View Full Version : "The Soul of an Old Machine"

July 10th, 2008, 08:20 AM
Hello everyone,

Although I have not had the privilege of working with any of the PDP series myself (these majestic mammoths being before even my time ;) ), I just stumbled upon a very touching story about the decommissioning of a DEC-10, which I thought was worth posting in this forum.

Although the story is posted below in full, the original layout (indention) gets lost, so I'm also posting the links:




Clive B. Dawson

(C) 1984

I started work for the University Computation Center in 1975 as a systems
programmer for the DEC-10, just a couple of months after it arrived on
campus. My previous experience with a DEC-10 had ended when I graduated
from Stevens Tech. Since then, I had spent four rather painful years doing
graduate work on a CDC 6600 system for which I had to learn how to keypunch
again. I welcomed the arrival of the 10 with the joy of someone being
released from prison. I can't begin to count the hours I spent on that
system--well over 10,000 connect hours-- developing software for it, fixing
bugs, and helping users. In turn, it helped produce dissertations for both
my wife and me, and was an endless source of fun and relaxation as well.
(It was also responsible for extending my graduate school career by at
least four years!)

The KI processor had served the campus well for seven and a half years.
Now the user population was drifting over to the two new DEC-20's, and it
was only a matter of time before the rising maintenance costs could no
longer be justified. A flurry of last-minute rescue efforts followed the
announcement that the system would have to be shut down. It seemed
incomprehensible that a perfectly good machine would be removed from
service given the chronic state of saturation common to most computer
systems on most university campuses. The efforts failed, and on October
31, 1982, the DECsystem-10 at the University of Texas at Austin was turned
off for the last time.

The event did not pass without due ceremony. We held a farewell party on
that Halloween Sunday, well attended by current and ex staff members as
well as a few users. Many brought cameras to record a vanishing
breed--they don't make 'em with lights anymore. In one of the stranger
moments we cranked up the PTP: and had paper tape (might as well use it up)
and scratch magtape draped all over the place. The laughing and joking
helped. Many of us on the staff had built up an extremely close-knit group
over the years which had slowly drifted apart as new machines and new
responsibilites came along. This "wake" had a good cathartic effect,
bringing us together at a time when we needed to share feelings that had
hit us harder than we might have cared to admit.

I wondered about the users--all the faceless people scattered througout
dozens of small offices and terminal rooms throughout the campus--the
complete opposite of our small, close-knit staff. Were they feeling the
same emotions? If so, who could each of them share with?

At home very late that night, I felt the urge to dial up one last time. As
I went through my normal routine of checking mail, the Bboard, and the
various system mailboxes, I discovered something completely unexpected.
During the last few hours users had logged in and sent mail to the bboard
and to other system mailboxes like Operator. The curious thing is that
these people had no way of knowing that anybody would ever be around to
read these messages. They were, in the best way they knew how, sharing
their feelings directly with the machine. Some of the messages are
reproduced here as I found them, with only the senders' names altered.

. From: R. B.
. Subject: Dec10
Farewell DEC10 and thank you!

. From: [4435,244]
. Subject: The death of a friend
. To: Bboard
Goodbye, DEC-10, you've been a great friend and co-worker. I'm
going to miss you for a long time. I feel worse than when they
killed Hal in 2001.

. From: B. J.
. Subject: November the 2 is too late
. To: Bboard
it feels like this is the end of an old friend. who says
computers haven't got any personality?

. From: GVCE333
. Subject: Good-Bye old paint
. To: Bboard
The glue factory beckons... Sigh!

. From: [1276,1]
. Subject: Good-bye, DEC-10
. To: Bboard
As a well-spent day bring happy sleep,
so life well used brings happy death.
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519
Notebooks [c. 1500]

DEC-10, you've been a good and faithful (for the most part)
servant and companion. Farewell.

. From: BSAB553
. Subject: bye
This is last "bye" to the DEC 10; too bad. I liked the DEC 10
better than the DEC 20. I find it hard to believe that this
system could not have been supported to some extent... So long

. From: LSDT141
. Subject: Bye

. From: C
. Subject: Farewell
. To: Operator

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light...

The next day, one more message appeared on the DEC-20 Bboard:

Date: 1 Nov 1982 2133-CST
From: P.M.
Subject: the death of the dec-10
To: bboard

I was there till the bitter end. First, the one or two
faithful logged on via the micom were detached and
automatically logged off. As the only telephone hook-up, I
was privileged to be at his side a little longer. I fondly
reread the last farewells of those who had cared enough to
write a bboard message. Then I, too, was detached and logged
off. But even then the DEC-10 lingered on. Systat and help
functioned for several more minutes until the operator sent
the last message I or anyone will ever receive from the

Time sharing is over permanently! Good-bye.

The stone has been rolled in front of the grave, my friends.
The DEC-10 is no more.


About six months later in St. Louis I heard DEC announce the end of the
36-bit systems. I wondered then how many times in the next few years
the events told here would be repeated.

Recently I had occasion to visit the machine room where the old KI had
stood. On one side of the room was a shiny new VAX 11/780. The other side
of the room had boxes of IBM PC's stacked to the ceiling. Someday these
machines would be old too. But somehow I knew that they would never have a
day for themselves like Halloween of 1982. They don't make 'em with souls


Contributed by:
Clive B. Dawson
Advanced Micro Devices
Austin, Texas
Email: clive.dawson@amd.com

July 10th, 2008, 08:31 AM
That was a good read - thanks!

I still remember the names of the PDP-11s and VAXes I used years ago ..

Penelope & Rocky: PDP11s
War, Death, Hunger and Pest (The Four Horsement): VaxStations

They were replaced by Sun machines in 91 or 92. The names of the four horsemen were reused recently as a tribute to them.

I also still remember my first RS/6000 workstation that I started my professional career with. After I was upgraded to a new machine it was still on the network for a while, but eventually it was scrapped ..

The machines surely do not have souls, but if you don't think to ask the question then you probably don't have one yourself. ;-0

July 10th, 2008, 10:32 AM
Good posting.

I've never seen or operated one of those old beasts but it makes me wish I had.


July 10th, 2008, 03:47 PM
:sad2: :violin: :sad2:

You have to remember, though, that office and business computers today are more like terminals were back then. The PDP-10s just don't have a modern equivalent.

July 10th, 2008, 07:47 PM
Very nice read! I've never used one in my life (nor seen one with my eyes, not a camera's) but hope to someday own a PDP, DEC, or the likes.