Stories and anecdotes of a computer pioneer

(To Danilo Mancinone)
23/09/19

Not quia difficilia sunt non audemus, sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.)

Lucio Anneo Seneca, CIV 26

Perhaps not everyone knows that "pioneer" comes from the French pioneer, in Italian1 the etymology refers to "pedestrian", ie those who begin to exploit virgin territories, those who open the way to progress.

Before the nineteenth century, it meant "infantryman" and later "soldier of genius" and, in military language, it was also used as a synonym for a spoiler.

The word "pioneer" is intended to represent those who open a way for others, exploring unknown regions and settling in them, so as to allow new outlets for human activity; in particular, in common parlance, with reference to the history of the United States of America, the pioneers are the denomination of the colonizers of the distant lands of the West.

By extension, who is the first or among the first to embark on an initiative, to undertake an activity, to spread an idea, opening new roads, new perspectives and possibilities for development.

Today we will talk to a pioneer of computer science: Mario, my father.

Good morning, pà! So, did you think about it? You promised to tell me about your computer science adventure. How did you get into the world of bits?2?

My story in the computer world begins almost by accident.
I am a mechanical expert who, after graduation, had started working in the middle of the years "60 in a petrochemical plant located in Sicily, my home region
In keeping with my qualifications, I had always worked on carpentry, piping, API standards (American Petroleum Institute), ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), and AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute).

What years are we talking about?

At the turn of the years between the "60 and the" 70 I had moved to Sardinia and was included in the Technical Office of one of these sites. In the 1972 April I had just returned to work after about a month of injury due to a meniscus rupture, at that time there was still no arthroscopy!

A day of work like others occurs (also) in my Office, a representative of the Organization saying that aptitude tests would have been carried out for Mechanographic Operators, as they would have created a CED (Data Processing Center), affectionately called by the staff of the work: the "Engine Room", until then in the factory there were only process processors.

Personally, I immediately gave my availability, more out of curiosity than out of conviction: in fact for me, what at that time was commonly called the Electronic Computer or even the Electronic Brain, was about a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object).

However, on the fateful day we had gathered, in a single space, about a hundred graduated boys of various technical backgrounds, in addition to the Industrial Experts there were Surveyors, Accountants and other qualifications.

The test consisted of dozens of multiple choice questions, some of a general nature, many of logic, to be completed in a given time.
I settled in immediately unmarking the answers I was reasonably certain of, up to the end, after which I took those left behind by dedicating a moment more to each of them.

How did it end?

In the following days I was no longer thinking about it, when I began to notice that some of the people in charge were making winks, the cuckold husband is the last to know about the series.
Seriously, this was due to the fact that I ranked first on about one hundred participants.

Did you start here in Sardinia or where?

At that point, some of the top finishers were sent to Milan where we began to attend courses for operators, from basic to advanced and others, at a company headquarters IBM (International Business Machines).

Between one course and another we were, again in Milan, at the General Management of the Group and we were starting to practice, alongside the already experienced operators.

Actually I, at 24 years, would have preferred to work alongside the girls who performed the function of drilling machines, but we were visibly marked by the center leader.
Already, the drilling machines (and verifiers).

That? What is it about? Sorry but I don't follow you ...

A basic but essential figure in those years, as the input to the calculator was made through punched cards that were read by a special machine.

On these cards both the recall to the program to be executed through the JCL (Job Control Language) and the data to be processed were recorded.
I was able to work both with the System / 3 that used tabs with 96 columns, and with the System / 360 / DOS (Disk Operating System) which used 80 tabbed columns which were the de facto standard.
And I must say that tens and tens of thousands have passed through my hands, used in readers, perforators and sorters.

Would you like to tell some stories to our readers?

Yes sure. An anecdote concerning the card reader we used in the CED of Sassari.
The first one we used was the contact type, that is, the symbols (letters, numbers, special characters) were decoded when brushes overlying the boards themselves touched an underlying roller at the perforations made in the cardboard and thus closed electrical circuits. The encoding used was called EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code).
Subsequently, this decoding function was performed by a photoelectric cell from which a beam of light passed, again in relation to the perforations carried out.

For one of the many laws of Murphy, the photoelectric cell of the reader goes to spoil just in the less opportune moment, that is in the evening of Good Friday that precedes Easter Sunday.
In short, on Easter Sunday I had to go to the Olbia airport to pick up a pair of photocells that had been delivered to the pilot of a scheduled flight from Milan (because there were none available in all of Sardinia) and to replace that defective.

Continuing my story, it must be said that over time I had moved from shift operator to Machine Room Manager.
One of the so-called laws of Moore says that in computer science periodically the calculation capacity is increased and at the same time prices are reduced.
For example: the memory of the / 360 was from 128K! To think that today any smartphone has several Gigabytes of memory.
Furthermore, for mass storage we used removable disks, called "pans", weighing several kilos each and the capacity of 10 MegaByte.

And speaking of records, I must say that I was one of the first in Sardinia to migrate from the ISAM access method to the VSAM, respectively Indexed Sequential Access Method and Virtual Storage Access Method.

Meanwhile we were working with a System / 370 / OS (Operating System), the video terminals for I / O (Input / Output) were introduced, the CICS (Customer Information Control System) was used.

In your chats with mom, every now and then you move from one region to another ... I was little and, in those years also an only child, before the second child was born, Roberto. However most of the work experience took place in Sardinia. Tell us a little about how it went.

For a variety of reasons, from Lombardy I moved to Piedmont where I worked in Honeywell with the GCOS8 Operating System (General Comprehensive Operating System). Each "home" used its own means to reach the same goal, ie to manage data and transform it into useful information to improve processes.

We are practically at the end of the 70 years. You are from the 1978!

Meanwhile I was diversifying my activity in the Production area with the function of Scheduler of jobs, that is the one who assigns and plans the activities of the Engine Room.

Did you deal with actual programming? And what were the main changes in IT that you "touched"?

Yes, I started to study Programming and in particular the COBOL 74 (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) which in those years was the most widespread language.

For my culture I had also bought a text on Fortran and had prepared some small utility programs.
The head of the SED (Data Processing Service) had "targeted me" as he gave me courses of all kinds, from DMIV (Database Management Fourth) to GMAP (Gcos Macro Assembler Program).

A note: there was talk of a possible merger / acquisition between General Electric and Honeywell then rejected by the CCE, now EU. The fact is that many Honeywell software products begin with the letter "G" in memory of their collaboration (see GCOS, GMAP ...).

After a couple of years spent in the Biellese Prealps we went down to the Monferrato hills, in fact to Casale where I was acting as deputy head of the SED, returning to IBM mother.

We have migrated data and procedures from the two existing Systems / 34 to a System / 38.
And in a couple of weeks, after reading a special manual, I was already able to program in RPGII (Report Program Generator Second).
After another couple of years, for reasons related to my wife's family, we returned to Sardinia dealing entirely with the SED of a commercial company (in fact I was working as an analyst, programmer, operator and hub).

The environment was a System / 34 with ADM (Market Direct Applications) that I then implemented with other ad hoc programs.
After some time in which I could not even go to the bathroom, I asked to have some collaborators and I was joined by a girl who after a while knew how to at least turn on and off the system.

After five years, during which we had replaced the / 34 with a System / 36, as a natural evolution, I was looking for new stimuli.
In the meantime it was verified, and we are at the end of the 80 years, that the two local banks had each created an information technology company to outsource the management of their processing.

Having made the necessary interviews, I chose where to go, also because at that moment my skill was optimal for one of the two candidates.
In fact we were going to migrate from four GCOS6 Honeywell departmental processors to a single OH mainframe (Olivetti Hitachi) with IBM's MVS (Multiple Virtual Storage) Operating System.

I was among the few on the square to know both worlds and I was hired the 1 ° January 1988.
Once the migration was over and went to work, for a few years I was the CED manager, managing about twenty human resources among shift workers, after print and microfiches staff. Obviously I was also in charge of the safety of the equipment, of setting up the backups, of the contacts with the suppliers, of managing holidays, illnesses, personnel permits and anything else necessary for the good progress of the whole.
For alternate corporate events, the bank we were working for was first commissioned by the Bank of Italy and then bought by that larger competitor.

At this point the processing gradually moved into the acquirer's mainframe, and we invented other jobs.
I have been, over time, responsible for managing the Group's ATMs.
Later I was involved in the management of Remote Banking and POS (Point Of Sale).
Then also the acquiring bank was in turn acquired, becoming part of a banking group with national distribution.

I imagine that in the company there were real job descriptions, with well-defined tasks upstream. What did you do in particular?

As a task, I was in charge of programming and managing embossing machines for the production of credit / debit cards for all the banks in the Group (about a dozen institutions and thousands of cards produced each week).

In the meantime I had also been involved in another activity, related to the quality certification according to the ISO 2001 (International Organization for Standardization) Standards required for the POS and Remote Banking processes (remote management of banking services).

After the appropriate courses held in Rome, I was in charge of keeping and updating the manuals, which had to reflect the virtuous way in which the processes related to the two tasks mentioned were conducted.

And finally, between a Quality manual and a Pagobancomat, the 1 September 2005 fateful date arrived, the day I retired.

Do you remember with pleasure some anecdote happened at work?

When we were still young and the activities had become routine, we occasionally made up some tricks, obviously at the expense of the latest arrivals.

One of these jokes that now comes to mind was the tape reels that were used both for data input and for backup, and that had a recess in the back which could be closed by a special ring: this to enable the write on the tape or to protect it as "read-only" that is, in practice press - or not - an on / off switch.

The activity of the tape drives was reflected by some luminous indicators of different colors placed on the front. Filming and inverting some of these indicators between them, we shouted to the unlucky guy: "What did you do !? You're overwriting a tape that was supposed to be protected! Don't you see that the red light of writing is turned on !? Blessed youth!

During your work experiences, what were the critical issues and the main threats that could affect the information you managed? Was there a "culture" of computer security?

In his book "Being digital" Nicholas Negroponte (one of the computer gurus) recalls this anecdote: asked at the airport by a customs agent about the value of his baggage (a PC) said that the commercial value was a thousand dollars, but that the value of the information that was in it was priceless.
And this is precisely the purpose of information security: safeguarding information.
Of course we must protect the hardware, but we must have increasingly sophisticated software to deal with new threats.
When I started working as an operator, security was represented by the massive bulk of Mr. Sanna, the security guard who alternated with a colleague at the entrance booth.
In the Engine Room there was a current stabilizer that had to perform the same function as those put in the first black and white TVs in the "50" years, just a little bigger and much louder when there were thunderstorms.
There was a period in which it was fashionable in Italy to attack CEDs, seen as instruments of oppression of the master.
However in my personal experience, I never found myself in the midst of risky situations in the various companies where I lent my work.
What reminds me, no formal security courses have ever been held, we were governed by common sense rules and with the diligence of a good family man. For example, an integral part of every processing were backups on floppy disk or on ante / post tape of all the files related to the single procedure.
As an evolution, I can say that in certain areas of the site it could only be accessed with a properly authorized badge.
In addition, both buffer batteries and a generator set had been installed to ensure the continuity of current home default processes.
However in the last work that I lent I had written a manual for use and consumption of the new colleagues in computer science who were inserted in the operator shifts.
In this manual I described:

  • the basic concepts of computer science;
  • the hardware installed on our site;
  • basic software and auxiliary products;
  • the procedures to be managed.

On the basis of this manual I took courses to colleagues before supporting them with colleagues who were already managing the processing. Subsequently, to guarantee greater security, HW / SW firewalls were adopted to guarantee or deny access to LAN or WAN networks.

Right now we often hear about PIN card theft if not card cloning.
I, as a minimum measure of prevention, when I go to take a look at the ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) to see if I notice something strange and then cover the keypad with one hand while, with the other, I enter the PIN.

Obviously with the pervasive use of the Internet the problems grow exponentially.
And to see, it's the usual story of guards and thieves: where the good guys are the hackers while the bad guys are the crackers, not to mention the lamers.

PS Greetings to the "traveling companions" who are no longer there: HELLO! to Mei, Giorgio, Delfo, Graziano and Gianni.

1 http://www.treccani.it
2 BInary digiT, in computer science, represents the elementary measurement unit of information, which is represented alternately with the figures 0 and 1, as it corresponds to a choice between two equally possible alternatives. Its symbol is b.