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Texas Company's Antique Computers Are For Production, Not Display 289

Posted by timothy
from the commute-by-horseback-numb-with-ether dept.
concealment writes "Sparkler Filters up north in Conroe [Texas] still uses an IBM 402 in conjunction with a Model 129 key punch – with the punch cards and all – to do company accounting work and inventory. The company makes industrial filters for chemical plants and grease traps. Lutricia Wood is the head accountant at Sparkler and the data processing manager. She went to business school over 40 years ago in Houston, and started at Sparkler in 1973. Back then punch cards were still somewhat state of the art." See kottke.org for an eye-popping view of one of the "programs" — imagine debugging that.
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Texas Company's Antique Computers Are For Production, Not Display

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  • Debugging that... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by icebike (68054) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:35PM (#43547705)

    "THAT", (a wired board), is vastly easier to debug than any modern software. In fact a trainee can usually debug it by trial an error in just a few minutes.
    Now get off my digital lawn whipersnapper!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:42PM (#43547777)

      It's not old, it's hacker resistant :D

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by greyparrot (895758)
      I never actually programmed one, but when I worked at Siemens in Iselin, NJ we had some of these. For physical inventory, we needed it to print the name of the spare part on the card my program punched out of the Spectra 70. So a bunch of old guys from all over the company found themselves poking around on the board. And they were successful too. The inventory cards were beautiful! To take inventory, the warehouse people wrote the count on the card, we had it punched at the end, and fed back into the Spectr
    • Easy to debug when all you can do is add, subtract, count and print! Much more challenging if you have a reproducing punch hooked up to generate the YTD summary cards... Been there, done that and glad to have C.
    • Guess what: those jumper wires can break internally but still look okay on the outside. I found *that* out on a 402 I was taught how to program in the late 1960s. Took a while to find the bug...
    • by rnturn (11092)
      My dad used to "write" programs for those computers. He took me to work one day and I was amazed that the tangle of wires was somehow useful. For a long time I had one of the two-pronged plugs/jumpers that were used on those boards. (Lost in the sands of time now.)
    • by rwa2 (4391) *

      Awesome... I better head over to the http://www.livingcomputermuseum.org/ [livingcomputermuseum.org] this weekend and brush up on my skills

  • The manager's moto (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dancindan84 (1056246) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:38PM (#43547735)

    "If it ain't broke, don't replace it. Even if replacing it would lead to a 3 fold increase in employee productivity."

    • Even if replacing it would lead to a 3 fold increase in employee productivity.

      I have seen those kinds of productivity increase numbers thrown around for years, but honestly I have never see a good result. Usually the new system is slower.

      • by H0p313ss (811249)

        Even if replacing it would lead to a 3 fold increase in employee productivity.

        I have seen those kinds of productivity increase numbers thrown around for years, but honestly I have never see a good result. Usually the new system is slower.

        I was going to say something similar, you usually end up exchanging the problems and limitations of the old system for a the problems and limitations of the new system which is rarely faster and usually requires even more maintenance. Very rarely does the TCO savings, if any, match the cost of implementing the new system.

        That said, sometimes you have to just bite the bullet.

        • Yeah, sometimes you have to bite the bullet, but I tend to think the biggest reason should be: "Who is going to fix this thing in 10 years when Bill is retired or dead?"
      • by plover (150551) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:52PM (#43549113) Homepage Journal

        That's because the new system is frequently implemented in the latest version of a one-size-fits-all, Three-Letter-Acronym, popular technology of the day. And that's because the implementers are obsessed with flexing their technological prowess, instead of solving the business problem. I know a guy who would start by insisting this company should replace this thing with a Grails / Hadoop based solution. Why? Because he's a Grails and Hadoop fanboy, not because they have anything to do with this business' needs. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like Michaelangelo's Pieta [wikipedia.org].

        The bigger question is if this could be replaced with a "faster" system. It probably could, but you have to consider the entire manufacturing and accounting processes it handles. Do they punch the cards and include them with the job? Do workers write notes on the punch cards before returning them? How would all those activities be replaced? There are tons of further things to consider, like a shop floor is a notoriously dirty environment. Labels might be tough because adhesives won't stick due to oil on the work products. A beeping scanner might not work if the employees wear hearing protection. And no matter what, if you have to retrain your employees to do a process differently, there will be a temporary slowdown due to the learning curve.

        On the plus side, if you are honestly looking at your business process with an eye to changing the automation, you can probably find places where the new automation would help you to eliminate waste. Do the shop guys measure things with a dial caliper and write them down? Plug in a data collecting caliper and skip the pencils. Do the guys have to move a job sheet from bin to bin as they do their work? RFID tags on the bins could eliminate the handling of the job sheet. Can a new scheduling program help you find the more profitable jobs, or the faster paying customers, and move them to the front of the queue when cashflow is tight?

        There's likely a lot of things they could improve with automation, but any of them would involve a lot of change, and many people are uncomfortable with that much change.

    • by D1G1T (1136467)
      I'm gonna bet that they already have a spreadsheet worked up to replace it when it dies. People run stuff like this because they LIKE it. Like those of us who still pull out our old 15C calculators and program them to solve a real problem even though excel would be faster. They are lucky that management permits them to have a little fun at work. Fun = productivity.
    • by Jawnn (445279)

      "If it ain't broke, don't replace it unless you can't fix it when it does break. Then you should work on replacing it as soon as possible. Even if replacing it would lead to a 3 fold increase in employee productivity."

      TFTFY

  • by mark_reh (2015546) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:39PM (#43547745) Journal

    at Florida Technological University (now called UCF). I remember a few instances of seeing people trip or drop stacks or boxes of cards on the floor and then crying when they had try to reorder them to get their program to work.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by greyparrot (895758)
      Yeah, so did I. You were supposed to use the last 6 columns for a number that you could use in sorting the cards. We also used markers so you could line up the cards based on the position of a diagonal stripe on the edge. PL/1 - what a language! I had to write an assembler in PL/1. It was a great way to learn what we used to call "structured programming".
    • by codegen (103601)
      That why you use sequence numbers in 73-80. Been there, done that. But only did it once.
    • That's why smart people punched sequence numbers in columns 73-80. It helped if you had access to a card sorter, otherwise you'd incur machine time using the sort program to punch a new deck.

      There was a lot of standalone electromechanical hardware (not just punches and sorters) to support punched card data processing - my mother (now 80) worked for a utility company in the 50s and alternated her time between doing data entry (card punch) and data verification - essentially retyping the data on a card verifi

    • Yeah, BINDERE DUNDAT.

      c. 1977, cutting my teath on "real programming" in Fortran, and CDC 6600 Assembler with punched cards (post HP2000 Basic -- everyone starts with Basic - in high school). We did have a few plugboard computers, including at least one analog computer, as well.

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      seeing people trip or drop stacks or boxes of cards on the floor and then crying

      Grab a marker pen and draw some diagonal lines/crosses on the edges of the stack. You can easily see which ones are out of order.

      You can also see if anybody has swapped a couple of them around as a "joke".

    • by kenaaker (774785) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:08PM (#43548683)
      One of our standard pranks with punched cards was to drop a whole box on the floor in front of the submission bin, then gather them up, stuff them back into the box any old way, rearrange them a few times, shrug and put them in the bin.

      The key to the whole thing was the rubber banded few cards at the front of the box that ran IEHSORT(?) on the sequence numbers of the rest of the box.

  • by mmcxii (1707574) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:39PM (#43547747)
    My working C=64 ain't got nothing on this fine machine.
  • by Radak (126696) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:50PM (#43547871) Journal

    And now long would you have to run it to spend the same amount of money it takes to buy modern equipment and pay for someone to convert your accounting over?

    I like "if it ain't broke" in general, but this thing has to be a massive power drain, and when it finally does break, they're likely going to be screwed.

    • by admdrew (782761)

      I think the "when it finally breaks" issue is probably of bigger importance than the power draw. Generally (and what others in this thread have already alluded to), a conversion may be far more complex/time consuming than we might think. Future functionality is one thing, but migrating old data to a new system can sometimes be very difficult, especially for something as important as accounting. And you usually need someone with intimate knowledge of the legacy system, which can require massive reverse-engin

      • by rahvin112 (446269) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:35PM (#43548933)

        And what happens when the lady that's running this system dies of a heart attack and the only people that even know how to use one of these computers are all retired and senile?

        It's not just the machine costs, the retraining. It's what happens if the only person who truly understands the system gets hit by a bus. The hit by a bus scenario is often overlooked in small businesses. You don't just need to be able to replace the system and hardware, you need to be able to replace the people running it, without advance notice.

  • by perpenso (1613749) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:50PM (#43547875)
    While in college there was still a working punch card machine on campus. Our intro to computer science professor made us write our first program using punch cards. He said we would get two things out of it. We would understand why some things are the way they are with respect to programming languages and command lines. And we would have book marks for life (the program was short but we had to buy a deck of blanks at the bookstore). I still use these cards for bookmarks.
    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      In a class on numerical analysis and computing we used Fortran for the programming homework. One of my friends decided he wanted to do the entire thing using punch cards. The rest of us laughed at him because the computer center had all these modern CRT terminals. But he would go into the side room with the punch machine and use that while the rest of us called him crazy. Then at the end of the school year there was a big queue to use the terminals from every class at the university that had a programmi

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:51PM (#43547891)

    Company where I worked decided there perfectly fine AS/400 systems were not good enough and would save lots of money replacing the 20 year old system with SAP.

    Hilarity ensued.

    (and lots of 70 hour weeks... only 5% implemented with 15 years worth of projected savings already spent).

    • I once met a guy who said that when his company ditched his AS/400, he'd take it as a sign to retire. Smart man.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by greyparrot (895758)
      Jah, SAP. World's slowest suicide method.
    • SAP has been known to bring down companies, do to poor IT management, they try to use the system to replace the existing ones, vs. changing the organization to work with the new system.

    • by lgw (121541)

      I can remember when "everyone is implementing SAP, no one has implemented SAP". As much as peoplesoft blows goats (and it blows a great many goats indeed), you can see why it took off.

  • by dubdays (410710) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:53PM (#43547915)
    Kind of like mowing the lawn with a pair of scissors. Yeah, I'm sure it could be done.
  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:54PM (#43547929) Homepage

    I thought the Computer History Museum got that IBM 402. There's one in the Computer History Museum now. They may have the machine the company was using for parts.

    Here it is running in Conroe, TX [youtube.com] in 2011. (Terrible video, though)

  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by geek (5680) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @01:54PM (#43547933) Homepage

    And people bitch about XP users hanging onto an old and obsolete system.

  • I took an embedded systems course in university (Engineering Physics program)....we had to build boards up from components, write software in assembly, and then load it into the hardware and cause the hardware to do stuff.

    My longest debug session was when I couldn't figure out why my software wasn't working properly...turned out that my team-mates had mis-wired the stepper motor. Once I figured out exactly how they had screwed up the wiring I was able to compensate in software and it worked perfectly.

  • 026 (Score:5, Informative)

    by Peter Simpson (112887) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:02PM (#43547995)
    That's an 026 keypunch he's leaning on, not a 129.
  • by satch89450 (186046) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:02PM (#43548009) Homepage
    ...that would take documentation of the plugboard wiring of the old 400 series "accounting machines" and produce source that would work exactly the same as the accounting machine, give 80-column card images for the data. It wouldn't emulate any cross-connects to other tab equipment (sorters, punches, interpreters) but it did a wonderful job of moving plug-board programming to the more modern computers (360, in particular). Anyone know where that software might be? As I recall, it was on a micro-spool of magnetic tape originally, purchased at user group meetings. Time to google...nothing so far...
  • by frovingslosh (582462) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:04PM (#43548031)
    OK, I get it, Sparkler hates trees. But the insanity of someone protecting their job by never updating technology is just amazing. I would love to see what they have spent on maintenance over the years for that electromechanical junk. And I really wonder where they are getting punch cards. Can you even get them any more, or are they having a printer make custom batches for them? And, of course, there is no really useable backup of all of the company's data for when the inevitable final failure hits. For less than the cost of their next punch card order they could be on a modern system with performance and good data backup. But then I guess that Lutricia Wood might be concerned that others might be able to do thing that only the high priestess of data systems does now. Good thing that she will live forever and never retire, otherwise Sparkler would be in a very bad position.
    • by admdrew (782761) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:18PM (#43548199) Homepage

      someone protecting their job by never updating technology is just amazing

      That may be part of it, but generally an overhaul of an entire system like that, especially something as integral to a business as accounting, isn't a decision any single person can make. Also, it's possible those who would've had job security by maintaining that system have long since retired. Slow-moving business isn't completely built on nefarious intentions.

      • by Dynedain (141758)

        Well for a very high level (CEO) explanation, the money it will take to replace this system now is money that was stolen over the years from the company in the form of larger profits instead of investment.

    • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:26PM (#43548833)

      I would love to see what they have spent on maintenance over the years for that electromechanical junk.

      I would love to see what they've saved on not having a bunch of programmers wondering why the latest Java update broke everything.

    • by lgw (121541)

      And, of course, there is no really useable backup of all of the company's data for when the inevitable final failure hits

      You mean, other than all the punch cards? You can use your smart phone camera as a punch card reader these days - there's an app for that.

      Also, since essentially all paper in the US comes from tree farms, and since that land would be used for farming something other than trees without the demand for paper, I'd say wasting paper is a sign that one likes trees.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:06PM (#43548053) Homepage
    accounting intern:"damn, looks like the microwave is getting repaired. wanna go out for bbq?"
    accounting director:"we dont have a microwave. you mean the accounting computer down the hall??"
    BOFH:"so heres the dead man that just pushed a hot pocket into the 402 and took down payroll! let me get the punch cards kid, you're in for a fun night."
    • by greyparrot (895758) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:20PM (#43548229)
      I found one (or two) of these once as part of a study. The old M-- H-- bank was going to replace some important system, and I was on the illustrious crew of analysts documenting all its interfaces. One of them was a deck of cards that was output at the end of the run. So very early one morning I followed it from the output room to the mail room, and then the wagon to an office, where the cards were placed on the desk of the person who ran that machine. She and her young assistant ran them through the machine, which duplicated them and added some columns, probably totals of some kind. Then they took the new deck and loaded it into another of the same sort of machine, programmed differently. It read the cards and printed a report. Then she put a rubber band around the report and cards, and it went back on the mail cart. I followed it down the hall and to another floor, where it arrived on someone's desk.
      And...
      He picked it up and threw it into the trash.
      When I wrote it up, nobody wanted to believe me.
      • by rgbscan (321794) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:35PM (#43548393) Homepage

        It's funny how those things persist. Years ago, I took over a mainframe data processing department. Every month I would be sent a fan-fold report on that old school tractor fed paper that took up a whole copy paper box. It literally was a 50 pound report. I had no idea what it was for, nor did anyone else. It went straight into the shredder. Every month a new bundle would show up. I sent it straight to the shredder. Didn't even look at it. The box came interoffice mail with no return address and there wasn't any identifying information on the report for me to figure out where it came from or how to get it shut off. Not even a report identifier I could look for in the mainframe. I can't imagine how much time, paper, and impact printer ribbon went into it. I mean, how would you even look for anything on that report? Kept coming every month for the whole 4 years I managed that department. I hear it finally and mysteriously, stopped showing up a year or two ago. The new manager has no explanation for it's demise but it was a good thing. /Shrug

    • by MikeTheGreat (34142) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:27PM (#43548321)
      Whoops - this was funny but I accidentally mod'd it as "Overrated"

      I can't seem to find a way to undo/change my moderation.

      So I guess I'll do this, instead :/
  • Replacing this dated equipment will also result in replacing operator, and that can have all kinds of hidden costs. If someone worked for your business for 40 years and is loyal and productive employee, then why do you care if they want to do it with punch cards or abacus? They had 40 years to prove that whatever they are doing works, unless there are new process requirements, there is no reason to change

    Decision chart:

    1. Did any processes change or about to change? Yes/No

    Yes - Go To 3.
    No - Go To 2.

    2. Job

    • But what if you lose that employee due to circumstances that are outside of your control? Now you have to find someone who knows how to operate an antique computer. Not only is it hard to find such a person, but they might cost an absurd amount of money as well.
  • by BenJeremy (181303) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:16PM (#43548171)

    One critical irreplaceable part breaks, and they can no longer process payroll or inventory.

    All because they don't want to hire somebody to spend a week or two to replace the functionality of that obscene waste of energy with a simple spreadsheet. The simple value of data security, not to mention the inter-operability between the data generated and things like, I dunno... check printing and direct deposit, for example, seems obvious.

    I'd also guess there would be a lot less work for their accounting department. Either they could save the expense of one or two peoples' salaries, or at least spread the workload savings among the staff. In any event, it simply doesn't make sense not to modernize it.

    • One critical irreplaceable part breaks ...

      Breaks? Guess you haven't seen how those old systems were made. You could rearrange it and make a dandy trash compactor for modern computers.

    • by Stone316 (629009) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:49PM (#43549077) Journal

      A week or two??? How many enterprise systems have you installed? I've been on a couple of these implementations and it just takes a team of people many months of work. The larger the company the longer it takes. One install, for a customer with less than 300 employees took 8 months. Its not as simple as you make it out to be.

  • "Don't mess with Texas's old computers."

    Seriously, don't mess with them or they will stop working. I feel like just taking a picture of the insides of that thing will make it fall apart.

  • by cervesaebraciator (2352888) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:19PM (#43548207)
    PHB [dilbert.com]: "I want to fire Wally, but I can't risk it. He says he's the only one who can program the Zeberpupin system." Wally [dilbert.com]: "The word you're trying to think of is 'indispensable.'"
  • It BELONGS in a MUSEUM!!!

  • How much is the IBM support contract for this?

  • by GrumpyOldPgmr (2883917) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:51PM (#43548537)
    IBM 402, 403 and 407's were tabulators not computers. As an old IBM program support rep., the first time I ran in to an RPG program it made no sense to me till I realized that RPG is nothing more than an emulation of a tabulator control panel.
  • by sxpert (139117) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @02:52PM (#43548539)
    This company is probably the only one in the area that will still be operational in case of a nuclear war. that type of computing device is pretty much impervious to EMPs.
  • by Stone316 (629009) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:45PM (#43549041) Journal

    change for the sake of change. Let me say up front that i've worked in IT for over 15 years. Mostly as a DBA but I did network admin, hardware, development and OS.

    I keep hearing how the next version will do X, save Y amount of time and Z money. Won't require as many people to maintain it, etc. Yet it never seems to be the case. Vendors keep us on a continuous upgrade cycle because bug fixes aren't back ported or to get the latest security patches, etc. Managers, architects seem to focus more on resume building than a stable environment.

    I can't get any commitment for maintaining production but if i'm an hour late on a project task i'll have an army standing in my cubicle harassing me. I constantly hear developers wanting to go back to the basics because the new piece of software that's supposed to make their life easier isn't as stable.

    Yes, I love to play with the latest and greatest features but i'm not sure if from the companies perspective if its always worth the money. I have to say working in IT support can be a very frustrating and stressful job.

  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @03:54PM (#43549147) Homepage

    I used all that gear in high school and high school summer jobs. I've wired panels for an IBM 402, an IBM 407 (the last of the electromechanical accounting machines and the best one), a 514/519 reproducer (a 519 has a mark sense reader option), and the 77 and 84 collators. And, of course, card sorters and punches. I was able to draw graphs with a 402 and generate poetry with an 84 collator. This is pushing the limits of those machines.

    The normal processing cycle for a sales/billing operation looks like this:

    • Transactions are punched on cards by a keypunch operator in a fixed format, with customer number, item number, quantity, and price each. Date is automatically punched, copied from the previous card.
    • Payments are also punched on cards in a similar way.
    • There's another deck of cards with three lines of address info on 3 cards, kept by customer number and address line number.
    • Finally, there's a deck of cards with the previous month's balance for each customer.
    • End of month processing begins by running the transaction cards through a 602A Calculating Punch, which can multiply. It multiplies quantity by price each and punches that info into the same card.
    • All the transaction cards are then sorted by customer number and date.
    • The decks are merged together with a collator, which has two input hoppers and four output hoppers. This matches numbers and checks sequence between cards. The assembled deck has, for each customer, three address cards, a previous-balance card, and all the transaction cards, payments first. Each block of cards for one customer thus contains the data for one invoice. The collator kicks out anything that doesn't match and stops if a deck is out of sequence.
    • The merged deck then goes to the tabulator, which is filled with preprinted invoice forms, usually multi-part carbons. The tabulator can add, subtract, and print, but not multiply. The invoices are printed. For this operation, a reproducer (a big card punch used to copy card decks) is cabled up to the tabulator with a cable about 2 inches in diameter. At the end of each invoice, the reproducer is triggered to punch a new previous-balance card for that customer, which will be used in the next billing cycle.
    • After a successful tabulator run, the merged deck is sorted in one pass to separate the name and address cards, which will be used again next month. The transaction cards go into storage as backup. The previous-balance deck is stored for use next month.
    • The fan-fold invoices go through a decollator to pull the carbons apart, and a burster to separate the pages for the copy that gets mailed. Then there's folding, inserting into envelopes, a pass through a postage meter, and mailing.
    • Other reports can be produced from the same cards. The previous-balance deck and the address deck are used to produce reports such as who owes how much, and which customers are buying the most.

    The card operations aren't that bad. All this stuff is slow, but automatic. The data entry is the labor-intensive part of the operation.

  • by Qbertino (265505) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @06:05PM (#43550509)

    I have to admit, that actually *is* sorta cool. Imagine, you can probably repair a bit on that computer with a well-bent paperclip. When everything goes down the drain, this thing will still be up and running, maintainable and you will be able to build your own spare parts for it using a regular toolbox and a soldering iron.

    Then again, my very first computer, a PC 1402 Sharp Pocket Computer from 1986 with cashstrip printer is probably like a bazillion times faster and more powerfull than that thing. It would probalby take less than two weeks to replace the entire workflow with a single cheap-ass current programmable calculator and you could add some features along the way. That makes it quite strange too. Cool, but very strange.

    My 2 cents.

    • by mysidia (191772)

      I have to admit, that actually *is* sorta cool. Imagine, you can probably repair a bit on that computer with a well-bent paperclip.

      The trouble is... that being broken, and getting 'stuck' at an incorrect value, might not necessarily be detected, as quickly as a blue screen would be detected...

      Punch card devices have this problem of verification, where a card could get lost, misread, or incorrectly punched

      So you need additional error checking at higher layers, that a PC would take care of at a lowe

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