Check your bits: What to do when Unix decides to make a hash of your bill printouts

Symbol shenanigans turned out to be the least of the government's problems


On Call Fire up the Cossie*! We're going back to the '80s with an On Call tale that combines the drama of a fast Ford motor with the eldritch horror of Unix serial port settings.

"Neil," today's Regomised reader, ran a consultancy specialising in Uniplex, an office automation suite compromising the usual suspects: word processing, spreadsheets, email, database and so on. It predated Microsoft's efforts in the integration arena by a good few years.

"It supported printers from the FX-80 upwards," Neil explained, "but by far the most popular was the HP LaserJet series with its 8-bit ECMA-94 charset."

Hard though it may be to believe, the first HP LaserJet turned up in the 1980s. Compared to the dot matrix or daisywheel-based alternatives, it was fast and quiet. The output quality was great and it was even possible to conduct a conversation next to one, rather than lose one's fillings to the rattling of a daisywheel.

But all did not always go smoothly.

"One day I got a frantic 8am phone call from a large County Council," he told us. "A brand spanking new HP LaserJet had been installed, been persuaded to connect to a serial port but… disaster… it would not print '£' signs. All that came out was a '#'."

This was bad. The freshly printed bills simply could not be sent out without the requisite "£" sign. Think of the protests.

The county council had a problem, and it needed it fixed. Now. Money was no object compared to getting that symbol sorted, and a purchase order was faxed to Neil's office for a single day of "emergency consultancy." The fee involved ran comfortably into four figures.

Neil was blessed with a Ford Escort Cosworth as his company car – "an ex-Ford management car with every extra" – and blasted the 153 miles from the office to the site.

The fix? He logged in as root and "proceeded to set 'stty -cs8' on the printer serial port." Problem solved. "Older versions of Unix," he explained, "used to default to 7-bit which meant if Uniplex sent an 8-bit character the 8th bit was stripped off so the printer received a character 128 less than it should have been."

At the risk of setting off an ASCII flame war over code tables, we'd venture that this meant "£", which is ASCII 163, became ASCII 35, which is a "#".

"The grateful IT manager even bought me lunch before I drove the 153 miles home."

"Best part of the day out?" Neil recalled happily. "The drive in my new Escort Cosworth, because back then you could whizz along the M4 and around the southern M25 and M20 – no cameras and no queues!

"You just do not get the same level of job satisfaction or client adulation when supporting clients remotely, do you?"

Rarely have we heard "job satisfaction" associated with being On Call. But then again, we spent the late 1980s trundling around in a rusty old Mini rather than an Escort Cosworth. How did you extract the joy from a client call? Share all with an email to On Call. ®

*Aka: The Ford Escort Cosworth

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021