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IBM History

Forgotten Voice

Peter Short
Customer Engineering
Around 1970
Date Joined:
August 1967
Date Left:
The Day I Nearly Blew Up Alcan

The Alcan aluminium smelter in Northumberland was controlled by an IBM 1800 Process Controller. Mainframes of the day, 1130s, System/360 and the 1800 all had a 1052 golf ball console printer to communicate with the operator. As I was trained on these I/O typewriters, I would get called out for the trickier issues that the mainframe CEs couldn't, or didn't want to fix.

I was not mainframe trained, so I had a set of instructions on how to run the console diagnostics for each CPU, usually a 4-digit code dialled into the four rotary switches on the front panel. This day I duly dialled in the code into Alcan's CPU and pressed Go. Nothing. Try again. Nothing.

Then a rather worked-up Alcan employee came running in, asking what I'd done. "Just dialled in the diagnostics, but nothing happened." "Expletive... The plant is out of control, it'll blow in 5 minutes..." The temperature in the smelters was soaring as I'd missed the code by one digit and given the wrong instruction. Oops. More dial twidding and knob pushing and things settled down, Northumerland was saved from a coating of molten aluminium.

Fortunately they didn't tell my field manager.