Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Enigma Machine

I left my tool case in the trunk of my car and walked into the Eastern Airlines headquarters building in Miami wondering if I might run into my brother who managed the Interline Billing department, located in the same building. I just finished a service call in nearby Hialeah and called Bob Traum to find out if he could meet me for lunch. Bob was signed out to nearby EAL, not far from one of our favorite barbecue places. He was working on the one machine that bedeviled the Miami IBM service office for years, a forty-year old bank proof machine known as an 803. Bob was far from finished with his service calls so I thought I’d drop by and, since I wasn’t trained on the banking machines, see if I could lend moral support.

There are famous machines, or more correctly, infamous machines in IBM. This particular bank proof machine was one of the infamous ones. It defiantly blew fuses whenever it damned well felt like it. It didn’t care who the operator was, or who tried to solve its mysterious idiosyncrasies. It failed intermittently no matter how much time or money IBM threw at it. It had been powering down intermittently without warning for years despite the effort of the talented specialists who practically rebuilt the machine from the frame up. Eastern had long relegated the machine to backup service as they couldn’t rely on it for uninterrupted service.

This particular machine, built in 1949, performed a unique service that newer, more modern check processors simply couldn’t. It processed checks and tickets that were mutilated or damaged simply because the document was only moved a few inches to the receiving pigeon hole as the receiving pocket, mounted on a huge, rotating drum, was moved to meet the check, as opposed to the newer machines which used belts and pneumatics to zip checks around the machine to find the appropriate receiving slot. This 803 was appropriately assigned to the slow speed section of the accounting department.

Bob graciously introduced me to Patricia, the section manager, then asked me if I had ever seen the famous machine that defied analysis.

“No, I’ve never seen it,” I answered, “Is it in use?

“Yes, but no problem,” said Pat, “I’ll ask the operator to move to a different machine.”

I walked behind her as she approached the operator who was busy running the 10-key calculator style keyboard. Patricia leaned over and talked to the 803 operator, who nodded, then started clearing the machine. As she slid open the door over the huge drum pockets on the side of the machine, a bright flash from inside the machine caught my eye. I saw the flash through the partially open door. The big machine went dead.

“Oh look! It just failed! That’s funny it would do it when you’re here!”

Bob looked at me and said, “I don’t believe it. That’s the bug!”

Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean much if you ignore what happens around you.

I told Bob, “Hand me a screw driver, I know what the bug is.”

Bob gave the that famous, “Oh, brother, here you go again.!” look, but he handed me a screw driver and we proceeded to take the side panel off the 803, then rerouted the power leads to the panel access light switch which was shorting to a metal flange on the door cover if the operator pushed just hard enough to flex it against worn wire insulation on the switch.

Bob just looked me and laughed as we re-wrapped the wires with new electrical tape. We moved the wires so they would never touch anything, much less the panel cover, replaced the blown fuses and told the operator to let us know if it ever happened again.

She gave us that “Yeah, sure!” look and once again powered up the machine.

Bob said to me later as we ate our barbecue sandwiches, “Are you lucky, or just that good?”

“Timing is everything!” I answered. “But I’ll take luck! It certainly doesn’t hurt!”

I have had people tell me they would rather be lucky than good at what they do, but I've found lady luck smiles at the strangest times. You never know when she's on vacation. 

The 803 never powered down unexpectedly again, and I still disavow any knowledge of banking machines.

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