. Cook Silver badge

      Thankfully, I only did this *once*; somehow managed to not get in trouble for it.

      One of the co-lo at the ISP I worked for had, (due to various mergers and acquisitions) inconsistency in their various co-los and data centers with 'door open' buttons (that you used to open a card access door from the inside, because there were no proximity sensors to unlock it), and an "emergency door release" button (which opened the door, but set off a lot of alarms in the security office.)

      One day we were trying to get some large equipment in one of the data centers we had, and the double doors we found wouldn't open for us. I saw a button and assumed it was the former (door open) when it was really the latter (emergency door release).

      In my defense, it was not labeled clearly, but was soon thereafter. :)

  15. ColinPa Silver badge

    psst goes my vacuum

    Someone who was developing products that had to be tested in a vacuum (well low pressure), kept finding the was a blip in measurements during the evenings. They solved it by having "an evening in with Pizza" to watch what happened. The cleaner came along, are carefully plugged into a free socket and turned it on. The problem was that short cleaner had to reach over "the bell jar" containing the experiment, and touched it. This was enough to let in a small amount of air. The problem was easy to solve - just move the bell jar along the bench.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: psst goes my vacuum

      First cleaner story where they don't unplug something, and the solution is so easy... For future proofing you could probably rig a "cleaner's" socket at the front of the bench.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: psst goes my vacuum

        Second, a bit higher up there is another one (called a caretaker, but using a vacuum as well).

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: psst goes my vacuum


  16. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "I made a little plastic box to fit over the disk drive buttons and all was well again."

    A true BOFH would have solved it differently - a few drawing pins epoxyed to the relevant surface, a connection to the cattle prod, a loose floor tile over an inexplicable void leading down to the basement...

    1. bjzq8

      At a medium-sized Uni in the US where I used to work, we had a few raised-floor tiles that were loose. People that worked in the server room knew which ones to stay off of, generally. One guy forgot, and the tile flipped up as soon as he stepped on it. His let went knee-first into the corrugated edge of the next tile. He retired in disabled glory shortly after that, after having gotten quite a large settlement. I guess a sign saying "some tiles are loose" wasn't good enough.

  17. Antron Argaiv Silver badge


    I worked on the assembly line for these during a couple of summer breaks from grad school. We didn't have those newfangled "internships" back then, so I made my own.

    I ended up as an summer fill-in assembly line technician at DEC's Westfield, Massachusetts plant, doing initial test and bringup of newly assembled RKO6 drives, which were quickly double-densitied into RKO7s. They had nice lighted, front-mounted buttons, and were mounted in a rack at the appropriate height. Top opening, of course, and about 1/2 the size of a washing machine (the bottom of the rack was empty, it only served to bring the drive up to a convenient height)

    Thanks for the was a very educational two summers, well worth the time.

  18. neilrieck

    Core memory in Canada

    I remember my first experience with a PDP-11/70 at DEC's educational services facility in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. The year was 1982 and we were attending a one-week class on DT-07 and PCL-11 (two UNIBUS technologies). It was lectures in the morning and labs in the afternoon. We all had different machines and two of us from Bell Canada were assigned a PDP-11/70. Every lab began the same way: power up the machine then toggle in your diagnostic boot strap via the octal front panel switches. On the day of the last lab, the instructor, Gilles Marcel, remarked "I notice you guys toggling in your diagnostic program at the beginning of the lab". I responded with "Yes, that's right". Then he continued: "The PDP-11/70 you are using has core memory (read: magnetic core memory) so the diagnostic only needed to be input once". Well I was gobsmacked. He had watched us toggle in the diagnostic every morning but said nothing. We thought we were computer hot-shots up until that experience :-)

    1. Richard Tobin

      Re: Core memory in Canada

      I've probably mentioned this before...

      We had a PDP-11/40 which had originally had 32k (words) of core memory, but had been upgraded to 128k with semiconductor memory. One day some decorators accidentally pushed the big red button. When we powered it back on, the operating system came back because it was in low memory - which was core - but each process crashed in turn as it got parity errors in the semiconductor memory.

  19. circusmole

    Those were the days.

    I worked on the 11/70 back in the day. The lights and switches were wonderful diagnostic aids. Unfortunately DEC introduced the lightless and switchless remote access front panel which you drove via the console device. Fault finding then became much more difficult and in extreme circumstances we resorted to putting back the "old" lights and switched front panel to get a grip of what was going wrong.

    1. swm Silver badge

      Re: Those were the days.

      I miss the blinken lights and switches. I debugged an operating system with them around 1968.

      1. Martin-73 Silver badge

        Re: Those were the days.

        I (as mentioned many times on this august foru...err wrong place) am a domestic electrician by trade now, but with my heart back in 80s computer networking at academia (gandalf modems communicating with a 19" rack full of modems at the DPU)... i ... got a sense of nostalgia at one large house recently when the owner turned out to be a huge fan of IT... and had various 1980s equipment up and running. It's the 5mm round deep red LED's wot does it

  20. Jenny with the Axe

    Oh, the humanity...

    Back in the 90's, some of my coworkers didn't take the whole on-call thing too seriously. Oh, they did carry the pager, and they did stay close to a computer they could use to login. What they did not necessarily do was stay *sober*.

    One of them got a page when he was well on the way to completely shitfaced. As his favourite drinking hole was about 100 metres from the office, he went there to fix whatever it was. And went into the server hall, stumbled, caught himself on a rack... which he overturned.

    I'm fairly sure the outage report to the users was sanitized.

    And no, this was not the last time he was drunk when on call.

  21. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    In my old office, the only socket I could use was an under-floor one directly under my desk. Directly under my chair. Everything on my desk was plugged into a six way extension cable, so that only the single mains cable (and two ethernet cables) actually ran to the floor socket.

    One day, I sat down, without noticing that the cover of the socket was sitting on the mains cable, which was sitting on the edge of the well the socket was in (I think the cleaner had plugged the vacuum cleaner in my socket, and hadn't arranged the cables properly when the vacuum was unplugged). Anyway, i sat on my chair. About 30 seconds later, there as a large bang under my desk, and everything on my desk went off.

    Then, talking to colleagues, I found that everything on half of our floor had gone off. Thankfully, not many people were in. I reported what had happened to Facilities Management, who came, checked over my socket, then reset the circuit breaker that had tripped, thus restoring power to everything..

    Didn't enjoy having to explain to FM why I'd taken out the electrics though, even though I seriously think it was one of their staff that caused it (the Cleaners are employed by FM).

    1. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      > Didn't enjoy having to explain to FM why I'd taken out the electrics though

      It was FM that allowed a desk to be (re-)positioned so that the chair was right on top of the floor socket. Entirely their fault.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        And also didn't provide enough sockets in the first place.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    shutdown switch, wrong place

    At University, we had a multi-terminals Unix system, was SYSVR3 if I remember.

    But some genius had put the breaker switch exactly at the door exit !

    So, sure enough, one day, I went out of the room and switched off the system ...

    There was even an idiot there asking me why I switched off the multi-user system !

    1. rnturn

      Re: shutdown switch, wrong place

      Not long before I'd started working at the treasuries group at a well-known bank, some Executive VP was leading a tour of visiting dignitaries through the data center. Before leaving, he hit the big red switch on the wall near the door, apparently thinking he was on the Enterprise and it would open the door for the tour group. Nope, shut down the entire data center taking down all of the trading floor and the back office systems. Weeks later, as I was visiting the data center with my new boss, that switch had yet to be protected with a cover or even a warning sign as to its purpose.

  23. egbert

    Careful with that book Eugene

    In the early 80s the physics department where I was doing a PhD replaced their IBM 370/145 (with its sizeable front panel full of knobs, buttons and der blinkenlights) with a sleek new IBM 4331.

    Not only was the CPU only about the size of a domestic chest freezer (compared to the several wardrobes of the 145) but there was no front panel. In its place was only the 3270 style "green screen" operator display with a separate keyboard. All of the machine operation features that had previously required the panel were now accessible through the screen and keyboard, complete with dedicated large buttons along the top right for IPL, Halt and Go.

    One day, I was sitting in the terminal room, with half a dozen other users, doing some editing on a program (FORTRAN of course), when all of the terminals stopped responding. This was not an uncommon occurrence if the machine was heavily loaded but after a while it was obvious that something had happened. I went downstairs to the computer room (attempts by the operators to keep users out had been given up years before) to see all of the operators crowded round the terminal discussing whether they would have to restart to solve the problem.

    This would have been a disaster. Not only would all the users currently working lose their editing sessions but any running batch jobs would be lost. CPU time was precious and a program might be 90% way through a run of several hours.

    However, I happened to notice that there was a large manual open on the operators desk with one side resting on the top of the console keyboard. I gently(*) suggested to them that they might remove the manual and just press the "go" button. The machine instantly burst into life.

    Very quickly after that the departmental lab technicians machined a 20 pence aluminium guard to stop the very expensive mainframe suffering the same fate again.

    (*) OK, I marched in and said "why don't you just lift the stupid manual up and press go?", much to the annoyance of my computer operator girlfriend (now wife). For some reason she thinks physicists are arrogant.

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: Careful with that book Eugene

      For some reason she thinks physicists are arrogant.

      Nothing to do with being a physicist and everything to do with a tendency for being right, a lot of less fortunate people often feel people with that tendency to be arrogant. When it happens to often, I start apologizing for being right.

  24. sitta_europea

    "Confess all with an email to Who, Me?"

    Cant do that 'cause Google won't accept my mail.

    "We had an intermittent fault on the system drive on the PDP11/70. It was going offline at spurious times of the day without any warning."

    I thought they all did that. At least all the ones with, er, big drives. Ours did. Drove me nuts.

    Anyway we had a 3kVA UPS to make sure the power wouldn't fail on it. There was a safety switch on the UPS to cut the output power in an emergency. It was recessed to pretect it from accidentally getting pressed.

    That worked fine until the office manager decided to move some of the stacking chairs to a bit of spare space next to the UPS.

    She accidentally found that the leg of a stacking chair leg would just fit into the recess, and was plenty long enough to reach the emergency cutout button.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      I remember an occasion when a similarly inaccessible switch was hit by a small paper plane with added pen top filled with blue tack nosecone on the first throw from about forty feet.

      1. Uncle Slacky

        Well, one in a million chances happen nine times out of ten...

  25. Shez

    Fictional Engineer

    This episode of Who Me makes me think of our change process.

    When considering the risk of a change and what could go wrong, we assume it's being done by a fictional, and rather clumsy engineer we call Hugh Jass.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Fictional Engineer

      When I was a tech writer, we didn't need "fictional people". We go the Builder Services and get the newest cleaner for a temporary assignment. We'd have them start at page one on a manual and follow every step by step exactly as written. We found a lot of errors that way.

      1. G.Y.

        Re: Fictional Engineer

        I believe such people were referred to as "virgins"


    Seeing as how we have Hanlon in our extinguishing system, and it's so old and ancient I don't even know to what capacity it works, I very much keep all limbs inside the ride when entering or exiting the server room...

    1. Uncle Slacky

      Watch out for his razor! Or did you mean "Halon"?

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        It's the cut-off switch.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There's more than one way to stop a server room

    We get a variation of this every year at work, some of the notable ones have been:

    Telecoms engineer from, let's call them Cowboy and Witless, staking up new routers in an apps room and reaching the level of the Emergency Power Off button.

    Fire alarm engineer accidentally tests the wrong sensor in an apps room, and in a panic hits the EPO rather than the Inergen hold off.

    Then there was the apps room we discovered had been built with 'active' EPO break glasses that had an integral 9 volt battery. When the battery ran out, they failed safe by activating. About half a million quids worth of mission critical kit depending on 4x9V batteries around the room to remain powered, you really couldn't make it up...

    1. Charlie van Becelaere

      Re: There's more than one way to stop a server room

      Thumbs up for "Cowboy and Witless!"

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: There's more than one way to stop a server room

        I have a nasty feeling that from now on that's the version I'm going to remember.

        1. Martin-73 Silver badge

          Re: There's more than one way to stop a server room

          I'd always heard 'clueless and witless' but both work

    2. J. Cook Silver badge

      Re: There's more than one way to stop a server room

      We got pretty close to something like that at one of our data centers several years ago at [RedactedCo].

      We had installers from one of the telecomm companies installing the gear for a mini-cell node at this property, which would run along a distributed antenna system. The installers were doing something (I don't recall what, exactly) and tripped the fire alarm in the data center. While the supression system didn't go off, it did trip the sprinkler pre-action system for that area... which proceeded to flood, because the drain for the pre-action was never cleared of any debris when the place went live a few years previous. To make matters worse, there was a funnel that was supposed to catch the drain water, which wasn't installed properly.

      Thankfully, disaster was narrowly averted, and the data center didn't flood... although the big boss was... upset.

      Fortunately, our EPO buttons are all passive make/break switches with molly guards over them; the molly guards are supposed to have a squealer alarm on them that goes off if the cover's opened, but I think the batteries in all of them have died over time.

  28. rnturn

    This -- or stories like it -- were frequently heard at the late-night war stories sessions at DECUS symposia.

    There were plastic after-market drive button covers that could be installed on the big disk drives to prevent someone's derriere from placing drives offline.

  29. Scene it all

    IBM was smart enough with the 360 series to put the "emergency power off" knob up head-high on the front panel, and you had to PULL it. However, the "LOAD" button (basically "reboot") was conveniently just a few inches above the desktop where you could hit it with your coffee mug.

  30. gormful

    Had the same issue with a VAX 2000 we installed in a power plant control room in the early 90s.

    The CPU drawer was positioned near the bottom of the rack, which put the RUN/HALT switch at the exact height of the rim of the janitor's wheeled mop bucket.

    We got a spurious HALT every couple of weeks. Fortunately, the HALT switch on a VAX merely suspends the CPU; pressing the switch again continues operation without missing a beat (except for timed-out network ops).

  31. JQW

    Not in the same league, but still a bad design.

    A former workplace used to own a high-end PC workstation, manufactured around 1988 or so, but used occasionally a few years later. It was a fairly impressive piece of equipment, relatively small in size, but powerful enough for CAD or other uses, yet small enough for a monitor to sit directly on top of the box. The manufacturer was a long forgotten UK mini-computer company who were attempting to branch out into the desktop market.

    There was just one major problem. The machine's power on switch was a red square push button situated in the middle of the front bezel. At keyboard height. And not recessed. Oh dear!

  32. aregross

    All these stories are nice, but the real point here is....

    Why is the 'Manager' parking his butt on a running Winchester drive in the first place? Didn't he see all the crashed disks proudly displayed on the wall in the computer room as proof of how EXPENSIVE that sort of activity is?

    1. Daedalus

      Manglers just do stuff like that. I had one once, he was a nice guy but he did have this habit of walking into my cube and parking his posterior on any flat surface. The fact that all flat surfaces were merely large shelves attached to the cube walls deterred him not at all.

      Well, there was also a rolling file cabinet that slid under the "desktop". I jammed a few empty CD cases between cabinet and shelf in anticipation of his next visit.

      The resulting CRACK!! as he sat down may have persuaded him to change his ways....

  33. croc

    PDP 11/70s and power...

    40 meg diskpaks used to have a bad habit of going off-balance if not put in the drive JUST SO... Then the drive would go walk about, wobbling all over the place until it reached the end of its 'tether' and shut itself down. The PDP itself could be shut down anytime and restarted, thanks to it's ring-core memory. So, when a drive went walk about, the easiest way to recover was to shut down the PDP, reset and re-start the drive, let it come up to speed and re-start the PDP.

    The magnet in the voice coil was a MONSTER!

  34. Chris Manson

    Never confuse speed with skill

    In 1987 I was a keen mainframe operator (rank of Private) on a military Sperry-Univac 1174 (we'd had an upgrade from the 1172). The system ran all the inventory, personnel records and check-printing for a country somewhere in the South Pacific. I had recently watched the team leader type in a command on the main console that queried the timing system and produced a brief status report. NB An audit trail of everything typed in and displayed was also being printed out in real time. At about 11:50 one workday, I was on the console and had my shift leader on one side and the day manager on the other. Time to demonstrate my abilities(!). I rapidly typed in 'II timer II'. Unfortunately I was too hasty and should not have included the second 'II'. The monitor suddenly stopped and paused, the printer stopped. Then various carriage returns, blank spaces and unusual status information appeared on screen. My shift leader, rather casually, said "You've just reset the timing for the system ,so it's shutting down now. The defence forces are getting an early lunch today. We'll get this all going again while YOU go and write a report on what happened". I think I went a bit white and did write something down, but it all disappeared and wasn't mentioned again.


    It has been such a long time, I wish someone would post an image of a PDP-11/70 front panel?

    I remember one that was red, but I think that was a PDP-11/45?

    There are a lot of PDP-8 images confusing me as well.

    Ah, just found one.


  36. HWwiz

    PDP you say....

    I may or may not work for Merica's largest bank. And we have two PDP's in the main DC in the UK. Both of 1978 vintage.

    We also have another 4 in the spares room for parts should we need them but amazingly they just keep on going.

    Apparently they are still used for some function of payment processing, because and i quote "They software guys cannot figure out how to do it in a modern database".

    And the chaps that supported the PDP have long since died. So its up to me and the rest of the HW DC team to swap out boards when required.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: PDP you say....

      I found one lurking in the corner of a data centre for a major UK bank about 15 years ago - it was doing something with dec/net but nobody was really sure exactly what.

  37. TireIron

    The Floppy Disk Incident...

    Back in the early/mid 90's I did contract job doing IT Support for an office that had just replaced its mainframe with networked PC's. Due to historical data they had kept one of the mainframe managers on.

    Talking to him one day about IT in general, and how things had got smaller, he suddenly looked me in the eye and said, "Have you ever held an eight inch floppy in your hand?". Me being a bit speechless having brain freeze at that moment suddenly found myself stood there with said floppy draped over said hand with the instruction, "don't bend it too much"...

    I believe said IT Manager had used that line more than once with the ladies of the office in the past...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Floppy Disk Incident...


      As a PFY, I was once given the job of formatting 100 of the bloody things for a customer

  38. Confuciousmobil

    In the story did the boss not realise that the HD went off every time he was there? Did no one else?

    Random times of day weren’t very random.

    1. Pete the PDP


      It was 2-3 times a week, not per day. A slight mis-translation


  39. staringatclouds

    In the late 70's when I was at uni, we had a PDP11/34 in a lab with about 15 teletypes hooked in

    It turned out to be unusually susceptible to static, as several students including myself only had to touch the handle of the door to the room and every head poring over the teletype output would suddenly look up as the system crashed

    Bit awkward when you had a class in there

    We had porters going round with water filled spray bottles at one time damping down the nylon carpets, which did nothing, they eventually removed the carpets altogether which helped a bit

    I found an earthing point and grounded myself before going anywhere near the room, which helped a lot more

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A KDF9 was doing its acceptance tests at a university. One test required the reading of a large reel of papertape at full speed. The system kept falling over during this test - at similar but not identical places. Then someone standing by the papertape reader heard the coincident "crack". The papertape metal collection bin had lost its earth connection and was acting as an accumulator of the static charge.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        A particular manufacturing machine I once worked with would periodically have a grounding problem (we thought). For most equipment, that wouldn't be a big deal... except this one was doing RF sealing. The resultant zap would fry several of the more sensitive devices on it. Cue a day of replacement and adjustment. Never could find the main problem, as the grounding connection seemed solid enough.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two memorable customer long-standing problems with systems breaking intermittently.

    In one case it was finally noticed that the office network connection failed temporarily - when a Harrier jump jet was taking off from the pad outside. Faulty connection in the wall box.

    The second was a mainframe crash. Chatting to an operator over coffee - she said "it always happens when I've gone to the toilet". The ladies' toilet had a motor (pump/macerator) which switched on when the toilet was flushed.

  41. BiffoTheBorg

    I recall a similar datacentre from those times

    Reed Group Aylesford had PDP 11/70, Primes, and IBM 360, don't remember any Petes though, but I do recall a Mike.

    Before then in the 70's when I was a shift leader at a datacentre in Beckenham the Director responsible for IT used to pay social visits to the computer room whilst puffing away on his pipe. Of course, smoking in the computer room was forbidden but no one ever said as much to the big boss. I always hoped that one day his cloud of smoke would set off the fire alarm, it never did, but one day I had finally had enough and quietly triggered the alarm myself. Profuse apologies from puffing billy and there was no more pipe in the computer room.

  42. This Side Up


    Ah yes, at one location I worked at we had a staff canteen that was popularly known as the Restaurant at the End of the Unibus.

  43. chairman_of_the_bored

    Who, me?

    When I worked as a systems engineer for a three-letter IT company in the UK, I had been assigned to the Healthcare team. Mostly boring replies to RFQs, but I had some investigation to do when a spate of health trusts started reporting crashes of of their critical Oracle database systems running on our **-6****s. Nobody could figure out what was the cause, until I spotted all the occurrences were within a circular radius of one of our engineering centres (glorified term for a kettle and parts depot). Turn out one of the the engineers would turn up for some preventative maintenance, hang up his coat and press the big yellow button on a live running Oracle database server. As his work usually involved replacing a minor part, he was out of the building before the anguished screams of the users (and DBAs) could reach him. I believe he was last seen being shipped in a cattle truck to Siberia for some re-education.

  44. '65 T-Bird

    DEC 'PDP' Computers

    Yes, as a 'Field Engineer' I installed and repaired the entire line of DEC's PDP computers back in the mid 70s.

    Loved those flashing lights and 'purple toggle switches' on the PDP's Front Panels. Remember often 'manually toggling-in' short programs to execute some basic diagnostics for troubleshooting various parts of the systems.

    I began working for DEC in 1970 as a 'Test Technician', first on 8KW Core Memory mats, later on various PDP circuit boards, then in 'Quality Assurance Final Systems Testing' before becoming a Field Engineer in Halifax, NS.

    My territory included all four Maritime Provinces and I'd usually be on a 'plane to somewhere' at least twice a week. Almost always had to bring along not only my toolkit, but also an oscilloscope, spare parts, and often a 'disk alignment pack' of some sort. For sites I could just drive to, even had to bring a 'small portable vacuum cleaner' to clean the filters in cabinets which housed the main CPU/Mem section, as well as smaller peripheral devices such as paper tape readers, tape drives, etc...

    Kind of like being able to repair our own cars prior to their 'computerization', we could actually repair those 'old computers' by replacing transistors, caps, resistors, and other small components rather than the entire CPU, DIMM, Disk Drive, etc.....

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