Computer history: Lab administration 1983 – 1986


Laboratorium administration and the SYRC-10/1

In 1982, TNO-FEL started the first project to computerise its lab administration. Up until then, Philips magnetic cards were used as records for financial administration. A new group at the Laboratory (RG 10) choose Pascal as the programming language for the administrative applications. That the lab’s administrators required the financial figures to be put neatly right-aligned in columns was seen by the technical programmers as annoying: ‘The computer counts flawlessly, so why put figures right-aligned in columns?‘ In the end, one had to develop a library with smart formatting routines that allowed column-wise, right-aligned printingToto profile themselves, RG 10 promoted their laboratory administration as their most important visible project. In mid-1983, RG 10 decided to build their own computer for the lab’s administration. Their excuses were that you now could buy INTEL microprocessor boards which were clocked a couple of times faster than the CYBER 835 CPU. A 19-inch rack, a backplane, a CPU board, a co-processor board and memory boards were bought. Additionally, sixteen Tillegraaf (baseband) modems, designed by Jaap van Till (AKZO), were acquired. More information about the Tillegraaf can be found here.

Tillegraaf baseband modem with opto couplers
Tillegraaf baseband modem with optocouplers

The TNO Board of Directors received an impressive demonstration of the system: a closed 19″ rack with a large number of blinking LEDs and further … nothing in the rack at all! The administrative application that was shown still ran on the CYBER system. In November, another demonstration was given in which the administrative computer, the powered-off SYRC-10/1 (note the serial number 1) was shown in a meeting of the administrative managers of the various TNO institutes. The SYRC-10 system was now rack-mounted together with the modems. This time, the excuse for not performing a live demo was: “The disk has not been installed yet”.

According to the planning, the laboratory administration would start using the SYRC-10 on December 1, 1983. All information would be copied from the CYBER to the SYRC-10/1. A month of parallel administration was planned. One week before December 1st, RG 10 complained about the electro-technical maintenance department to the Director. The terminal lines between the computer room and the administration office rooms were not installed yet. The electro-technical maintenance department was very busy and had planned the installation a couple of days later. To satisfy the complaining RG10 people, some action was required. Eight meters of telephone wire was cut into ten pieces. A tile of the raised floor in the central computer room near the planned location of the SYRC-10 was lifted. The ten wire ends that came out of the hole gave the impression that the total wiring had been completed. Everybody was satisfied with five minutes of work …

December 1, however, was the Laboratory’s ‘birthday’. A day that we normally had more informal meetings and activities for the workforce. Thus, on November 30, the Computer Group was informed that the SYRC-10 would be installed on the computer floor on December 2. Thereafter, it became very quiet… A member of the Computer Group asked the RG10 manager about when the ‘CYBER-killers’ would take over the computer room …
Insiders told us later that the code running on INTEL CPU boards never was able to reach any of the other boards in the 19-inch rack. Therefore, the CYBER-killer benchmark never took place. Serial number 1 never saw more ‘serials’ around it. Soon, the SYRC-10/1 moved to one of the laboratory cellars after useful parts were stripped off. When the cellars were cleared several years later, all tangible memories of the SYRC-10 were lost except this story.

For a long period, the Laboratory administration continued to work at the CYBER based upon the set of Pascal programs. At the end of 1985, it was decided to move to a relational database system by ORC (later ORACLE) which was running on a new VAX 11/750.