Computer sprinkled with exotic chemicals produced super-problems, not super-powers

The machine was so dead, hospital staff treated it like a corpse

On Call The Register knows that tech support people are heroes. That's why each Friday we offer a new installment of On Call, our weekly reader-contributed column featuring your stories of dutifully and selflessly taking on the endless and thankless challenge that is tech support.

This week, meet a reader we'll Regomize as "Adam," who told us of the adventure he endured when, as a student, he was hired to do what he described as "some computer work at a local hospital."

The job involved a little light programming, but most of it was the very dull chore of coming in late at night to collect printouts and distribute them to various places around the hospital.

The hospital's machine was a Digital Equipment Corporation minicomputer of some sort, and "lived in the basement along with a half a dozen line printers." That computer and its peripherals were very loud, so the mini-monster was located behind glass doors in the bowels of the site. Adam often sat outside of that area to avoid the constant printer noise.

One night, as he sat and waited, Adam noticed that the noise of the machines has stopped altogether.

"This was not normal as there were a lot of overnight jobs to print so I entered the computer area to check." The printers were indeed not living up to their name.

"Then I noticed the rain," Adam told On Call.

Rain? In a basement?

"It turned out the computer room was beneath the hospital's chemistry lab," Adam wrote. And the drains from that lab ran directly over the top of the computer.

Liquid that Adam assumed was water dripped along a rail into the top of the minicomputer, and landed just where its exhaust fans were located.

"The water didn't drip anywhere else, just into the machine," Adam recalled.

"I killed power to the beast and called security. A guy showed up with a big piece of plastic to put over the computer," Adam recalled. That plastic, he later learned, was "a shroud taken from the hospital morgue." Which kind of made sense since it was pretty obvious the machine was dead.

"I was later shown one of the boards taken out of the computer," Adam told On Call. "It was really pretty, like a gift package. Turns out the outflow from the chem lab had all sorts of interesting metal salts in it which hit the hot boards and immediately turned into sparkly stuff."

The Register finds that profoundly disappointing. Everything we've been taught about late night institutional accidents involving unknown chemicals, big machines, and electricity suggests that this incident should not have ended with a dead computer.

Adam should have entered the room and been struck by an eldritch spark that fused his consciousness with the computer's newly sentient circuitry, raised to miraculous life by the drip of chemicals. The resulting hybrid organism would then devise miracle cures for the plucky and deserving patients of the hospital.

Or perhaps it would commit mayhem that put unfortunate patients in the hospital. Whatever it got up to, the Adam/DEC entity would endlessly struggle to reconcile its human passions and machine constraints.

On Call's screen agent is already optioning these ideas around Tinseltown. Your correspondent has suggested he’d like to be played by Travis Fimmel. A guy can dream, OK?

Back to Adam, who told us that he asked if he could have one of the sparkly boards as a souvenir. "No such luck," he was told: "They were all being held as evidence for the upcoming court case!"

Have you seen a stranger computer than the one Adam beheld? Or a weirder accidental cause of machine death? To share your story click here to send On Call an email and we may make you the hero on a future Friday. ®

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