Improving Software for Society

News | Blog Post : ONE WINTER’S NIGHT



John Ellis FIAP, recalls another computer operator ‘adventure’.

Back in the early days my principle weapons of choice were ICL (2904, 2946, ME29, 3900’s) and Honeywell (62/40, 62/60) Mainframes. Around the mid 80’s I was working with a food wholesaler and retailer on site as support programmer and occasional computer operator, on an ICL ME29 with a stock and order processing system. No Sage accounting then.

We had a small PC based system (not IBM) attached to the mainframe. Stores would scan their orders in onto a Micronics Terminal, transmit them to us in the evening and we would update the orders on the mainframe systems.

One evening, while it was snowing outside (rare for the South coast of England at that time) the mainframe suddenly died. We were getting all sorts of alarm alerts but after a few attempts to reboot the system we had to give up and call the ICL engineer. It took him around 2 hours to get to us. When he arrived he spent around an hour investigating and scratching his head and eventually 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 by 2am so as produce could be on the lorries by 6am, ready to deliver to the shops.

Thankfully I’d written a rudimentary stock system (an off-the-books exercise) that could take the Micronic Terminal data, in order to 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 and ran on a floppy disk. The other problem was that the emergency floppy disk system was not on site. It was at my home some eight miles away.

Accompanied by another computer operator, I got into my car (a 1973 Morris Oxford) and we headed to my flat, in the snow. Thankfully the roads were empty. Returning to the office through four inches of snow (roundabouts were fun) – no anti-skid or traction control then. It took about an hour to get back to the office.

Disk into PC – orders put into system – 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!

The mainframe was down for four days. After replacing every card to no avail it turned out to be a heat sensor that was thinking the mainframe had overheated. Although we had state of the art air filters for the computer room, diesel particles from lorry exhaust had congealed in and blocked the sensor. We upgraded the backup system but it was never used again.

Thankfully the Distribution Manager was very grateful. He gave me a case of scotch for my troubles.

We were young and daft in our early mid-twenties. We should never have risked the car journey, even though we saved the day. Even so, I enjoyed my time as a computer operator!