Hidden Data Collection

[Received via e-mail: March 26, 1997]

In 1968, I was installing one of the first Burroughs medium systems in a stockbroker's office in central London. This was a hot deal and we had been working on the computer room and getting the site ready for weeks. When the day came for the stuff to be delivered, everything arrived except for the actual disk drives. As I was to do the installation, I thought that it would be best to get on with as much as possible and then when the drives arrived all I would have to do was connect them up and load the operating system.

I installed the three-cabinet processor, the card reader, the tape drives and the printer. The printer weighed 2200 pounds and had to be lifted by crane and put through a window. I finished with the cabinets and tested them as best I could and so was left with the empty disk cabinets (which we called garages) into which the drives would fit. The drives could be installed in groups of five and each group connected to an electronics unit. This installation was going to have three disk drives, so I installed the three garage kits on the side of the electronics unit.

A brief note about the disk drives: these were about 40 inches high and deep and maybe 14 inches wide. (Sorry for the inexact measurement but it is rather a long time ago.) Each unit had four 26-inch brass disks coated with magnetic material on both sides. On all eight disk surfaces there were 13 head assemblies, and each assembly had multiple read/write heads imbedded in it. Enough heads, in fact, to cover 150 tracks, plus 3 clock tracks per face. Once the heads were engaged they could actually slow down the spinning disk -- much like disk brakes on a car. The heads were pushed toward the platters using air pressure, and you couldn't apply the air until the drive was up to speed. So how much did each of these monsters hold? Only 10 megabytes.1

As the disks were so large, it was possible for a person to sit inside the garages while constructing them. I had almost finished installing the cabinets and was inside the garages attaching the cooling fans at the back. The top and front panels were already on the garages, including a small trapdoor at the top that flapped upwards and was used to inspect the disk drive.

As I was doing the fan installation I noticed the account manager and the senior partner of the stock brokerage pass a large inspection window behind the disk drives. I wondered if they were coming to view the installation and got my answer in a minute when they entered the computer room. I remained in the garage because I knew that this customer was very demanding and not easy to deal with. None of the equipment was on so I could hear every word they were saying, but as I was inside the garage units I thought it best to get on with my job.

Anyhow, it was most interesting to hear the account manager talk to the customer. It was clear that the manager had just returned from a course, as he had a long spiel about each unit. He went round the room telling the customer about each piece of equipment, and I could hear from the customer's answers that he was getting bored. Just about this time they got to the disk drives. The account manager launched into a talk about how the disk heads flew 6 millionths of an inch from the surface of the disks, which was like flying a jumbo jet across America six feet up without crashing. Well, this was too much for the customer and he stated outright that he didn't care what happened inside the disk drives, as long as the data was safe.

In fact he said, "I don't care if you've got a load of blokes inside writing it down, as long as I get my data back".

I couldn't resist. I stuck my hand up through the trapdoor on the front of the garage and said, "Hello! Hello!"

Through the trapdoor I could see the look of surprise on both their faces. It was priceless! In fact, the account manager actually stopped his spiel for a few moments, dumbfounded.

Every time after that when I saw the customer in the hallway he would smile and greet me. According to the people at the company, I was the only person he ever smiled at.


[Some numbers for comparison (March 21, 1997): 10 megabytes will fit on seven floppy disks, and is about one percent of the typical hard drive storage on a personal computer. --tim]