Lapping the computer room in record time until the inevitable happens

There's nothing to do. Oh look, the chairs have wheels...


Who, Me? Welcome to an episode of Who, Me? in which a race between office chairs results in an unexpected escalation rather than the lifting of a trophy.

Our tale takes place in the 1990s and our hero, whom we shall call "Ben" (for that is not his name) was one of a group tasked with tending to the needs of a VAX 11/785 lurking deep within a bunker.

The VAX 11/780 range turned up in 1977, and the 11/785 was introduced in 1984. Hot stuff for its time, but now relatively elderly and in need of round-the-clock pampering by teams of sysops. "Its only job," Ben told us, "was to run a program associated with national defense."

"Many a sysop had burn marks from the saturated core main PSU loading 8" floppies into the PDP 11 boot computer," he went on. "So many had thumped [so many] incantations on the console teletype that most of the letters were no longer visible."

The pay was good, but the work (mainly cleaning tape drives, running backups and performing system integrity checks) was deathly dull. Off-site materials weren't allowed into the computer room, meaning the team had to amuse themselves with whatever was contained therein. "A lot of Minesweeper and Patience was played," confided Ben.

And then there were the chairs. Chairs on wheels. So of course a chair racing league was started. Such things are compulsory, no?

"Naturally," said Ben, "the course wound through the clean air-conditioned computer room as the hard floor allowed a high-speed section to the course."

All went well, and the long shifts spent in the company of the VAX were broken up by high-speed circuits as techies tried to rise up the league rankings.

Until the inevitable happened.

"One night," said Ben, "in a desperate attempt to undertake on the final lap, one of the sysops tried to do a slingshot manoeuver using a support pillar in the computer room."

"The pillar had one notable feature. The room's emergency stop button."

Almost immediately silence fell. Everything spun down over a five second period. There was no air-conditioning whir, no fans, nothing. "You could almost hear the 11/785 sighing with relief," said Ben.

"Then the red telephones started to ring..."

"And the defcon light pole clicked up a level."

Worried readers should be reassured that this took place very much after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Peace reigned and, Ben told us, the change in color on the defcon pole simply meant that something had happened and was being investigated.

The stop itself was recorded as an accident, but not as a result of a cunning chair-racing manoeuvre. "Some vague details about leaning to fill in a check list was entered into the incident log."

The bosses admonished the sysops with a warning that more care was needed, before dispensing praise for getting everything back online.

A cover was added to the stop button a week later. And the chair racing league? Scrapped – suddenly it seemed twiddling one's thumbs in between tape changes wasn't so bad after all.

Has anyone not been tempted to do some surreptitious scooting when presented with a chair on wheels? What was the outcome? A sudden silence or catastrophic crash? Confess all with an email to Who, Me? ®

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