Amdahl : Business in the Front, Party in the Back

A few years ago I purchased a strange piece of computing history on eBay. Some guy in Canada was selling what he described as a “model” of an Amdahl processor. He did not include a picture with his listing, and because of that I was able to snap it up for about 30 wing-wangs.

When the package arrived, it turned out to be a real 42 (!) processor board from an old Amdahl mainframe that was “presented to T. Eaton Company for its purchase of Amdahl 5995-3550M processor in June 1992” as the plaque said. T. Eaton Company no longer exists, it was swallowed by Sears. Neither does Amdahl – it is a part of Fujitsu now.

The little cooling towers made it possible to air cool the chips.

The back of the board was very strange though. All the wiring seemed to be done “point-to-point” by hand. Overall, thinking about how many work-hours went into designing and making that board made me shudder.

[update] Thanks to the Boing Boing liks this seems to have become the second popular post on my site – first one being the Revelation post which gained popularity thanks to being the only google result for “omnioum finis imminet” for a while. I’ve got some great information from former Amdahl employees:

Tom: “
The item is an MCC (multi-chip carrier) from an Amdahl V8, V7 or V6. Many were plugged into either side of a large frame which connected the MCCs to each other and to power, the console, memory, and the IO cables.

The finned gizmos are cooling towers glued to the top of the individual chips. A plastic cover directed cool air over the towers and fans exhausted it out the top of the frame
hese were used in the 470 series computers. The follow on computer, the 580 used much larger boards about the size of a pizza box. They were inserted into a plenum (which became known as the pizza oven) with ZIF connectors on the side. They had black instead of gold cooling towers with more fins.

The board is circa 1980. The back wiring was done in Japan because they couldn’t find enough people in the US who could do it well. I believe the chips were laser bonded on the front with the hand wiring on the back. Note that the circut boards were multi-layer and the back wiring was only used where they couldn’t get enough paths from the circut boards and for engineering changes after production.

NoOneAtAll : “Amdahl used to give out dead hardware and out-of-date engineering samples to their sales guys made into lots of different things. I’ve seen coasters made out of unusable processors, an Amdahl sales binder made from a set of bad carrier boards, a couple of plaques like this one made from DOA MCC modules, pen holders made out of ribbon cable, etc.

An IBM reseller I worked at spent Amdahl’s entire corporate lifetime telling them no. By the time the sales guy gave up, pretty much everyone at the company had been hit up by the guy as a possible lead, and pound for pound there was more dead Amdahl hardware repackaged as kitsch on the desks in sales than we had actually moved in Amdahl equipment. “

[update] Two similar processors just came up on eBay. The picture quality is ghastly, but they seem like a bigger version of the one that I have, with even more complicated back wiring.

P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at the rest of my blog, or if you are interested in Amdahl, at the rest of my Amdahl-related posts.

iPhoto Retro or John Sculley’s Gift To The World of Photography

I collect 20th century technology antiques. They are not expensive and don’t take up much space – perfect for my cubicle museum.

My shelf at work houses a small, but growing collection of monstrous early cellphones. There are a couple of gigantic vacuum tubes (some from an early Univac), a core memory plane, a multiprocessor unit from an Amdahl mainframe, a weird hardwired logic unit from a forgotten computing machine. My latest purchase is rather interesting – the first consumer digital camera.

A $700 piece of equipment in 1994 Apple Quicktake 100 cameras sell for just a few bucks on eBay. I first saw one mentioned in this outstanding livejournal post. This guy’s camera still had some images in it which provided a weird time tunnel into some office party in 1994. I guess the people in the photos were celebrating extravagant Mac purchases.

I bought two cameras on eBay for just a few bucks each, and one came with a cable and a floppy with PC software. Not even hoping that it’d work I plugged in the serial cable, installed the software on my Win 2000 machine, turned on the camera and ran the program. It worked the first time.

Here are the two Apple QuickTake 100’s that I purchased. I bought two so I could take stereo images and view them on my 100 year old stereoscope. In a couple of years I think I’ll be able to buy a couple of iPod photo thingies for a few bucks and do what this guy did.

Times Square at night in full .3 megapixel power (compressed to 500 width).

Times Square at night with lower resolution option turned on

Snow storm in Brooklyn

Considering how difficult lighting conditions were the results are respectable. Usability wise these cameras are lacking. Even though they look like those binoculars from Star Wars movies, they have a very nasty lens cover that is very hard to open without leaving a nice fingerprint on the lens. Taking portrait orientated pictures is rather hard.

So here I am, paying tribute to one of the last Apple products of John Sculley’s era at Apple (note how Apple CEOs are arranged in a timeline at Wikipedia – just like kings). I wonder if Steve Jobs will ever consider making an Apple digital camera. So far the fate of Apple Newton shows that to Jobs anything ever touched by Sculley is taboo.

FUD You

A common IT worker in computer related conversation spews more acronyms than a Soviet Commissar, but chances are he or she won’t be able to decipher half of them. Managers often don’t even know the meaning of the concepts that the acronyms represent.

Some acronyms are meaningless by design and recursive to boot. GNU? GNU’s Not Unix!

Others seem like acronyms, but aren’t. I always thought that TWAIN stood for “Technology Without An Interesting Name”, but it turns out it originates from “The Ballad of East and West” – “and never the twain shall meet”. Sometimes when I try to reinstall my scanner for the hundred’s time it seems to be very appropriate.

Some apparently stood for something at some point in time, but then lost their meaning. People understood COM to stand for “Common Object Model”, then “Component Object Model” and now it stands for that old difficult technology that only Don Box used to completely understand. You need to use .NET instead, which is an acronym looking non-acronym which stands for whatever Microsoft wants it to stand for. Now Expect Trouble. Never Edit Text. Next Exciting Technology. What is the dot for? Come on, every developer knows that dots make your code more powerful.

An acronym that is often used in conversations about Microsoft is “FUD”. It always made me think of Elmer Fudd (because people using it often sounded like him), but it’s actually a term coined by a computing pioneer, Dr. Gene Amdahl.

It stands for “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” – tactics that IBM salesmen used against Dr. Amdahl’s company. Amdahl made mainframes that were fully compatible with IBM’s, but cheaper and faster. It’s easy to use FUD on managers that were in charge of purchasing those multimillion dollar big irons. “Nobody was ever fired for going with IBM”, right?

The sheer existence of Amdahl was a huge boon to mainframe purchasing customers. The rumor was that if you placed an Amdahl mug on your table, IBM salespeople were gonna give you million dollar discounts.

Let me present an artifact from my collection: the famous “Million Dollar Mug”:

Embed With Microsoft

An auction for a special Microsoft shirt:
“The MICROSOFT� WINDOWS� EMBEDDED signature NAME and LOGO”

This reminded me of a t-shirt I’ve seen somewhere that said: “Embed me, link me, treat me like an object”.

Logo apparel is an amazingly effective propaganda tool. My favorite Microsoft shirt says “MS Commerce Server 2000 Surf Naked”. I still wear it even though it’s 3 years old.

I really want to get “Apple T-Shirts: A Yearbook of History at Apple Computer”, but it’s apparently rare and expensive at $180. Dang.

Some pretty cool shirts at http://geekt.org/:
Heh heh, so Outlook’s original code name was Ren. I am still working on that database of Microsoft codenames. Stay tuned.

I think Dave Cutler gave out Zero Bugs shirts also, but Netscape’s shirt is more famous.

How I wish there was a source for logo polo shirts from cool companies. I could go for some Amdahl, Cray, Microsoft, Apple, Xerox PARC shirts.

The Legend Of How Much Crap Michael Can Buy on Ebay

Pull this cool emergency shutoff button from an Amdahl mainframe that I’ve got on Ebay. Come on, pull it.

I think I’ll replace the power button on my computer with it.

Some time ago I purchased a book about Amdahl, called The Legend of Amdahl. Turned out that the book is one in a series of books by Jeffrey L. RodengenJeffrey L. Rodengen. It looks like the dude was given access to many a company archive, but the prose is pretty much dry and many important (mostly negative ) things are omitted. I can’t say it better than this reviewer at Amazon: “.. the author gives a lifeless, through-the-gauze-lens account that reads like a compilation of Amdahl PR releases and internal newsletters.” Indeed most pages read like press releases.

In any case, it looks like that was the only book ever written about Amdahl. And there are some pretty cool photos in the book. And some interesting moments can be found.

There is an interesting anecdote about Gene Amdahl in the book. One of the first Amdahl mainframes was delivered to some Texas university. When it was installed, the college officials were horrified. You see, the official color of Amdahl, maroon, is also the official color of that college’s bitter rival, Texas A&M. Instead of repainting Gene suggested a more cost effective solution – adding a sign that would say “Property of Texas A&M” or “Stolen From Texas A&M”. The officials instead sent the panels to a nearby car dealership to be repainted. But it looks like Mr. Amdahl has taken a part in a college prank or two in his day :)

I’ve also got “The Spirit of Amd: The Legend of Advanced Micro Devices “, “The Legend of Ingersoll-Rand ” and “The Microage Way”. I think that I will collect all the books in the series at some point. “Legend of Halliburton” and “The History of American Standard” are next.

Stroking the Genius

Right now am pretty much obsessed with books about rise and fall of tech companies.

These are the most memorable books I’ve read this past year:
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age
Show-Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows Nt and the Next Generation at Microsoft
The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: Inside Oracle Corporation: God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison
High Stakes, No Prisoners : A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars
The Soul of a New Machine
The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer

Awesome, awesome stuff. I should find time to write some reviews.

I purchased all of these books used (except “Soul of a New Machine” which I just _had_ to have at the time). Some were cheap, others surprisingly expensive. For instance my copy of “Hackers” set me back $30 or $40 because it was out of print at the time. A new edition came out very soon thereafter. Interestingly enough the same thing happened with “Alan Turing: The Enigma“. “The Supermen” was the most expensive at $50. I am still hunting for acceptably priced “The Legend of Amdahl“.

I just finished reading “Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton“. It was very good.

Right now I am reading “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed“, which is orgasmically [spellchecker suggested “orgasmic ally” heh heh] good.

I really want to buy one of those highlighter scanners made by C-Pen so that I can keep notes for my livejournal as I read.

C-Pen’s slogan is “Stroke of Genius”. Beavis and Butthead would have a field day with them :)

Brooklyn College Library

Visited Brooklyn College yesterday to take a look at the newly reopened library.

Well, they’ve spent countless millions, and now the insides look like a typical yuppie apartment. Various designer chairs (mostly Aerons and some other expensive looking wooden ones) , desks. The circulation desk looks like a reception desk in a Fortune 100 company. Tons of tables with ethernet hookups. Some crappy Dells with 15 inch flat panel monitors running Win XP are available in “labs”. Lots of air conditioning ducts and eyes-in-the-sky.

Could not find any of the books that I wanted in the horrible mainframe search app (you telnet into it from the workstations). I was looking for some Lee Friedlander photography books , “The Legend of Amdahl”, some real estate books, some books about NYPD. Nada. Oh well, there is abebooks.com and amazon.com. And I have Aerons and fast network connection at home.

I thing that royally pisses me of is that they are using crappy bright fluorescent lamps. I hate those. At work I unhooked one that is right above my cube because it was driving me nuts. Yeah, spend millions on chairs and desks and install lamps that give everyone headaches.

The La Guardia reading room is gorgeous. There were some very nice black and white photos on the walls, a mildly interesting exposition of historical documents and photographs.

If I actually found any good books and did not get a headache from the lamps it would have been a great experience.