February 26, 2016

Chapter 3 - 1976

The month is June the year 1976, I have just got married and I am saying goodbye to my new wife as she and her best friend leave for our honeymoon, that’s right I did not go on my honeymoon.

Since finishing my apprenticeship and college I had worked in a variety of jobs as an electronic service engineer, industrial, tv & audio, gaming machines & musical Instruments.

At this time I was a tv & audio service manager for a retail store, the job was OK, the money OK but not brilliant, but I wanted to do something more interesting and rewarding.

I happened to become friends with a guy who worked for IBM, at that time he was servicing the new ATM machines that were being deployed in all the banks.

Well, I could not believe how much he was earning compared to what I was, so I made up my mind to getting a job in computing.

I tried IBM but they were only taking on graduates, not lowly apprentice trained engineers.

As luck would have it I applied and got offered a job with ICL (International Computers Ltd), they were the British equivalent of IBM.

The problem was the next intake to their training school was in June, so the choice was to start at the school or wait another 6 months.

Both my girlfriend and I agreed that it was too good an opportunity to wait for another 6 months, so she had a great holiday with her friend in the Greek Islands, and I started on my career in computing.

One nice anecdote to this story is that my wife’s friend who went on our honeymoon met her future husband while on the trip, so that sort of made up for the disappointment of not going.

Back in 1976 ICL had two main ranges of computer systems the 1900 series and the new 2900 series, the course at the training school concentrated mainly on the 1900 series mainframes and their associated peripherals.

ICL 2900 SiteICL 2900 Site

So for 6 months I learned about magnetic tape decks, paper punch & card readers, CDC removable disk storage, impact printers the associated controllers for these peripherals and, of course, the mainframe computers they served.

After four months at the school, you were assigned to a large ICL computer installation for a weeks familiarization, mine was at the Birmingham Univerity Computer department.

Birmingham Univeristy had a large site, the computer hall was the size of a football pitch, they had a 1906A mainframe, which incidentally was water cooled, there were dozens of tape-decks, CDC drives and impact printers.

It all seemed a bit daunting to me, there were half a dozen engineers on the day shift but it seemed a fairly relaxed environment so I settled in to learn from the team.

Now back in 1976 when the students or professors wanted to use the computer, they would sit a terminal and type in the code, this code was then transferred to Punch Tape

Paper Punch TapePaper Punch Tape

Punch Tape ReaderPunch Tape Reader

or Punch Cards, the tape or cards were then loaded into the computer and the program run.

Punch CardPunch Card

Card ReaderCard Reader

So at the end of my week all the engineers decide to go down the pub for a lunch time drink and I was left to watch the shop, the system was fairly busy with lots of students and teachers busy keying in programs.

We had a large alarm in the engineers room which informed us if the temperature in the mainframe was getting too high, and yes you guessed, it went off, so I dashed out to the mainframe and, sure enough, the temperature gauge was slowly climbing towards the red danger area.

So what did I do, yep, pulled the big red switch to OFF, the pumps and fans came to halt and there was silence in the room, that was until the phones started to ring.

We had a lot of unhappy and verbal students who had lost all the work they had been inputting, and I was a very worried trainee engineer.

Somebody must have telephoned the pub, as all the engineers returned looking very unhappy at having their lunch interrupted, they gathered around the mainframe and proceeded to remove the outer panels.

I stood and watched feeling very apprehensive, but 20 minutes later the mood had changed, I was now a hero, apparently the water cooler was blocked and if I had not powered down all the itsy bitsy transistors would have been toast, so I saved days of downtime replacing circuit boards.

I graduated from the training school and was offered a position in Swindon, based at W H Smith & Son they had a large computer site with both ICL 1900 & 2900 systems.

Swindon had a large team of engineers looking after some big names, W H Smith & Son, Woolworth, House of Fraser and Thorn EMI, so we were kept fairly busy and operated a three shift system covering 24 hours, seven days a week.

It was a great time and I learned a lot, but my heart and mind were more interested in the smaller personal computers that were starting to appear.

My next journey takes me from mainframes to mini-computers


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Chapter 2 - 1981 My first computer, the Transam Tuscan languished unused in the attic, my new toy the BBC Micro model B sat proudly on my dining room table. BBC
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Chapter 4 - 1978 As I mentioned in chapter 3 my work involved servicing mainframe computers, and I was always very conscious of the fact that dozens and