The Times and Star Trek

Recently, I’ve been reminiscing a bit about the past ever since I rediscovered a small set of old dairies in some box in the basement whilst looking for something else. For some unknown reason at that particular stage of my life, I managed (endeavored? was encouraged?) to keep a daily diary, and did it for a couple of years, basically from my last few months of University well into my first job. Since then? Nope, no diaries.

That first job was with CAP-CPP (alas, no more). They were, essentially, a software contractor/consultancy. I started on Monday, 10 September, 1979, at a salary of £3,800 per year, plus £400 London weighting. Yep, a grand total of £4,200 per year. Mind you, it was only for 37.5 hours per week, 4 weeks annual holidays, so what the heck.

The first four to six weeks was “training”, if I may call it that. There was a group of six of us who started that day and we learned MicroCobol (don’t ask), running on a PDP-11. A single PDP-11, so we had to share. We basically wrote our programs on paper, and then booked a time slot on the machine and typed them in, compiled them, fixed the bugs, etc, until our time slot ended. On 8 inch floppy disks, no less.

After that initial training, there wasn’t any project to put me on, so I helped out with other teams’ projects, and learned a bit of Basic and then RPG II. And then…

3 January: Heard about the Times job today.

This sounded like a weird project. In those days, The Times (that is, the newspaper) was situated in a big office on Grays Inn Road, known as New Printing House Square. (This was before they moved to Wapping.) Luckily, it wasn’t far from the CAP offices on High Holborn, easily walkable. They’d just got a new computer system that allowed typesetters to enter in text, which was then printed/embossed out on a long tape, ready to be cut up and then used to produce the actual printed newspaper. The first push was for ads on the For Sale page. They basically wanted a small team of knowledgeable programmers to help fix bugs, etc, as they slowly went live. I have no recollection as to the brand and model of the system.

4 January: In afternoon went to The Times to meet Rod Hunt & George Welch. Heard I’d got the job at 5:00pm.

Nice one! I passed! I presume these were the system managers, but I can’t remember.

7 January: Started at Times at 10am. Terry joined me in the afternoon. Another guy called Dan is with us from Software Sciences.

Terry was a friend who’d started at CAP that same week. We still keep in touch. Dan? Nope, no recollection.

14 January: Started shift work at Times (8:00am), left at 4:00pm – nice coming home when it’s still light!!!

15 January: Shift day again – though the last one for a time as unions want more money. Still £8 is not to be sneezed at!

I managed to get an extra eight quid a day for being on the early shift? Yay! Count me in! But…

16 January: Back to starting work at 9:00am.

OK then. So much for that.

28 January: BORING. Went in at 10am, left at 5:30pm. Did ONE HOUR’s work. Geezus.

Yep, pretty much every day up to then was the same.

29 January: Slightly less boring than yesterday – worked 1½ hours!

I wonder what the extra half-hour was for…

4 February: Yet another boring day at The Times. Terry didn’t come in.

Shock, horror!

5 February: Totally and utterly boring, tiresome, dull, unexciting, etc… Can things get any worse?

8 February: Yawneroo – what a day. The ONLY thing I did was switch on!

11 February: My God – is every day boring at The Times? Actually doing the cyclic test today, but STILL boring.

Nope, no idea what the system’s cyclic test was any more…

13 February: This is getting to be a habit, this nothing positive to do. Today there was something wrong with the PRINT command – 'nuff said.

Hmm. The whole point of this system was typing in ads to … print!

14 February: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

(Actually this day was a little different: my girlfriend at the time had published a Valentine’s Day message to me in … The Times! Ha!)

15 February: Went in at 10, input a few ads – Rod’s cyclic test – then left at 4. Just a bit boring!

Oooh, more cyclic testing!

25 February: Yet again – dull. Rod is on holiday all week. Wrote a couple of FORTRAN programs, including a factorial one.

Gosh! Some actual programming!

26 February: Spent the whole day programming. Started up twice as an electrician leant against the Emergency Stop button!

Now this I totally remember. The system was set up in its own machine room to keep it cool, etc. On one of the pillars there was a big red Emergency Stop button that, if pressed, would immediately cut the power to the room, the system, terminals, and printers. Of course it was uncovered and at the exact height of anybody’s shoulder. This electrician was in a group being introduced to the system and machinery: he got bored and casually leant on the pillar. Boom! Needless to say, after this incident they put a rigid hinged cover over the Emergency Stop button.

3 March: Today capped it all – George and Rod both agreed that there was nothing for us to do – so I did it today!

Finally they realized that everything was hunky-dory and there wasn’t really any need for us, the emergency programming team. Unfortunately for them, our contract had another month to go.

4 March: Zilcherooni all day, except at about 5 when the new DOS was put on. Hence got home at about 7.

I’m guessing at this remove that the DOS that was used was not MS-DOS (which was launched the following year), but a Disk Operating System for whatever mainframe it was running on.

5 March: Big decision – going to program Star Trek in FORTRAN. Got as far as the rules. How to generate random numbers??? Left work at 5:25 – new DOS wouldn’t do batching properly!

And this is where it got interesting. Terry and I had a program written in BASIC that allowed you to play a simple game of Star Trek. Since it was written in BASIC, we had to convert it to FORTRAN so that it’d run on The Times’ system. As far as I remember, the game was set in a universe that was an 8x8 space matrix. Within that universe were several Klingon warships that were at war with the Federation, and, you, as captain of the Enterprise had to flip from one quadrant in the matrix to another and fire at and destroy the Klingons. They, of course, would fire back.

6 March: Terry not in today. As per usual did nothing all day – couldn’t get on to A for Star Trek input.

We had one terminal for our use if I recall, on a testing system named A. Presumably there were others called B, C, D…

7 March: Continued typing in the Star Trek game. Nothing in The Times work line again.

10 March: V.V. quiet at work today as George, Rod, Dan are all away. Did a lot of Star Trek typing.

11 March: Spent all day from 10:20 typing in the program. Compiles, but doesn’t run, by the time I left at 4pm.

12 March: Yet more Star Trek. Getting better and better – actually managing to tidy it up from BASIC. Having terrible problems inputting a REAL number though.

No idea what the issue was with inputting (or maybe validating?) a number such as 12.3. And, yes, REAL is in all caps!

13 March: The REAL number problem seems to have gone away. Actually got a printer on A – much better.

Don’t you love it when bugs just … disappear?

14 March: Star Trek all worked out apart from movements!

Presumably the movements from one quadrant in the matrix to another, but just guessing.

17 March: After all the alterations, the Star Trek program finally works!!! Great fun playing it – though having written it, it gets easy – soon change that!

18 March: The program is just perfect – with slight make-it-harder adjustments needed.

I seem to remember that I’d got a bug in the code that calculated the direction in which to fire the photon torpedoes. This meant if you were aiming to the right, it was spot on, but the greater the angle from that, the more skewed was the direction the photon torpedo went. A little harder to play!

24 March: Nothing doing at The Times. Ever since I’ve finished Star Trek, I’m bored. Can’t seem to win at this ruddy game.

So yes, now I’d written the game, it was back to being bored at The Times every single workday.

3 April: Well, this was IT! The last day at The Times. True to form not a scrap of work was done.

Yay! A whole three months! Perhaps the most useless and boring job I’d ever had. Apart from writing Star Trek in FORTRAN, that is. I’d probably printed off the source code, but with the various moves in my life over the years it hasn’t survived. And anyway, me read FORTRAN again? Not on your nelly…

(Aside: so I thought to myself after I’d written this post, I wonder if the BASIC source code is still around? A quick Google search, and ... OMG, there’s even a Wikipedia article about this Star Trek game, and includes a link to download the code. Maybe if I get bored, I’ll convert it a second time into, say, JavaScript…)

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