The Terrors of Computers

Two glorious Apple iMacs

My two beauties. Left is retired now!

There was a time when I was terrified of computers. Not, generally, when I was vaguely aware of the machines as things that chuntered away in big buildings where old men worked, but when I first really encountered them, when I was confronted with boxes painted an indeterminate beige colour in a computer suite.

Computers should have held no fears for me: my father used to be a data processing manager. He ran a massive range of IBMs and Amdahls for Legal & General. In fact I think he was the first UK based man to be flown to New York to play with an IBM System 3. He knew all about the machines in those days, although by the late 60s he knew more about the army of men (mostly men) who ran the computers. Punch cards, tapes, I knew all about those machines. And I also knew that my father after lunch would take a good twenty minutes nap, his chair turned away from the door so he could appear to be contemplating the future through his windows.

He was a good manager. In those far-off, and much happier days, companies were run by men who had served in one or two world wars. There was a deliberate paternalism in force. Men could be sure that if they joined a company, like my father, they would have a job for life. They had discipline, they worked hard, and they were protected. My father spent the whole of his working life at L&G, until early retirement called him (and now he has spent more of his life retired than he did employed, which is a very proud boast). He had some two hundred or so staff in those days, I think, and he knew the names of their wives, their children, he knew whether any of them had been sick recently … Not because he had a brilliant memory, he didn’t. But he thought, as a good ex-captain in the army, that one way to motivate the troops was to show an interest in them, and so he kept a rolladex file (is that how it’s spelled?) of all his staff, with all their family details in it. He refreshed his memory each day before visiting individual departments so he could welcome each team member by name. It was the army that taught him all that. It is a very great shame that modern managers have forgotten the way they were brought up in business.

Almost forty years after retiring!

The details were important. Such as the principle that he wouldn’t eat his lunch with other senior managers in an executive dining room, but went down to the staff canteen, and joined his people there. That way he heard disgruntled mutterings early, and could address any problems quickly.

At my last English company, I was appalled to learn that the senior management were feared by all the staff. It was the very first time in my experience that I learned that I must not, under any circumstances, speak to the managing director if he visited. I should keep my eyes down on my desk and pretend to scribble furiously. Why? It was risky to meet his eye. I could be fired.

Such arrogance is still shocking to me today. I was relieved to leave that firm. Well, no, I wasn’t at the time. I was very angry indeed – the company didn’t have the decency to go bust, but merely dispensed with my services. Little loss to me, thankfully.

But when I first encountered computers, it was at City University. A great institution, even if they did fail to teach me anything.

They had a computer department full of ICL and Honeywell machines that hummed and whirred malevolently. Next door there was even a DEC PDP-11 (wow!) – and in a separate room they had the instruments of medieval torture.

I hated that room. So quiet, so ordinary in many ways, and yet the scene of such frustration and anguish.

I would wander in and gaily pick up the brick-like lumps of card, I would wander over to a table on which sat the squat, ugly keyboard machines, and I would resolutely type out the commands. I had to instruct the computer in what to do. An easy task in modern days. Not then, though. At least, not for me.

Card punch. The words still appal. Machines that theoretically would shove a stamper through thick card in predefined positions so that holes appeared, and like a Victorian piano playing machine, the computers would receive their instructions depending on where the holes lay.

The hours I spent in that blasted room, typing, collecting my cards, taking them to the readers, watch them squirt through the little gates, and then back to the printers to learn I was an “Invalid Operator”.

I hated ICL and Honeywell with a passion after those days.

Still, after failing at computing, I managed to successfully fail economics too. And Life and Other Contingencies, and Statistics, Compound Interest, and all the other exciting facets of actuarial life. I was never, ever, going to be an actuary, I realised. I learned a lot about beer and running a bar, though.

Which is why it may surprise people to learn I went on to be moderately successful at selling computers. But, you see, the 1980s were halcyon days for computer sales reps. It was easy. You went to visit someone, chatted happily over a cup of tea, and then returned a few days later with a small desktop computer called a “word processor” (snappy title) and a young lady who knew where the “on” button was. She, the customer support rep, would press keys eagerly, with a winning smile, while the salesman presented. And afterwards, the salesman would collect the cheque. It was all very civilised.

But I found it hard to operate them myself.

After getting to know some of the customer support reps, I began to learn that word processor thingies weren’t as scary as the ICL and Honeywell machines I’d learned to despise. Actually, they were quite civilised. Even if they did occasionally sniff and mutter “Invalid Operator” at me when I miss-typed a word or two. But generally those old Wordplex machines were very good. I started out with them selling the twin-floppy diskette models for nine thousand pounds (another thousand for a moderate dot-matrix or daisywheel printer), but progressed to laser printers (impressed?) for another four and a half thousand. Times were good until some flaming upstarts started offering “personal” computers for two thousand all up. You can’t maintain a salesman’s lifestyle on that sort of money.

So, by degrees, moving via Wang Labs, then Xerox, and then a number of embarrassing smaller companies, I progressed on my downhill spiral until the last firm disposed of me without having the decency to go bust like all the others. And so, I began to write.

Thank God for small mercies. Pencils and paper.

Which has brought me back full circle. Because now, I am a fully fledged blogger. I can say that after forty-eight hours of work. I have a site, here, and words are gradually filling it. I have people who have glanced at it, winced, and gone back to watching CSI. I have a photo up there, and an iPad version. That is itself rather scary.

It is daunting, though, to begin to type, wondering whether the damn thing will ever make sense. At Wang, I was heavily involved in some fourth generation languages, which would more or less cut the code for you, but staring at a WordPress page of “Themes” or ‘Widgets” did not fill me with the sort of joy I would have wishes. Instead I was returned to the same shivering terror I experienced when confronted with those bloody card punchers for the third day in a row, hoping to get one programme to run. I don’t think I ever did.

In those days, it was reassuring always to know that there was help at hand. I actually did quite well with computing in the end. After all, at least (unlike economics, which is clearly invented by charlatans and crooks who change their mind every week so as to avoid being caught out as the pound plunges) computers are logical. They understand what you want, and they let you screw up your programmes in any way you want. They don’t help, they don’t expect you to succeed, but there is a horrible logic to them.

Not with blogs. Not setting them up. I still have a black rectangle in the middle of my page. Why? Because I haven’t the foggiest idea what it should be called. I’m sure there is a reason for its existence, but can I find that explanation? Dream on.

So, I’ve spent hours running through helpful-seeming posts that are supposed to tell me about how to create the blog. Some were useful. Others have been removed already.

It was all so much easier when I could go to Lyn or Sharon and ask for their help back in my days at Wordplex.

Still, I’d appreciate any comments on the format, on the layout, and any thoughts on how it all looks on iPad. If you try it, you can hit the “share/forward” arrow, and it’ll even bring a picture down onto your pad’s home screen, so all you have to do is touch the icon to be taken to my blog. How cool is that?

And now, having dedicated this week almost entirely to creating this space, it really is time I did something to generate some income.

Tomorrow I return to book 31 and the editor’s comments on all the appalling plot holes, grammatical errors, the repetitions and other proofs of authorial incompetence, to try to reassure her that I can actually produce effective, readable stories.

At least, that’s the intention …

6 Responses to “The Terrors of Computers”
  1. Jules says:

    I think it all looks great – and is interesting to read (maybe I’m just nosy about other people’s lives!). I think any of those older computers would scare the life out of most people. I was lucky enough to come in at the Amstrad stage – all green text on black. My ex still has it and refuses to use anything more modern! I learned how to use a mouse and PC (actually an old Apple) at my dad’s work. I remember it took me a whole afternoon to work out how to get the arrow to actually stay on the screen! But from there I taught myself everything I know today, and just like you, couldn’t be without my Mac (I also have a ‘left’ which is retired and up in the attic!). I wish I had an iPad though…

    And your dad sounds like one of the best people managers – so rare these days. I remember having brilliant teachers like that: they were the ones who had been through the war and actually lived a life rather than come straight from school/college. Anyway, this is turning into a blog itself, so I better go!


  2. cornwer says:

    If your dad worked at the L&G offices at Kingswood in Surrey then I used to go there when I was studying for my British Computer Society exams. They had some very ancient kit there, and I still remember the mercury delay line memory, where an electrical signal was transformed into an acoustic signal launched into a column of mercury where it travelled at a velocity of about 1,500 m/sec, eventually arriving at the far end where it was transformed back into an electrical signal. L&G still used the computer with this (an Elliott I think) at the time, which was around 1970.
    We were ushered in to see it, and cautioned not to tread too heavily as setting up ripples in the mercury bath could interfere with the workings.


    • Ye Gods! Yes, the old man was in charge then. He left in the mid-70s, I think. So you may have met him. Never would have guessed that the horror of that would have driven a man all the way from Kingswood to Durham!


  3. Hemant Kothari says:

    “I should keep my eyes down on my desk and pretend to scribble furiously. Why? It was risky to meet his eye. I could be fired.” …..rightly said that was the culture in the office during my time ,when i use to do job ….what we see here in 21st century the entire setup has been upside down infact what is my gut feelings was that was the respect we as an employee is to give to our employer and infact today world that is missing or evaporated ….very sad and pathetic …and with the infusion of covid 19 it seems that is gone for ever


    • It is very sad, Hemant. There used to be much more respect from companies to their staff, but a few decades of greedy chief officers destroyed that forever in the 1980s and 90s.


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