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June 25, 2015

Throwback: The Days of the $5,000 Terminal

By Dave Wiseman

Most of you will know me as the idiot who was dragging about the alligator at the Orlando 1988 Interex conference, or maybe as the guy behind Millware. But actually I am a long-time HP 3000 user – one of the first three in the south of England.

WisemanGatorI was just 27 when I started with an HP 3000. I had been in IT since 1967. One day I was approached by Commercial Union Assurance (a Big Blue shop) to set up an internal Time Sharing system. My brief was to set up "a better service than our users have today," a Geisco MK III and and a IBM Call 360. In those days, the opportunity to set up a "green fields site" from scratch was irresistible to a young, ambitious IT professional.

2645A TerminalI investigated 30 different computers on around 80 criteria and the HP 3000 scored best. In fact, IBM offered the System 38 or the Series 1, neither of which met our needs well. IBM scored better in one category only – they had better manuals. I called the HP salesman and asked him in. What HP never knew is that if the project went well, there was a possibility that they would get on the shortlist for our branch scheme – a machine in every UK branch office. That would be 45 machines, when the entire UK installed base of HP 3000s was around 10 at the time. 

IBM tried everything, including the new E Series which had not been publicly announced at the time. It was to be announced as the 4331 and you only — yes only — needed 3 or 4 systems programmers. I asked about delivery time compared to HP's 12-14 weeks for the 3000. I was told that IBM would put me in a lottery, and if our name came up, then we would get a machine.

So HP's salesman came in. I said I wanted to buy an HP 3000, to which he replied, "Well I'm not sure about that, as we've never done your application before. Why don't you buy a terminal and an acoustic coupler first, and make sure that your application works"

"Okay" I said, "where do I buy a coupler from?"

"No idea," he replied, "but the 2645A terminal is $5,000."

So I bought that 2645A (from our monthly hardware budget of around $1.5 million) and started dialing into a 3000 at the Winnersh office. On occasion, when I needed answers, I would drive over there and work on their machines. One durability test was to unscrew the feet on the disc drive and push it until the disc drive bounced onto its HP-IB cable. On more than one occasion the cable came out and you could just plug it back in and carry in working. If you tried that with an IBM you could expect two days of work to get it restarted.

I went to the first European Users Group meeting at the London School of Economics in 1978 and listened intently to all of the presentations, especially when HP management took the stage. They got a hammering because the performance of KSAM was not as good as several people had expected. After having dealt with IBM, I came back with the view that if that is the worst thing that they had to complain about, I was having a piece of this action. At the back of the hall there were two piles of duplicated paper – one yellow and one white. These were advertising Martin Gorfinkel's products LARC and Scribe, which amounted to the first vendor show.

After those tests and the investigation, we bought a Series III with 2MB of memory, two 120Mb 7925 drives, an 7970E tape drive, and a 2635A console. We purchased the 3000 during a unique three-month window when SPL, IMAGE and KSAM were included. Additional software included BASIC, a Basic compiler and APL. The machine arrived on time and was located in the network control area of the suburban London datacentre — the HP 3000 was not important enough to despoil the gleaming rows of Big Blue hardware.

We had users in six different buildings around the country. We had an eclectic mix of 2645A, 2641A, 2647A and later 2640 terminals. As we grew, we added 2621, 2622, 2623, 2624 and 2626 terminals. We also connected Radio Shack TRS 80 machines and IBM XT PCs. What we wouldn't have given for PC2622 emulation then. (That's WRQ Reflection, for you newbies.) We needed a number of printers to print out Life Assurance Quotations, and HP only sold a 30 character per second daisy wheel, which was three times the price of a third-party printer. HP's view was very simple – they would not provide hardware support for the CPU if we bought third-party printers. I called their bluff and bought the printers elsewhere.

At first, I connected all of the terminals at 2400 baud as the original systems (IBM Call/360 and Geisco) only had 1200 baud dial-up, so 2400 was very fast for our users. As usage grew, I could turn the speed up to 9600 to give the users an apparent performance boost at no cost.

Performance was always an issue. The IBM guys couldn't understand how we could run so many users on such a small box, but we were always looking for improved performance, as we had the largest HP 3000 around already. There were no tools available in those days, so we used tricks like putting a saucer of milk on each disc to see which one curdled first from the heat. (Not really, but we did spend a long time just standing there touching the drives lightly to see.) We did a full system unload and reload every three months, and unloaded and reloaded most databases at the same time.

I was laid off in a downsizing exercise in 1983 and went into software and system sales. The company intended that the HP 3000 would be replaced by the IBM. But at least five years later, they were still using the MPE machine.

04:23 PM in History, User Reports | Permalink

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