For blinkenlights sake.... RTFM! Yes. Read The Front of the Machine

Before smartphones and LCD displays there were... green lights and red lights


On Call There was a time before phones went wireless (and before Apple made sure we all carried a spare charge cable.) Take a trip back to those halcyon days with another entry in the pages of On Call.

Our story, told by a Register reader we'll call "Andrew" (not his name), takes us back 40 years to when he was an IT manager of an oil survey company.

It was an exciting time. He got to travel the world installing computer gear in the form of Data General Nova kit and Oki printers. For those more used to seeing rusty Vauxhalls bearing the name, the Data General Nova was quite the whizzy bit of hardware for the era. One of the fastest minicomputers of the 1970s, the Nova went through a few iterations before being replaced by the Eclipse.

"Most of the time," he told us, "it was fun!" After all, who wouldn't enjoy the odd trip to an exotic locale in the name of IT support?

Sometimes, however, it wasn't.

"I made the mistake," he said, "of giving people my home number as well as my office number." A common occurrence – this was the time before pagers and mobile phones. Being On Call meant being near a landline and sometimes the time difference meant he would be at home when the inevitable cry for help came through.

Usually it wasn't an issue. This time, however, Andrew was laid up with an injured back and pretty much unable to move without experiencing the agony with which all those who have lifted something silly will be familiar (ours was an incident involving a washing machine, some stairs and the overconfidence of youth – you?)

At 3am the phone rang.

This being nearly 40 years ago, there was only one telephone in the house: downstairs. Luckily, he had a wife who trotted down to answer it. Unluckily it was a work call, and he was going to have to talk to the company employee at the end of the line. More unluckily, the phone would not reach anywhere near Andrew's sick bed.

With gritted teeth he slithered out from between the sheets and onto the floor. He then crawled on hands and knees headfirst down the stairs to the hallway where the phone was located. We've no doubt there was the odd whimper or two, but eventually he made it. Ready to deal with whatever emergency had required a 3am telephone call.

He took the receiver: "Hello."

"Hi, this is Bob here, from Brunei," came the bright voice from the earpiece.

"Bob," Andrew growled, "do you know what time it is?"

"Oops, sorry," replied his colleague, who probably wasn't sorry at all, "But now you're here, the printer's stopped working."

Having installed enough of the devices over the years, Andrew was able to visualise the machine in question. "Are there any lights on the printer?"

"Yes, a green one and a red one."

"What're the words under the lights?" Andrew asked patiently.

"The green one says 'power' and the red one says 'out of paper'…"

There was a very long, and probably very expensive (considering the cost of international calls and Andrew's time) pause.

"Oh bugger," and the line went dead.

Andrew handed the telephone back to his wife and commenced the crawl back down the hallway, up the stairs, and into his bed.

"Next time I went out to Brunei," he said, "I didn't have to pay for any drinks all trip."

Ever been On Call when you really shouldn't and found yourself dealing with a problem to which an expletive was the only solution? Share your experience with an email to On Call. ®

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