Take cover, it’s a student programmer!

Some unforeseen hazards with old tech.

It’s 1970 and pilot fish is a college junior taking courses in computer programming. And technology is progressing, as technology does. The school has just upgraded from an IBM 360/40 mainframe to a much more powerful IBM 360/65. It orders it with an entire megabyte of magnetic core memory, which adds about $1 million to its cost, and several disk drives in addition to the usual tape drives.

The disk drives and the new timesharing operating system make it possible to set up a self-service method for submitting students’ programs, replacing the old once-per-day batch method. The staff place a high-speed card reader just behind a Dutch door so students can run their decks of punched cards themselves whenever the top half of the door is open. To run their decks, students pull a reusable, color-coded header card (green is for student priority) from a tabletop rack in the hallway, make it the first card of their deck, place the deck in the card reader’s input tray, and press the green start button. As the reader reads the cards at high speed, it shoots them up against a metal bracket from which they fall gently into place and line up neatly in the output tray. Once the process is done, students remove their decks and put the borrowed header card back in its bin. It’s a big improvement, with printouts available within hours instead of days.

Except for one minor detail.

Those header cards are punched for four-way symmetry so they can run in any direction, whether backwards or upside down. But they have so many punches that they’re almost lacy in appearance. And as the semester grinds on, the header cards that are most frequently reused cards — the green student priority cards — start to disintegrate — a fact brought home to fish in a memorable way.

It shakes out like this: Fish grabs a green card from the bin, slaps it on his card deck, puts it in the reader and hits the start button. The first card — that weakened header card — shoots upward and crumples in place instead of gently dropping. Which means all the remaining cards of the deck deflect across it and shoot across the computer room at high speed, like punch-card throwing stars tossed by a nerdy ninja, until an operator runs across the computer room and presses the stop button.

Remarkably, similar scenes play out with other student programmers before the computer center staff decides it would be a good idea to make fresh batches of green header cards every week and discard the old ones.

Stop by Shark’s Dutch door with your true tales of IT life, or just send them to me at sharky@computerworld.com. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

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