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Bob Kerns – Stories

Working at Symbolics was a unique experience. One of the best parts were the interactions with intelligent and creative people, most of whom had wild senses of humor.

Disclaimer: These stories are as told by the people who lived them. I’m not responsible for the telling, but I do believe them all to be true. It is important to remember, however, that the events told here happened a long time ago. Not all bad things that certain individuals may have tried to do were ever adopted as policy by the company: most people in Symbolics were committed to a high level of quality and honesty.

Some of these tales will seem to pit developers against “business types”, especially marketing. The history of Symbolics’ marketing departments is long and troubled. Symbolics had some bad people in marketing, and it had some good people in marketing. Even the best marketing people we had found it a difficult, frustrating, and often impossible task.

I periodically worked alongside people in Marketing, Sales, Service, Legal, and just about everywhere else. The most common theme was that we were committed to doing things the best way we could.

Symbolics still exists as a company. It is certainly very different now, and even the most negative tales can have little relevance to the company that exists now. I’m sure we all wish those who remain at Symbolics success.

Symbolics lived and breathed email before most people had ever heard of it, so most of this occurred on the mail system. Thus, most of these stories take the form of old email messages that people had saved away.

Bob Kerns
Introduction written in 1995, 1996


Dave Dyer talks about the time he walked into someone’s booby-trap and blew up $20K of equipment

Date: Wednesday, 23 November 1983, 14:55-EST
From: Marc Le Brun
Subject: ex-Jedi boots relay computer
To: fun at SPA-NIMBUS

At SPA there is a defunct intercom system. It is relay switched. The prints are in German, labeled “Return to Accounting Dept”. I kept it when we moved in because, well, who knows. They suggested I pay $5000 for it. I countered with and offer of $1. They accepted, but have never tried to collect.

Yesterday I was showing it to the Facilities folks from Chatsworth (it’s in a random closet). Several people simultaneously poked it (it’s still powered and gives good “kachunk”). Somehow it went into a state where it looped in some futile sequence of rhythmical relay transitions. Something came up (a phone call no doubt) and it got left that way.

Several hours later Eric couldn’t stand it any longer and we went to try to shut it down. We poked more relays, and were rewarded with even noisier temporary states. We found ways to partially dismantle it, including pulling the noisy subassemblies halfway out of the frame, but to no avail. Eric found that by forcibly closing one relay it would shut up for about twenty seconds, but then it would come back to life. We couldn’t find any switch, and it was too heavy to move to get to any cables behind it. Even if did manage to budge it, it would likely have toppled over on us, or dislodged the mysterious ancient hi-fi tuners hiding waiting to pounce on us from the dimness of the shelf above. The power circuitry in the bottom looked too scary to mess with, what with the spiderwebs and all. We were stumped, as it mindlessly clicked away at us.

Summoning up the Force, Eric kicked it. There was a shower of copper blue sparks (just like in the movies) and it shut off! (I can see that the FPA should give him no trouble at all.) Booting has taken on an entirely new dimension here at SPA.


Date: Tuesday, 14 February 1984, 11:56-EST
From: lang at SCRC-VIXEN
Sender: rom at SCRC-VIXEN
Subject: I AM PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE …
To: dess at SCRC-VIXEN

PRAISEWORTHY PROMOTION PERKS PRODUCTION

I AM PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THAT BLOB MATHEWS HAS BEEN PROMOTED FROM APPRENTICE DRUDGE TO ASSISTANT DRUDGE. SINCE COMING ABOARD A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, BLOB HAS BEEN UNSTINTING IN HIS DEVOTION TO DRUDGERY. HIS WORK MIGHT NOT BE FLASHY, BUT IT HAS BEEN INVALUABLE IN POSITIONING SYMBOLICS AT THE HIGH END OF THE DRUDGERY MARKET. BLOB’S NEW TITLE WILL ALLOW HIM TO DEVOTE EVEN MORE HOURS OF UNEXCITING TOIL TO THE TASK OF PUTTING XEROX TO SLEEP AND KEEPING SYMBOLICS ATOP THE EIGHT-BALL!

BLOB COMES TO US WITH EXTENSIVE EXPERIENCE IN DRUDGERY. HIS LATEST POSITION WAS WITH DRUDGERY GENERAL, WHERE HE EARNED THE COVETED “OLD IRONBUTT” AWARD FOR REPETITIVE, MINDLESS PERFORMANCE. HE LIVES IN LOVELY JAMAICA PLAIN WITH HIS WIFE HEIDI, HIS CAT SOUTHPAW, AND HIS FISH OLIVE OYL. THOUGH TOO MODEST TO ADMIT IT, BLOB IS A WORLD-CLASS SLEEPER AND PLAYS A MEAN GAME OF TIDDLY-WINKS. PLEASE JOIN ME IN CONGRATULATING BLOB AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.

ON THE SUBJECT OF DRUDGERY, I AM PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE TOP THREE MEMBERS OF THE DEPARTMENT TO EXCEED THEIR QUOTAS OF DRUDGE WORK WILL RECEIVE AN ALL-EXPENSES-PAID WEEKEND AT THE SOMERVILLE HOLIDAY INN, SITE OF THE 1984 SUMMER WRITERS’ MEETING. YOU’LL ENJOY DINING BY HALOGEN LIGHT AT THE POSH BURGER KING ON SOMERVILLE AVENUE. OR DRINK IN THE EXCITEMENT OF THE FABULOUS DONKEY KONG GAME AT THE ERIN PUB IN SCENIC UNION SQUARE. YOU’LL NEED A PLACE TO DROP THOSE BONUS QUARTERS THAT WILL SOON APPEAR IN YOUR PAYCHECKS! (C’MON, WRITERS!) THE MAINT PEOPLE ARE WAY AHEAD OF YOU IN DRUDGERY!)

REMEMBER … BE A BORE IN ’84!

KEEP ILENE FAT!!!

That last, for the context impaired, is a reference to a slogan from an infamous sales meeting, where salespeople were urged to keep their sales manager happy: ‘Keep Jack Fat’.


DESS was the department with documentation, education services, and support. I’m not sure if Ilene, Bob, or perhaps JO actually wrote this.

Date: Monday, 11 June 1984, 19:13-EDT
From: Robert A. Cassels – Cassels at SCRC-STONY-BROOK
Subject: Release 6….
To: TK at MIT-MC, fun at SCRC-STONY-BROOK

Date: 11 June 1984 17:29-EDT
From: Tom Knight

Date: Fri, 8 Jun 1984 10:50 EDT
From: Jerry Roylance >
To: Rumors%
Subject: Symbolics Key Changes

A second set of key top changes is coming from Symbolics. The first set swapped the FUNCTION and LOCAL keys and moved some other keys around. The second set of key tops moves the RETURN key and adds the VIEWF key.

Instructions:

Bend a paper clip into the same shape you used before.

Pull the LINE key out and replace it with the new RETURN key. (Note change in size.)

Pull the RETURN key and replace it with the VIEWF key.

These changes move the RETURN key another 3cm to the right. While this is a little awkward, Symbolics believes that the importance of the VIEWF key outweighs the convenience of the RETURN key.

Functionality of the VIEWF key:

The VIEWF key flashes the screen several times and prints the file sys:site;notice.text. In future releases the console speaker will play the copywrite notice and follow it with the Symbolics anthem.

I guess we’re being a little too blatant. How about working on a subliminal message-flasher for the screen. And for the audio system, find someone with a barely audible but irresistible voice to whispers messages while the user types. The speech could be synced with keystrokes so the message couldn’t be consciously heard. [For machines at Symbolics, the voice could say, “Drink water, it’s better for you and better for the company.”]

ON MIT RELEASES ONLY:
Control-VIEWF views the file OZ:PS:MAIL.TXT.
Control-Meta-VIEWF prompts for a username, reads the user’s mail, archives its contents on XX, and then deletes users copy.


Marketing

SGR or one of the other Joshua people may remember the exact quote, but I recall being in a Joshua marketing meeting with a certain Marketing person, and hearing her say something like, “This is business — just lie.”

Bob Cassels


Allan Weschler has contributed several memories of the early days.

Bath Time

Working at home on a fabulous GUI for Genera (called Jinn), I started to run a bath. The phone rang and quite distracted me. My eye was then caught by a compiler error and after a long hack and some coffee, I noticed a peculiar background sound in the house.

As I approached the study where my Symbolics machines were running, a continuous spray of water was emerging through the doorway. The bath had run over, flooded the upstairs floor, burst through the plaster cieling and was cascading over and into the main 3650 and 3620 servers which were running. The 3620 was spraying water out of its rear fans.

I threw the main power breakers. Buckets and sponges were in order. The flood had lasted about an hour, the carpets were under an inch of water. I dismantled both machines, hung up their entire board sets which looked odd glistening after their wash and scrub up. Wheeled the boxes out into the sun.

Some time later, I reassembled the machines – perhaps they’d be useful for spares. Just to drive the last moisture out, I fired them up. They worked! Neither machine gave any problems ever since, I still have the 3620 running.

Peter Paine


T306 Tales

The first machine we had in the STX (Houston regional) office was an LM-2 with a T306 disk drive (you know, one of those big removables that ran on 220 volts). Before that, we had only a couple of TI silent 700s to read our mail with (over 300 baud lines).

Well, when the delivery truck brought the machine, a couple of people in the office happened to be idly watching out the window. Although the truck had a lift gate, somehow the delivery guys managed to drop the T306 about 4 feet onto the pavement! They tried to give it to us anyway without mentioning the incident, but we told them we’d seen what happened, and that their insurance would have to cover the damage.

Another fun time that was had with a T306 was the time we set up in a Dallas hotel for a demo to Vought Aerospace. The power specs for an LM-2 with T306 had been sent ahead of time, but the power hookup was not ready when we arrived to give the demo. While a salesman talked to the crowd (it was a big group), the electrician worked in the demo room to get the power ready. When it was ready, we plugged in and powered up, but the disk wouldn’t act right. It turned out that in setting up the 220 for the disk drive, the electrician had wired half of it to the same circuit the CPU was using! The result was a set of fried disk controller cards, and no demo. Vought bought some machines anyway.

William D. Gooch


3600s Come to Austin

The University of Texas at Austin was one of the early 3600 customers. When their first two 3600s arrived, one of them had clearly been damaged in shipping. The top side panels on *both* sides were bent inward, and the Fujitsu Eagle disk drive had broken completely free from its mounts and was just sitting in the bottom of the machine. However, once the disk mounts were replaced, the machine fired up and worked fine, with the exception of a funny noise from the fan which could never quite be eliminated.

The first 3600 arrived at the Austin SMBX office in a moving van without a liftgate. While the delivery men were getting it off the truck via a long ramp out the side door onto the front patio of our office building, somehow the machine got away from them and was rolling free down the ramp! This was quite a sight – a big new several hundred pound machine rolling down this narrow ramp, with burly guys alongside trying to get a grip on it and stop it. They didn’t get it stopped until it was off the ramp, but somehow it didn’t fall over. Worked fine.

William D. Gooch


War Stories

Bill Gooch’s story of the dropped machine reminded me of a similar thing that happened in New England. I don’t remember the company but Lou Fineli sold them a 3600/3670 and the customer decided they’d save a buck and truck it up from the airport themselves when it came in. Somehow when they were unloading it it fell off the truck ramp and skewed the entire rack several inches. Lou was happy because one sale netted him two commissions, one from the customer and one from the insurance company.

There was a show where I ran a demo suite and the sales guy asked me to set up a specific demo for a pet customer. I got it all set and he called housekeeping to vacuum and went to get the customer. Housekeeping came in, unplugged the running machine and plugged in her vacuum. I sat there slack jawwed and then suggested the sales guy take the customer for drinks, because I sure needed one.

Another conference was in Sioux Falls in a Howard Johnson’s (the only facility in the area) and we got in late evening and spent until 2am getting the machines set up and working. Headed to bed and got back to the booth at 7:30 to find that the machines wouldn’t boot. Turns out they had tapped into the dishwasher power to get us our power and the Fujitsu disk drive wouldn’t spin up to speed because we were only seeing 70vac under load while the breakfast dishes were being done and the disk never came ready.

Jim Reith, Submitted on April 11, 2002


Contributors

Bob Cassels and David Goldfarb contributed old mail.
The authors of the mail are credited with the actual mail.

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