After 48 years in the business Bob Stewart has earned the right to put his feet up.
The former Unisys engineer needs to. He’s had two knee replacements because of osteo arthritis, which he believes may partly have been caused by years of working in air-conditioned computer rooms.
His is a classic tale of getting into the computer industry almost by accident.
“When I left Kings High School in Dunedin it was a tough year to get bursaries. My parents weren’t that well off,” he recalls.
“I was passing a shop window one night with a friend and saw a card punch and thought that might be interesting to work on. My friend’s brother worked at Burroughs, and the brother introduced me there.”
Stewart began working for Burroughs in 1960 as a utility clerk, selling adding machines and managing their consumables.
“After a year or so, I was gradually trained through the product range, up to wide-carriage account machines.”
In the mid 60s, he was trained on the mainframe at Southland Frozen Meats. He recalls it had just 4.8kb of memory and did all the processing for SFM’s two killing plants. “We punched one inch of tape for each carcass killed – there were up to 30,000 killed each day.”
Stewart transferred to Invercargill at the end of 1962 as an engineer, training on bigger computers. A few years later he worked on the next-generation Burroughs 2500.
“In the early 1970s, Burroughs got a contract to deliver large mainframes to the five universities – Auckland, Massey, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. I was transferred back to Dunedin in 1972 and did the install there.”
Subsequently, he was sent to Auckland where he remained for the rest of his career with Unisys as a senior customer service engineer.
In nearly five decades, he has seen many changes in the industry. The one that stands out for him is the reduction in the physical size of storage. “The 6700, for example, has several hundred printed circuit boards in a box 6 feet by 6 feet by 18 inches. That was just one processor. Now we’re talking of a chip an inch square.
“When I started with Burroughs, we used to travel by public transport. Then we used our own cars, then company vehicles.
“Back in those days, we used to trouble shoot to the component level. Then field replacement units for ancillary products got bigger and bigger, up to whole box replacement.”
One change that he says had surprisingly little effect in New Zealand was when Burroughs merged with Sperry in 1986 to form Unisys.
“Sperry had a much smaller installed base and only a handful of staff. The only real differences were the operating systems – Burroughs MCP and the Sperry O/S.”
There are, he says, still a handful of machines in New Zealand still running the Sperry operating system.
So what defines a mainframe these days?
Stewart says they’re now called legacy systems. “A lot of companies tend to keep them and build their businesses around them. That’s because of the reliability and the investment put into development.”
One of the buzz phrases today is virtual memory. But it’s not so new. Stewart says that in the 1960s Burroughs introduced head per track disk that was the equivalent of virtual memory. “It has an access time of around 20 milliseconds, which wasn’t reached by other disk types for some years.”
Of all the generations of Unisys technology, his favourite is the Libra series. “It was the most innovative from the late ‘90s on. It had a different concept of built, no fixed coding, soft micro codes and hardware changes were much fewer.”
How does the Unisys of today differ from the past? “It is just like any other company, having to change with the times and the market.
“I didn’t expect to stay there all my working life. When I started, I was earning less than nine pounds a week. If you got to 20 pounds, you’d made it. One thousand pounds a year was the target.
“People today, though, are working longer hours.”
As might be expected, Stewart has his share of war stories. One that stands out was a system move where the carrier had loose ties on the truck and as it went round a corner, a reader flew off. “That was spectacular.”
Then there was the company awaiting delivery of a new system. The manager was waiting outside to show it off to the company directors. Unfortunately, the machine was lying on its face in the truck. Again, the driver had forgotten to tie it down.
After taking time off for his knee operations, Stewart moved out of the field to working on some internal Unisys projects.
“I was past 65 and thought it was a good chance to look at retirement.”
He plans to be busy, firstly learning bridge “to keep my mind active”, and secondly through working on his family genealogy. “My family moved here from Scotland and had a fish mongering business in Dunedin from 1860. They only sold the building in 1990.”