by Robert Brand
In February 1969, OTC’s automatic message relay system became operational at the Paddington terminal. I was sent there for Field Training in 1971 so it was a very new venture and the first to compete in a global competitive environment. I published this photo on Facebook years ago and got a lot of responses. The comments form part of this story.
As a Trainee, I got to have a play with the offline system – there were two – the production system and the standby system. They sat side by side. They were switching messages around the world, but I had access to the offline system and learned how to program in machine language. Kieth McCredden was in charge at the time.
It was on level 4 Paddington before the floors were renumbered later. The Message Relay Switching Centre (MRSC) shared the top floor with the air conditioning for the terminal. It used Fastran drum drives! More on them later. My programming was a bit “ordinary” on my first attempt at doing something useful and I nearly got it right – nearly. I added a wrong loop in the program. The high speed printer “form fed” reams of paper on the floor before we could stop it! Early computers must have been difficult before they had I/O stuff like high speed printers, but this beast could print a book in a few seconds.
Bob Emanuel said: “Ah yes, the Univac 418 computer, where every neon light you can see on the panel was also a bit in a register. Fascinating stuff, I cut my teeth in the international telco game on this machine. It was a FASTRAND Drum. 64 read/write heads, weighed over a ton and had, I think about 3 Mb storage. When they had to be replaced OTC searched high and low and found two in the deep south of the USA. They had to knock a huge hole in the west wall of OTC at Paddo to crane them in.”
Thanks Bob. I also remember a time when they took the goods lift out of service and added a massive winch at the top and slowly winch one up that way. It was a huge operation! Later, modern disc drives were added and the thing changed significantly before finally being retired.
Phil Lennon said: “I love this photo. My first field placement in OTC was in the MRSC at Paddo. The Univacs were pride of the fleet back then. I was there for the replacement of the drum storage drives with the DEC platter storage system. The 32 byte core memory was a marvel of embroidery art.”
Yes – tiny ferrite beads with tiny wires snaking through for read and write. They was one on the wall in a display like a 3D picture showing the ferrite matrix and wires. Ferrite is a type of ceramic compound composed of iron oxide (Fe 2 O 3) combined chemically with one or more additional metallic elements. It is easy to magnetise and keep its magnetic domains stable.
As Phil said, the original core was replaced in the early days with solid state units. One old unit was in a frame hanging on the wall. It was a work of art. The read and write wires threaded through a matrix of tiny ferrite beads that could be magnetised and read later. Identical to the current RAM in use by modern computers as far as the layout is concerned. A modern person would recognise the address matrix immediately, but instead of Gigabytes on a computer chip, it was 32 bytes on a board!. I wish I had one of those boards on my wall
If you look closely you will see a knob in the middle of the Univac 418 console – that is the speed control for debugging. You could wind the speed to a step every few seconds – yes a “step” You could even press a button to step the lady through her dance – all punch card programming of course. You can see the other desk on the right – As I said there was production and standby systems. It was switching a variety of “messaging” internationally. It was nice to work with such big toys. The standby was never a simple hot changeover. It had to be loaded if the other side failed, so always ready for early programming on the side.
The paper shot our horizontally from the printer because it had so much momentum unless you loaded the catcher. The drums were massively heavy and once spinning, the heads were lowered to near the surface. The speed of the spinning drum held the heads microns above the magnetic surface. Smoke would be a big problem. The big particles would wedge between the head and the drum and you would get a hit and damage the surface. Oh the joys of modern storage in comparison.
The following from an OTC Veterans publication explains why we ended up with these machines:
It was at this point that we would often become aware that the customer was installing a private line, not to London or New York, or where-ever his main overseas correspondent was, but to Hong Kong. The customer would use this line to transmit all his overseas telex traffic, not just to London or Hong Kong, but to everywhere. OTC had become the unwitting victim of the Cable and Wireless MSC (Message Switching Centre) in Hong Kong, a battery of Univac 418 mainframe computers, engineered to handle private telegraph networks, customised to the needs of each individual company. Such systems and services were being offered by many international carriers, at that time, but the C & W MSC had embarked upon a campaign to target Australian telex customers, probably because they knew that OTC did not have this capability.
It was apparent that OTC would continue to lose business this way, unless it had a computer-based message switching system to offer its customers, so that a network of private lines, connecting to every major office of any corporation around the world, could communicate, via the Sydney-based switch. This entailed selling the service, not just to our Australian customers, but to the corporations (usually multi-national) whose headquarters could be based anywhere in the world.
After OTC management were made aware of the competitive disadvantage that OTC was suffering, in this situation, it was decided to install a message switching centre for private line networks and it was to be called Interplex. At first the Interplex system comprised a number of small, stand-alone computer systems, allocated on a one-per-customer basis, but this arrangement proved too inflexible to meet all our customer needs, so an arrangement of General Automation (GA16/64) mini-computers, called “Mini-Plus” systems, was installed at Paddington, and these were capable of meeting a much wider range of customer requirements.
From that time on, the competition between OTC’s Interplex service and the C & W MSC was very keen. We won some very good accounts and we lost some important ones to our competitors. It was an area of OTC’s business which was truly engaged in competition for business with an aggressive alternative supplier, an unfamiliar scenario for many who had spent their entire careers employed in monopoly carrier situations.
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Other comments from non OTC staff from around the world:
Jack Crenshaw wrote: “In those days, computer time was expensive: $600 per hour. That’s in 1960 dollars, when a Coke cost a nickel, gasoline 25 cents per gallon, and that $600 would pay my salary for six weeks.”
As I recall, it (the runaway printer thing) was caused by a missing character in a Fortran print statement. You were supposed to start every string with a printer control character … 0 for console, 1. If you left out this character in the older printers, nothing much happened, it just did a line feed. But the newer printers had large torque motors to advance the page, and if the control character was missing, they would wind up like a Formula 1 engine, filling the computer room with paper.
David W Galea I used to work on a Univac at Telecom Australia (Telstra) in the early 1980. Damn memory storage cabinet needed repairs using octal.
Some recent Facebook comments since posting this story: