The shadowy world of the notorious Night Shift operator is a subject that often appears to be overlooked in the desktop environment of today's computing. Trying to explain the strange allure of this practice to a confirmed 9 to 5 worker can be difficult; but it seems that working through the night knowing that most, if not all, of your work colleagues and management are sound asleep, coupled with the obvious lack of real management supervision, presents a heady cocktail for a young, impressionable lad.

I first cut my teeth on a huge IBM mainframe with wonderful flashing lights and whirring disk drives. So magical was this behemoth that it wasn't unusual for the night ops to turn out the main lights and work on the flashing red, blues and greens from the Central Processing Unit. As I was employed by a large Banana importing company, the very nature of our product seemed to attract a fair proportion of life's waifs and strays with a penchant for living life to the max.

Take Tom and Peter, for instance. These two realised that with a two hour sort job on the Sales Analysis system, it was possible to read the punched cards to find out what tapes would be assigned for the programs both prior to and following on from the sort. This meant by loading up the appropriate tapes on the remaining drives it was possible to visit one of the discotheques in nearby Leicester Square, have a few drinks, chat up some girls and return to the mainframe without hardly any processing time being lost. This worked well until the evening that, in their haste to boogie the night away, they forgot to turn on the air conditioning. They returned at 4 a.m. to find a temperature of 110 degrees in the machine room and a disk pack you could fry an egg on. The system had powered itself down in protest and wouldn't come back up again until the air conditioning had reached a respectable 90 degrees. With all doors open and several departmental fans going it still hadn't reached the desired temperature by 6 a.m. and, with only two hours to go until the day shift logged on, the intrepid operators had to sabotage the air conditioning panel to ensure that they had their excuses ready for the fact that no customers were going to be billed that week.

The Subbeteo table football league was always a regular favourite with all Operators anyway but the magic was enhanced when played at midnight on the Managing Directors leather topped desk; the desk lamp acting as floodlights. Such was the very real nature of these matches that small plastic figures were actually transferred between teams in exchange for bars of chocolate. The computer staff were agog on learning that Willie Winger had been sold by Sporting Billy to Dingly Dell for the exaggerated sum of two Mars bars! When the Challenge Cup was won amidst scenes that would not disgrace a Premier League match, the winner actually went to claim his miniature F.A Cup by climbing those 'famous steps' to have the trophy presented. The steps were actually stationery boxes piled up leading to the Senior Operator who sat on a chair on top of the work bench. The after match entertainment was provided by the cup winner running around the card sorter with the plastic trophy, full of Babycham, on his head.

The off season entertainment involved chariot races where speeding down the service ramps where the stationery was stored, sitting tightly on the data preps wheeled chairs, provided hours of entertainment. The excitement could be brought to fever pitch by extending the race down the corridor, through programming and back to the data prep area where a compulsory pit stop was made. This stop involved changing the stationery on the printer and loading another batch tape before setting off on another lap. The playground mentality was further highlighted by the week long games of 'off-ground touch'. The real thrill here was to stretch this to include the day shift, involving puzzled glances from the Data Processing Manager who, when entering the computer room, instantly found his operators leaping onto the nearest piece of machinery.

For some unfathomable reason, children's games hold a strange attraction to the Computer Operator. Chess and any form of card games were scoffed at. 'Dungeons and Dragons' was tried but was soon found to be too esoteric. Trivial Pursuit, perhaps? No! Ludo was the game for us. Played in a league format with various points available for finishing positions, this game was played with a frightening intensity and not a little venom. To this day, I still can't let my children take one of my coloured counters and I've reduced them to tears as they sit for hours behind my strategically placed blocks.

There was, of course, an inevitable 'rites of passage' procedure for new boys too. When one lad inevitably dropped the tray of punch cards during his first week not only was he faced with the task of inserting all four thousand of them in the right order but several dozen had found their way into the air conditioning slats on the floor and had to be retrieved. The Operations Manager found him three hours later, on his knees, trying to rescue the cards using a thin ruler with sellotape on the end. The Manager watched him for several minutes before suggesting it might be easier to use the suction pad to pull up the floor tile next to the grille and simply pick them up. The shame faced lad was highly embarrassed - I know I was that Operator!

So next time you finish running the balance sheet on your latest super fast PC spare a thought for the sadly redundant mainframe operator. After all, he may have once been a contender in the worlds hottest Ludo league!

Life is just a game of Ludo

An ancient tale of huge IBM mainframes and the men who operated them

IBM 360/40