The ghost who sabotaged the mainframe

Everyone missed Ernie -- until he came back, and started messing with the mainframe. I don't know where you stand on ghosts. Some people think if you believe in ghosts you've failed a primal intelligence test. I used to be one of those people. Then, in June of 1980, a ghost sabotaged the installation of an HP 3000 mini/mainframe. This is a true story. Really. Several Hewlett Packard engineers and their support l

Everyone missed Ernie -- until he came back, and started messing with the mainframe.

I don't know where you stand on ghosts. Some people think if you believe in ghosts you've failed a primal intelligence test. I used to be one of those people.

Then, in June of 1980, a ghost sabotaged the installation of an HP 3000 mini/mainframe. This is a true story. Really. Several Hewlett Packard engineers and their support logs can attest to its validity, and my staff will back me up, too.

The story really starts back in December of 1971. I had just started as the new Director of Data Processing for a large nonprofit in New York City. My predecessor, Ernie (I've changed his name), had held the position for many years, and only his wife's insistence that he retire had convinced him to leave. It was an extremely difficult decision for him. The mainframe we were running at the time was a Honeywell Model 120 with 64K of main memory, three 1200 BPI tape drives, a printer and a card reader -- all of which, by the way, needed a room the size of two large offices to hold it. This was Ernie's baby. He wrote all the programs (in COBOL), designed all the systems, and ran the department exactly the way he wanted to. He loved that machine.

One week after Ernie retired, he was killed in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway. Everyone was devastated. We couldn't grasp that Ernie was gone. As it turned out, we weren't given much time to grasp it at all.

Almost immediately, strange things began to happen in the office. Cards and papers would fall unassisted. Lights flickered and went out. Things were not found in the places that we thought we'd left them. We came up with rational explanations for all the weirdness ... until the day the door to the computer room, a heavy insulated metal door, began opening and closing on its own.

Access to the computer room was strictly limited to my staff -- and all eight of us were in a meeting down the hall when we heard that door close.

We looked at each other apprehensively. I grabbed Ralph, our computer operator, and we walked down the corridor to the computer room. Usually, when you opened the door to the computer room, you were frozen by a blast of harsh, cold air from the ten-ton air conditioning unit. But this time, when I opened the door, we felt a weird little breeze, gentle and warm, that stopped us in our tracks. Something strange was going on.

We stood there, holding the open door. No one was in the room. I was about to take a step forward when we heard a creaking sound from the small wooden trestle that ran between the printer and the CPU. It had been placed there to protect the cables that ran under it, and when you stepped on it, it would sink a bit, and creak. It was creaking now, and I could actually see the wood planks sinking down. Aiee!

Ralph and I stood frozen with terror; every hair on our bodies stood on end. Then I slammed the door shut and put my back up against it. Ralph and I stood in the hall, breathing heavily. We gave ourselves several minutes to calm down before we went back to the meeting.

One look at our faces was all my staff needed. "That's it, man, I'm outta here." "No way!" We all grabbed our coats and were heading down the hall when we heard the door knob to the computer room click. The door opened. By itself. It closed by itself too. Nothing went in, nothing came out. But we all felt that eerie breeze move over us.

Gradually, we began to accept the fact that somehow Ernie was still with us. In a strange way, it felt nice. He seemed fairly harmless, and gradually his intrusions into our world faded away. Life continued normally at the office -- at least until eight years later, the day the HP 3000 arrived.

I had chosen the HP to replace the Honeywell, and hired a consulting firm to design and program the new system. On the big day, the 3000 was delivered and placed next to our old Honeywell workhorse. The hardware installation went smoothly. We were ready for conversion and parallel testing.

The next three weeks saw the most bizarre and incredible hardware problems HP had ever dealt with. Every damn thing would go wrong, mysteriously correct itself, manifest somewhere else, disappear, and then reoccur. We replaced every piece of hardware -- some more than once: logic boards, memory boards, cables, wires, Mux channels, ports, operating system, motors, gears, power supplies.... We sent tons of system dumps to HP's labs for analysis. (Of course they all ran perfectly at HP's lab.) I was so frustrated, I felt my emotional state getting shaky.

Then, at 1 AM one morning -- a couple of hours into what was supposed to be an eight hour conversion -- all three tape drives simply stopped. That eerie cool breeze moved over me, the lights flickered, and the computer room door opened by itself. Ernie! I should have known!

I didn't feel comfortable telling the HP engineers. All they would have offered was more replacement parts and the number of a good psychiatrist. I was desperate. And in desperation, who do you call?

My rabbi seemed unsurprised when I told him I needed help with a ghost. "Be forceful," he said. "Demand that he leave. Show no fear. Make your demands clear. Scream if you have to."

I tried to picture myself arguing with a ghost, and for the first time I realized that lunacy is relative.

The next evening I started the conversion program again, only this time I started talking to Ernie. I pleaded, I reminded him of our long friendship, I told him he could no longer stay here; he needed to move on. After an hour, the tape containing the first half of the conversion data stopped. There was an eerie stillness. I demanded that Ernie let the conversion continue. I yelled. And the tape started moving again!

I spent the next several hours arguing and screaming at a ghost while the conversion continued in fits and starts -- and then, miraculously, completed successfully. I was delirious with joy. I began to think about moonlighting as an exorcist.

Mysterious glitches continued to appear for the next few days while we tested and implemented the new system. But when I yelled at Ernie, they smoothed out. By the end of the week, we were up and running. Soon afterward, we sold the Honeywell for scrap and electric parts.

And with it went Ernie; apparently there was nothing left to keep him around. Ernie had moved on to wherever spirits go when it's their time. Although, to this day, I still look over my shoulder when I pass the computer room door.

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