Technology – Power Issues: circa 1984

Tim Inkster

I learned to print at Coach House Press in 1969, when I took a three hour course on an AB Dick duplicator.Stan Bevington (Head Coach at Coach House) explained about ink and water, on and off, and a few subtleties that had to do with trying to entice one sheet of paper (and ONLY one sheet of paper) to pass through the press in a vaguely predictable location on each revolution.

Fourteen years later, I learned about computers in much the same way — I took a course at Coach House, in an alley off Huron Street south of Rochdale College. Technology had become increasingly complex, though, so whereas 3 hours were considered ample for an introduction to offset book printing in 1969, by 1983 the computer course had bloated to FIVE hours. I remember Louise Dennys was one of my classmates at Coach House, and I remember that she thought the programme was wonderful, but then again Louise is better looking than I am and always manages to take a sunny view of any circumstance. For myself, I was quite confused — mail was mail, date was date, who was me and the difference between look and see was not as subtle as one might expect. Ed was edit, grep was more difficult and awk was a horror show, but I was encouraged enough to agree to rent a DEC VT100 dummy terminal that would be installed in Erin and connected via Gandalf modem to the microcomputer at Coach House.

The terminal arrived one Sunday in the late fall of 1983.

Stan Bevington delivered it himself in his Porsche — and right there you can see the advantages of technology, because Stan is the ONLY literary publisher in the country to drive a Porsche.

We uncrated the terminal and the modem, plugged them together, filed the instruction books away for future reference and hit

linefeed RETURN linefeed RETURN

DIAL :: WHAT NUMBER :: 977-1392

DIALING :: 9 7 7 1 3 9 2

Dialling done, Waiting for Answer Tone

Modem Answer Tone Received, Data Mode

I had every reason to believe, at this point, that the Porcupine’s Quill had slipped the bonds of the carbon-based world of printing ink and entered the bold new silicon age. My suspicion was confirmed when the CPU at CHP flashed a login prompt across my screen in Erin.


Stan’s brow knotted, however, and his smile turned to a frown as we both watched an uninterruptable stream of curly braces race each other to fill up the screen with gobble-de-goop. Curly braces are, of course, a symptom of a specific type of telephone noise typically encountered when the particular pair of copper wires you are using happen to be located in close proximity to a high volume data-line in the Brampton switching office. But of course the subject of curly braces is not addressed in any of the manuals, and in fact takes months if not years of badgering Bell Telephone to puzzle through, so Stan and I hung up and tried again.

The second try worked, so we had a beer to celebrate, and then dinner and then a few more beers, and then we tried it again.

The third try worked as well, so Stan left about eleven and I hacked on till midnight, then got out the manual to discover how to hang up — Control D results in Login: red DATA button Up, TR, MR and HS lights switch to TR and MC — and went upstairs to bed. Because Erin is a long-distance call away from Toronto, Elke (my wife & partner) asked me if I was sure I had hung up the phone —

Red DATA button Up, TR MR and HS lights switch to TR and MC, SD and RD are out — I got out of bed, put on my bathrobe and padded back downstairs into the shop for yet another status check of the TR MR SD RD HS and MC lights. Then I climbed back upstairs to bed and suffered through a fitful night beset with dreams about large telephone bills and runaway curly braces. The braces did not run away, but the first large telephone bill arrived 30 days later — $900, of which $850 was spent calling 977-1392.

It was at this moment I decided to buy my own CPU before I tipped Bell Canada’s cash-flow projections decidedly in its favour.

Power was, of course, a topic in which I was not completely unversed. I had at one time a 24-inch ATF Chief offset press, a fairly large old American clunker that ran happily enough on 220v 3 phase current until its untimely death — the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this paper. The Chief was replaced by a Heidelberg KORD, same size, but European and fussier to the extent that it caught fire the first night it was installed.

A very expensive industrial electrician from Kitchener managed to convince me with the aid of a graph voltmeter, that the supposed 220v + -10 feed from Erin Hydro was actually +-40 — which is illegal as well as unhealthy to Heidelbergs.

I presented the results of that investigation to the Erin Hydro-Electric Commission. I was advised that they had no wish to do business with an unhappy customer, and I could either shut up, leave town or (alternatively) they would be pleased to disconnect my service.

I bought a transformer.

Mindful of the odour of burning Heidelbergs I warned my first computer hardware supplier of suspect power and was advised to install isolated grounds, power filters on each component, and a Sola constant voltage transformer to filter the lot.

I did that, not that the local village electrician knew much about isolated grounds, but I was told to look for orange plugs and it was very clear that the plugs, as installed, were orange.

Seven months later my CPU ate huge chunks of its operating system, developed indigestion and died. The reader has to understand that I was under a lot of pressure at the time, a good deal of which was connected with a two-volume set of philosophical ruminations called OAB, which had been in production for five years but which was rapidly becoming critical as its author, Robert Zend, was terminally ill.

I telephoned the service department of the hardware supplier on a Thursday afternoon and was told their Senior Man would phone me on his return from Vancouver late Friday.

Monday, I phoned again and discovered the Service Manager I had spoken to on Thursday was no longer with the firm, and the Senior Man was out on call but would call Tuesday.

Wednesday (this is now approaching payday and several of my employees have asked about the status of their timesheet entries) I phoned again to discover that their Senior Man had to go back to Vancouver unexpectedly, but that their Junior Man was just at that very moment thinking about phoning me to ask where Erin was located, geographically speaking.

Thursday, he arrived —

I was in the pressroom at the time, but I rushed upstairs when my secretary called, looked around the office, and couldn’t find him.

At first I thought he might have gone back outside for his toolkit, but then I noticed my secretary shaking her head and pointing with a crooked finger over the top of our customer service counter and down. I looked up, over the top of the customer service counter, and down and sure enough there he was, all four foot, eight inches of him.

He said his name was BAO, and I know that because I had him spell it out twice just so I could be sure that the technician was in fact a dwarf whose name was a palindrome (that means letters of a word scrambled) for OAB.

It was and there was nothing else to be done so I got a ladder and helped BAO climb up to the machine on top of a filing cabinet. He replaced a few boards, muttered a little and by four o’clock we were

up again.

At four-fifteen, BAO left.

At four-thirty we crashed.

BAO was back again, on Saturday no less, with a new 40 megabyte winchester disk drive. It does, however, take some time to rebuild a 40mb system from scratch — I managed to bribe him to stay past five with a pizza and beer, but by nine o’clock it was snowing and Bao left me with my root file system loading from tape.

I watched for an hour or two while names of critical files I knew nothing about were appended to the winchester.

AFTER an hour or two, the process came to an abrupt halt with an error message — NO SPACE ON /DEV/DOC — which was the wrong spot to be loading root and hence wouldn’t fit.

At eleven, I erased the previous 2 hours work and started again. By three AM I had finally succeeded in loading all of root and the user directories and tried fsck (an internal file system check) just to assure myself that we were back in business. Fsck tried to eat part of root, and Monday I phoned BAO again.

The problem, THAT problem, was eventually (about a week later) traced to a faulty Winchester controller board, that may have been damaged by a faulty power filter. The filter was replaced (not that you have any way of knowing if a power filter is working or not) and an engineer from the supplier (Bao’s hero, rather than Bao himself) assured himself that our isolated grounds (orange plugs) had been correctly installed and cautioned me about the dangers of lightning strikes.

A month later it was Christmas. After the festive season my wife and I had planned a week in Ixtapa and I had resolved to unplug the system completely in our absence. Two hours before we were to leave for the airport a car knocked a transformer off a telephone pole in town and the power went dead. Ever alert, I switched off the CPU, the lineprinter, the modem and the tape backup. Unfortunately for me, I forgot to turn off the terminals and when power was restored an hour later, the surge of restoration took both terminals with it.

On our return from Ixtapa I paid $1,000 to repair the damaged terminals and I also engaged the services of the same industrial electrician, from Kitchener, who had fixed my firey Heidelberg problem. The electrician checked out the wiring of my isolated grounds (orange plugs) and re-wired my Sola transformer which had (apparently) been incorrectly installed by the local electrician and sent me a bill for $500.00.

Three months later it was spring.

Sometimes in the spring it rains, and one night there were radio reports of severe thunderstorms in the area. I could, I suppose, have simply turned off the CPU, but I am a cautious sort — I not only turned off the CPU, the tape backup, the modem, the lineprinter and both terminals, I also unplugged each one from its seperate power filter, turned all of those off and unplugged them too. In the morning after the rain had stopped I reassembled my dormant system — plugging in the filters, the lineprinter, the terminal and the rest of the stuff — hit the ON button on the CPU and it exploded with a loud BANG. That was Good Friday.

On Easter Monday I phoned the hardware supplier.

Bao was no longer in the employ of the firm, but the firm had access to a new gadget called a DRANETZ power tester — half of which could be brought to Erin and the results monitored at the manufacturer’s plant near Boston.

The upshot of my first Dranetz power test was that the manufacturer insisted my power was so bad he couldn’t read how bad it was, my Tycor power filters were useless and my Sola transformer was the right brand but the wrong model. The suggestion was that my hardware supplier was unhappy rebuilding my system every 3 months or so and that I should pitch my transformer and Tycor filters (we’re talking a couple of thousand dollars) and buy a different model of Sola transformer.

I balked.

I phoned Tycor and informed them that their products were being slandered and they sent an engineer with a box of Crayola coloured crayons who drew a schematic diagram of the wiring in the shop which showed that the ‘isolated’ ground was isolated only back to the fusepanel at which point it connected to the house plumbing — which effectively defeats the purpose of isolated ground.

The solution, THAT solution, was not to pitch the Sola or the Tycors, but to re-wire the fuse panel and install an eight foot long steel groundrod sunk into the pressroom floor.

Even there, we had our troubles — I didn’t want a piece of steel left sticking out of the pressroom floor, so we decided to drive it close to a wall in the furnace room. We drilled through the concrete floor OK, but hit a large piece of the Laurentian Shield one foot further down. We could hardly pull the rod back up, so we kept going, slowly, but it was at that point we realized that the wall in the furnace room is stone and we were driving three inches from it, and our knuckles were getting bloody.

Eight feet, and many hours, deeper, our knuckles were extremely bloody, the top of the ground rod was mashed to a blob and we discovered that the electrical connector we had forgotten to mount on the rod earlier, now wouldn’t fit over the mashed steel blob, so we had to file it.

This story continues.

It does not get better.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.