The Day The House Of Cards Fell
Bye, bye weekly payroll ...
Posted by Steffi Lewis on 16/12/2019 @ 8:00AM
Many years ago, before I'd even started my career, I was at college on The Wirral attending a 2 year computer studies course. That was very progressive for girls back in the 80s as it was a very male-dominated industry. But one Friday it all went curiously wrong ...
We were very early hackers I guess. We'd begged an operating manual from the Computer Centre Manager and read up on a few hidden extras that the ICL2904 implementation of BASIC had that weren't taught on the course. One of them was multi-dimensional arrays, and the other was an inter-terminal chat command.
This got us thinking about how we could combine them. I decided to write a multiplayer game and now knew that I could define not only a three-dimensional universe, but have extra dimensions left to define what was inside each 'sector' and the attributes of each thing too. Five dimensions! Fantastic.
As I built this randomised, self-generating universe, a friend implemented the chat command so that players within the environment could talk to each other. What a great idea. We hit run, told it to define a 10 x 10 x 10 environment and found that it worked well across a number of terminals in the computer room! The little cheer from the back row disturbed the tutor and we were told to leave for the afternoon, so we went to the pub like all good students do.
"However - being students - and it being Friday lunchtime with no more work to do for the afternoon, we had a few too many beers and got to thinking!"
A 10 x 10 x 10 universe was all well and good, but what would happen if we defined a Million in every dimension? Would it work? Would players ever be able to find each other? We thought we should go and find out, so knowing that the last class of the day finished at 2pm, we ordered another round and got to talking about some new features we were planning for the game.
We walked back up to College and sat down at our terminals in a now empty computer room. Through the window, we could see the Operators calmly running programs at super terminals and generally doing what Operators do on a Friday afternoon.
I typed in 'RUN SCAVENGE', hit ENTER and the terminal beeped and replied with 'SIZE (X Y Z)?' at which point I entered '1000000, 1000000, 1000000', hit ENTER again and sat back. There were three of us waiting to play. Once started, my two colleagues could log in to the game and we'd see if we could find each other in such a huge Universe.
We waited ... and waited ... and waited. Hmmm, it was now 2 minutes since I'd issued the run command, why was it taking so long? In our Friday afternoon beer haze, we very nearly missed the panic-stricken look on the face of the Operator through the window. He was furiously typing commands into the ICL2904 and the colour was draining out of his face.
What we didn't miss was the alarm sounding and the red flashing lights in the computer room as the poor mainframe started to wobble, unloaded all running tasks in favour of our game, then promptly went on to overwrite the operating system and finally - and silently - completely shut down. The power was cut to the terminals (standard emergency protocol), we looked at each other ... and very casually for drunken students, fled the building!
So we went home. What could possibly be so terrible? Was it us that caused it? Being students - and teenagers - we didn't want to be around to find out. So we all enjoyed our weekends then were sat at our desks the following Monday waiting for classes to start.
Our course tutor Mr Williams came in for registration and didn't bother to sit down. He had a stern look on his face as he looked me right in the eye and said "Ms Lewis ... would you care to come with me please?" and he promptly marched me to the Deans office. Yes the Dean of the entire College! I knew I was in trouble for something, although to be honest, I wasn't really too sure what I'd done. I thought it was about the mainframe crash from Friday, but surely I couldn't have caused that?
He completely unloaded on me. It wasn't the fact that my program had dumped every task including the operating system in a search for enough multi-dimensional memory to allocate. It was that the Wirral Borough Council weekly payroll had crashed, the College was now in breach of contract and no-one from the council had been paid that week.
"Erm, ok ... oops. I went bright red!"
With the wrath of the dean venting right in front of me, I thought I was going to get kicked off the course until Mr Williams - in his infinite wisdom - calmly said "Dean, to be honest, a student terminal shouldn't have rights to allocate that much memory. It's not Steffi's fault, she was just being curious".
I was asked to leave the room and wait outside. The argument continued for a while and then Mr Williams came out, smiled and said "it's ok, you're still on the course, he saw reason in the end". Phew!
I'd worked really hard on that program. Our scavenger program was deleted and I was asked to hand over all tapes, cards and notes concerning it. The operating system was updated and certain functions removed from the BASIC interpreter during an update.
Each time I went into the student computer room, the operators on the other side of the glass would glare at me as I sunk behind a student terminal and quietly continued my studies.
Strangely enough, I was still awarded a full credit for that project, even though I was never able to submit it. When I graduated, I got honours in both years and a great big proud smile from Mr Williams. So I guess a disaster can end up being a good thing sometimes.
It's good to be curious, isn't it?
Love, light and logic ...
About Steffi Lewis ...
Foodie, sci-fi nut, cat lover, brain aneurysm & cancer survivor, countryside dweller, SaaS entrepreneur, developer and networker.
I've also worked as a professional photographer in Los Angeles, USA and been a vision mixer and producer for live television in my time.
I live in a village north of Milton Keynes with my two cats, Baggins and Gimley, and a large planted aquarium full of unruly tropical fish.
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