Lost & Found

I recently came across an old copy of our house magazine published in 1980 when I worked at the Risley Nuclear laboratories, which I had obviously kept because of my own contribution.

Whilst at the time I thought it might be a trifle politically incorrect, the editoress thought it fit to publish. Although today some might not approve of my then view of ladies from other countries, I give the text in full with apologies. It gives an interesting insight into the world of computing as it was decades ago.

The editoress did make one change, I was not allowed to name actual companies. Everybody but her knew that the PDP11 was made by the Digital Equipment Corp.; and that the British company Plessey acted as a second source for DEC; and also made innovative contributions to the hardware range. It was also cheaper.

It was also in 1980 that Clive Sinclair introduced the ZX80 home computer, followed rapidly by the ZX81 and the Spectrum. Soon, most homes in the UK had computers. Sinclair used chips that had been rejected by the big manufacturers, cunningly re-connected to utilise only the good parts. After that, came Alan Sugar's Amstrad computers, and many of us had one at home. Unfortunately, Sugar made the wrong choice of floppy disc, and my laboratory had facilities for reading and converting these discs into use at Risley on the PDP11 machines.



(First published January 1980, RNL bulletin, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.)

It is said that the attraction some cigars have for smokers is that they may have been rolled on some dusky maiden's thigh. Myself, I never gave it too much thought, I was too busy coughing (I had the cigarette smoker's habit of inhaling). None-the-less, one can understand the exotic/erotic symbolism of the thought. Come to think of it, didn't Carmen work in a cigarette factory? The tinted fingers that make some of the electronics that we use in the laboratory have nothing to do with nicotine stains, however. The reliance on the young females of remote countries, particularly in the far-east, reflects a trend that started some years ago.

The reasons are economic, but this does not mean that manufacturers have been going for cheap foreign labour. The American electronics industry has long had a policy of "second sourcing" the many different parts needed for a computer, say, to safeguard production schedules. Combine this with American policy for economic assistance to certain countries, and we can see why so many components manufacturers have factories spaced around the world. The move produced an unexpected bonus, however, in that the aforesaid young ladies tend to make far fewer errors than their more liberated counterparts. Take, for example, a computer magnetic core memory. One that we have, providing half the total memory of the "BRUTUS" PDP11, contains 262,144 separate ferrite beads that have been woven with fine wire into a complex "mat" measuring about 30 x 20 x 0.5 cm. The results makes the best knitting accomplishments of my wife look pretty crude. One error would mean rejection of the product. Consequently, a personal error rate which has been quoted as one-fifth that of that of Western operatives, has established the place of the oriental maiden in occidental electronics.

Unfortunately, today's new computers rarely use the slower magnetic core memory. The "solid state" or "MOS" store has arrived, part of the silicon chip revolution which has excited so many of the popular media commentators. Accordingly, the character of the electronics industry has adjusted. When a manufacturer introduces a new computer component he may find an 80% rejection rate during manufacture in some cases. Presumably the good performance of his foreign girls remains invaluable. Which brings us to our £100 trip, the approximate cost of one circuit assembly we bought recently. The assembly was made by a British concern with one foot firmly planted in the US. The circuit is certainly of American origin, the assembly too, perhaps. All components are of American design, but they bear many sources of origin - Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and to show a more global interest, El Salvador. A couple of items come from the UK. The components are mounted on a Dutch board. I hope the foreign girls won't let me down and the circuit works properly. If it doesn't I won't worry but just go home (in my Russian car, playing German cassettes on a Japanese player). "Ce n'est pas ma faut, c'est la faute de toute la monde mais moi".


(J A McKnight)