One Winters Night

Back in my early days before I became a programmer, I was a computer operator. My principle weapons of choice were ICL (2904, 2946, ME29, 3900’s) and Honeywell (62/40, 62/60) Mainframes.

By around the mid 80’s I was working on a clients site, a food wholesaler and retailer and I was the support programmer and occasional computer operator. On an ICL ME29, with a stock and order processing system the company I had worked for had supplied. No Sage accounting then.

We had a small PC based system (Not IBM) attached to the mainframe and our stores would scan thier orders in at the store onto a Micronics Terminal, transmit them to us in the evening for us to update the mainframe systems with the orders.

It was snowing outside and for the south coast of England that is rare.

Suddenly, the mainframe died, we were getting alarm alerts of all sorts and after a few attempts to reboot the system, we gave up and called the ICL engineer, he would be around 2 hours. When he arrived he spent around an hour investigating and scratching his head, eventually he said, ‘I need to call out another engineer, with a full set of boards for this computer. He will be here tomorrow around 6am’.

This was not good, we had to send picking lists to the warehouse be 2am and they would be on lorries and out by 6am to the shops.

Thankfully I had written a rudimentary stock system (an off the books exercise), that could take the Micronic Terminal data, use a stock held on the disk and produce a picking list. Hooray I here you say. BUT! This was a what if the computer room was destroyed system. The system was written in MicroFocus COBOL an ran on a Floppy Disk! The other problem, was that the emergency floppy disk system was not on site, but at my home some 8 miles away.

So myself an one of the computer operators, got into my car (a 1973 Morris Oxford) and headed to my flat, in the snow, thankfully the roads were empty, got home and got the disk and returned back to the office. I say returned, 4 inches of snow, drifting in places and going round roundabouts was fun, no anti-skid or traction control then, so it took about an hour to get back to the office.

Disk into PC and orders put into system and picking lists produced.

Your would think this would be the point where people would be grateful. If only! The complaints by the warehouse staff about the picking lists not being sorted by location in the warehouse. Thankfully the Distribution Manager was very grateful. It turned out the mainframe was down for 4 days due to the sort of fault no one would look for. The Distribution Manager gave me a case of scotch for my troubles. We upgraded the backup system to do the sort, but it was never used again.

We were young and stupid in our early mid twenties, but had great times, we should never have got into the car, yet alone gone and got the backup system and returned to save the day, but it was fun.

The mainframe fault; after replacing every card in the mainframe to no avail, it turned out to be a heat sensor, that was thinking the mainframe had overheated. In reality, although we had state of the art air filters for the computer room, deisel particles from the exausts of all the supplier and delivery lorries had got into the sensor and congeled and blocked the sensor.

John Ellis FIAP Cmpn