A knotty solution

It’s easier than installing tiny speed bumps inside the power cords.

Computerworld  |  Shark Tank
Computerworld / IDG

It’s the late 1970s and pilot fish (who swears this tale is true) is working as an IBM customer engineer. No, fish explains, CEs didn’t design customers; they fixed typewriters.

As a new graduate of the company’s three-month training program, fish is assigned to accompany a senior CE to learn the ropes before being given a territory of his own. Many of the calls involve cleaning IBM Selectrics, which would slow down as their almost entirely mechanical workings became gummy with age. (Despite their name, there are only three electrical components to a Selectric typewriter: the motor, the on/off switch and the power cord.)

Most of the people using the typewriters didn’t go in for preventative maintenance, so by the time fish and his colleague were called in, the machines’ workings would be so gummed up that a thorough cleaning and lubing would make them noticeably faster. And having slowly become accustomed to the grime, many operators would complain that the clean keytops felt sticky. The senior CE had a trick to deal with that: He put a drop of oil on a rag and wiped the tops of the keys, and that would help the operators’ fingers glide across.

For one woman, though, this is no good. When asked to approve her Selectric’s condition, she complains that now it is too fast. Senior CE tries wiping the oil off the keytops, but she’s still dissatisfied. Then senior CE steps behind her desk and ties a knot in the power cord. “This slows down the electricity,” he explains. “Try it.”

Operator dithers: “Yes, that’s better, but…”

Senior CE ties another knot in the cord. “How about now?”

“That’s perfect!” operator exults. “Thanks!”

Fish can barely contain his amazement that this trick worked, but once outside, senior CE only smiles and says, “Sometimes it’s not as important to fix the machine as it is to fix the customer!”

Sharky has been gumming up the works for years. Help unstick things by sending me your true tales of IT life at sharky@computerworld.com. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

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