No silent night

Happy holidays to all!

Computerworld  |  Shark Tank
Computerworld / IDG

True tales of IT life are Sharky’s stock in trade, but the real people in them don’t normally get named. This tale, however, comes from a pilot fish who heard it as a lad from Bob Coveyou, a noted mathematician who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with fish’s father, and he’s worth mentioning because the tale involves what may well have been a computing first.

The tale is from the early 1950s, when Bob was one of several scientists who wrote programs for a unique computer at ORNL called ORACLE, or Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine. Like other
computers of that era, it had enough vacuum tubes to fill a room. It also had a couple dozen cathode-ray tubes for its memory. Each CRT could store 1,024 binary digits (bits) of electrostatic memory in the form of a 32-by-32 array of charged dots spaced a fraction of an inch apart on the tube’s flat face.

This type of memory was vulnerable to being electrically damaged if the same dot was rewritten with the same value (0 or 1) too frequently. Typically, this would happen if a program accidentally went into a tight loop. So the operators had to constantly listen to a loudspeaker that was connected to the computer’s circuits, ready to hit the kill switch if the varying tones suddenly turned into a high-pitched whine.

The scientists punched their programs as 1’s and 0’s on paper tape using a tape punch. Then they submitted their rolls of tape to the operators, who would put them in a rack of cubbyholes on the wall and label them with scheduled dates and times to be run.

Computer time was precious, so the operators were on duty through three shifts a day and ran programs around the clock, even on holidays. And there was always a backlog of several days’ worth of programs in the rack.

Before turning in one particular program, Bob paid close attention to the assigned dates and times of
programs already in the rack and waited until just the right moment to assure that his program would be the first to run on Dec. 25

The operators who were unable to get out of working on the Christmas holiday ran Bob’s program just after midnight, and instead of the usual beeps and boops, they heard the computer’s loudspeaker play a Christmas carol.

Says fish, “It was one of the earliest cases (if not the earliest case) of using a computer to generate music.”

And it made working on Christmas Day a little more bearable.

Don’t worry; Sharky will go back to not naming names. Send me your true tales of IT life at You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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