My first theoretical ethical dilemma

I used to walk to work past hedges full of spiders' webs outlined with dew. This was pre-1974 when I was working in Hatfield (as an aeronautical engineering apprentice) in various parts of what was, at the time, Hawker Siddeley (Aviation) Limited in between my terms (ten altogether) at Hatfield Polytechnic. These walks gave me some precious thinking time to myself to prep for the day ahead. Although I was confined (as it were) to relatively mundane1 tasks — due to my lowly status, signified (while on the shop floor, at least) by the colour of my overalls — some of the work gave rise to opportunities for minor-league mischief and amusements.

I confronted one of my first theoretical ethical computing dilemmas in Hatfield. The site used both ICL 1900 Series and IBM System/360 mainframes. These ran2 sufficiently hot as to need constant air-conditioning, and (in the summer) the roof of the computer room sometimes had to be further cooled by directing the water hoses of the airfield's fire tenders on to it for further evaporative cooling. The dilemma would have been what to do had an aircraft faced a tricky landing situation, on a hot day, while the computers were busy running, say, the payroll application.

The name of one of the programs, by the way, was "FRED" — I kid you not; us engineering types have a keen sense of humour. FRED (of course) was an acronym of Filing and Retrieval of Essential Data. The chap who wrote it ran it precisely once a year, producing (after several hours of expensive mainframe time) a large printout that he lovingly filed away in a folder and never consulted again. I have my suspicions that he also used the mainframe to plot his holiday routes around the UK by train, aiming to "collect" every station on the network, but I wasn't there long enough to catch him at it. Nor would he have been unique. On October 10th 1969 employees at the IBM Hursley laboratory had already had to be warned of the penalties for similar "abuse" of these precious systems. (I don't imagine they were running ICL mainframes,3 but you never know.)


1  Perhaps the greatest incentive I had to move on into the world of computing. Who knows?
2  "Walked" would have been a more accurate verb at the time, considering the performance of today's PCs. Who knew?
3  For a while later in the decade I was to enjoy the company of the "always up for an argument" but entertaining Peter Hillier-Brook, in the ICL Slough office. His opinion of the 1900 Series (which had been my first in-depth architecture on entry to ICL in 1974) was not high. I believe the root cause for his disdain stemmed from his background in one of the other (I'd been going to say "halves" but that wouldn't do justice to the splendid mess that was ICL's heritage, forged, as it had been, out of the "white heat" of Harold Wilson's technological revolution) portions of the company — the bit that had produced one of the successful clones of IBM's S/360. Namely the System 4.