Hello Dolly!

Back in the 1970s, when mainframes were a few minutes walk away, and turnaround times of less than a day were a privilege, some of us at Risley Labs rented a remote terminal link to a system known as Honeywell-GEIS. Armed only with a roll of teletype paper and a reel of paper tape, most of us could manage a minor job in less than an afternoon. Besides, the punched tape took up less office space than punched cards. One Christmas eve we logged in and found we had a free day, and all sorts of "goodies" to play with. Like Hangman, and noughts and crosses (Tic Tac Toe). Or, twenty minutes later, we could collect a paper wall hanging that to those in the office across the street, looked suspiciously like a young lady. Somebody had the presence of mind during the printing to switch the paper tape punch on, so in no time the guys across the street had a copy too, so we could see what she looked like! Pictures made up of teletype characters were a passing fad at the time, but "Dolly" as we christened her, stayed with us. In due course, we all had Digital PDPs, and did our own thing. But the teletype/modem room remained, because we needed something lighter to take into Europe on our collaborative work. The incredible Intel 8008 had arrived to control our data analysis gear! And we needed a satellite link to Chicago to compile our own code. Eventually we got our own compiler on paper tape, it took 45 minutes to load, and if there was an error the whole load time was wasted. My first job with the new compiler was to produce an error tolerant version that loaded in ten minutes. When the 8080s arrived, we had our own cross-compilers already running on the PDP11s, which by now had taken Dolly to their silicon hearts. Gone were the paper tape systems, for now floppy discs and magnetic data cartridges ruled, EPROMS carried the systems and core memories held the data. Yes, in those brave new days we had to put up with boot-up times of several milliseconds, and energy saving meant switching off the computer, knowing there would be no data loss. However Dolly did not like the new systems, for the flashy VDUs could not present her properly, nor could the fast line printers, which made her look overfed.

At Risley, we specialised in ultrasonic imaging in difficult places, like the molten sodium of a Nuclear Fast Reactor. We were the first in our neck of the woods to insist on colour displays, and Dolly was willing to be converted to the RAMTEK environment to help promote our prowess. We also required colour printing for all our reports. On two occasions, we got the front cover of a scientific journal, because that was the only colour plate used. And that put us in demand for demonstrations. And Dolly came with us. She appeared as both blond and brunette (always as twins), was always properly swim-suited for the schools trips, and also entertained through a sort of animation. When we went on out-station duty it was always Dolly, in her various guises, who ensured the cooperation of the local staff. A major experiment was nearly cancelled, but was saved because Dolly had endeared herself to the services department, who readily worked overtime. On another memorable occasion she even appeared at the Royal Society, and was also shown at Westminster (the seat of the UK government).


Of course, her career couldn't go on forever. Dolly became a regular visitor to the terminals on our Local Area Network, and so, when this was linked to the site Ethernet, she made her first appearance on the desk-top PCs. But by this time fancy imaging programmes had come into use, and so had scanners, and Dolly decided to retire because she was no longer interesting. What took hours to do, could now be done in minutes with more promising material. Dolly went into the archives, covering herself with the anonymity of a plain ASCII file. When I retired, I took a copy of the archives for free-lance use. And it was there, recently I found Dolly, as fresh as the day she first crept shyly into our lives at 110 baud. I am pleased to say she is willing to make a come-back, and looking forward to the world tour her new career promises.

Dolly brunetteDolly blondeIn one way, however, Dolly remains unique. She is a child of the teletype days, and no amount of re-representation can capture the charm of a metre of paper hanging on the wall. The original Dolly is still around. If you really must meet her, then down-load the file dolly.asc Remember, Dolly does not look her best on VDUs, her natural home is a printer. So treat her with a good word processor, and keep her figure with a modest non-proportional font such as Courier, and a meagre 4 points. Be BOLD and she will happily sit on an A4 sheet for you.

Good luck to you Dolly. If you are still there in the USA do get in touch. We will recognise you!