musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Month: May 2012

Republic Day

Today is the 31st of May, and between 1961 and 1993 was celebrated as “Republic Day”. For those that don’t know South Africa became a Republic on 31 May 1961, and in 1994 that portion of its history ceased to be.
I was originally going to post about the day, and a bit of history and similar odds and sods, but after reading somebody post on Facebook the usual tired old “donderse ingelse het ons vroue en kinders vermoor en verkrag” issue raised I decided I would not. His argument was that the old flag should never have had the Union Jack in it because  “die donderse ingelse het ons vroue en kinders vermoor en verkrag”.
I will be honest, I was born before we became a republic, technically speaking I was born in The Union Of South Africa, and I do not really have too much enthusiasm for the country that it became when it was made a republic. Large portions of its population were disenfranchised by a nationalist government that wore strange hats, sprouted heaps of old cobblers and justified everything they did in the name of the Afrikaner and/or the Bible. At school we were expected to attend some sort of rally and wave flags and sing national anthems and worship Afrikaner heroes. Thank God I was spared “volkspele”. I am unfortunately a “donderse ingelsman” so much of that was not pertinent to me then, and is still no longer pertinent.  
All I will say is that I am glad 1994 happened, as much as I hate what this country is becoming through corruption, crime, nepotism and power hungry politicians, I still prefer it now to what it was before, I love the new flag although the national anthem does kind of confuse me. And, before anybody says “dan fokof terug Engeland toe!” I have news for you, I was born in this place, as were my parents. I am however considering that fokof option just so that I no longer have to listen to some idiot waffling about “die donderse ingelse het ons vroue en kinders vermoor en verkrag”. Oh, and if I spot any Afrikaners in the UK I reserve the right to tell them to “fokof terug Suid Afrika toe!” 
Oh, and in passing. In March 2013 I fokofed to Engeland. And while it has not been all honey and roses, at least I feel a bit more at home here.
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:27

A Year on the Streets.

Round about this time last year I was ready to walk from my job.  People who have been keeping tabs will know that by mid May 2011 we had read the writing on the wall and had been packing our goodies just waiting for the axe to fall. On the 31st we got our “go away” letters as well as our months notice and all that goes with it.  Immediately prior to these letters we all received and email about the forthcoming “Carnival Day”;  kind of ironic when you consider one of the reasons for the closure of our factory was “financial”. 
Some staff members were destined to head off for employment within the company, others to the outsourcing company, and the rest of us were destined for the street. I was one of the new street occupiers. 
What has happened since then? I am still sans employment, and do the odd job here and there. I have applied for quite a few jobs in my line, and as usual, for every 10 CV’s you send out you may be fortunate enough to get a “no!” for at least one. I even had an interview with an agent, but I knew when I went there already that it was  a waste of petrol.
My new “career” in refrigeration? that never happened either. The course was a waste of money. All I really learnt there was how a fridge works, and nothing about what to do when it doesn’t. It is an interesting field though, but experience is the buzzword.   
The downscaling of my possesions continues, there are only 12 Twinns left, large portions of my train are gone, and my Titanic collection is no more. I have disposed of many books and DVD’s and am still busy working towards a point where I am able to downscale flatwise. Sadly though, accomodation is expensive, so I am staying where I am for now, I cannot save much by moving because the costs of moving will be negated by the costs to move.
The people who moved to the outsourcing company were themselves retrenched, most of those who were in such a rush to shut us down, and who did not listen to us when we pointed out the path we were on are also gone. What was it in aid of? who actually knows.
How much longer can I survive? possibly till December. After that? 
There may only really be this blog left to read.
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:31

Reading the Cards

One of the biggest problems that The South African War Graves Project has with the Roll of Honour for South Africa, are inaccuracies and omissions. Given that there was a war on, and given the authorities tendency to overlook portions of the population it is no wonder that we need to access the cards for individual servicemen.  
There are roughly 11000+ cards for World War 1 alone, and each has to be examined for the crucial rubber stamp that indicates where the servicemen/women ended up. There are a number of stamps in use. “WOUNDED IN ACTION, KILLED IN ACTION, DIED OF WOUNDS, MISSING, DEATH ACCEPTED ON OR SINCE, DIED; and possibly a few others that I have left out.  
Ironically, the stamp that does not interest us is the one that reads “DISCHARGED“.   Occasionally we will find one that has “PRISONER OF WAR” on it, followed by “REPATRIATED“, this is one that bears scrutiny as repatriated POW’s could die of influenza in 1918 or as a result of their war service.
The  cards also provide a fascinating glimpse of the military mind and the way that it’s system worked during World War 1. When I first saw “Discharged: Dentally Unfit” I thought there was typo on the card, but later on I found more like it, and on a few occasions servicemen being discharged for refusing dental treatment. It does leave me pondering the quality of military dental practioners, as well as the state of the teeth of some of the men involved. On some of the records are long paragraphs about punishment received for infringements of military discipline. These can range from being docked  3 days pay, up to 14 days “confined to barracks” or being discharged completely from service.  The usual incidents warranting such punishment ranged from loosing a piece of equipment, to being absent from parade, drunkedness, or disobeying a “superior” officer.  One incident did stick in my mind and that was “being in possession of a towel“. 
Some of the cards tell unique stories, the case of the man promoted to temporary Lieutenant in October, and loosing his life in February of the next year. Or the man who died of dysentry while waiting for a ship to repatriate him back to South Africa. Or the man that died during the voyage home and who was buried at sea; there is a story behind each one of these cards.
A few things stick in my mind though, many servicemen died of malaria, blackwater fever, enteric fever and dysentry as a result of their service in the East African Campaign. Many survived to return home, only to be struck down by the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Some were discharged after the South West African Campaign, only to re-attest and then get killed in France.  Many would die later as a direct result of their service in the military, and some would attest once again when called upon during World War 2. Most of the cards that I photographed tie into a grave, or into a name on a memorial.
Of interest to myself is the names of troopships that carried these men back and forth, many were Union-Castle Line vessels and their names would have been familiar to those who were ship watchers on our coast.  I have yet to find the name Mendi on any of those cards, but it is early days yet.
Irrespective of their military achievements, each one of these was an individual. Some had wives and children, all had mothers, some were poor, some were middle class, some were of African extraction, some were of European extraction. Many of their lives were cut short in a war that probably was not really necessary. That war would change the face of Europe and would be followed by an even greater carnage in 1939. Once again the military machine would haul out its pens and cards and start all over again, creating records of lives that were in their keeping until the day they were filed away with that rubber stamp.     

© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 24/03/2016

Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:31

Return to Heidelberg

Following my trip to Heidelberg earlier this year, I was determined to head out there again for a second look. I had missed some of the historical sites on that visit, and when the Johannesburg Photowalkers advertised a walk in Heidelberg I jumped at the chance.  Their itinerary included the Klipkerk, Methodist Church, old jail, Kloof Cemetery and a walk around the area where the Town Hall was. I was itching to go back to Kloof Cemetery and to pick up the Concentration Camp Memorial I had missed in January at the Camp Cemetery.  

We met up at the Majesteas Salon at 67 H.F. Verwoerd Street in Heidelberg and after a great brekkies headed off to the old jail.
Today the jail is home to the Suikerbosrand MOTH shellhole, but its origins are very visible in the large locks, heavy doors and extreme security. Like so many of these institutions it is very difficult to imagine what it must have been like in the days when people were incarcerated in it, but it still feels grim and foreboding, and the military artefacts do lend themselves to contributing to the atmosphere.
On 23 June 1902, a Veldkornet, Salomon Van As was executed by firing squad against the back wall of the jail, having been found guilty of the murder of Captain Ronald Miers  on 25 September 1901. Today the bullet holes from that execution can still be seen on a stone that has been picked out in white paint on the back wall of the building.
Coming back from the jail we passed a number of old buildings, many of which have historical significance
We walked around the town centre, stopping at the Town Hall where I was able to photograph the Triumvirate Monument In front which I had not been able to do previously. The Triumvirate Monument was designed by Hennie Potgieter and consists of a 4,5m obelisk with busts of Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert and M.W.Pretorius who were known as the Triumvirate. It  was erected in remembrance of their governance of the ZAR. 
The Town Hall is a particularly attractive building, its cornerstone being laid on 2 June 1939, having been designed by Gerhard Moerdyk. 
We also stopped at the very attractive Methodist Church which dates from 1895.
As well as seeing a variety of old houses, one of which was occupied by The Standard Bank of British South Africa between August 1879- December 1881.
 There are a number of old buildings in this area, one being Pistorius Geboue, dating from 1925,
The home of the Afrikaans Poet AG Visser is also close by, with a bust of him within its grounds.
Close by is the Heidelberg Volkskool which was proclaimed a national monument in 1970. The building was erected in memory of the 862 inhabitants of Heidelberg and districts who sacrificed their lives during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).
I also discovered the pretty Parish of St Ninians Anglican Church close by,
 and the Hervormde Church in the next block.
On our way back to our vehicles, we were fortunate enough to be able to get into the grounds of the magnificent “Klipkerk” which is opposite the Town Hall.  The foundation stone for this church was laid in 1890 by Cmdt-Gen PJ Joubert. 
From there we headed off to Kloof Cemetery where I was able to add even more images to my collection from this beautiful cemetery. I was also able to photograph the Jewish Cemetery, and like so many of the cemeteries I visit, I wished that there was something written down about these spaces and their occupants, but alas, only headstones tell the tales.
Random Images.
Then it was off home, and in the back of my mind a small nagging image remained: Between the petrol price and toll fees, could this be the future of transportation in Gauteng?
DRW © 2012-2018. Images recreated 24/03/2016, added additional images 20/04/2017, link recreated 04/03/2018
Updated: 05/03/2018 — 07:22


This past weekend (05-06 May 20-12), saw one of those astronomical events that generally makes you reach for the camera. To quote the blurb… “A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon or new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit” Or something like that. I am no astronomer, so will leave you to read about it yourself.  
My approach is reasonably simple. I have access to a telescope, have a camera and tripod, and love to experiment. The limitations are as follows: the camera with the best optical zoom (x12) does not fit in the telescopes viewfinder and is very difficult to get to work in modes that I am not familiar with. The simpler x3 optical zoom camera works best with the telescope, but as a standalone camera to get decent resolution images is useless.
We started watching around about 6.00 pm. yesterday, I spotted this red glowing orb on my way to our photography session, and about 30 minutes later we could see the moon in all its glory. It was bright, and big and really quite impressive.


It was evident though that the brightness was fooling my camera so we tried some viewfunder shots instead. They came out very well, although trying to photograph that image completely was very difficult seeing as how quickly the moon would go out of the viewfinder.

It is an impressive sight when you really get to see those craters and markings on the moon, although there was no sign of a Rabbit or Man anywhere in sight on that desolate place.

A quick break and then I tried my other camera and its zoom. It is a bit of a problem trying to figure out how to navigate through all those menus, but with much experimentation I eventually found that going into manual override mode I could  use the optical zoom to the max and I finally got results that looked good. These two were taken about 8.30 pm from where I stay.

I must admit I enjoy taking photographs like that. My particular favourite is a daylight moon which taxes my ability to hold a camera still.

And an eclipse is always a lot of fun. Although given the limited view I have of the sky, I am not always as successful as I could be.

August 2011.

August 2011.

Roll on next celestial happening, if I can remember how to do it I will be out there with my camera once again.
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 24/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:34

Coal Burning Computing.

I went into the computer industry in 1986 as a “Technical Support Engineer” and worked on the bench doing repairs to a variety of different machines. I never got to work as one of those highly paid support guys who walked in, declared the unit bust and took it back for idiots like me to repair. The decline in the industry in South Africa finally ousted me and I no longer work with computers. Maybe its a good thing because when I look back……

The company I joined (Visiondata (Pty) Ltd) in 1986 were dealers and distributors for the Ontel, Hartley and Point 4 brand of computers in South Africa. The PC as we know it today did not exist as yet and small micro’s like the Commodore and Atari were the only ones available on the home markets. On my first day at my new job I was dumped right into the deep end and given an Anadex Rapid Scribe printer to repair. It had an intermittent fault on it which we were trying to localise using a variety of techniques. I sat and stared at that machine like an idiot, I had no clue about things like “on line”, “self test” “form feed” “VFU” and carriage and feed motors. After all, I had joined the company with the intention of learning about this stuff. 

I had been allocated to the workshop of the Ontel department and that implied fixing Ontels and all their peripherals as well as any other odds and sods which may have come my way. 

The Ontel came in a few models, the OP1-R, OP1-SA, OP1-70, and I seem to recall an OP1-15 as well. It usually had a large hard drive attached to it, and that would be either a Diablo 44B or CDC Hawk 10M drive, or as in the one model, an 11 (Could be 8″) Inch dual floppy disk drive (Tandon?). Some of our customers had the Phoenix 96M HDD and they were usually running the OP1-SA, all of which were connected to a separate file controller by means of a flat multi-pin Winchester cable. The one version of the Ontel could handle its own semi dumb Ontel terminal which was attached by means of its own cable. The CPU was a huge machine with a massive VDU for the time, possibly 12″ and had a cardcage which housed the processor board, a display board, 2 memory boards and 4 addition controllers, one being a drive controller and the other being a printer controller.
The South African machines had paper white screens and many tubes were very burned in after all the years. Repairing these machines was a mission, the VDU had its own video board which had components which were not available in SA so we had to resort to a generic equivalent in the horizontal drive circuitry, we couldn’t get line output transformers for them so we cannibalized old machines. The repairs were straight forward horizontal field collapse or vertical stability. 
A main power supply was housed underneath the VDU and it was only accessible with major surgery, lucky it wasn’t too temperamental but it had some huge caps in it. I do recall that each time we removed the VDU section we hauled out our biggest screwdriver and discharged the tube. The controller boards were a different story, and we were fortunate in having spare boards to use for comparison and there weren’t too many component level repairs to carry out. Most of the problems we seemed to have were related to communication between the CPU and the printer, drive or terminals. Luckily we did have diagrams. mnemonic lists, and very basic circuit descriptions. The unit would come ready when the 4 status lights came on and if I remember correctly was obtained by the 6th key on the keyboard, about where F6 is on a modern keyboard. Then we were running HDOS and all that it entailed. Our software seemed to be written in a language called SACBOL which was supposedly a South African version of Cobol.

The one version of the Ontel (OP1-15?)  was a glimpse into the future with its green screen and ergonomic beige cabinet, it was much better looking than the old OP1-SA. Its boards were all clipped onto each other and slid into the case on slides which ran underneath the screen. We only had 2 of these machines, the one suffering from a mysterious intermittent contact that swift slap would cure. Nobody ever found the fault on that one.

Fault finding the memory was another chore, there was a special Eprom that loaded a memory test, and by looking at the combination of status lights and the graphical display we could get a fair idea of what chip was faulty. I suspect the memory boards were 16K per board. The other way was the finger test… any ram chip that fried your spit wet finger was sure to be faulty. We made the printer controllers ourselves and it was easier to replace all 16 chips on it than look for an individual faulty chip.

The biggest problem we seemed to have were with the HDD’s and file controllers as well as the flat ribbon cable between the 2. Many of these were very old and cranky and the cables had a tendency to loose connections. Our customers were also very fond of ignoring backups and when the drives crashed it was always a major mission to restore from the last known good backup with its attendant data loss. I also encountered the huge gap between programmer and technician and we spent our lives running after them.

The CDC and Diablo 44B 10M we had were huge machines, easily weighing in at about 150lbs each. They had a fixed platter and a removable diskpack of 5M capacity each. The 4 heads were mounted on a voice coil and a very big heavy magnet along with a huge transformer and steel chassis made up the weight of these machines. Between the Diablo and CDC, I found that the CDC was the more reliable of the 2. We very rarely did component level repairs on the drives, but head and platter changes were the norm on the Diablo’s. These drives had very high quality filtration systems and the read/write heads floated on a cushion of air when they were loaded and a head crash was when the head physically contacted the platter.  Head crashes were a common occurrence for these units, because they were supposed to be housed in a climate controlled environment and would ordinarily be very reliable, however our customers very rarely seemed to adhere to this practise. A speck of dust could literally crash a drive.

Diablo 44B font panel

When a crash occurred the drives were brought into the workshop (manually carried up 3 flights of stairs I might add) and part of my job was to get it back to working condition once again. First I would strip out the old platter, heads and filters, then service and clean what had to be done, then install a new platter, filter and heads and then start her up.  A bad crash would leave the drive full of iron filings and I found Prestik very useful.  We would leave the machine to purge and get to operating temp before attempting to do the alignment. The variations in temperature were catered for in the drive but our workshops were neither dustfree or air conditioned so we had to make sure that we monitored the ambient temperature. The removable platter in the Diablo was located under the circular aluminium cover in the bowl.

Disk bowl

The head alignment was critical, it involved getting the heads to be not only 90 degrees to the axis of the machine, but at the correct distance from the sector mark.

Top (removable) platter R/W heads

The top heads were very critical as they had to read the boot sector of the removable platter. A removable disk was theoretically readable on any correctly aligned disk drive, and a removable disk that did not read on a correctly aligned drive was either faulty or the alignment of the drive it was written on was out of spec. The drive was hard sectored and the sector marks were on the disk hubs. The sensor that read the sector marks on the hub had to be the correct distance from the sector marks and aligned at the correct angle to the marks.  You can see the sensor (white object in the disk bowl) in the first image above.  We used a special removable disk called a CE pack to do the alignment with as well as an oscilloscope and lots of patience.  Once you put the diskpack into the bowl and closed the side latches the drive would be started, as it started the latches would be locked with solenoids and  as the disks spooled up a set of motor driven brushes would sweep out of a recess next to the heads and brush across the platters as the machine got up to speed. The next event would be the heads loading, with a resounding “thunk” noise.  A grinding noise was bad news.
The voice coil could also be manually operated by a switch and our hearts would give a little bump when we triggered those heads to load. 
Then we would run diagnostics after formatting the bottom surface. There were a few things we could do, but mostly we would copy one good working disk to the bottom platter and then run a compare between it for a few hours. We were also able to read individual sectors using a utility called “hzap” and could manipulate the data within. Often the programmers were working down to this level when the customers encountered a problem.

I also used to work on the Phoenix 96 MB HDD’s  although I was only limited to filter and head changes as well as cleaning and purging.

Phoenix 96M HDD front view

The head alignment on these drives was even more critical, and the wrong move could crash the drive, and, when they crashed they did so spectacularly. I seem to recall that they had 2 fixed disks and 1 removable disk (6 heads in total), and they had to operate within even stricter parameters of temperature and dust. One of our customers had at least 18 of these beasties and their computer room had its own underfloor air con running 24/7 to keep them within the operating temperatures.

Read/Write heads

The drives were connected to a file controller via flat ribbon cables with Winchester connectors on and these were very prone to going faulty, more so than the drives were. The Phoenix was very similar in operation to the 10M drives, although much more critical because it was a quicker drive and had a much greater capacity (96M as opposed to 10M). I seem to recall that the one fixed patter was written with the sector information which made the fixed surfaces soft sectored. The Phoenix also had a lo air/no air sensor in its filter and a special latch on the front door that would be locked by a solenoid. The diskpack was also slotted into a front loading tray which meant that you could stack drives on top of each other, the 10M’s you had to move the drive forward on rails to drop the diskpack in.

Phoenix from above with top cover removed

I would say at least 1 day of my week was spent working on these drives, but as more customers began moving way from the Ontel so we ended up with more spare machines. I also used to repair the printers for the company, and as I became more proficient I ended up working on a variety of machines, from the Okidata, Seikosha, Citoh, Centronics, and Anadex right through to the big line matrix printers like the Printronix P300 and P600. I also started to help with the modifying and repair of dumb terminals which were used with the Point 4 equipment which we also used to distribute. By the time I joined the company in 1986 many customers were moving away from the Ontel and replacing them with other machines. We tried to sell them the Point 4, but alas many felt that they had had enough of the company. Oddly enough though, many customers were determined to not get rid of the Ontel as most of the software was custom written for them and migrating it and the data wasn’t always successful.

The Point 4 was more of a “mini” computer and was the technical directors personal empire. He was loath to pass on any information on the machine and handled the repairs to them himself. I was saddled with the QUIC interface tape streamers and the terminals and printers. The Point 4 came in a few formats, usually housed in 19″ racks or in their own self contained case. If my memory serves me correctly there was the MK2 which wasn’t widely used and which had a old quarterback tape streamer and a 90M Kennedy drive, the MK5 which used the Phoenix 96M drive, the MK9 which had small Maxtor drives in them (possibly 45M) and the MK12 which had a variety of combinations of drives. These units were mostly installed in a chain of private hospitals and we also supplied the terminals and printers for them. We used mostly Televideo TVI925/910 and Qume terminals but later introduced Tatung and Wyse terminals. We ran them in VT100 emulation mostly, although later on we were using Wyse emulations. The Televideo were the most reliable of the lot and were easy to repair, most faults were video and communications related. It had a large electrolytic capacitor in the horizontal circuitry and periodically this would burst with spectacular results. The biggest problem with the Televideo was that it took up a whole desk when opened up. The Tatung was in our opinion not an ideal machine, especially when it got older. Its keyboards were very prone to problems and the video side of them was a bit of a nightmare. They were difficult to strip and I eventually had to manufacture a jig so that I could work on the boards outside of the machine. The Qumes were a pleasure to work on, their only failing was that the lettering would wear off the keyboards. 

Lightning is a problem in the summer months and I must have changed hundreds or 1488, 1489 and 75154 chips in my time at the company. We also used to maintain a variety of multiplexers and dreaded summer for the many lightning strike victims. When we moved across to the Altos machines we had what were known as TCU’s (terminal cluster units) with 8 terminals per unit, and at some of our customers lightning would take out 5 TCU’s at a time. Oddly enough we never saw this kind of damage on an Ontel.  The standalone terminal was very prone to spikes and often we had to repair its boards down to component level, unfortunately, when these were blown then they were really blown badly and often we had to scrap the boards. Overall the Ontel was a very reliable machine, it seemed as if the peripherals were the most finicky of them all. I do recall that they used a parallel keyboard and it was a mission to repair them due to the sheer size of the unit. There were 4 allen bolts to undo to access the keyboard and as we use the metric system we never had the correct allen keys, and if we did have them they were usually too long and we would have to balance the CPU on the edge of a desk and try release the keyboard from the unit. Fixing printers was a challenge, some of the early dot matrix printers were large and heavy, and like the Anadex, very temperamental. I did find that the most reliable seemed to be the Citoh range, and many of the older Okidata’s ran for many years. As time passed though the tendency was for the printers to become more cheaply made and with more features but none of the reliability that we saw in the earlier models. The early laser printers were expensive and somewhat of a mystery to us and only many years later would I get to fix these units regularly. The printers which by necessity I became a fundi on in later years were the Printronix range.

Printronix P600

Printronix P600 Line Printer

I left Visiondata in 1995 and joined a company that were the agents for Printronix in South Africa. There I took over the component level repair of these complex but reliable machines. There was a lot to learn and in between 1995 and 1997; by then I was doing the board repair and workshop support for the whole of South Africa on Printronix. I never saw or heard about another Ontel after that.

This was written a number of years ago, and is as I remember it.

Images of the Phoenix and Diablo are courtesy of Andre Schaefer of  Nova 3/12

Trade names and brands are copyright to their respective copyright holders.

© DRW 2012-2017. Images recreated 24/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:34
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