It's the late 1960s, and refrigerator-size minicomputers have just started arriving at university computing centers across the U.S., says a pilot fish who has just been bitten by the programming bug.
"I tried to get as much hands-on time as possible," fish says. "The 'big' time-shared PDP-8 was only available standalone from about midnight to the start of classes the next morning, so that's when I could use it and try my luck at writing more than simple BASIC programs.
"Being a college student, the hours were not a problem. What's sleep anyway?"
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The problem, it turns out, is that at 6 am. the custodial staff arrives at the computing center to start in on their morning chores — which includes vacuuming the computer room.
The noise doesn't bother fish, and neither does the presence of all those people milling around.
But there's a reason the PDP-8 is such a popular machine for educational institutions. True, it's a fraction of the price of a mainframe. But it also doesn't require air conditioning or specially conditioned power lines, the way a mainframe does. It can literally be plugged into an ordinary electrical outlet.
So when the cleaning crew's big industrial vacuum cleaner powers up — throwing a bright haze of blue sparks from the motor's commutator — the electrical and radio-frequency interference is terrific.
"I would be working away, and all of a sudden the entire system would freeze with a crazy pattern in the lights," says fish.
"So the arrival of the cleaning staff became my signal to pack it in for the night before I got all my work corrupted. I'd then walk to breakfast — the only times I ever went to breakfast — and thence to bed."
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