Reminiscing Old Technology

With the start of a new year I had the urge to reminisce on the use of past technology.

I was particularly thinking about my past work days, period late 70s to early 80s when we moved to what was then new electronic technology. Although it was a fascinating period it did also have its human impact.

In the field of telecommunications and messaging I had set-up a communications centre (comcen) for a major offshore construction company. This multi-national company back in 1970s-1980s had huge contracts for construction and placing of offshore platforms and pipe-laying at sea. Communications with their offshore vessels (barges, crane lifting vessels, pipe laying vessels) and thousands of offshore workers was vital for their operations and logistics. In those days their work in the North Sea area was directed by their Brussels North Sea Division office.

Telecommunications consisted mainly of public telex, private teletype networks, telex over radio (TOR), radio telephony. The communications centre (comcen) acted as a relay point to/from offshore vessels. In those days messaging was tape relay using telex, teleprinter operations. The need was for 24/7 operations in the comcen due to the safety and logistics aspects of the offshore work. To fulfill continuous operation a shift system employing a team of nine operators was needed. It was a busy place with a lot of messaging traffic involving many departments such as engineering, accounting, human resources, health and safety. I mention this to highlight the importance of telecommunications in the running of such operations. You need to realise that these were the days without internet or mobile phones and satellite communications was very expensive.

With the arrival of digital technology, office computers like the IBM PC XT/AT, VDU terminals, automatic message switching and store forward equipment became a reality. Tape relay was becoming a thing of the past as we started to use  floppy diskettes or wordprocessing on visual display units (VDU) terminals. The new comcen (click on image left) would look very different without the mechanical teleprinter. Implementing these in the work place needed much planning and training for staff. The impact of automation was significant. Now there were electronic machines capable of running 24/7. The effect on human resources was that you no longer required the night shift nor coverage on Sundays. It was enough to have a reduced team to deal with anomalies and breakdowns. Such was the effect of automation that the team was eventually reduced from nine to four staff.

While the advent of new technology was being praised, the human realities was something else. It meant retraining and in many cases redundancies. Computers started to take over human tasks and technology was advancing at a rapid rate. A telecom man coming from the anode/cathode tube time through to the transistor age and landing into the computer chip age is left with a dizzy spell at the speed of all this. Now we have internet and transparent interconnectivity so what’s next ?

4 thoughts on “Reminiscing Old Technology”

  1. I had forgotten to mention about those fax machines, which of course also meant that the pages rolling-in from such machines might well need to be copied via those Gestetner machines before the numerous copies would often have to be delivered to the numerous departments within the company.
    Often a messy job too with the inevitable blackened-hands of the operator having to be regularly cleaned with a visit to the toilets.
    Equally the use of carbon-paper copies being used directly from the teleprinters was also another messy job too… How often the TP’s got jammed-up with the thin-carbon usually being the cause and the need to rapidly clear the rollers before the next incoming message(s) would either make matters worse and make one panic as to what action was required – usually a request sent to the sender for a repetition and apology…
    If one had the Murray Code tape on at the same time as those carbon-copies were being mutilated, then at least it was often feasible to make new copies of the message(s) on the spare TP’s.

    If I remember correctly, I would always have the tape machines on over-nights, as nothing worse than coming into work in the morning to find that the numerous paper/carbon-copies was totally jammed-up, but at least was able to please the various departments with their work for the day (on-time) rather than have the telephone constantly ringing with “where’s my over-night orders from wherever around the world.”

    If only all those departments realized what us poor TP ops had to put-up with… !!!

    At least when eventually around the very early 70’s the use of a very-large fully electronic Zerox photostat copying machine was installed in our company at the time, one was able to make the necessary numbers of copies required, albeit when the carbon-powder ran out – back to those dirty hands…

  2. Oh my, I am so with you on this post. I used to joke that you know you are old when you see the rise and fall of new technology in one lifetime. I think I was referring to the now almost redundant fax machine replacing telexes, which in turn I had seen several iterations of in my early working career. From the bulky old shift-change models in my motel reception days, to the more streamlined teleprinter. I have long since forgotten how to read those tapes. Then the VDU (“dumb”) terminals running off the IBM AS400, morphing into the personal computer on every desk. And by the time I finished work, emails were so dominating our lives that we couldn’t even get up from our desk to talk to our colleague in the next office. And that in turn, morphed into instant messaging, so you were having a “virtual conversation” with that colleague, at the same time as carrying on with your regular work. Sheesh!

    1. LOL you have to have lived those times, the early fax machine required that you start in phase, that both ends pressed the button at the same time😉 We learned the Murray Code or Baudot to be able to read the tapes and we were quite skilled at that. Added to that we used Morse code for wireless telegraphy. The Philips P7000 wordprocessing units showed up and started to be interconnected to telecommunications ports too. I had trouble finding photos of many of the old equipment I suppose long forgotten and not familiar to the new generation of coders and communicators.

  3. Well interesting reminisce Mike and thanks for the reminders of what I was also doing in London & elsewhere at similar times to you.

    On a tap to the teleprinter-link, what immediately came to mind was the sending of work-art, of which I for one, was guilty of. One of those was of the Saturn-V launch vehicle for the first manned-landing on the Moon. I was even able to tape-record this event at home, then at work and again later back at home.
    Along with photographs taken live from my TV, perhaps I must review that unique-occasion.

    I had a date via Telex with a French girl and even got married to a Dutch girl of exactly the same age as me too.. All due to teleprinters and Telex – which were too blame… Those were the days… !!!

    Until only recently, RT was also used by me during my flying experiences over many years, so can claim to be very efficient at using the phonetic-alphabet and other required phraseology too.

    Although my Morse Code is still in use for amateur radio listening and occasionally for identifying specific aeronautical radio-beacons when required, I would need to brush-up on the reading of punched-tapes, that were used in the older days, even though I am fairly certain that they are rarely (if ever) used these days – thanks to computer technology…

    I wouldn’t mind getting hold-of a RACAL RA-17L receiver (that we trained-on). Albeit due to it’s size and specifically its’ weight, would need a much heavier-duty surface to trial it out against my other modern and smaller short-wave radios…

    Happy Days…

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