back to article Panic in the mailroom: The perils of an operating system too smart for its own good

Modern life is rubbish, so take a trip back to the 1970s with a Who, Me? all about the Master Control Program (MCP). Today's tale comes from a Reg reader we'll call "Simon." Our man was spending 1973 toiling away as a computer operator for an American city. The city was big enough to justify splashing some dollars on a new …

  1. jake Silver badge

    Computerized billing ...

    Something similar happened in the late '60s or early '70s in Palo Alto. Most people laughed, threw away one of the bills & paid the other. They were obviously duplicates, probably the fault of that new fangled computer at City Hall, and so it was obvious that only one needed to be paid. My Dad was one of the few folks to call in and report it (or so they told him) ... mostly to offer his services, should they need help fixing the problem. They didn't, but he & I got a free tour of the new computer system out of it :-)

    1. seven of five

      Re: Computerized billing ...

      > laughed, threw away one of the bills & paid the other. They were obviously duplicates

      Only sensible course of action.

      OTOH, idiots used to be idiots way before IT was invented.

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Computerized billing ...

      The Reg could solicit its readers for stories for a new section:

      "Impromptu tours of interesting facilities given to them as children because they just turned up" - especially tours in paces that these days wouldn't be allowed because of health and safety or data protection guidelines - or just because the foreman isnt given that sort of discretion.

      My uncle and and his father once just turned up at a Cornish tin mine in the sixties, and were treated to a tour down the pit. My uncle afterwards used his pocket money to buy shares in it, which showed a good return during the rise in commodity prices a few years back.

      1. RockBurner

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Can we add stories more recent than childhood?

        Only a few months ago I talked my way into an Aston Martin restoration workshop and spent a happy engineering-geek hour being shown around the multiple beautiful vehicles being worked on. :)

        1. juice

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          > Can we add stories more recent than childhood?

          A while ago, I visted a steam-engine museum during a steaming day, and had much joy in watching various lumps of metal doing their thing.

          And then a week later, I was driving past the same with a friend who's also mechanically minded, and despite the fact that it wasn't an "open" weekend, figured it was worth stopping off to show him the stuff which is outside the museum.

          One of the regular volunteers was there, and so we fell to chatting with him, until he turned around and said "would you like to look under the steam engine?"

          And so we made a little trip into the engine room, down some stairs, and got to have a good little wander underneath the engine!

          Definitely not something you'd be able to do on a normal open weekend :)

          1. don't you hate it when you lose your account

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            My mate was working at the challenger tank maintenance factory in Leeds when they were closing it down. They had an open day for the staff friends and family. Belting down the test course in a challenger was about the most fun I've had with my clothes on. Just a pity I wasn't allowed to drive.

      2. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Would that include airplane cockpits?

        "Ever seen a grown man naked?"

        1. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          I was flown to the US as an 'unaccompanied child' and I was looked after by drop dead gorgeous air hostesses (I was 11 but many parts were doing test runs) and spent 20 minutes in the cockpit of a BOAC VC10 with the pilot and co-pilot and blond bombshell. Fortunately the geek in me was more powerful than the testosterone self test so I didnt get slapped and enjoyed all the technical stuff. I have always wondered if all those switches did in fact work.

          Alas no sexual harassment I can retrospectively sue for,

          1. Commswonk

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            ...I was looked after by drop dead gorgeous air hostesses (I was 11 but many parts were doing test runs) and spent 20 minutes in the cockpit of a BOAC VC10 with the pilot and co-pilot and blond bombshell. Fortunately the geek in me was more powerful than the testosterone self test...

            Oh what a wonderful way of describing the situation. Made my day that has.

          2. David Hicklin Bronze badge

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            flying home from Jersey (Channel Islands) to EMA after our honeymoon in '91, asked to see inside the cockpit and was invited to pull the jump seen down (on the back of the cockpit door) and stay while they landed the plane.

            Had headset on that could speak to the pilots and hear ground control

          3. Paul Cooper
            Thumb Up

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            I managed to get into the cockpit of a commercial flight crossing Greenland - I happened to remark to an air hostess that I'd been down on the ice the year before! The pilot invited me up to the cockpit and we havd an interesting chat.

        2. Robert Moore

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          @Uncle Slacky

          > "Ever seen a grown man naked?"

          Yes, but I was in a Turkish prison at the time.

      3. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Victoria, Australia. Early 1960s. I believe I must have been about 8 or 9, my brother 2 yrs younger. Mum, my brother and I, were on holiday at the Mount Buffalo Chalet. A notice was posted for a trip to the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, then under construction. We all signed up. I remember bus rides, and an underground tour, through one of the tunnels which would later carry water to or from the turbines.

        No hard hats, safety glasses, and hi-vis hadn't been invented yet. A bunch of tourists. We all survived. That I still remember it 60 years later indicates it was a worthwhile trip.

        1. Muscleguy

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          Do you know about the hole in the mountain power scheme at the head of Loch Awe? Takes water from a loch high in the mountains and it runs down a tailrace to the power station and out into Loch Awe, with pumped storage.

          We went round it when it was being built, early ‘70s I was about 5 including walking down the tailrace tunnel. I remember being very scared by it.

          1. CliveS

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            Cruachan Power Station. Still well worth a visit, and there's a great circular walk that takes in the dam.

            1. Korev Silver badge

              Re: Computerized billing ...

              There was a wonderful Geek's guide on Dinorwig a few years back.

      4. Electronics'R'Us

        Impromptu tours

        I was about 12 when I was coming home from school.

        Just a short distance up the main road from where we lived was a Plessey plant (long since gone, sadly).

        I was always interested in electronics so I walked in and asked questions. Had quite the tour including being mesmerised by the wave soldering machine (what safety covers?).

        Probably couldn't happen today without it being pre-arranged with a full health and safety risk assessment. A shame really.

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Impromptu tours...

        My grandfather, now in his late 90s, is the sort of person who can get talking to someone, and end up opening doors to otherwise restricted areas.

        He and I share an interest in railways, and he managed to talk us into many locomotive sheds, workshops and otherwise out-of-bounds areas on preserved railways.

        It also led to a few cab visits and at least one cab ride on main line trains long after that sort of thing was no longer generally permitted. (We were told to disappear back into the coach behind the cab approaching the terminus, as if the station staff saw us the driver could end up in hot water).

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Another hydro plant tour story here. I was on a group tour of a decent sized and rather old (>100 years of making power) hydro plant. Our tour lasted well over an hour, and included actually touching the turbine housings as well as a tour of the control room and the swwitchroom.I recall thinking that we'd have been shot on sight in any of those locations if we were spotted there during WWII.

        At the end of the tour, one of our guides and I realized we had met before. He suggested I come back when we had more time, and could see more of the facility.

        I haven't taken him up on the offer yet. Short of scuba diving through the penstock, I'm not sure what else there is to see!

      7. Slow Joe Crow

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Back in the early 70s my father would take me to the train station to watch the trains and I got a tour of the cab of an FL9 locomotive and "drove" an EMU set a few yards down the platform. I also got to sit in the pilot's seat of a 747 when our flight was stuck on the ground for several hours due to a flooded runway at our destination. One of the more interesting things was the little ball and crosshairs gadget between the windshields that was used to adjust the seat to the optimum position.

      8. swm

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        When I was a "cute" young boy I was fascinated by phone companies. I was able to get into a dozen or so just by asking. I saw a long distance cord board, #1 crossbar, #4 crossbar, #5 crossbar, a panel office, a 60,000 subscriber step-by-step system (it was awesome and noisy), some ESS systems etc. It was fun to see the technology advance but I always loved the crossbar systems.

        1. Black Betty

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          I got to "supervise" the changeover from manual to automatic exchange when I was 11 or 12. 3 metres of 100 pair kept me in hookup wire for many years. And I discovered butyl rubber might work like Blutak when it came to hanging pictures, it wasn't so residue free when taking them down.

      9. Unoriginal Handle

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        On my honeymoon in 1991, driving through the French countryside near Darois (I think). Saw a sign pointing to the CAP aircraft factory. Knocked on the door and got a tour, seeing the raw materials (piles of wood) being turned into aircraft in stages. It appealed because at the time I'd just completed a PPL(A).

        Got told to go to the nearby airfield the day after and look at the actual finished product. No trip in one, but seeing the transformation of the raw material to a finished aerobatic aircraft ticked my geek boxes...

      10. ICPurvis47

        Impromtu Tours

        When I was about 14, I was a keen railway modeller, and was building a "00" scale layout in the loft with my father. I wanted to scratch build almost everything on the layout, and as I was a keen bus spotter as well, I went over the road to the local bus garage (Seven Kings) to ask if I could run a builder's tape measure over an RT (Regent Three). The staff were very accommodating, even moving a work stage over so I could measure the outside of the upper deck, and parking one bus over the inspection pit so I could have a good look at the underneath detail. From there it was only a short step to being allowed to ride in the cab as one of the shunters (Bill Totts) put the bus through the fuelling stand and washing machine before parking it up in the line ready for its next outing. After several weeks of this, he allowed me to actually drive it, while he stood in the entrance door, and then I was trusted to drive solo. For about a year, I would go over to AP after school to drive busses all evening, until my family moved (temporarily) to the USA. By the time we returned, Bill was no longer working there, he had retired, and there was a completely different air about the place, the RTs were gone and had been replaced by Routemasters (RMs). The whole garage was shut down some years later, and is now a DIY Superstore. :-(

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Sightseeing where it's not generally permitted

      A friend works in the broadcast biz. I met him at the base of a 1500 ft tower. We rode the elevator (not much larger than a phone booth) up to the top and admired the view for a while. It was a beautiful day with a fairly stiff breeze. The top of the tower did not noticeably move. My stomach was another matter. After a while, you get used to the fact that the only thing between you and the ground is a piece of 16 gauge steel mesh.

      Anon, because he's still working in the industry, and while this sort of thing used to be tolerated, corporate ownership of previously independent stations has resulted in the lawyers taking all the fun out of life. Also, BASE jumpers who open their chutes too late or get caught in the guy wires...

      1. Muscleguy

        Re: Sightseeing where it's not generally permitted

        Back in NZ I was running up the local volcanic plug the TV/radio mast was erected on. I came out of the bushline and ascended onto the top when a body fell off the tower splat! onto the concrete pad. Then there was laughter, it was a dummy and having spotted me coming up the track the workers up the tower decided to have some fun so they had released the dummy.

        I was running anyway so it didn’t really alter my trajectory since the laughter came fairly soon after the splat!

      2. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Sightseeing where it's not generally permitted

        I did some student apprentice with the NCB before Uni and at one pit we had 300ft lighting rigs around the storage yard and had to climb up that and change the bulbs. By the time you've climbed up the ladder you are too knackered to be scared.

    4. keith_w

      Re: Computerized billing ...

      Many years ago when I was in college we got tours of both the Pickering Nuclear Station, then under construction, just outside Toronto, ON, and the NORAD SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) site in North Bay, ON. then running and IBM FSQ-7 and remember the very large signs in the memory (Vacuum tubes) room which said if you hear the alarm the air conditioning has failed so get out before you roast, or words to that effect.

      1. bmacd

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        Many a happy summer in North Bay visiting my grandparents! Grandpa was in the RCAF and they ended up staying in NB when he retired.

        Anyway, I'll never forget a school tour of CFS Moisie (Pinetree Line) in northern Quebec. The "Rabbit Ear" height-finder made a great impression as they activated it while we were in the dome (thinking about it now, just the antenna actuator - as I recall the wave-guides were well over a foot across and we would have been well and truly fried if they had switched on the transmitter!).

        This was just before the first Quebec "Sovereignty Association" (Separation) bill in the early 80's. I asked the Base Commander what would happen if it was a Yes vote and I can remember his exact words:

        "We have contingency plans to render this facility inoperable."

        ... always took that to mean they were going to blow the whole station up!

      2. Ethangar

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        We did Pickering too. The glow in the dark jokes continued for ages after the tour guide stepped on and put her hands in the "tester" and got flagged red on 3 tries. You could almost see the panic as she kept double and triple checking her radiation badge was still green. A helpful fellow then came over and asked if the tester was acting up again. Gave it a smack on the side and she tested green then, as we all did. Inspired a LOT of confidence in the test procedures when a smack could change the results 180 deg.

    5. macjules

      Re: Computerized billing ...

      Exactly the same with the purchase order's department for HM Treasury in the late 1970's. The cheque runs were processed via the Burroughes with an auto recovery to the print queue in even of a failure.

      Of course the fact that some people got 2 tax refunds was irrelevant .. this was a year before Mrs T came to power so we were in the glorious days of "Who gives a flying f**, it's only taxpayer's money"

      1. Rich 11

        Re: Computerized billing ...

        this was a year before Mrs T came to power so we were in the glorious days of "Who gives a flying f**, it's only taxpayer's money"

        Oh, how things have changed. These days Mrs T's ideological descendants simply hand over billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, without tender or penalty clause, to companies who once did a favour for the Leave campaign, and to witless fools who by some strange coincidence just happen to be married to Tory MPs.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Computerized billing ...

          To be fair, the government still sends boatloads of our money to Crapita, BAe, G4S, Atos, PWC, E&Y, Accenture, Serco, Beardie, etc regardless of how much these tossers give in backhanders to the Conservative Party or just happen to be married to Tory MPs.

          1. Rich 11

            Re: Computerized billing ...

            Yeah, they're even incompetent at corruption.

    6. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "Something similar happened in the late '60s or early '70s in Palo Alto."

      Were they running a Burroughs 6700 at the time?

      It's not impossible this story could be about that city.

  2. Sequin

    I had to deal with a similar, but opposite problem one day for the UK Prison Service. They had an office in Birmingham that allowed the families of inmates to claim financial help for visiting their loved ones in chokey. The figures weren't immense, but they could claim travelling costs and occasional overnight B&B stays. The system ran on Novel Netware and was set up to print Girocheques in batches from a bespoke application.

    One day I received a call saying that the system had gone haywire, printing duplicate cheques, many of which had already been sent out in the post. I had to drop everything and hire a car to drive like a madman from Liverpool to sort it out. I even got stopped for speeding on the M6, though the nice policemen let me off with a warning after breathylising me.

    When I finally got in to the office, it took me an hour or so to track down the problem. To deal with a backlog of applications, the local management had instituted an "all hands to the pump" blitz, shoving through more than double the number of cases than they normally did. The then loaded up the girocheques (on continuous paper) into the impact printer and kicked off the print routine. There was so much data that it filled and overflowed the disk space allocated to the print queues by Novel and the print spooler crashed. Novel, in its wisdom, automatically restarted the spooler, which then restarted the print job, reprinting multiple chueques. Th two lowly admin assistants whose job it was to separate the cheques and stuff them into window envelopes happily continued doing their menial tasks, filling mailbags with duplicate Giros.

    As can be imagined, many of the recipients thought that Christmas had come early and shot off down to the Post Office clutching handfulls of cheques. Much of this money was not recovered.

    1. Sgt_Oddball

      That reminds me..

      Of the Graffiti files book I've got and the quote inside read thus:

      "Double your pleasure, double your fun....

      Xerox your paycheque"

      On that note, things have moved on mightily these days as i paid my last cheque in by taking a picture with a phone. Strange times...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: That reminds me..

        I haven't seen a cheque since circa 2002 when I lived in Italy. (Writing cheques for bills in a language you neither read nor write is a fun experience, let me tell you.) I moved to Norway in 2005 and even back then cheques were a distant memory to most Norwegians. I definitely don't miss that archaic method of transaction.

        1. BebopWeBop

          Re: That reminds me..

          I have not written one in 10 years but occasionally do receive one (and not from some old aged relative). In my case, the Halifax deposit via photo saves me a great deal of time.

        2. Outski

          Re: That reminds me..

          Not even a different language sometimes - I recall our lettings agent in Malaysia refusing a cheque because I'd written 'sixteen hundred' rather than 'one thousand six hundred' (English is perfectly acceptable in Malaysia for such things).

          1. Jonathan Richards 1

            Re: That reminds me..

            I might have tried "Oh, you don't like 'sixteen hundred'. How about double-brace-score-score?"

        3. Martin

          One good thing about cheques

          The one thing I would miss if cheques became redundant is that it's the only elegant way to give a reasonable sum of money as a gift for, say, a wedding present or a birthday.

          Sending someone a letter or a card with a cheque enclosed is a nice gesture. Sending someone a letter or a card with a note saying "I've transferred £xxx into your account" looks really naff. "I'd like to transfer some money to you - what are your account details?" is even worse.

          1. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C

            Re: One good thing about cheques - @ Martin

            "I'd like to transfer some money to you - what are your account details?" is even worse.

            Unless it comes from a member of a royal family. Preferably Nigerian.

            1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

              Re: One good thing about cheques - @ Martin

              I miss the simple ability to pay money into another bank account like you can in the UK.

              Canadaland has this thing called Interac, where every time you transfer, you send money into somebodies account via phone number or e-mail. They then have to answer a security question unless signed up for auto-deposit. It's a PITA for regular transfers to family members.

              Relatively simple but that whole having to authenticate to receive the money (If you get the email address wrong in theory somebody else could get the money, but most often it will simply expire\credited back).

              1. CountCadaver

                Re: One good thing about cheques - @ Martin

                My parents just use Paypal to send money to my brother's family in the USA, way cheaper than SWIFT or bank means...simple and it just works (though I know many hate paypal but for this its an easy solution)

          2. WonkoTheSane

            Re: One good thing about cheques

            I suspect the 2020's (much less secure) alternative would be to get (and load) one of those pre-paid credit cards sold in supermarkets now.

          3. storner

            Re: One good thing about cheques

            Cheques? How quaint ...

            Banks here (Denmark) stopped accepting cheques for payment a couple of years ago. Nowadays, gift cards from shops are issued as credit cards. If you want to transfer cash we use cell phones and telephone numbers (not bank account numbers). We haven't gone all cash-less yet, but we're getting there. The Virus has sped things up somewhat, even among the greybeards.

            1. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: One good thing about cheques

              Banks in new Zealand started charging so much to process cheques that most businesses started discouraging them in the 1990s

              it started at $2 per cheque deposited (multiply that out by 50 cheques in one transaction) and rapidly climbed from there

        4. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: That reminds me..

          Yes, 'cept I suspect getting a bank transfer from Aunty Ethel on your birthday isn't as much fun as opening your card and finding a cheque.

          1. Outski

            Re: That reminds me..

            If your Aunty Ethel was anything like my Aunty Ethel, she'd probably make it out to the wrong nephew and forget to sign it.

        5. RockBurner

          Re: That reminds me..

          If you've not seen a cheque recently then you've obviously not sold a car and had the tax refunded.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: That reminds me..

            I never owned a car in the UK.

            In Norway, road tax is collected by the insurance companies as part of the car insurance payment. Like all other tax refunds in Norway though it would be refunded electronically into my bank account.

        6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: That reminds me..

          SWMBO had one recently from the DVLA for the balance of tax on a SORNed vehicle. We're expecting another in respect of a power outage the other week. Thanks to commentards for the mention of paying in cheques by phone; I'll see if our bank supports it.

        7. dak

          Re: That reminds me..

          I had two cheques for small amounts last week from British Gas.

          I have no idea why.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: That reminds me..

            Until recently, I had a cheque for £0.14 pinned to my office wall. I got it as a dividend payment in 2005 for a single share my wife had bought me, for fun, in one of the big banks. It cost more to post than its value and seemed a shame to cash; it's now a momento to the idiocy built into many bureaucracies.

            I switched my dividend payments to reinvestment in shares and I now have 2 shares in the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Never be enough to let me retire in luxury, though!

            1. Kubla Cant

              Re: That reminds me..

              About five years ago I moved my electricity account from Scottish Power. In the past couple of months Scottish Power has sent me two cheques for modest amounts. The previous one I paid in by post, using the final slip from a cheque book that I last used years ago. I've been wondering what to do with the second cheque, so the idea of paying in with a photo was attractive. Then I discovered I can only do so if I install the Barclays app on my phone. No thanks.

              1. Martin

                Re: That reminds me..

                Install it, pay in the cheque, uninstall it?

                Or just stick it in the post with a covering letter confirming your bank details.

            2. Shooter

              Re: That reminds me..

              I still have in my possession my final paycheck from a former employer, from almost thirty years ago.

              For $0.02

              I always hoped that it screwed up their account balances for months!

            3. swm

              Re: That reminds me..

              When I was little I used to order electronics stuff but the bill was always off by a few cents. Once they sent a check for $.04 and when I tried to cash it they said that there was a $.10 charge for cashing a check. After much arguing I got my 4 cents.

        8. General Purpose

          Re: That reminds me..

          "Our Online Portal does not currently have the functionality to verify bank details and therefore all online redemptions are settled by cheque." Aberdeen Standard Investments, the asset management arm of Standard Life Aberdeen plc and (if you believe Wikipedia) the largest active asset manager in the UK.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: That reminds me..

        "Double your pleasure, double your fun....

        Xerox your paycheque"

        You do, of course, have to use the Xerox machine with the magnetic toner in.

      3. John Arthur

        Re: That reminds me..

        I normally tax my motorcycle for 12 months at the start of each riding season, about March or April and then claim back the remainder when I take the bike off the road for its winter overhaul and rest. I have been able to tax it online for many years, more than 10 perhaps 15. When I take it off the road I claim the tax back also online. However the system cannot refund it to my card. It sends a cheque which I then have to go into town 8 miles away to pay into my bank. No, I cannot pay cheques in at the Post Office to Nationwide. Grrr...

        1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

          Re: That reminds me..

          In the past I've just posted the cheque to my bank instructing them to pay it in. Saved a trip however miles in scant weekend time or the impracticality of work lunch times.

        2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: That reminds me..

          Depending which bank you are with, you can usually pay cheques in by taking a picture on your phone via their banking app.

          I was made aware of this by the counter staff in Lloyds after queueing up to pay in a cheque last year.

          It did strike me at the time that this circumvents at least two of the security features of the cheque; there's nothing to prevent you doctoring the image of the cheque, and there's no verification of the MCR line, so presumably it rests entirely on the issuer of the cheque to notice fraud on their bank statement.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: That reminds me..

            > It did strike me at the time that this circumvents at least two of the security features of the cheque; there's nothing to prevent you doctoring the image of the cheque, and there's no verification of the MCR line, so presumably it rests entirely on the issuer of the cheque to notice fraud on their bank statement.


            Magnetic Ink Character Recognition - apparently it was vitally important that I learn this when I did my 'O' level in Computing back in 1982. Presumably it was for this very moment!

            1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

              Re: That reminds me..

              In a previous job incarnation, I worked for a print processing company that was licensed to print cheques, on sheet-fed Xerox belt printers, so sadly I know more about this topic than I ever would have wished to, as well as knowing what a corotron is, and how to operate a 440 ft/min continuous feed laser printer (whilst still being required to wear a tie, because we were 'IT', health and safety be damned). MCR / MICR are interchangeable terms, MICR probably gets the preference when spoken out loud, simply because it’s easier to say "mica" than "em-see-arr". MCR is easier to type. YMMV.

              Anyway, having actually used the magnetic cheque readers for checking proofs (which were large beige boxes with a slit in the top which probably dated from the 1970s), it was stressed into us that it was important that the numbers on the cheques were printed properly because it is a core security feature. It therefore surprises me a little that banks would be so willing to forego this and not to even place their hands on cheques that are being paid in. Then again, that security feature is several decades old, so it's probably not exactly the most secure any more.

              Long story short, the company in question went out of business not long after I found another job and left. I like to think it may have been a contributing factor, but to be honest, it's probably just because it was run by lying shysters.

            2. dvd

              Re: That reminds me..

              As someone who has written both firmware and software for cheque processing machines, I can advise that the magnetic properties of the ink were for reading reliability rather than for fraud prevention.

              And the back room staff that did data entry and correction were paid by throughput rather than fraud detection so they'd just enter the data manually if it were to fail to read; there was no incentive for data entry staff to spot fraud.

              A lot of places wouldn't even check signatures; there was little incentive to even do that until a customer complained whereupon the returns process would unravel the payments until it hit the initial acceptor of the cheque, who was then supposed to track down the writer of the cheque and get their money back. Good luck with that.

              To commit cheque fraud the cheques only needed to be good enough to fool the retailer; hence not very good.

              So the person out of pocket would be the account holder unless they noticed the fraud, then the retailer. There was little incentive for any bank to spot fraud. The only limited protection for the retailer was if a cheque guarantee card was also presented (remember them)?

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: That reminds me..

                As someone who prints his own checks, the magnetic ink is easy to come by. I bought a 1 kilo can of the stuff from Valley Litho for 80 bucks about a year ago. Should last me a decade or so, like the last one. And the one before that.

                Letterpress numbering machines are available on the used market if you don't want to spring for a new one. They aren't pocket change, but if you print a couple rounds of extremely customized checks for friends/family, a used unit will pay for itself pretty quickly. (Ask around! You'll be surprised who will pay for this kind of thing ... they'll spend even more money on matching personalized stationary, business cards & the like. Yes, even today.)

                A usable Heidelberg "Windmill" printing press can be had on the used market for four or five grand, as-is, where-is. Hint1: You are NOT qualified to verify it is functional. Hire a pro to put it through it's paces before shelling out cash. Suggestion: Hire a professional to relocate the press. Just trust me on this (hey, I was young once ... ). Hint2: They look easy to run. They are not. Take a course. Again, trust me on this.

          2. Muscleguy

            Re: That reminds me..

            During my PhD I was asked by the Dept to tutor a group of Malaysian medical students in physiology. Turned out they had not understood the analogies used in the lectures so my job was coming up with new, culturally grokable analogies.

            I was ostensibly working for the NZ dept of foreign affairs. They paid me with a cheque which had boxes starting at $10miillions then going down. My palter couple of hundred looked lonely. I’ve often wondered if their checking system would have missed a thousand or two?

            1. RichardBarrell

              Re: That reminds me..

              > new, culturally grokable analogies.

              That sounds neat. Please share a few? :)

          3. General Purpose

            Re: That reminds me..

            They do impose limits. Barclays allow up to £1,000 per cheque and up to 4 cheques in 7 days. With HSBC it's £500 a cheque, £750 a day.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: That reminds me..

          Nationwide also, they suck a lot and make big of being a mutual but act like a predatory bank (even have provision for charging for the internet banking now in their T&Cs (though complaints deny any knowledge....big shock)

          I just pay the tax monthly and then cancel when not using, 5% more over the year but a tonne less hassle waiting for refunds etc.

    2. BebopWeBop

      IN similar circumstance, I suspect I would have been off to the bank/po asap as well

    3. Tom 7 Silver badge

      I've had the pleasure of opening a box left in the print room to discover its absolutely full of blank cheques AND the knowledge to print them so they could be cashed. Just a moments temptation - nothing to match the finding an XK8 convertible with the engine running far enough away from the bank where the owner was getting some cash from the cash machine to get in and drive away cleanly and without recognition.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        One evening in the early 1990s, a woman was admitted to my ward as an emergency having been found wandering the streets and behaving in a way that raised questions about her mental health. Part of the admissions process was to check belongings for valuables with a witness present, so I asked one of my (female) colleagues to check the woman's handbag. The usual "I'm going to check your handbag - is there anything I should know about?" was answered with "Oh, just a bit of money. I don't know how much." My colleague looked in the bag and went white - there were lots of bank notes! The patient wasn't interested in staying in the room, so went to get a cup of tea and a sandwich whilst we started counting. At £2000 with still plenty to go we started to get nervous, and called in another colleague. With checking and more checking we spent more than two hours to ensure that the figure of around £7500 was correct, and then the three of us went together to the deposit box at the finance office. It was only the next day when I realised that, in theory, we could have put £1000 in the records and divided the rest between us if we'd been dishonest!

        The patient became well and was discharged very quickly considering the state she was in - I have always wondered if there was more to it than met the eye.

    4. macjules

      OMG. GiroBank, Bootle, Merseyside.

  3. Dabooka

    Glad we've moved on so much in the last 50 years

    I mean you never see reports of gas bills for millions or inaccurate claim letters / duplicates being sent out.

    What I can't fathom out is the extreme reaction. I mean it isn't as if they tried to claim it twice is it? What a fuss over nothing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Glad we've moved on so much in the last 50 years

      No more stories like the couple who had been receiving increasingly hostile letters from the gas board about non-payment... until the day they had a man turn up to cut off the gas supply

      The gas fitter got a tour of the premises and was able to report that they didn't owe anything because they didn't and never had had gas in the first place

      (I think the meter was close or on the boundary but the pipework clearly went went next-door... where there was another meter)

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Glad we've moved on so much in the last 50 years

      Years ago the NI Civil Service paid far too much for some salaries (subsequently clawed back to everyone's disappointment). I saw the payslip for someone quite senior, about 3 grades above me. Inflation being what it is this huge payment was about the same as I now get in pensions per month.

      1. juice

        Re: Glad we've moved on so much in the last 50 years

        > Years ago the NI Civil Service paid far too much for some salaries (subsequently clawed back to everyone's disappointment).

        Back when working for an ex-public company, I had the joys of filling in an expense claim for overtime.

        There were different payment levels, depending on how long the overtime had been. E.g. 3 hours = £30, 6 hours = £200, etc.

        And it was all phrased in a way which looked to me like you were meant to record the number of hours you'd worked.

        Which had been a lot.

        And so, I duly filled the claim in, got it approved by my manager, and sent it off.

        The next payday, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that I'd been given several times more than my usual monthly salary.

        Because, it turned out, you were meant to record the number of "units" of overtime, not the number of hours. And so I'd accidentally claimed about a year's worth of overtime in a single pass...

        I stil occasionally ponder what would have happened if I hadn't 'fessed up and given the money back. After all, it had all been signed off!

        Either way, the next time it came to claim overtime, I read the instructions far more carefully ;)

    3. Sean o' bhaile na gleann

      Re: Glad we've moved on so much in the last 50 years

      Shortly after starting employment with an outsourcer, I became a member of the team involved with taking on the IT contract for a large Gas supplier. This was back in the 80's and there had been a rash of red-top newspaper reports of a few of said Gas company's customers being dunned for non-payment of bills for £0.00. These headline-making reports appeared to 'go away' when there was something worthwhile for the respective rags to print.

      During the due diligence phase of taking on the contract, we discovered that the problem had indeed 'gone away', but not by means of a change to the billing program. No, the Gas supplier had hired a few low-paid individuals whose job it was to go through the bills and throw away any that featured a £0.00 amount.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: you never see reports of gas bills for millions

      I once got a £15000 water bill, which was, if I recall, for about the same number of cubic meters of water; namely the sort of leak you might be inclined to notice. :-)

      What had happened was that the meter reader had swapped readings with next door (to be fair, for some reason the geographic order of the meters in the ground is the reverse of the ordering of the houses; although it still shouldn't have happened).

      Fortunately the water company corrected it without problems. But at least I wasn't paying by direct debit!

      1. Muscleguy

        Re: you never see reports of gas bills for millions

        Here in Scotland we don’t have water meters or water companies. Scottish Water is and always has been in public hands. I pay for water via my council tax. Also water is not a scarce commodity here in Scotland.

        Scottish Water has the system down very well. There are places where the water has been used several times, to generate power, cool the whisky, for recreation before it reaches the sea. There’s a stretch of the Garry which is dry during the week, the water abstracted for power generation. In the weekends they return it for a bespoke whitewater rafting/kayaking course.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: you never see reports of gas bills for millions

          "Also water is not a scarce commodity here in Scotland."

          It's not a scarce commodity in Yorkshire either but we still have to pay for it.

          At least it hasn't been scarce since the time in the early 90s when a drought and distribution problems resulted in just about every tanker suitable for carrying potable liquids had been chartered to carry it from wherever to Scammonden reservoir. It seemed any drive journey along the M62 passed a tanker on the opposite carriage way about every minute or so.

          1. Outski

            Re: you never see reports of gas bills for millions

            I remember that drought - one of the first things that Yorkshire Water had done after privatisation a couple of years earlier was lay off the guys that cleared the drainage/collection culverts on the moors, hence the reservoirs being empty. Also, the CEO was found to be nipping over the Pennines for showers while telling the rest of us to share our bathwater.

      2. Annihilator

        Re: you never see reports of gas bills for millions

        Similar gas bill here once - they'd corrected a high meter reading and lowered it. The system thought it had gone round the clock and generated a bill that Nasa would have coughed at.

  4. alain williams Silver badge

    50 years ago ...

    you could call the company in question, speak to a real, live human being who could probably deal with it.

    Today: you probably can't find a 'phone number, if you do you wait for ages listening to crap music and end up speaking to some inane bot - or if you are really lucky someone in Mumbai who has not got a script to deal with your problem.

    Progress :-(

    1. Martin
      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        Our GP's phone system easily outdoes Verity's queuing states. It has two voices playing three different messages at slightly different timings. They start more or less one after the other with a short burst of music between them. As the hold goes on the effects become increasingly bizarre. Sometimes a message starts whilst another is being played and only the latter part is heard when the first one ends, sometimes a new one overrides another and sometimes the music squeezes in between them.

      2. Sean o' bhaile na gleann

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        Going through the names of the songs that are mentioned in Verity's diagram...

        I remember once calling a software supplier to ask for technical support and being presented with a rendition of the Three Degree's 'When Will I See You Again'.

      3. Kubla Cant

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        Long, long ago, you used to be able to phone Microsoft UK for support, as long as you didn't mind holding for several hours. Their hold music was some wheezy electronic piece by Jean-Michel Jarre, so you could never really tell whether you were still on hold or were just listening to the noise on a disconnected line.

    2. GlenP Silver badge

      Re: 50 years ago ...

      Due to some changes to entertainment provision* I've had cause over the last few days to speak to BT to cancel a Sports subscription, PlusNet to add YouView and Sky to cancel the subscription there, In all three cases I've got through to UK call centres promptly, with no waiting, and all three were dealt with professionally with the minimum of fuss.

      Compared to a few years ago I believe there has been progress! :)

      *Mainly for an ageing relative!

      1. dak

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        Agreed, though I spoke to Plusnet a couple of hours ago to report a line fault and really struggled with the Geordie, despite living only about 60 miles from Newcastle.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: 50 years ago ...

          A Geordie on PlusNet? My usual experience is that PlusNet agents have no accent whatsoever, at least not from my PoV.

          When I signed up with them I did a double-take because the next page had a banner with a landscape image that just missed my house by about a couple of hundred feet; had they matched up the post code? Then I realised it was just a stock shot and the luck of the draw.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        Not much beats having to argue a cancellation for a deceased grandparents porn channel subscription

        "No, we *DO NOT* want 3 months free, no, he won't be using it again, please cancel it immediately"

        1. CountCadaver

          Re: 50 years ago ...

          I dunno, if it was anything decent I would have taken the 3 months and then rung back and seen if they would offered another 3, you might have gotten a lifetime subscription for nowt...

    3. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: 50 years ago ...

      Ah yes, 21st C complaint handling..

      They hide or remove phone numbers and email addresses. Instead there's a web page with a tab that says "Contact us" that leads to a page of FAQs that have no relevance to anything that anyone would care about. followed, possible only after you've clicked on one of these, by a link that says "Need more help". This takes you to a generic Help page. On that page, carefully hidden, will be a contact us link. Which leads to the FAQ page.........

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        There's a web site for CEO email addresses. Just search for those two words. Of course it depends on the company as to whether the address will get you anywhere.

    4. cantankerous swineherd

      Re: 50 years ago ...

      50 years ago you could go to the utility's shop / office in the nearest market town, talk to someone with agency and get it sorted out there and then.

      nor did we have the brain dead uselessness of firms springing up to "supply" exactly the same stuff down exactly the same tubes whilst rolling their own billing system which is abortively replaced by a new "system" the minute demand ramps up.

      by the by Yorkshire waters meters don't display a reading you have to just take it on trust. their latest trick is to not itemise the dates their standing charge relates to.

      all this is progress.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        all this is called progress.

        FTFY ;)

      2. Martin

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        ...Yorkshire waters meters don't display a reading you have to just take it on trust

        I also live in Yorkshire. I have discovered (at least at my house) that if you can find your meter, it's not hard to read it. Just a bit mucky, that's all, as it's under a metal hatch down a hole. It's normally on the edge of your property, where the main water pipe comes in.

        It was a guy from Yorkshire Water who told me how to do that, so it's quite legit.

      3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: 50 years ago ...

        "Yorkshire waters meters don't display a reading"

        Ours does but I still haven't worked out how it gets the reading to a hand-held device several metres away when it's encased in a steel tube topped with a cast iron cover. Is the gap round the flap in the cover the right dimensions for a slot aerial because other than that it looks like a Faraday cage.?

  5. GrumpenKraut

    Similar problem

    Not multiple bills, but overcharge of connection fees (up to a factor of three) for a small internet provider (in modem times). We resolved this by transferring *everything* for this month back to the customers, no matter whether bill OK or not. Made customers really happy.

    Responsible person ignored repeated and stern warnings that (and how!) this could happen. Fix was a trivial piece of PERL. Left for "new challenges" not long after (colleague, not the script).

  6. TeeCee Gold badge

    Invoices in error.

    A consultant I worked with told me this one.

    The company he was with at the time supported a stock control, ordering and billing system and one of their larger customers was in medical supplies. In meetings, one little problem that always came up was the ability to key any number into the order quantity field. This was exacerbated by the fact that they had one employee who had a habit of banging the date into said field which, being numeric, the system would happily accept.

    The discussions on this always went the same way. Due to the nature of the business, the only viable fix was to add a max OQ value at product level. A Big Change and the customer wouldn't spend the money. In theory they could add a horrible bit of validation that would scream if the OQ validated as a date, but numerous examples existed of said employee not keying the date into the wrong field correctly (if you see what I mean).

    One day, at the regular support meeting, their senior Sales and Credit types produced a piece of paper:

    "Look at this! Six million fucking quid! We'd have been in deep shit if this hadn't been spotted."

    "Well, you know the fix and what it will cost. We've been round this one many times."

    "We have to do something....."

    "Anyway, what did you do to correct the account balance?".

    "Oh that. We just raised a matching Credit Note."

    "You only have the Invoice here, what happened to the Credit Note?"

    They got stuck in the door trying to get out. Too late. Already printed and mailed to the customer....

    1. keithpeter Silver badge

      Re: Invoices in error.

      "They got stuck in the door trying to get out. Too late. Already printed and mailed to the customer...."

      So they just sent the invoice as well?

  7. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    I believe nPower rescued that billing system and are keeping it running, with the added benefit of automated payments. Yay! :(

  8. shd

    Cheques can be very useful as proof of receipt of a letter they were attached to. For some reason it's usually utility companies that need this approach. And sometimes the money-catching department grabs and banks the cheque before anyone has read the letter ("By banking the enclosed cheque you agree that....")

  9. heyrick Silver badge

    Ever screwed something up so comprehensively that you've found yourself on the end of potential physical as well as verbal abuse?

    Uh... Go on to social media and try having a few opinions like, oh I dunno, Brexit sucks, Trump lost, boys can't become girls, 5G and COVID are not related, the world is round, or anything against a certain belief system.

  10. Lee D Silver badge

    My dad worked for a major brewery (You drink in the UK? You've used their product).

    One day, the guys doing the rounds delivering to pubs noticed something. Each time they returned to the depot they were given a job sheet, and the job sheet was "computer-optimised" to take account of their route, the best path, time-of-day, traffic, stock, urgency, landlord opening times, etc. So you'd get a really random mix of products to be delivered to a random mix of pubs, all over London. Then you deliver in that order, return to depot, get another job-sheet, load the truck, off you go again, etc.

    This day, however, they noticed that there were odd goings on. They were visiting pubs and the landlords were over-keen to take the delivery, and they were delivering into cellars that looked full already.

    Turned out that a cleaner had disconnected the expensive computer system that ran the entire company (not the first time... once they did it and the computers poured a million gallons of beer into the sewers...). It hadn't remembered where it had got to, so it still saw a ton of deliveries that had been paid for but still needed to be made, and a reduced stock, and different times of day, so it had recalculated everything and printed out job-sheets for it all over again. But, of course, if it had just been the same sheet with the same deliveries in the same order, someone would have twigged, or the delivery guys would be getting deja vu. Instead, it was essentially randomly mixed-up again, so nobody recognised and different crews did the same job twice without realising. And a London pub landlord isn't going to argue about a second "free" delivery when they already have a cellar-full.

    I believe it cost them on the order of millions, mostly because they then had no idea or complete record of who'd had what delivery when, if at all, so they couldn't just assume every job was doubled, or that none of them were... there were landlords complaining that they'd had nothing at all (because they weren't in the initial batch before it was rudely interrupted, and the second batch eventually had a halt called to it while they found out what the problem was), and other landlords hastily shoving kegs out the back door (and onto eBay presumably) so that the brewery didn't know about them - and the delivery drivers were hardly going to dob them in, or at the very least could be bribed with the promise of a few free pints later that evening and a "lost" delivery docket...

    Not long after, they got a newer computer system of some description that had some semblance of integration with the actual deliveries going out, and what was signed for. But before that, I'm assured that the power plugs had a big sign put on them for the cleaners NOT to disconnect it to plug in their hoovers....

    1. RichardBarrell

      Wow. At that amount of money lost per incident, you could pay *multiple* people to do nothing but stand next to the electric socket and threaten to hurt anyone who unplugged it, for years, and still come out on top.

      1. Stoneshop


        I would cover the outside of the plug with conductive paint, with just a nice little trace to the live pin. Maybe, for Elfin Safe Tie reasons add a note saying "Do Not Touch", and bill this solution for about half the amount of the loss incurred by the last such incident.

      2. Lee D Silver badge

        Welcome to the cost-fallacy of "that'll never happen, but if it did it would cost us an absolute fortune, so let's not do anything to prevent it".

    2. vogon00

      "worked for a major brewery (You drink in the UK? You've used their product)."

      Every day is a school day. Today I learned that Armitage Shanks are brewers.

      1. keithpeter Silver badge

        Overheard in the gents loo in a pub off the Leith Road some decades ago

        "You don't buy the beer, you rent it"

        1. jake Silver badge

          Heard in the Roman Baths, circa 420BC:

          "Flush twice, it's a long way to the brewery!"

          Some say the speaker heard it from a Greek ... who stole it from graffiti in a First Dynasty tomb in Egypt.

    3. Bowlers

      At least the old water cooled mainframes couldn't be downed by a cleaners vac, leaning on a red mushroom on the other hand!

  11. Bruce Ordway

    Bomb threat?

    >>We received a bomb threat in the data centre a few weeks later.

    Ahh... no doubt it would be a bomb threat in 1973.

    The times were so much more innocent?

    Instead of today where you might have expected conspiracy theories and at least one local militia planning your kidnapping?

  12. tweell

    Negative Billing

    My parents had their gas disconnected, as they had replaced their hot water heater with a fancy solar/electric setup (that died two years later, but that's another story). The gas company provided an 'estimated' bill to cover the use for that portion of the month. That was paid, but it didn't cover the true amount, so another bill was issued, along with a fine for not paying their bill in full. Dad went a few rounds with phone support and lost by TKO - he decided that it was too much effort for a small amount of money.

    So, he sent them a cheque that was 14 cents over. I asked why, and he said that it was the amount he'd supposedly underpaid, so he was making sure it got paid in full along with their fine. What actually happened was that my parents started getting a bill for -.14 every month from the gas company. Dad would look at it, chuckle, and toss it in the bin. "Aren't you going to tell them about the negative bill, Dad?" "No, they'd figure out a way to make this my fault and start charging me again."

    Beer icon for my Dad. Miss you.

    1. Pincushion Man

      Re: Negative Billing

      I had the same issue with my water company. I lost the bill, I remembered it was around 30, so I paid 35 to it. Next bill, I got the "pay your bill or else" notice: If you don't pay your bill in full by the 15th, you will be disconnected. It said I was short 2, what in the world happened?

      As I found out, the bill was 32. But because it was not evenly paid down to zero, the penalty charge then applied, making the bill now 37. Because I'd paid "only" 35, I was underpaying. Luckily, I was able to talk to a human to get this all sorted out.

      But one still can't overpay. It doesn't charge you the penalty difference anymore, but they will still disconnect you for non-payment if you do not zero the balance precisely.

  13. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Billing with punchcards

    In the '80s, my electric bill came with a punchcard with all the dire warnings to not fold, tear, spindle, or mutilate.

    It was really simple to determine the record fields, so just for the halibut, I punched one with a negative amount and sent that back.

    Next bill I found I was credited the amount of the last bill... so I giggled and never did that again.

    I did contemplate punching a really large amount, and then calling the papers about my huge bill, but the power bill punchcards had the company logo, so someone would have twigged.

  14. Celeste Reinard

    Tax-free printing

    At my gig in 2005 at Nice Airport (Terminal 2) in France at the tax-free shop I did sometimes receive an email from Dublin, Ireland with the request of 'putting those price tags in the bin' ... teling one of us the wrong printer had been selected. For some reason we could print our price tags for perfume all over the world, - Singapore, Melbourne - except Antartica (no tax free fags, booze, and perfume there, it seems).

    ... And that was the worst that happened to me in my life...




    OMG! >sobs<

  15. DS999 Silver badge

    This is such a non problem

    Two identical bills dated the same, listing the same date range and usage for service? I would think most people would not get too worried about that. Maybe back in the early 70s the acceptance for "computer error" wasn't as it is now, but I still have a hard time believing anyone would be take it to the point of a bomb threat even if they really believed they had to pay twice as much for one month. Its a water bill for crissake, not a mortgage payment!

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: This is such a non problem

      It's the 70s. Maybe water bills were more than mortgages back then?

  16. John Savard

    Overly Optimistic

    Surely a public statement to the effect that the bills were only printed twice, but the customers' accounts were only debited once, so just pay one bill and throw the other away should have fixed everything! Well, almost.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Check your pockets

    When I was pre-teen, during the 6 weeks summer holiday in the UK, I would sometimes go with my father on one of his delivery runs (transit / general goods)

    One day we delivered something to a company called Parker-Hale in Birmingham, UK.

    I only found out when we got there is was an arms manufacturer and we managed to get a tour of the production area and the place where they stored all of the finished items.

    It was strange to pull back the sheet over a pallet to find a dozen of what looked like "Ma-Deuce" machine guns, in front of several hundred reproduction muskets in their racks.

    Pity the company has "changed name" and gone though a few "mergers" where they were the company that lost out.

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