Using the datacenter as a dining room destroyed the platters that matter

In the military facility, vermin sniffed out a destructive secret

On Call Welcome yet again to On Call, The Register's Friday folly in which readers share reminiscences of their most redolent rescue jobs.

This week, meet a reader we will refer to as "Maurice", who brings us a tale of the Ferranti Argus 500, a computer created to assist one of the UK's early attempts to build surface-to-air missiles.

Maurice came across the machine during a stint in the Army and recalls them as being accompanied by "big old Winchester-style disk machines, the ones that looked like spin dryers and took platter disk packs, one active and one backup."

None of these machines were small, so the Argus and its disks lived in their own air-conditioned cool clean room.

Keeping this rig alive was of sufficient importance that Maurice had a phone line in his quarters – quite a luxury. The heyday of the Argus predated most homes having a phone.

His line, of course, rang late one night with news that the machine had crashed and produced a burning smell. Attempts by less-skilled staff to revive the machine had failed.

Maurice found a fried disk cabinet, installed the hot spare, and went back to bed.

The next day civilian technicians opened the dead disk and found "particles of polystyrene insulation all over the disk pack."

The source of the 'styrene was a mouse that had burrowed into the disk cabinet and scattered material onto the disk, causing that burning smell.

The mouse was long gone, but Maurice wanted to know how it had found its way into a supposedly clean room.

"We investigated and found that that the night shift was given boxes of rations," he explained. Further sleuthing produced the revelation that staff had sweltered through some hot summer nights and decided that dining in the computer room was justifiable relief. It gets worse: some even stored their food in the computer room, in lieu of a fridge.

Mice followed. As did the incident Maurice was required to address.

The Ferranti was a primitive, pre-GUI machine. Maurice found an amusing upside in the incident: he claims the machine he worked on was the first Ferranti with a mouse!

What have you discovered going on inside the datacenter that really should have been done somewhere else? Share your story by sending a message to On Call. ®

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