Techie invented bits of the box he was fixing, still botched the job

This is why all-nighters are a bad idea

Who, me? Greetings and salutations, dear readers, and welcome to the sunny spot on the interwebs we like to call Who, Me? in which Reg readers share their tales of tech tasks gone awry.

Apologies if that bright, cheery attitude is off-putting to you. Your correspondent is experimenting with being a "Monday person" and it feels weird.

Anyway, our story this week comes from a reader we'll Regomize as "Howard" who many years ago (many, many years ago) worked with an OS kernel called MagicSix that found use in the labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while he was a student. Howard had tricked an Interdata 7/32 system to use virtual memory "in a way that its designers never intended" using the OS – such was his prowess.

After Howard graduated and went on to further education, the MIT lab upgraded to an Interdata 8/32 which, you will no doubt recall, improved upon its predecessor by supporting virtual memory properly. Howard was hired as a consultant for the process of getting MagicSix working on the new machine.

What this involved was installing the OS on a disk pack on the 7/32, removing the disk pack from that machine and installing it on the 8/32, and seeing if it would run. Repeat as often as necessary until it works.

Now, you may be wondering about the term "disk pack." We here at Who, Me? certainly were. Well, this was 1978, so hard drives weren't like they are today. Disk drives of that era looked kind of like top-loading washing machines, in Howard's description, and the disks themselves were stacks of platters "that looked like eight metal LPs" he wrote – a simile that may be no less baffling to younger readers.

Thankfully he also provided a link to an image of a not-dissimilar system [PDF] of the time, so you can get the idea.

Moving a disk pack from one machine to another involved stopping the drive, screwing in the carrier (which would simultaneously unscrew the disks from the drive), then lifting the carrier out. There was an interlock on the lid of the drive that stopped you from opening it while the disks were in motion, for obvious reasons.

The stacks of disks were typically labelled on the top platter. The units Howard used were labelled with the MagicSix logo – an image of which he also helpfully supplied.

Now, as it happened, the process of getting up and running on the 8/32 did not go as smoothly as Howard hoped it might. Many hours of shuffling disk packs from one machine to the other ensued, with many failed attempts that meant taking the disks back to the first machine. It was very frustrating.

Around three o'clock in the morning, after yet another failure to boot, Howard opened the drive on the 8/32, noting – just for a moment – "Hey, I thought this disk had a label on it. Oh well, another mystery." Then he inserted the cover of the carrier …

Next: a hellish buzzing and shards of plastic flying everywhere, as the teeth on the cover met the teeth of the disk pack and physics did the rest. It transpired that the interlock on the drive was faulty, and the reason Howard couldn't see the label was because it was still spinning at 3600rpm.

Thankfully Howard was not the only night owl at MIT, and someone was there to show him where a vacuum cleaner could be found to clean the bits of plastic out of the drive.

He did eventually get the OS working on the 8/32, by the way. And he told us "I wish I could say I learned my lesson not to work while half-asleep, but that would take another decade or two." Oh well.

Has your tired self ever made a mistake your alert self never would have? Tell on it with an email to Who, Me? and we might share your tale on some future Monday.

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