Tag Archives: Honeywell

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

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Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild

Originally posted July 4, 2014.  Added some pictures:

I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done.  I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!”  I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.

I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes.    See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“.    Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“.  My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory.  I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene.

Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time.  This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989.  We had not yet been introduced to e-mail.  I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address on the mainframe, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.

 

Craig Henry.  Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight.  Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the future that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup.  I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.

After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures.  I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today.  No.  I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe.  It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.

I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day.  I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor.  They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”.  Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.

At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny”  then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name.  At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.

Of course.  Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes.  With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny!  What if my wife found one of these notes?”  — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.

Note to Gene Day from Bunny

Note to Gene Day from Bunny (now she knows)

In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns.  Here is the code I used to create the bunny:

See?  I save everything

See? I save everything

In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”).  We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas.  By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!

My Customer Service Team Certificate.  This made me official!

My Customer Service Team Certificate. This made me official!

So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly (lowlife is more like it) Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma?  Well.  This is what happened…

First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public.  Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company.  We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers.  That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer.  Each printer had a designation.  It was a four character ID beginning with a “P”.  So, the  printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P123.  I needed to know this number if I wanted to send  something to it.

At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company.  So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts.  So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.

If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer.  Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication.  This was the only way at the time.

So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company.  Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt.  I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before.  I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something.  They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.

Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?….   and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well.  One such idea popped up!

I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? —  You see, each quarter we received an updated copy of the Corporate Phone Book.  It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees.  It also included their mail code.  So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it.  Our mail code was PP75.  That was the code for our power plant.

So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things?  This was Brilliant!  We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”.  Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.

So, I suggested….  Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75.  — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe.  So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal.  I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer.  If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.

I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers.  I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence….  Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and…..  in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others.  So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.

I know.  I was rotten to Gene Day.  Here is an example of the header with the "GAS AND" in the middle of the name

I know. I was rotten to Gene Day. Here is an example of the header with the “GAS AND” in the middle of the name.  Remember.  This is on an old IBM Dot Matrix printer using the High Quality setting

After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75.  As I mentioned.  In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document.  Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.

I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the  printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working.  Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant.  They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma.  — With the thought that “My work here is done.”  I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.

The following Monday I had the day off.  When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office.  She said that I had a large stack of mail.  I thought, “Oh good!”  Results from our request on Thursday have arrived!  I hurried up to the front office.

When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were.  The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high.  “Um…. Thanks….”  I said to Denise.  I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.

After opening the first few envelopes.  I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery.  Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers….  I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer.  The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.

My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes.  I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers!  And Billing Printers!  “UH OH!”  quickly changed to “OH NO!”  When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up.  By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!

After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.

A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.”  (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s).  When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong.  Like I mentioned earlier.  Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like.  Here is one:

The same color of Tom Gibson's ears

The same color of Tom Gibson’s ears

Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it….  Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer?  Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.

 

James G. Harlow Jr.

James G. Harlow Jr.

Sorry.  That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….

Um what could I say?  So, I said this…

“Well.  This was a quality idea that our team had.  We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.”

I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on his printer.   No.  He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay.  So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…

So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST. — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.

Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval.  Is that clear?”

I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable.  I send things to other departments all the time.  I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time.  Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….

Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.”  — Ok.  I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity….  So, I happily agreed.  And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.

That was one thing about working at the plant at this time.  As long as your heart was in the right place….  That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.

I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done.  They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…

Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here:  “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.

Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post

Originally posted: July 12, 2014:

Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.

As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.

This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.

It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..

We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….

I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.

There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.

That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.

A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.

“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.

Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.

Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….

So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Yeah.  Just like this

Yeah. Just like this — no not really

When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.

The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.

Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.

When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh!  You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”

She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”

You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.

She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast New Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”

She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”

Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.

When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….

Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.

A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer – without the “Quality” turned on.

Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.

First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.

You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.

Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:

Fast-old-news

Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Fast-News-Header Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.

She said she would take care of it…. and she did.

Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.

Memo Ben Brandt Received

Memo Ben Brandt Received

So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.

When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.

When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”

Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.

He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.

At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.

I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.

It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….

Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.

I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman July 12, 2014

      Great story! I still applaud your initiative, enthusiasm, and risk-taking tenacity.

        1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

          Thanks Ron.
          I am still amazed by how many times I am told that something is impossible when I’m already doing it.

    1. Dave Tarvee July 12, 2014

      How they ever let you get out of there is incredible, I guess you were just real popular all over the company LOL and proved things were not impossible to many times, what a group of talent at Sooner in one place unreal

        1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

          That’s true Dave. It may sound like I was some lone wolf out there doing the impossible, but the truth is that we were surrounded by great Power Plant Men doing the impossible every day.

    1. Citizen Tom July 14, 2014

      Great story! I have been working with IT equipment since the early 80’s. The changes have been amazing, but I will never forget listening to a print job that made a printer sing (literally). The new printers are amazing, but the experts could make those first ones do the strangest things.

      The problem with the early computers, as you found out the hard way, is that almost any change involved programming. And since that early equipment was so costly, much of the testing had to be done on production equipment…….

      Anyway, it seems your management made the sensible decision to chalk up your mistake as part of the costs of training and testing.

  1. miller davidge iii August 9, 2014

    Couple of things…My wife is an IT person and I sent the link to this to her. She loved it.

Power Plant Men Take the Corporate Mainframe Computer Home

When the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma downsized from 218 employees to 124 employees in 1994, everyone was scrambling to figure out how we were going to complete all the work that needed to be done to keep the plant running.  We had become cross-functional teams which seemed to help right away, but we needed to know what jobs were the higher priority jobs, because it became obvious, at least for the short run, that we were not keeping up with the workload.

That was where the “Planners” came in.  In other industries, we may call these guys, “Project Managers”.  They planned the work, and gave us the Maintenance Orders when it was time to work on them.  At first, this was a daunting task for the four planners at our plant.  The planners were Mike Vogle, Glenn Rowland, Ben Davis and Tony Mena.

This was a new job for all of them.  Glenn Rowland had been an A Foreman for the Instrument and Controls Department.  Tony Mena had been on the Testing team.  Mike Vogle had been a B Foreman over the Labor Crew.  Ben Davis had been an electrician.  Now they were suddenly working on a computer all day long trying to learn how to plan their days so they could plan ours.  I currently don’t have any good pictures of this team, or I would let you see for yourself what great guys they are.

Oh.  Ok.  Here is a later picture of Mike Vogle which I absconded from his Facebook page:

Mike Vogle

Mike Vogle

At this time, though they were using the “state of the art” 286 PCs, they were really working on the Honeywell mainframe computer at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  They did this by using a Dumb Terminal emulator named GLink.  See the post: “Working Smarter Power Plant with Dumb Terminals” for a better explanation.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

The Power Plant Men knew that I liked to play around on the computers.  I was always going around helping people improve their computer experience by writing little programs that would do important things.  For instance, Windows back then had a screensaver that would fly the windows logo out from the screen so that it looked like you were flying into  the windows logos and they were passing you by.

Flying Windows Screensaver

Flying Windows Screensaver

In the executable program, if you changed the value of one particular byte, you could change the picture from the windows logo to any other of the 255 Wingding Characters.  This included things like Skull and Crossbones, Hearts, Crosses, Envelopes, Stars, Snowflakes and a lot more.  So, I was able to customize their screensavers using any of the wingding characters.

I wrote simple little programs to change their font size and color when they were using DOS, so they could read their screen easier (for the old timers that had a hard time reading the little letters).

Anyway, I had developed a reputation as not only being a troublemaker, but also of being a computer whiz. I have more stories to tell at a later time, but for now I will stick to the one about bringing the Honeywell mainframe home.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

Mike Vogle first asked me the question.  He explained to me that he was staying later and later each night at work doing his job.  The earliest he was leaving was after 7pm each day, and he didn’t have time anymore to even see his family by the time he arrived home. So, he asked me if there was some way he could take his home work with him.  What he would ideally like to do would be to take a disk from work with the Maintenance Orders on them where he could complete them.  Then the next morning bring that disk back to work and put it in the computer and load it into the system.

I can see that a lot of you are rolling your eyes wondering why he didn’t just log into the company network and work remotely.  Well, in 1994, the Internet was something new.  We didn’t have the Network infrastructure built yet that would allow something like that.  We were using Windows 3.1 on old 16 bit computers.  Most of the programs we were running on the computers were still Pre-Windows.  The GLink application, even though it had a windows Icon, was really a DOS program emulating a Dumb Terminal.

I told Mike I would look into it to see if there was some way I could emulate the emulator.  That is, write a program that would be able to interact with the GLink program to upload and download data from the mainframe automatically.  I was sitting in the Electric Shop Office with Charles Foster thinking about this over lunch when Terry Blevins came in.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

Terry and I had worked together the last seven years on the precipitators.  During the downsizing Terry was offered a job working on “Special Assignments”, which was a great move up for him.  We were all happy for him.  He had setup shop at the warehouse office where he could work part of the time from our plant instead of having to drive from Ponca City, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City to go to work.

When Terry came in to eat lunch with us, I told him what Mike Vogle had asked me.  Terry said right away that the GLink program had a Macro language that we might be able to use to automate the process.  This was just what I needed to hear.  If I could write a program that would write macros and send them to GLink to run, then that would do it.  I looked up the macro commands for GLink by opening up the Help section and printing out the list.

I used BASIC 7.0 (no.  Not Visual Basic, I hadn’t advanced that far yet).  BASIC 7.0 was the first BASIC that did away with line numbers and advanced a real second generation programming language.  It came out about the same time as MS Windows.  When I first bought the program, it was about $500.00 which was quite a lot for me.  But it allowed me to create actual DOS executables where I could do just about anything I wanted.

BASIC 7.0 Programmer's Guide

BASIC 7.0 Programmer’s Guide

Keep in mind that the language I was using to write the program didn’t know about Text Boxes, or even “Word Wrap” for that matter.  Everything that the user did on the screen, I had to take into account myself.  Just like I was working with a dumb terminal.  It didn’t understand “Word Wrap” either.  When you finished typing at the end of the line, if it jumped down to the next line in the middle of the word, you had to arrow up, and arrow to the right (forget using a mouse), and backspace until you had erased the letters at the end of the line, and then arrow back down to the next line and start typing again.

So, I put in my own logic for word wrapping because the mainframe window had only so many characters per line, and it had no mercy.  Everything had to be in the right box when you clicked on Submit.  When I was finished writing this program, I was so proud of myself for creating something as simple as “Word Wrap”.

Word Wrap, for those of you who don’t understand the phrase is when you get to the end of the line you are typing and instead of splitting the word up when it goes to the next line, it moves the entire word down to the next line.  You see it all the time now, but early on, the person writing a computer program had to take that into account if they wanted something to word wrap.  Windows Text Boxes and Word Processors had Word Wrap built in, so today a programmer doesn’t have to worry about all those little things, because the objects already know how to do that.  Just like this internet page knows how to do it.

Years later when I was interviewing for a Developer job with other companies and they would ask me what was one of my greatest programming accomplishments, I might blurt out “Word Wrap” before I realized how silly that sounds today.

Another problem I had was that strings of characters in the computer code are delimited by Double Quotes, so what happens when someone is filling out their Maintenance order and they use a Double Quote (“).  I didn’t think about this, and the first time I gave the program to Mike Vogle to test it out, it went all crazy and entered a bunch of bad data into a Maintenance Order because there was a Double Quote in it….. Yeah.  I forgot that if you want to say you worked on a four inch pipe, you would write that as 4” pipe.

So, my second great accomplishment when writing this program was to watch each key stroke, and if it was a double quote, then I would concatenate the string to another string around the double quote that was delimited with single quotes.  After doing all that, the program worked pretty good.  I gave it to Mike, and he tested it out and after making a few more tweeks, it was ready.

Mike could then take his disk of Maintenance orders home with him, and complete his work there, and in the morning he would put the disk in the computer, type a simple command, and it would open up GLink and start uploading all the work he did the night before.  Flashing screen after screen as it worked through all the Maintenance Orders.

Over time (not overtime, but Over Time, as in after a number of days or weeks, not like getting paid time and a half), the program became popular with some of the foremen, because it had Word Wrap and the GLink Emulator didn’t because it was emulating the Dumb Terminal which is too dumb to wrap words from one line to the other.  So, this one little feature that I was so proud of figuring out actually turned out to be the selling point for the foremen to use my new program during the day at work.

I had originally written the program so that Mike could take it home and use it to store macros on the disk that would upload the data to the Mainframe in the morning, but now the foremen were using it during the day at work because it was easier to use than the actual program that talked directly to the mainframe.

It was fun writing a program that essentially wrote another program (macros) that would tell another program (GLink) what to do.  To me, it was the first step for me to take over the world (as one of my Managers at Dell used to accuse me of doing).  What I mean is, that if you could write programs that writes other programs, aren’t you essentially creating some sort of “Artificial Intelligence”?

Because of my initial experience with this effort, it has given me the idea to write a program called:  “Old Man”.  Someday, maybe when I retire, I want to write a program that will help old men… like I will be.  Old men that are losing their memory (like I will be… or already am).  And it will learn what the old man does and how he lives, and it will remind him to do simple tasks.  Basically, it will nag him like his wife would do if she was still living.  It will use voice recognition so it will speak and listen to the old man speak back.

The “Old Man” application will remind him to brush his teeth.  Go to the barber, wash the sheets on his bed.  The list can be endless, because it will learn what this person needs from scratch and dynamically build the database and infrastructure in the background to take care of this old man when he can’t remember if he has just taken his medicine already or not.  It will even make a shopping list for him and help him with cooking.  It will be connected to the Internet so that it can pull all sorts of information it needs.

The “Mainframe Emulator Commander” program that I wrote for Mike Vogle really was my first step to becoming a real nuisance at the plant, because after that, I wanted to write more and more programs. So, I was always on the alert as to what I could do next.  I will write about some of the things we came up with throughout this year.

Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post

Originally posted: July 12, 2014:

Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.

As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.

This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.

It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..

We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….

I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they could be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.

There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided I best stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.

That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.

A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.

“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.

Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.

Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….

So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Yeah.  Just like this

Yeah. Just like this — not not really

When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.

The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.

Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.

When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”

She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”

You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.

She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast New Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”

She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”

Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.

When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….

Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burghart.

A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer – without the “Quality” turned on

Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.

First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.

You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.

Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:

Fast-old-news

Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Fast-News-Header Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.

She said she would take care of it…. and she did.

Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.

Memo Ben Brandt Received

Memo Ben Brandt Received

So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.

When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.

When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”

Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.

He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.

At then end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.

I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.

It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….

Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.

I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 12, 2014

    Great story! I still applaud your initiative, enthusiasm, and risk-taking tenacity.

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      Thanks Ron.
      I am still amazed by how many times I am told that something is impossible when I’m already doing it.

  2. Dave Tarvee July 12, 2014

    How they ever let you get out of there is incredible, I guess you were just real popular all over the company LOL and proved things were not impossible to many times, what a group of talent at Sooner in one place unreal

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      That’s true Dave. It may sound like I was some lone wolf out there doing the impossible, but the truth is that we were surrounded by great Power Plant Men doing the impossible every day.

  3. Citizen Tom July 14, 2014

    Great story! I have been working with IT equipment since the early 80’s. The changes have been amazing, but I will never forget listening to a print job that made a printer sing (literally). The new printers are amazing, but the experts could make those first ones do the strangest things.

    The problem with the early computers, as you found out the hard way, is that almost any change involved programming. And since that early equipment was so costly, much of the testing had to be done on production equipment…….

    Anyway, it seems your management made the sensible decision to chalk up your mistake as part of the costs of training and testing.

  4. miller davidge iii August 9, 2014

    Couple of things…My wife is an IT person and I sent the link to this to her. She loved it.

Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild

Originally posted July 4, 2014.  Added some pictures:

I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done.  I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!”  I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.

I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes.    See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“.    Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“.  My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory.  I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene.

Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time.  This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989.  We had not yet been introduced to e-mail.  I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.

 

Craig Henry.  Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight.  Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the future that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup.  I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.

After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures.  I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today.  No.  I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe.  It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.

I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day.  I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor.  They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”.  Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.

At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny”  then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name.  At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.

Of course.  Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes.  With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny!  What if my wife found one of these notes?”  — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.

Note to Gene Day from Bunny

Note to Gene Day from Bunny (now she knows)

In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns.  Here is the code I used to create the bunny:

See?  I save everything

See? I save everything

In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”).  We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas.  By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!

My Customer Service Team Certificate.  This made me official!

My Customer Service Team Certificate. This made me official!

So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma?  Well.  This is what happened…

First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public.  Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company.  We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers.  That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer.  Each printer had a designation.  It was a four character ID beginning with a “P”.  So, the  printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P123.  I needed to know this number if I wanted to send  something to it.

At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company.  So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts.  So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.

If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer.  Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication.  This was the only way at the time.

So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company.  Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt.  I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before.  I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something.  They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.

Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?….   and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well.  One such idea popped up!

I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? —  You see, each quarter we received an updated copy of the Corporate Phone Book.  It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees.  It also included their mail code.  So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it.  Our mail code was PP75.  That was the code for our power plant.

So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things?  This was Brilliant!  We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”.  Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.

So, I suggested….  Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people on that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75.  — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe.  So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal.  I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer.  If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.

I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers.  I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence….  Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and…..  in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others.  So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.

I know.  I was rotten to Gene Day.  Here is an example of the header with the "GAS AND" in the middle of the name

I know. I was rotten to Gene Day. Here is an example of the header with the “GAS AND” in the middle of the name.  Remember.  This is on an old IBM Dot Matrix printer using the High Quality setting

After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75.  As I mentioned.  In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document.  Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.

I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the  printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working.  Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant.  They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma.  — With the thought that “My work here is done.”  I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.

The following Monday I had the day off.  When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office.  She said that I had a large stack of mail.  I thought, “Oh good!”  Results from our request on Thursday have arrived!  I hurried up to the front office.

When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were.  The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high.  “Um…. Thanks….”  I said to Denise.  I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.

After opening the first few envelopes.  I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery.  Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers….  I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer.  The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.

My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes.  I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers!  And Billing Printers!  “UH OH!”  quickly changed to “OH NO!”  When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up.  By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!

After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.

A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.”  (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s).  When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong.  Like I mentioned earlier.  Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like.  Here is one:

The same color of Tom Gibson's ears

The same color of Tom Gibson’s ears

Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it….  Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer?  Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.

 

James G. Harlow Jr.

James G. Harlow Jr.

Sorry.  That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….

Um what could I say?  So, I said this…

Well.  This was a quality idea that our team had.  We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.

I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on his printer.   No.  He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay.  So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…

So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST. — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.

Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval.  Is that clear?”

I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable.  I send things to other departments all the time.  I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time.  Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….

Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.”  — Ok.  I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity….  So, I happily agreed.  And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.

That was one thing about working at the plant at this time.  As long as your heart was in the right place….  That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.

I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done.  They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…

Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here:  “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have to go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  He is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when the copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant a few weeks later, they were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I forget the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned.

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years.

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said, “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and looked at the IT guy (Ed, I think is his name).  Ed just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Ed said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Ed replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Ed asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t every say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    ALways enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance

Originally posted January 17, 2014.  I added more to the story:

When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled each day to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover (See the post:  “Carpooling Adventures with Bud Schoonover“).  Dick Dale had moved to Ponca City a couple of years earlier after his divorce.  He didn’t want to continue living in Stillwater where he felt as if everyone knew about his tragic situation.  We had been friends from the first day we met when I was a summer help working out of the garage and he worked in the tool room and warehouse.

I wrote about Dick Dale this past Christmas, when I talked about his situation (See the post:  “Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas“).  I knew that even though it was a few years later, Richard was still feeling the impact from this emotional trauma.  One day I found the opportunity to play a “Power Plant” joke on him that I thought might help lift his spirits.

I recently wrote another post about how I had installed dumb terminals around the plant so that regular workers would be able to access the mainframe computer downtown in Corporate Headquarters in order to see their work orders, or look up parts in the warehouse, etc. (See the post:  “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“).  In most places where I installed terminals, I also installed large IBM printers that printed using continuous feed paper.

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

IBM Dot Matrix Network Printer

For those of you who remember, at first most dot matrix printers would feed paper from a box underneath them.  they had holes down both sides of the paper where the sprockets would rotate and paper would come rolling out the top of the printer.

Dot Matrix paper with holes so the printer can feed the paper through.  The holes sections with the holes were perforated so you could tear them off easily.

Dot Matrix paper with holes so the printer can feed the paper through. The holes sections with the holes were perforated so you could tear them off easily.

Ok.  Here is a quick one paragraph side story…

One day when my son was about 6 years old, we had to wait a while in an airport.  We were sitting in a row of seats at the gate waiting.  My son kept popping up slowly, jerking as he rose, from behind the row of seats and would lay over the seat back and end up head down on the chair.  After doing this a few times, my wife Kelly asked him what he was doing.  He said, “I’m paper coming out of the printer”.  Of course, this cracked us all up.

Anyway, back to the story.  By the time I had to add the dumb terminals and printers to the Garage and Warehouse, I had already been playing around on the mainframe learning all sorts of ways to get into trouble. — Well, what else was I going to do during lunch while Charles Foster and I talked about movies and stuff?  I had a personal user account on the mainframe that basically gave me “God Access”.  They didn’t really have anything like “Network Security” back then.  — This was 1988.

Back then, we also didn’t have anything called “Email” either.  It wasn’t until 1989 that CompuServe first offered real Internet e-mail to its users.  When we wanted to send something to someone in the company, we either printed it out and put in an intra-company envelope and sent it by “snail” mail, or we could find out what printer they used and get the ID for the printer and send it to them.  It was a code like:  P1234.

Well.  I had been playing with this text editor on the Honeywell mainframe called FRED.  This stood for FRiendly EDitor.  For those of you who know UNIX, this was pretty much the same as the VI Editor found on UNIX mainframes.  The commands were the same.  Today, users of Microsoft Word would be horrified to find out what you had to go through to create a document back then.

I had been practicing using this editor, and found that by using the special escape codes for the printer, I could create documents that would come out looking pretty neat.  So, I had created some templates that would make it look like I was printing a Memo from some mainframe program.  That was about the time that I installed the printer in the garage.

So, I created a big long document that would print out on the garage printer as soon as I connected the printer to the network.  It went on and on about how the printer wasn’t happy about being placed in such a dusty environment and how it refused to be cooperative until it was moved to a cleaner place.  It would spit out a bunch of sheets of paper, printing protest after protest.

Then it ended up by saying that if it wasn’t moved right away, it was going to shut down in 10 minutes and it started counting down by 30 second intervals.  Then at the last minute, it counted down by 15 seconds until it counted down the last 10 seconds by feeding a sheet of paper for each second while it was counting… then it paused at the last second.  Finally, it printed out at the end a concession that since it was obviously not going to be moved to someplace cleaner, it might as well give up and be cooperative.

When I installed the printer in the office in the automotive garage, I knew it would take about 30 seconds to connect the first time, and by that time, I was outside making my way back to the electric shop.  By the time I made it back to the electric shop Charles Patten was calling me on the gray phone.  The gray phone is the plant PA system:

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Of course, I knew why.  I answered the phone and Charles told me that something was wrong with the printer.  It kept shooting paper out of it and wouldn’t stop.  He had even turned it off, but when he turned it back on, it still kept feeding paper out.  I told him that sounded pretty strange to me and I would be right over to see what was going on.  I took my time returning to the garage giving the printer time to throw it’s tantrum.

By the time I returned, the printer had stopped ranting about being installed in a dirty environment and had given up it’s protest.  Charles said that it finally stopped.  I walked over to the printer and took the pile of hundred or so pages that it had printed out, and tore them off the printer and walked out with them.  I don’t even know if Charles had paid any attention to what the printer was saying.

I think I was the only person that knew that I had just “attempted” to play a joke on Charles.  After all, as the paper was feeding out.  It was carefully collecting into a nice stack in front of the printer on the floor, and unless someone picked up the stack and looked at it, they wouldn’t know that anything was even printed on it.  So, in this case, the joke may have been on me.  But then again, Power Plant Men are like that.  If they figure a joke is being played on them, then they figure out how to turn it around so that the joker is the one that has the joke played on them.  Maybe that was the case here.  Charles Patten was probably one of the most intelligent foremen at the plant, so it was possible.

Anyway, back to Dick Dale.  I installed the printer in the warehouse and Dick Dale, Darlene Mitchell, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover were happy to be connected to the Inventory program on the mainframe…..  um… yeah. sure they were…… especially Bud.

Bud Schoonover was the person that when it was his turn to run the tool room would not give you something if it was the last one.  So, if I needed a flashlight and it was the last one, and I asked Bud for a flashlight, he would say that he couldn’t give it to me.  Why?  You might ask.  Well, he would explain that if he gave the last one away, he would have to order some more.  Bud didn’t like ordering things on the computer.  So, in order to keep from having to order anything he simply didn’t give away the last one of any item.

Anyway.  I decided one Monday during my regular lunch time computer educational moments to send a letter over to the warehouse printer addressed to Dick Dale.  It was from an anonymous woman.  The letter sounded like it was from someone that really had a thing for Richard and remembered how they used to work together.  It also mentioned other people, like Mike Gibbs and Pat Braden and about how they used to hang around each other.

Since this was a fictitious character, I could say anything I wanted, but I wanted to put it in a time period back when I was still a summer help.  Well…  It wasn’t long before Dick Dale called me on the gray phone (no.  I won’t post another picture of the gray phone here.   I think you get the idea).  He asked me to come over to the warehouse.

When I arrived, Richard showed me the letter.  He was excited about it.  He was trying to figure out who it could be.  He thought about the people that had moved from the plant to Corporate Headquarters and wondered if it was one of them.  I thought for a little while, and I couldn’t come up with who it might be (obviously), since it was me.

The next day at lunch I sent another letter to his printer.  I mentioned more about the “old days” working at the plant.  On the way home Richard showed it to me.  I could tell that he was really excited about this.  I held back my smile, but inside it felt real good to see that Richard had finally come back to life.  For the past couple of years, he had been so down.  Now some woman was paying attention to him, and actually was telling him that she had always liked him.

Darlene Mitchell sent a letter to the printer ID I had sent in the letter to Richard, saying the following:

Dear Ghost Writer,

This has been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the warehouse in a long time.  We await your messages.  Dick is really trying hard to figure this out, and if you don’t give him a little hint, his little old brains are going to get fried.

He also requests that you send his messages to his printer only, that way I won’t be able to send my message back.  He takes all the fun out of everything.  P)24 is his number, and if you can’t get a response out of him, I’ll be glad to put my two cents in.

I’m sure Dick would like to see you too.  Maybe we can get him headed in your direction, if you tell me where that is.

So, long, see you in the funny papers.

<end of message>

On Thursday Richard called me and asked me to come over to the warehouse.  He showed me the letter he had received that day.  He said he was too excited.  He just had to find out who it was that was sending him these letters.  He said that since I knew everything there was to know about computers (a slight exaggeration), he asked me to see if I could find out where the letters were coming from.

I told him I would do what I could to see if I could track down who was sending the letters.  On the way home that day, he asked me if I had any luck.  I told him I was still looking into it.  I told him I thought there might be a way to find a log somewhere that would tell me.

So, after lunch on Friday I walked over to the warehouse.  When I entered, I signaled to Richard that I wanted to talk to him.  — Remember.  Richard and I had developed facial signals while carpooling with Bud Schoonover so that all we had to do was glance at each other and we instantly knew what each other was saying…

Richard and I stepped outside of the warehouse where we could be alone.  He asked me if I had found the person sending him the letters.  I told him I had (I knew I had to do this right or I would lose a good friend, so I said), “Yes.  I have.”

I could see the look of excitement in his face.  So I looked straight at him and I said, “I have been sending these letters to you.”  He was stunned.  He said, “What?”  I said, “Richard.  I have been sending them to you.”

I could see that he was very disappointed.  After all.  No two people could read each other’s expressions better than me and Richard.  We practiced them every day.  The corners of his mouth went down.  The middle went up.  Edges of the eyes went down.  Eyes began to water.  Yep.  He as disappointed to say the least.

I told him I was sorry to get his hopes up.  I put on the saddest look I could muster.  Inside I wasn’t so sad.  Actually I was pretty happy.  I knew this was a tough moment for Richard, but he had spent an entire week flying high.  For the first time in a long time, Richard had hope.  A  couple of hours of disappointment was well worth this past week.

I patted him on the back and he turned to walk back into the warehouse despondent.  I went back to the electric shop.

As for my part, I continued sending Dick Dale printed messages from time to time.  Just goofy messages like the following:

Dear Richard,

Sometimes when I type letters I find that the words I use are not always the typical type that I would use if I wrote a letter.  The letters that I make when I write a letter aren’t the type of letters that I use when I type a letter.  When I write a letter, the letters in the words are sometimes hard to distinguish, but the letters I type when i’m typing a letter are the type of letters that stand out clearly and uniformly.  I can’t really say that when I type I’m right, or when I write I’m right, because I usually type a different type of letter than I write when I’m writing a letter.  I typically use a different type of words when I’m typing than I use when I’m writing, so I really can’t say that writing is right when a typical typed letter is just as right as writing.  That is just the type of person I am.

Typical Typist

After a few more days, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale began sending me letters indicating that the warehouse workers had been taken hostage, and they had a list of hostage demands.  I would write back to them.  The hostage letters and my replies would make up an entire blog post just by themselves.

So, what followed this episode?  Well.  Within a few weeks  Dick Dale had attended an event at the Presbyterian Church in Ponca City where he met a very nice woman, Jill Cowan.  He began dating her, and within the year they were married on November 13, 1988.

I like to think that I had given him the kick in the pants that he needed at the time that he needed it.  For that one week where he had hope, he believed that someone else really cared for him.  If he could believe that, then maybe it could really be true, even if in this case it turned out to only be one of his best friends.

I know that Dick Dale lived happily ever after.  As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a post about Dick Dale about a time when I gave a Christmas present to Dick Dale, Christmas 1983.  Well. as it turned out, my friend Richard was presented to Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven 25 years later on Christmas Day, 2008, 20 happy years after his marriage to Jill.  I don’t really miss him.  He is always with me in my heart to this day.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Power Plant Men Take the Corporate Mainframe Computer Home

When the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma downsized from 218 employees to 124 employees in 1994, everyone was scrambling to figure out how we were going to complete all the work that needed to be done to keep the plant running.  We had become cross-functional teams which seemed to help right away, but we needed to know what jobs were the higher priority jobs, because it became obvious, at least for the short run, that we were not keeping up with the workload.

That was where the “Planners” came in.  In other industries, we may call these guys, “Project Managers”.  They planned the work, and gave us the Maintenance Orders when it was time to work on them.  At first, this was a daunting task for the four planners at our plant.  The planners were Mike Vogle, Glenn Rowland, Ben Davis and Tony Mena.

This was a new job for all of them.  Glenn Rowland had been an A Foreman for the Instrument and Controls Department.  Tony Mena had been on the Testing team.  Mike Vogle had been a B Foreman over the Labor Crew.  Ben Davis had been an electrician.  Now they were suddenly working on a computer all day long trying to learn how to plan their days so they could plan ours.  I currently don’t have any good pictures of this team, or I would let you see for yourself what great guys they are.

Oh.  Ok.  Here is a later picture of Mike Vogle which I absconded from his Facebook page:

Mike Vogle

Mike Vogle

At this time, though they were using the “state of the art” 286 PCs, they were really working on the Honeywell mainframe computer at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  They did this by using a Dumb Terminal emulator named GLink.  See the post: “Working Smarter Power Plant with Dumb Terminals” for a better explanation.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

The Power Plant Men knew that I liked to play around on the computers.  I was always going around helping people improve their computer experience by writing little programs that would do important things.  For instance, Windows back then had a screensaver that would fly the windows logo out from the screen so that it looked like you were flying into  the windows logos and they were passing you by.

Flying Windows Screensaver

Flying Windows Screensaver

In the executable program, if you changed the value of one particular byte, you could change the picture from the windows logo to any other of the 255 Wingding Characters.  This included things like Skull and Crossbones, Hearts, Crosses, Envelopes, Stars, Snowflakes and a lot more.  So, I was able to customize their screensavers using any of the wingding characters.

I wrote simple little programs to change their font size and color when they were using DOS, so they could read their screen easier (for the old timers that had a hard time reading the little letters).

Anyway, I had developed a reputation as not only being a troublemaker, but also of being a computer whiz. I have more stories to tell at a later time, but for now I will stick to the one about bringing the Honeywell mainframe home.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

Mike Vogle first asked me the question.  He explained to me that he was staying later and later each night at work doing his job.  The earliest he was leaving was after 7pm each day, and he didn’t have time anymore to even see his family by the time he arrived home. So, he asked me if there was some way he could take his home work with him.  What he would ideally like to do would be to take a disk from work with the Maintenance Orders on them where he could complete them.  Then the next morning bring that disk back to work and put it in the computer and load it into the system.

I can see that a lot of you are rolling your eyes wondering why he didn’t just log into the company network and work remotely.  Well, in 1994, the Internet was something new.  We didn’t have the Network infrastructure built yet that would allow something like that.  We were using Windows 3.1 on old 16 bit computers.  Most of the programs we were running on the computers were still Pre-Windows.  The GLink application, even though it had a windows Icon, was really a DOS program emulating a Dumb Terminal.

I told Mike I would look into it to see if there was some way I could emulate the emulator.  That is, write a program that would be able to interact with the GLink program to upload and download data from the mainframe automatically.  I was sitting in the Electric Shop Office with Charles Foster thinking about this over lunch when Terry Blevins came in.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

Terry and I had worked together the last seven years on the precipitators.  During the downsizing Terry was offered a job working on “Special Assignments”, which was a great move up for him.  We were all happy for him.  He had setup shop at the warehouse office where he could work part of the time from our plant instead of having to drive from Ponca City, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City to go to work.

When Terry came in to eat lunch with us, I told him what Mike Vogle had asked me.  Terry said right away that the GLink program had a Macro language that we might be able to use to automate the process.  This was just what I needed to hear.  If I could write a program that would write macros and send them to GLink to run, then that would do it.  I looked up the macro commands for GLink by opening up the Help section and printing out the list.

I used BASIC 7.0 (no.  Not Visual Basic, I hadn’t advanced that far yet).  BASIC 7.0 was the first BASIC that did away with line numbers and advanced a real second generation programming language.  It came out about the same time as MS Windows.  When I first bought the program, it was about $500.00 which was quite a lot for me.  But it allowed me to create actual DOS executables where I could do just about anything I wanted.

BASIC 7.0 Programmer's Guide

BASIC 7.0 Programmer’s Guide

Keep in mind that the language I was using to write the program didn’t know about Text Boxes, or even “Word Wrap” for that matter.  Everything that the user did on the screen, I had to take into account myself.  Just like I was working with a dumb terminal.  It didn’t understand “Word Wrap” either.  When you finished typing at the end of the line, if it jumped down to the next line in the middle of the word, you had to arrow up, and arrow to the right (forget using a mouse), and backspace until you had erased the letters at the end of the line, and then arrow back down to the next line and start typing again.

So, I put in my own logic for word wrapping because the mainframe window had only so many characters per line, and it had no mercy.  Everything had to be in the right box when you clicked on Submit.  When I was finished writing this program, I was so proud of myself for creating something as simple as “Word Wrap”.

Word Wrap, for those of you who don’t understand the phrase is when you get to the end of the line you are typing and instead of splitting the word up when it goes to the next line, it moves the entire word down to the next line.  You see it all the time now, but early on, the person writing a computer program had to take that into account if they wanted something to word wrap.  Windows Text Boxes and Word Processors had Word Wrap built in, so today a programmer doesn’t have to worry about all those little things, because the objects already know how to do that.  Just like this internet page knows how to do it.

Years later when I was interviewing for a Developer job with other companies and they would ask me what was one of my greatest programming accomplishments, I might blurt out “Word Wrap” before I realized how silly that sounds today.

Another problem I had was that strings of characters in the computer code are delimited by Double Quotes, so what happens when someone is filling out their Maintenance order and they use a Double Quote (“).  I didn’t think about this, and the first time I gave the program to Mike Vogle to test it out, it went all crazy and entered a bunch of bad data into a Maintenance Order because there was a Double Quote in it….. Yeah.  I forgot that if you want to say you worked on a four inch pipe, you would write that as 4” pipe.

So, my second great accomplishment when writing this program was to watch each key stroke, and if it was a double quote, then I would concatenate the string to another string around the double quote that was delimited with single quotes.  After doing all that, the program worked pretty good.  I gave it to Mike, and he tested it out and after making a few more tweeks, it was ready.

Mike could then take his disk of Maintenance orders home with him, and complete his work there, and in the morning he would put the disk in the computer, type a simple command, and it would open up GLink and start uploading all the work he did the night before.  Flashing screen after screen as it worked through all the Maintenance Orders.

Over time (not overtime, but Over Time, as in after a number of days or weeks, not like getting paid time and a half), the program became popular with some of the foremen, because it had Word Wrap and the GLink Emulator didn’t because it was emulating the Dumb Terminal which is too dumb to wrap words from one line to the other.  So, this one little feature that I was so proud of figuring out actually turned out to be the selling point for the foremen to use my new program during the day at work.

I had originally written the program so that Mike could take it home and use it to store macros on the disk that would upload the data to the Mainframe in the morning, but now the foremen were using it during the day at work because it was easier to use than the actual program that talked directly to the mainframe.

It was fun writing a program that essentially wrote another program (macros) that would tell another program (GLink) what to do.  To me, it was the first step for me to take over the world (as one of my Managers at Dell used to accuse me of doing).  What I mean is, that if you could write programs that writes other programs, aren’t you essentially creating some sort of “Artificial Intelligence”?

Because of my initial experience with this effort, it has given me the idea to write a program called:  “Old Man”.  Someday, maybe when I retire, I want to write a program that will help old men… like I will be.  Old men that are losing their memory (like I will be… or already am).  And it will learn what the old man does and how he lives, and it will remind him to do simple tasks.  Basically, it will nag him like his wife would do if she was still living.  It will use voice recognition so it will speak and listen to the old man speak back.

The “Old Man” application will remind him to brush his teeth.  Go to the barber, wash the sheets on his bed.  The list can be endless, because it will learn what this person needs from scratch and dynamically build the database and infrastructure in the background to take care of this old man when he can’t remember if he has just taken his medicine already or not.  It will even make a shopping list for him and help him with cooking.  It will be connected to the Internet so that it can pull all sorts of information it needs.

The “Mainframe Emulator Commander” program that I wrote for Mike Vogle really was my first step to becoming a real nuisance at the plant, because after that, I wanted to write more and more programs. So, I was always on the alert as to what I could do next.  I will write about some of the things we came up with throughout this year.

Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals

Originally posted January 3, 2014:

After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant.  I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more.  The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson.  Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.

Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office.  Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before.  When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”.  Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.”  But it was the most satisfying time.  Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.

This is what Tom told me to do…  He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant.  They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go.  There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant.  Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.

Then Tom told me the best part.  He wanted me to do it all myself.  Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff.  I think it will come in handy.”  As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”.  I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.

That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer.  When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”.  they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:

A DEC terminal like this.

A DEC terminal like this.

So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship.  One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile!  Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later.  But that is another story for another time.

I had two things right away that I had to figure out.  How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install.  They called these funny connectors “Hoods”.  The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue.  We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using.  They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:

 A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky.  Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times.  Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance.  St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items.  So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction.  This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster.  My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine.  I was working for Andy Tubbs).  So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.

One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office.  Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what?  there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room.  In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”

An old intercom sort of like this only in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

An old intercom sort of like this only older and in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore.  They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used.  Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere.  In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard!  And definitely in the office area.  This was just what I needed to hear.  My work was already half done.

I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out.  There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job.  In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer.  So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations.  So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on.  If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.

I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.

You see.  When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable.  Well.  A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair).  so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything.  The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…

An RJ45 Cable

An RJ45 Cable has 8 wires

So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare.  I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared.  It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head.  Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture.  The diagram I saw was this:

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

What?  This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds….  The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires.  Which means I only needed two pair.  And guess what?  The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used!  So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.

So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me).  I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence….  I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”

Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters?  Well.  It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff.  Yeah.  All of us were being introduced to the computer age.  From the janitor on up.

Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it.  You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company.  Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you.  But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you.  Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.

Ok.  So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up.  Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…

I, on the other hand was in hog heaven.  You see.  I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe.   After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”.  So, I took him up on it.  I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.

I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time.  As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it.  That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.

Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe.  It had this interesting feature called “Email”.  Yeah.  Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses.  So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.

Craig Henry.  Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information.  Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?

As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains…  I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.