Tales from a Mainframe Mechanic

The Computer Guy Is Here! Mainframe Mechanic
© 2018 John Sak
201 pages

When John Sak began his training with IBM as a young college drop out, instructors informed his class that the only constant they could expect from their careers was change. Their jobs would probably not exist before they retired. Sak entered the field when mechanical tabulating machines with some electrical work were giving way to electronic computing units, and ‘continuing ed’ would be a staple of his career at IBM as computers, printers, and computer-driven devices continued to advance. By the time he retired, smaller desktop computers were supplanting the closet towers and basement behemoths. The mainframes Sak and company serviced, of course, were not simply larger and slower versions of PC towers. Although by the end of his career many devices accepted instructions via keyboards and the like , as a younger engineer instructions were fed into computers via stacks of punched IBM cards, with the patterns giving the machine different instructions. Refer to a disk drive today and most may think of a DVD tray, but the unit covered here is the size of a washing machine.

The book is a memoir rather than a personal history, but Sak’s stories cover the many various aspects of field engineers’ work and the IBM culture. Saks and his colleagues weren’t just repairmen, called out to replace or fix faulty mechanisms; they also analyzed new equipment in the field and compared notes to determine if there was a design flaw that could be corrected, or weaknesses which could be improved. This memoir of life as an IBM field engineer combines a few profiles of odd characters with accounts of diagnosing problems, along the way explaining how older room-sized devices operated. (One model, only discontinued in 2005, ran for just over 40 feet and was devoted to letter-sorting.)

Computing has had an amazing history so far, and I greatly appreciated Sak’s account of its boom years — forgiving the primitive cover.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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12 Responses to Tales from a Mainframe Mechanic

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    i remember back to the early fifties, and the “progress” has been astounding… i'm sort of glad i'm not going to be around for the upcoming “improvements”…

  2. CyberKitten says:

    Watching technology advance is amazing. It's so fast that you can virtually see it changing before your eyes without the need for time-lapse camera work….

  3. Stephen says:

    You don't want your eyes replaced with GoogleBalls?

  4. Stephen says:

    Indeed! Google and Microsoft just held big tech reviews and things are getting interesting — more cross-OS integration, for instance. I used to think voice recognition and talking computers were painfully bad, but sometimes when I need to send someone a complete sentence on my phone, I use the mic instead of thumb-typing. The main limitation there is having to add or type in question marks and punctuation, but I wouldn't be surprised if voice recognition could interpret inflection and start adding exclamation points and question marks as needed, within five years.

  5. Stephen says:

    GoogeleyEyes would have been a much better though for that joke..

  6. CyberKitten says:

    Instant translation isn't that far away. Imagine a world with Universal Translators [lol]

  7. Stephen says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Stephen says:

    We're working on it — the library where I work sees regular immigrant patronage, typically Bangladeshis. (Pakistanis are a close second.) Usually we can communicate with rudimentary English, but a few times we've had someone come in whose English was so poor we used Google Translate to find out what they needed and help them.

  9. Mudpuddle says:

    that's fascinating! what are they like? i'm curious, is all..

  10. Elle says:

    Lmao GoogeleyEyes xD

  11. Stephen says:

    The Bangladeshis? All very polite and appreciative. All of the ones I've met own small shops like tobacco stores, and usually they come in looking for help in finding forms for business and tax purposes. That or naturalization forms — a few left their families behind and are trying to bring them over now that they've established themselves. We have other middle-eastern and Asian immigrants, too, but unless I've scanned/faxed/copied their passport for them I don't know where they're from. At first I was surprised that we had so many immigrants in a fairly poor city hundreds of miles from a coast but I've since realized they're all self-employed in their family shops. I think they're attracted to this county because of the cheap real estate.

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