On Call Dark Mode is all the rage nowadays, but screens of the blackest black go back further than you might think, as we'll discover in another episode of On Call.
Today's story comes from "Keith" and takes us to the era of Wyse terminals and foot-long cigars in the workplace.
Keith was gainfully employed at a small financial data firm and was responsible for looking after the IT needs of a number of important customers. On the day in question, a call came in from one of the bigger cheeses complaining that the text on his Wyse terminal screen was unreadable.
Keith had never met the individual in person but was well used to working through issues with him via the phone. "The common failure mode for this particular terminal," he told us, "was the lower right corner of the screen bezel had a partially concealed roller for brightness. Very handy, but at the same time also easy to accidentally move to darken the screen."
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The customer insisted the brightness was full up, but the text remained too dim to read. A site visit was needed.
"It was a bright sunny day in summer," said Keith, "and I didn't mind." The fresh air would be welcome (ironic, considering what was about to happen) so he grabbed a fresh terminal from stores, checked the brightness worked, and wiped away any scuff marks on the clean, white casing.
It would never do to pitch up at such an important client with grubby gear.
Upon arrival at the customer site, Keith was led to the stricken terminal and was immediately impressed. In an era of beige and cream, this Wyse terminal had a completely matte-black case. "It was really cool looking!" enthused Keith. He couldn't remember anything like it ever coming through the company before.
While the customer was not named Hotblack Desiato, it is safe to say that the desk was a bit of a disaster area. Keith fiddled with the black brightness dial for the black terminal and saw a very slight change in the black screen. He ran a finger over the display and revealed a streak of bright green lettering. His finger, however, was now coated in a thick layer of goodness-knows-what.
"Well, I loved the look of the black Wyse," he said, "and carefully cleaned the screen to reveal the glass (making sure not to disturb the edges of the bezel to leave the black appearance)." It matched the other equipment on the desk, if not the other monitors in the office.
Display restored, Keith wondered how the customer had managed to get everything (screen, keyboard, phone, and so on) such an even shade of black.
He did not have long to wait.
The customer arrived, a large fellow, dressed in a well-tailored suit. "The answer to the mystery was in his hand, a foot-long cigar trailing a wisp of smoke."
The air was thick with cigar smoke as the customer rolled up. Keith explained what he'd done and that all was now well. The customer merely retorted "Change it!" before rolling off again.
Reluctant to upset a client responsible for paying the fees for multiple terminals, Keith did what we would all do in the same situation – swapped the black box for something fresher.
"A few minutes later he came back and thanked me, before sitting down and pulling his chair forward. The glow of his cigar was clearly reflected in the screen only inches away from it."
And that special black Wyse terminal? So enamoured with it was Keith that he took it back to the office where he was briefly the centre of attention. First for its appearance and then for the horrendous stench that was coming off it. The foul reeking of stale cigar smoke persisted even after the case was cleaned; a glance inside showed that all the boards were coated with a thick coating of residue "and the odour was still pervasive." And eye-watering, by all accounts.
Eventually several hundred dollars' worth of terminal rode the elevator down to the basement and ended up in a dumpster. It was, according to Keith's boss, "a cost of doing business."
The days of workstations shrouded in cigar smoke are mostly a thing of the past, although we have fond memories of restoring brown boxes to beige beauties with industrial-strength cleaner and a sacrificial cloth. Share your own moment of actual IT filth with an email to On Call. ®