10 things I don't miss about Big Iron

Strolling down Memory Lane, you may hit the occasional pothole. Jaime Henriquez returns to his reflections on the age of Big Iron with a look at some things he's glad he left behind.

In 10 things I miss about Big Iron, I reminisced about working in operations at Montgomery Ward's computer center in Chicago in the early 1970s. But it wasn't all fun. Here are 10 things about Big Iron I really don't miss.

1: "Welcome to Siberia"

I don't miss the pervasive noise and cold of all those machines and all that air conditioning. Leaving the floor for a break was like leaving a movie theater — everything seemed surprisingly warm and strangely quiet. It wasn't unusual to find yourself shouting at people when you first came out.

2: The occasional short Siberian summer

Once in a while, we were forcibly reminded why it was so cold on the floor. One Chicago winter day our AC failed and the temperature rapidly climbed to the point that we had to open the windows. Soon, little snowdrifts were accumulating, threatening to melt and drip down onto the under-floor cabling. The windows stayed open. We were less concerned about melting snow than melting components.

3: Handcrafted application programs

In the age of Big Iron, very few programs were "off the shelf." Your applications were written by in-house programmers specifically for the organization — handy for customization, a problem for troubleshooting. When errors occurred, you couldn't check the manual or try reinstalling; you had to call the programmer responsible for that program and wait for him or her to deal with it. Perhaps if we had paid more attention to their incessant pleas for testing time....

4: The 5:00 PM telecomm rush

Before networks and cheap same-day delivery service, rapid data transfer was a matter of telecommunication, accomplished over phone lines. Ma Bell's rate structure made it prohibitively expensive to do this during business hours, so at 5:00 PM there was a mad rush to phone Albany, Kansas City, etc., and get the modems running so daily production wasn't delayed. Speed and accuracy were critical, but most of your time was spent waiting for transmissions to finish or for the people at the other end to be ready. It was a bad combination — high-pressure and stupefyingly boring.

5: Head crashes

Peripherals like disk drives were far more vulnerable to dust and dirt than contemporary storage is. A wayward speck could get into the 85 micron space between the rapidly moving read/write heads and the rapidly spinning disk and damage either of them (usually both). This might or might not immediately generate an error, but eventually a program using the disk would fail — by which time the disk pack had usually been moved.

Herein lay the real problem: A damaged disk pack could crash other drives, and crashed drives could damage more disk packs. Since disk packs were frequently swapped between drives (and systems), head crashes tended to propagate and get out of hand fast. It was an exercise in epidemiology: Recognize the problem, then track and quarantine the affected packs and drives before it spread. Useful practice, as it turned out, for the computer virus outbreaks of later decades.

6: The 1403 printer

Probably the single most memorable device of the period, the 1403 line printer churned out 23 pages a minute — so fast the output bin had to be motor-driven just to cope. Our spool system (to which all print jobs were forwarded) had half a dozen of these monsters, whose care and feeding required a degree of personal attention, expertise, and muscle unlike anything else on the floor. They had an attitude, too. When out of paper (or worse), printing would stop automatically and the cover slowly open like the mouth of some great dinosaur, the whine of the spinning print chain suddenly louder. You could almost hear it saying, "Feed me!"

7: Six-part form

In the years B.C. (Before Copiers), the only way to produce multiple copies at one time was to use multipart form, a sandwich of alternating sheets of paper and carbon paper. It came in a neatly folded stack, which unfolded on the way into the printer and (theoretically) refolded as it came out. This worked fine for single-sheet continuous form and fairly well for three-part, but six-part was another matter. Eleven layers thick, it tended to curl rather than fold at the page breaks. Once this happened, all hope of automatic folding into a stack vanished, and the printout just piled up in a mass of curves and loops that ultimately meant refolding the whole printout by hand. Once folded (or stuffed into a box), it went off to bursters and decollators to be turned into single copies. Organizational status was indicated by who got the top copy and who got the barely readable bottom copies.

8: The 2540 card read punch

The 2540 was a two-faced device. The card reader could smoothly read in old, dog-eared JCL decks without a problem and make satisfying noises in the process. The card punch, on the other hand, sounded like it was grinding granite, had to be loaded with fresh new cards, sharp as razors, and when you opened it up to fish out a jammed card, punched-out chips inevitably got everywhere. It was also a common villain in those cautionary (possibly apocryphal) "Why to wear a clip-on tie" stories.

9: Paper cuts and card cuts

After handling stacks of fanfold paper and pulling bunches of data cards out of boxes, it was not uncommon to head home with multiple wounds. Multipart form could produce parallel cuts that looked like you'd been boxing with Freddy Krueger.

10: IBM's hegemony

You couldn't go anywhere else for information or help, which made it possible for them to use runaround tactics to great effect. When you wanted information, every $8.00 manual (that would be $47.00 now) directed you to a different manual, glowing with the aura that it really did have the answer. As for help, when IBM's hardware or software balked, their response often boiled down to "It didn't really do that," then "It did do it, but it was supposed to," and finally, "It did it, and it's not supposed to, but it's better this way."

Additional resources

Other memories... good or bad?

Were you part of the Big Iron era? Are there things you miss about it or were you happy to leave those days behind?

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