One door opens, another one closes, and this one kills a mainframe

The Reg brings you balanced coverage of retro-tech

Who, Me? Ah, dear reader, what a joy it is to see you here once again on this blustery Monday morning. And if it's not blustery where you are, don't brag about it - and instead nestle in for another instalment of Who, Me? in which Reg readers admit to the times their days did not go quite right.

This week, meet "Buster" who "back in the day" (so you know this was a while ago) toiled was a computer operator working with a Honeywell 6000-series mainframe (so you know this was a long while ago). In case you're unfamiliar, the Honeywell 6000 was the rebadged version of the General Electric GE-600 series, acquired in 1970 when GE quit the computer business (because clearly it was just a passing fad. When Honeywell sold off its computer business in 1989, the 6000 disappeared).

The 6000 series were huge cabinets basically the size of a refrigerator. And, even more fridge-like, they had hinges on the side so the front could swing open, much like a fridge door. This could be done while the machine was operating if necessary.

Anyway, if you're into the history of mainframe computing the Honeywell 6000 was a nifty beast.

But back to Buster. The system he cared for had a number of these huge cabinets, containing vacuum-drop tape drives, punched card input, a "vicious line printer" and more. Each of which could be opened up to show off the little hamsters on wheels making it all go.

(That last part might not be entirely true.)

All up the system was about six or seven meters long, to Buster's recollection. It operated 24 hours a day and it handled the business's computing needs as well as its internal accounting, payroll, etc.

One night he was showing it to a new trainee, going from one section to the next, swinging open each cabinet to point out the CPU, core memory, the printer interface, tape drives, and so on. As they reached about the second or third to last section, and swung the door open, the whole system started leaning forward.

It turns out you're not supposed to open all the cabinets at once.

In a panic, half afraid they were about to be fired for destroying a mainframe computer and half afraid they were about to be crushed to death under the weight of said mainframe, Buster and the trainee ran frantically back and forth, shutting the cabinet doors and securing them so they could not swing open again, all the while pushing pointlessly against the machine as if they had any hope of holding it up.

When enough of the doors were closed, the mighty 6000 regained its center of gravity and returned to its resting position – with what Buster describes as a "crash."

That's not a good word when it comes to computers. Especially not when you're talking about a mainframe literally landing "with a crash." That's not in the design parameters.

Cautiously, Buster checked the operations of the machine. All seemed to be functioning as normal. Careful inspection of the hardware didn't show anything obviously out of place. They don't build 'em like that anymore.

He and the trainee vowed never to speak of the incident again – especially to management.

How about you? What's the dark day in the server room of which you've vowed never to speak, but that's burning away in the back of your conscience? Unburden yourself in an email to Who, Me and we'll provide what absolution we can.

Seriously, we could use a few more reader tales in the ol' Reg mailbag – send them in! ®

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