The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

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By Mike Sunderland
Thoughts from a Grey-Haired Point of View 

Give 'em A Kick


August 31, 2022 | View PDF

We take computers for granted. We text, talk, do research and spend too much time sitting on our duffs in front of them. It wasn’t always like that. In 1966 a major change in the way newspapers are produced was previewed. The first computerized typesetting machine was field tested at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. C.W. Sneddon, the owner, was always eager to try new technology and IBM accepted his offer.

IBM combined a keystroke capture system with a Selectric typewriter and added a punch tape controlled printer. It was an adaptation of a device used in some attorney’s and doctor’s offices. As the typist worked the keystrokes were captured in ASCII code on an 1-1/4” wide magnetic tape. Thus the name of the system: MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter). The tape could hold 10-12 typewritten pages of double-spaced text. The tape would be taken off this machine and placed in a compositor. The compositor played back the tape and the computer commands keyed in by the operator would produce the finished text. It could produce fully justified, centered, flush left and right text.

Type sizes and styles were limited to those available for the Selectrics of the time and ranged from 6 to 14 point. The type came in a ball shape, called “golf balls” and fit on a spindle with a spring snap holding them in place. In order to change from a light face to a bold headline style, the typist would key in a stop command, type out the name and size of the type style wanted, all of which would appear on a hard copy produced by the typist. The hard copy would be given to the person operating the compositor, who closely monitored the machine. When it came to a stop, he would check the hard copy, find the appropriate golf ball, make the swap and hit the go button. It was a slow, clumsy system but it worked – sort of.

The original MT/ST system had been designed for office work such as in an attorney’s or secretarial office. Under the load of producing a daily newspaper the system’s weaknesses were soon revealed. A couple of days after the machines were installed and testing began I was offered an after school and weekend job of running them. I took it. It didn’t pay much, I think the job paid $2 an hour but it was more than I was making elsewhere. The attraction of working with state of the art equipment and the design team from IBM was strong.

One of the 4 compositor systems began acting up and it drove everyone nuts. Every 45 minutes or so, it would come to a screeching halt and nothing could make it go. The technicians tore it apart several times, replacing various components. Each time they would restart the device and sure enough 45 minutes later it would stop. I was there one evening when the IBM team had a most frustrating day and about the time I was loading a tape on one of the other machines, this tech in a fit of frustration, hauled off and kicked the miscreant device.

It started up at the point it had stopped. Almost an hour later it stopped again. In a joking mood, the machine was kicked. Sure enough it started up once more. They spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually they concluded that there was a hairline crack in one of the circuit boards. When the board warmed up as the machine ran, it would expand and open the circuit bringing it to a halt. As the machine cooled down the board would contract and the circuit would be reestablished. The kicking? Evidently this would cause enough of a disturbance that a low voltage spark would arc across the micro-crack and cause the circuit to be completed and the crazy thing would start working. Who knows!?!

I think it is time we should give our current national government a swift kick in the rear. If that don’t make them work better for us, then we should vote them out and vote in Senators and Representatives who will work for you and I and not Big Tech and Big Money. We have a chance this year to effect such a change. Be sure to vote. You may not get another opportunity. We’ll see how long they let newspaper articles like this continue to be published! And writers like me remain out of jail.


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