The Great Wall of VAX

A long time ago I worked for a small engineering firm that produced and sold Digital Image Processing systems. These sophisticated machines were used in the interpretation / processing of Raster Image Data such as that available at the time from the Landsat 3 and 4 satellites.

Most of my time was pent in Asia, installing systems and training customers in the use and maintenance. For large system installations we would make a physical visit as part of a site preparation process. I traveled to Beijing in 1983, to I believe the Institute of Geography, about an hour and half by car from Tianamen Square. Here, I was introduced to everyone and escorted up three floors to where a 7 foot high room had been prepared with a raised floor.

You have to realize that the sophistication of the Chinese was quite good, but the financial capability was rather limited, so inventiveness in developing solutions was really having a renaissance. The group intending to purchase the system had installed a two foot tall raised floor, a most beautiful construction of top quality Teak wood, interlocking pieces that were probably 4 inches by 4 inches in size. It had been sanded and then sealed with varnish and it was gorgeous. Every 3 feet a removable trough had been installed lengthwise in the room, lined with a suspending leather sheet so that this would be a cable run for terminal and printer cables. Proudly standing against one wall of the room was a collection of power regulators, sufficient to power a large data centre, these being all based on a reverse engineered design that made use of tubes. I was later to see this become a standard around China wherever I went. There is something comforting about the warm glow of the cathode filaments in these things. The height of the room though, had now become 5 feet and the cabinets of the to be delivered system were taller than that.

I asked the folks how they planned to get the system from the ground up to the third floor, and the response was that they would carry it up the stairwell, barely wide enough for 2 people. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see anyone or group carry a VAX 11/780 computer system up a flight of stairs. I told them that they had to redo the raised floor, it was too high for the soon to arrive system and that they would also have to rent a crane and get a bricklayer. The crane to raise the system to the third floor and the bricklayer to knock out a wall at the end of the hall to get the system through and then to seal up the hole once delivery had been done.

I have never ever seen such happy and proud faces become so sad and panic stricken in such a short time, once the translated realization set in. I truly hated having to break the news to them, so much work having been done already. To my knowledge, the work that had been detailed for them was done after I left, and the installation of the first VAX 11/780 in China proceeded with great success.

Richard Tomkins, Ottawa

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