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Take your pick: 0/1/* ... but beware – your click could tank an entire edition of a century-old newspaper

Sh*t! Sh*t sh*t sh*t

Who, Me? Welcome once more to Who, Me? where readers share their panic-inducing moments of tech support cock-ups.

coffee beans

A quick cup of coffee leaves production manager in fits and a cleaner in tears


This week, we meet "Adrian", who was consulting for a local weekly newspaper in the 1980s when he nearly destroyed 20 or so people’s work with one keyboard click.

The newspaper had a multi-user CP/M system with two mirrored 5MB eight-inch hard drives and input was achieved by a few terminals connected by RS232.

The system was always referred to as "the server" and was used to assemble the paper's copy for each weekly issue, which was a very involved process.

"This was pre-DTP and everything was keyed to this system by the editorial and advertising teams," Adrian explained.

"It was then output to an imagesetter for hand-pasting – literally pasting with something like wallpaper paste – of the page sections before being photographed, after which plates were etched to mount on the roller press. The photographs were processed using a halftone camera."

Adrian said that this was actually quite a sophisticated set-up for the time, as only a year before, the pages were set by hand using case type.

On the day in question, Adrian was asked to check the system and come up with ways to improve it.

"The terminals were Olivetti micros running some CP/M variant and the typing software was quite limited - just a text editor," Adrian said. "I noticed that the main system had WordStar on it but this was not used."

He reckoned that by using it, the users would get a better experience, so he thought about how to do it.

"I had installed quite a number of WordStar CP/M systems and was familiar with the installation process, which involved a few utilities, one of which was the CP/M," he said.

"This gave information about the WordStar installation and could change the drive usage (in those days, floppy disks with a choice of using one or two)."

Adrian thought that if he could demonstrate WordStar to the client, he'd get some more work by setting it up for everyone, so he decided to run winform and find out more about the setup.

"I should point out that I was doing this on a Friday because the server was less busy due to the paper's 30-or-so broadsheet pages having been prepped and saved," Adrian said.

"Everything was set for printing and page make-up on the following Monday ready for press day on the Tuesday."

What that meant was that there was at least a week's worth of work by the 20 or so journalists and advertising copywriters on the server's drives.

"I suppose in a way I then got lucky," he said. After typing winform, he received a prompt C:Drive (0/1/*)?

"I thought about this for a few moments and worked out that it was probably asking where the WordStar was installed so it could find it and give me the information," Adrian said.

And so he typed 0. And this was where the luck came in – he dreads to think what would have happened if he'd typed in *.

Because the next second, he was horrified to see the fateful message Formatting Winchester 0 come up on the screen.

"Shit! I had run a formatting utility that coincidentally had the same name as the winform program," Adrian surmised. "Shit, shit shit!"

He waited for quite some time, and eventually the system came back saying the format was complete.

Adrian paused, wondering what to do.

"If I had just wiped the paper, there was no time for everyone to rewrite their stuff. There was no backup and the entire week's edition was on this server," he said.

And that would mean thousands of pounds of lost revenue – not to mention the fact that the paper hadn't missed an edition in more than a 100 years.

So Adrian powered it off and rebooted, hoping that somehow the mirror would re-synch. "Nope. The message came up Invalid boot device. I was stuffed."

To his credit, Adrian went and found the MD – who was no doubt hoping to have a quiet the weekend – who looked and asked Adrian if he'd found anything useful.

"You have a licence for WordStar that could be useful," Adrian replied. "But I think in checking it out, I broke the server."

Silence followed, and then a very difficult conversation in which Adrian offered to pay the cost of the restoration – if that was even possible.

"This is an emergency," the MD said eventually. "Leave it with me – I'll call you on Monday."

Adrian went off to have one of the worst weekends of his life, wondering what would happen when the hardware people who maintained the server, and whether they could get the mirror back or if it would be totally gone.

"I was in my office first thing on the Monday and the paper's production manager called," Adrian said. He asked how it had gone, and the production chap said it was fine, no thanks to him.

The engineers had gone in on the Saturday, rebuilt the mirror and everything was good. As it happened, only one drive was down and they had it back up and running in minutes.

But the even better news, at least for Adrian, was that the boss had agreed to bear the cost because Adrian was doing his best and came clean at once – but the MD still summoned him into his office.

"I went as requested, expecting to be told that my services were no longer required, but in fact it was the start of a long and productive relationship that lasted for many years," Adrian said.

"But I never experimented on a live system again and it remains an experience I shall never forget, some 30-odd years later."

When was the last time you felt like the Earth had slid out from underneath you? Tell Who, Me? and you might see your tale featured in another issue. ®

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