Atlas Remembered


Atlas Remembered

The industry seems to be so much more serious now, not like it was when I were a lad and memory was real core store in a big rack, not just RAM chips you could put in your pocket. Nowadays people sit all day glued to a monitor, lost to the world around them. When I started you were lucky to get one hour a day on the machine, and that was for the whole team, not just for you.

In those days all the best machines had huge teams of operators. Men and women of high commitment and unswerving integrity, dedicated to the task of impeding the work of the users in every way possible, aborting jobs, running them in the wrong order, printing the output on the wrong paper, or as a last resort, losing them completely.

I started off as an operator, in my far distant youth. It was a temporary job on Atlas, one step up from teaboy, but not a very large step.

It was an impressive machine. It had dedicated ROM made of a mesh of wire gauze with ferrite rods sticking through it, also paging and multi-tasking (not that I understood any of those terms at that time). It took up several floors, and I could only see part of it, but that was good enough. According to legend you could keep milk bottles cold in the core store, and your fish and chips warm in the tape punch. I never saw it for myself, but it could well be true.

My job was in data input. Every few minutes someone would bring me a tray full of paper tapes to feed into the machine. The tape reader ran incredibly fast, over a hundred characters a second. After two weeks I mastered the art of winding the last tape singlehanded with my left hand, while with my right hand loading the next tape, or reaching for my butties, as appropriate.

Occasionally the centre would fall out of a reel of tape into a heap of coiled-up chaos on the floor. The recommended procedure for dealing with this situation was to take the whole heap of tape in an armful up to the top of the stairs, and then throw it over the balcony and down the stairwell (holding on to one end of course). Then jog the end you’re holding up and down and hope that it all unwinds without ripping anywhere.

I got quite good at repairing broken tape with my little “dibber” as it was called. I could even read punch code at a pinch.

The older hands showed me how paper tape was even more useful at party times. Take eight pieces of punched tape, and fold them like this, then like this. It was almost as good as Blue Peter. At the end you got a rather pretty star shape to take home and impress your family with. Try and do that with a 3.5″ floppy disc today.

Next to me was the main console. It was far better than any of your modern stuff. None of these new fangled teletypes (what do you mean – monitors?). It was a mass of flashing lights straight out of any respectable sci-fi movie. The only ones I could understand were the row which gave a count in binary of the number of jobs in the machine. At the side of the console were about a dozen or so strips of paper tape. Every so often, whenever one of the operators wanted to input a command, he would select the strip with the appropriate command punched on it, and put it into the tape reader. I was impressed.

One of the engineers told me that on the night shift, they would load up the machine until the binary count was about to overflow, stick a new box of paper in the printer, then go down to the kitchen and cook themselves a slap-up meal. I’m not entirely sure I believe that one, they looked more like curry-takeaway types to me, but you never know.

After a few weeks I got promoted, and went to work in the comms room. That was even better. Up to half a dozen sites or more were sending work into the machine over a remote link, and getting the results back. Usually we worked offline, punching their transmissions onto paper tape to be passed through to data input, but sometimes an operator would come through to tell us we had a real online transmission to send.

I discovered another benefit as well. Besides our normal cries of “Transmit”, “Receive”, “Data”, there was ample opportunity to chat up the girls at the other end, either directly by voice, or by punching up an anonymous message on paper tape, using the flexowriter (a sort of type-writer with paper tape-reader and -punch included). I got quite friendly with one young lassie in Glasgow, and if I hadn’t met the girl who was to become my wife, well who knows what might have happened.

Things aren’t the same today. I’ve had machines sitting on my desk that can do far more than several floors of Atlas ever could. But they’re nowhere like as exciting. No flashing lights, no young ladies at the other end to talk to. There’s not even somewhere inside to put your milk or your fish and chips.

 Posted by at 10:56 am

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