Tuesday 14 June 2016

Telex - and me

A Model 7 machine with its operator, 1959
Before email, before fax, there was a way of sending written messages reliably and securely between distant offices. It was called Telex. It worked much like the telephone, there were numbers and exchanges (central offices), and you called whoever you wanted, anywhere in the world, to send them a message. Instead of a telephone, you had a teleprinter. As you typed, your message would appear by magic on the distant machine also. You could even hold a conversation, taking it in turn to type messages to each other on the same connection. The Telex network was at the heart of banking, shipping, trucking, insurance and many other industries.

The teleprinter was independently invented by several organisations in the early 1920s. Originally they were connected together in pairs, one at head office and one in a branch. The limitations of this are obvious, and a switched network allowing anyone to talk to anyone else was an obvious next step. The first public Telex network in the world opened in Germany in 1933. It really prospered in the 1950s. Only recently, with first fax, then various computer network technologies, has it been eclipsed. The UK network closed in 2008.

When I was 16, like all students I wanted to earn some money during the school holidays. I could type well, thanks to the typewriters my mother had at home when I was small. One summer I worked as a typist, but my mother's advice was that there was more money to be made as a Telex operator. Back then this was considered a special skill - a company wouldn't expect a normal typist or secretary to be capable of it. Telephonists were just the same, even a small office would have a dedicated telephone operator at the company switchboard. When I started work at DEC in 1974, we had three of them for an office of maybe 200 people.

There were agencies that specialised in this kind of staff. I chose one called "Three T's" - for telephone, telex and... no idea, probably not telegraph though. I got in touch with them, and went along for an interview.

My mother's office had a Telex - though no operator since my mother took care of it herself. Even the boss knew how to work the machine there. It would have been smart to have spent a couple of hours using it before I went for the interview. But I didn't. So when they sat me down in front of their brand new Post Office Model 15 Telex machine, it was quite literally the first time I'd ever set eyes on one. This wasn't really very smart, but using my mother's description of how it worked I was able to figure it out in real time sitting in front of the machine. I even got complimented on how well I knew the machine!

So that was it, my career as a telex operator was launched. The next day I was working at one of the big investment banks somewhere in the City. They were a real heavy duty Telex user, with a bank of half a dozen machines, and operators to match. Some of the machines were used for live traffic, while others were used to prepare and verify messages on paper tape. Each message was a financial transaction, sometimes involving truly vast amounts of money, so a lot of attention was paid to getting it right.

All of the permanent staff were female. This was nearly always the case, though occasionally I'd come across an ex-military guy especially in the banks. A lot of the ladies had been trained during World War II, so by now were of a certain age. At one place I overheard two of them grumbling about the new generation of machines: "Oh, they're trying to make it so any old typist can use a Telex, well we know that's not possible, it needs special training, that's what it needs." And so on and so on.

The WWII era machines did require a bit of special understanding. There were still quite a few of them around in 1969, though they were disappearing. They were originally designed in 1931. They had a hammer green enamel finish and a very stark external design, with no concession to aesthetics. Under the cover was a massive electric motor and equally substantial mechanical parts, whose job was to convert faint electrical pulses into the position of a typewheel.

Keystrokes were converted to the Baudot Code for transmission. This has only five bits per character. By the time necessary control characters like line-feed are included, there are only 26 possible characters - not entirely coincidentally, the number of letters in the alphabet. To include numerals and punctuation required shift characters. If you pressed the key marked with W and 2, what actually got printed (both locally and remotely) depended on whether you had last pressed the letter-shift or figure-shift key. The operator had to remember this. She (usually) also had to pace the typing speed exactly to the mechanics of the machine. If you tried to type too fast, letters went missing. But if you went too slowly, you wasted time and on the Telex network, time was very much money.

There was another version of the same machine that had a paper tape reader and punch, so you could prepare your message without connecting, check it for accuracy, and then send it at the full speed of the network (about 7 characters/second).

A collection of Model 15 machines
The newer machines, called the Model 15, were much more modern, with a smooth grey finish and black plastic keys. They all had paper tape readers and punches. They had a four-row keyboard, like a typewriter. You still had to select letter or figure shift, as appropriate, but the inapplicable keys were physically blocked, so you wouldn't end up sending gibberish. I'm not sure that a regular typist could use one without a bit of training, but they were a lot less daunting than the old green ones.

Both types had a separate box for managing the connection to the Telex network. This had a dial, and several buttons to do the equivalent of picking up the phone and hanging up. It was a good size, well over a foot long and weighing about 15 kilos. Inside it was packed with relays and other signalling equipment.

One of the great advantages of Telex was security. When you made a connection, you could send a special code called "who are you" (or WRU) which triggered a mechanism in the remote machine to send a unique preconfigured response, called the "answerback". You could also send your own, by pressing a key marked "here is". Once you'd been through this exchange, each end knew with certainty who it was talking to. Hence Telex could be safely used for large financial transactions and other expensive commitments like sending a giant container ship to the other side of the world.

A Model 7 with paper tape, revealing its insides and showing
 the easily-blocked "here-is" key just above the keyboard,
slightly to the left.
At least, that's what everyone believed. The truth is, if you knew what you were doing, it wasn't secure at all. It was very easy to defeat the answerback mechanism. On the Model 7, all you needed was a pencil. When the machine received the WRU signal, the Here-Is key, perched awkwardly above the keyboard, dropped down to start sending the signal. If you wedged a pencil under it, you were then free to type whatever you wanted. On the Model 15 it took a little more mechanical ingenuity, but it could certainly be done, a very tiny adjustment inside the cover which could as quickly be restored. Whether anyone took advantage of this to commit fraud, I have no idea (honest).

How did I know about this? Whereas the banks ran their Telex machines flat out, there were several places I worked where there was hardly any traffic. One in particular was a timber merchant somewhere in East London, maybe Hackney. I doubt that there were even half a dozen messages a day. No doubt for security, the machine and its operator were in a closed, windowless office. There was plenty of time for a mechanically curious youngster, fascinated by how these machines worked, to investigate. It was at this place that I stripped a Model 7 down to its component assemblies, discovering all its inner secrets. I'm sure this was a serious infringement of the Post Office regulations, but if anyone had asked I would have said it had jammed and I just happened to know how to unjam it. Nobody would have been any the wiser. Luckily no messages tried to come in while I had the machine in pieces.

Some banks had their own dedicated international circuits. I worked at one that had its own dedicated circuit to New York, which must have cost a fortune. But to save money, it had some electromechanical trickery that meant it ran at a quarter of the normal speed. The Post Office sold the other three quarters of the circuit to other customers. It was odd to watch it ticking away in slow motion. What was really impressive though was one of the operators - unusually, a man - who could type at exactly the right speed, just less than two characters per second, to match the line speed. This being the 1960s, he did it with a lit cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

I did the Telex gig for a couple of summers, as well as some of the shorter holidays. I never told the agency that the first time I ever saw a Telex machine was when I walked into their office. But it didn't seem to matter, because for years afterwards, long after I had my degree and was working as a software engineer for far more money than 3Ts could ever hope to pay, they would get in touch with me every summer and ask whether by any chance I was free to go and replace a holidaying Telex operator.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

The Rag Trade

After the War (which is to say in 1945), my Dad got a job in a London shop selling "trimmings". It sounds like something unsavoury from the butchery trade, but actually it means everything used in making clothes except the cloth - cotton, buttons, zips, elastic, linings and interlinings, and a host of other things most people don't even realise exist. For fifteen years he would take the train to London in the morning, to the shop on Old Street just north of the City and close to the sweatshops of Islington and Hoxton.

Then when I was about eight, he returned from our ritual week's holiday with my grandmother in Dovercourt to be told, "Sorry Reg, business isn't good, I'm going to have to let you go." And that was that, no employment protection then. Luckily my mother worked, part-time, but we had a typical working class hand-to-mouth existence and this was a disaster.

My Dad had few really sellable skills, so finding another job wasn't easy. Like nearly all of his generation he left school at 14. After a few false starts, he was lucky to find someone else in the same business who was willing to pay for him to learn to drive, for a job as a combined salesman and delivery driver.

The firm had the very British name of "Shepperton's". But the owners were actually a Jewish couple called Ettinger, refugees from Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Why Shepperton? They'd seen it on a map somewhere and thought it would be better than a Jewish name, in the bigotted English society of the 1950s. Though I'm not sure why, because practically all of their customers were Jewish too - the clothing trade, or "rag trade" as the insiders called it, was entirely Jewish then.

Soon my Dad had a bright orange Minivan to drive home every night. The routine was simple: bring the van home at night full of that day's orders, drive up to London the following morning dropping the orders off to all the customers in Essex and East London, while taking orders for the next day. He would arrive at Shepperton's in time for a late lunch, then drive round the West End taking orders and making deliveries until 4 or so, when it was time to stock up for the drive home.

The van was a blaze of colour. The sides of all their delivery vans were covered in the logos of the products they sold, long-forgotten names like Lightning Zips - sadly, I'm sure there is no picture anywhere. It took a skilled signwriter several days to prepare each one. My Dad had a deal that as long as he paid for petrol, he could use the van at evenings and weekends - which was good, because we certainly couldn't afford a family car. We had many outings in that and later vans, my brother and I sprawled awkwardly in the flat load space at the back. One early trip I remember was to a farm in the depths of the Essex countryside to get my first and only hamster, Nibs. (I have no idea why I wanted a hamster. I don't think he lasted long).

When I was a teenager, he would sometimes take me along for the day during the school holidays. So it was that I got see his daily routine.

The first call was close to our house, at the end of a muddy track by the railway line. Then we would proceed, never more than two or three miles at a time, stopping at one little clothing factory after another. Everywhere my Dad was welcomed like family, offered cups of tea, taken into back rooms to meet someone new. He was a natural salesman, it's just a shame he never sold anything you could really make money from!

He was a natural raconteur and a brilliant stand-up comedian, though the only time he did that was if we went to that uniquely British institution, the holiday camp, for our summer holidays. He had a huge collection of jokes, which he was always happy to trade for new ones with his customers. These were all Jewish, who seem to be the biggest fans of gently self-deprecatory Jewish jokes, so his collection of those was especially vast. The factories were tiny - the biggest ones had maybe 20 or 30 employees. They have all long since disappeared, replaced by giant sweatshops in Vietnam and Bangladesh.

One of his daily treats was a slice of toast and butter with a cup of strong British tea. He had an exclusive selection of cafes in East London, chosen for the quality of their bread (it had to be the real thing, cut in thick slices from an actual loaf - and under no circumstances sliced bread), the generosity of their butter, and the strength of their tea.  I still remember stopping at one of these places for elevenses, and the sensation of the melting butter oozing from the toast into my mouth. Strong, sweet tea, on the other hand, has never really been my thing. But then I didn't live through the Second World War.

Eventually we would get to Shepperton's, just in time for a late lunch. They had a shop (though you couldn't just go in and buy stuff) on Hampstead Road, close to Euston Station. It's an area that has changed beyond all recognition. There is no trace of Shepperton's, nor of Pat's, the seriously greasy  spoon cafe next door - of which more in a moment. A few steps away was Laurence Corner, the famous military surplus store where, supposedly, the Beatles got the inspiration for the uniforms on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's. The shop itself was barely-organised chaos, with packages of zips and buttons all over the place.

First stop was Pat's Cafe for lunch, something seriously greasy like sausages, bacon, fried eggs, and fried bread dripping with grease. My Dad was never overweight until long after he retired, but I have no idea how, considering everything he ate while he was working. He was (again) a much favoured customer, and would always disappear into the kitchen for a long chat with the eponymous Pat and the kitchen staff. The other staff at Shepperton's complained that after lunch, he smelled so much of kitchen fat that they couldn't go near him.

The afternoon was very different, driving round the West End and the more squalid areas to the north like Camden Town and Kilburn - this was long before gentrification had been invented. I was fascinated by the London bus system so I was very happy to sit in the van while my Dad exchanged jokes with his friends inside, jotting down the buses I'd seen and their destinations in my little red notebook. (I wonder whatever happened to those notebooks?)

Sometimes I'd go inside with him. I remember one place where they made fabric-covered buttons. A dressmaker would order a gross of buttons for a particular design. Everything was done in dozens and gross - a dozen dozen  or 144 - and occasionally a great gross, a dozen gross or 1728. Never 10, 100 or 1000. He'd supply the fabric and specify the size, and this tiny specialized place would assemble the buttons out of metal blanks. I was allowed to make one myself, cutting the material carefully to size, placing all the components in the press, then trimming the edges to make a neat fabric-covered button. I was very proud of my button and kept it for a long time.

Around 4, we'd go back to HQ to load up the van for the morning's deliveries. There's only one person there I remember, the first openly gay person I ever met. He was called Derek. He made sure you could not miss him. It was still illegal in Britain until 1967, so this was either just before or just after. Either way it didn't seem to bother anyone.

Then, the van loaded up with long rolls of interlining (the stiff material that goes between the dress fabric and the lining, to give shape and rigidity), boxes of buttons and zips, and various other odds and ends, it was time to set off home. The orange minivan didn't last long, and my memories are mostly of a series of vans based on the Ford 105E Anglia (the one with the odd sloping-backwards rear window). These were bought to the absolute minimum spec. They didn't have a heater, and they didn't even have a passenger seat. The passenger (me, in this case) sat on the ledge at the front of the load-space, with no back support and absolutely no security. It is unimaginable nowadays.

My Dad has his private route across London, eventually joining the A12 out to Romford. At the time I never understood it, but three decades later when I bought my flat in London I recreated a very similar route, which by using obscure back streets shaves probably 30 minutes off the time it takes to get from Kensington to Leytonstone. Once we reached the "arterial road" (the name given to it when it was built in the 1930s, as an example of high-tech high-speed road design at its finest), we trundled along at a stately 50 mph, close the maximum speed for these minimally-engined vans.

We would arrive home in Romford at about 6.30, in plenty of time for dinner. Strangely, when my Dad was on his own, he'd get home an hour or so later. That corresponded to the time he spent in the bookmaker's, picking up his winnings from the horses (if any) and no doubt sharing jokes with his mates there.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Just Popping out for the Paraffin

...and other excuses from a just barely dissolute life.

My Dad was as close to a blameless existence as any human being ever can be. He didn't drink, except an occasional half of cider in the summer. He didn't have a shred of violence in him, and he certainly wasn't a womanizer. He smoked, but so did everybody then. He had just one small vice: the horses. Every Saturday he would study the form, place a few bets, watch the races on the television in the afternoon, and if he got lucky, he'd go and collect his winnings.

We lived very close to our local shops. It was only a two minute walk, and the bookmaker's (the bookie, or "Ernie's") was one of the closest. It was nothing to pop over there three or four times during the course of the day, as necessary. There was just one problem: my mother. She absolutely did not approve of him betting on the horses, though heaven knows it was a small enough vice and his bets were tiny - generally a shilling (£0.05) each.

So he couldn't just say, "I'm just popping over to Ernie's, back in fifteen minutes," and get the reply, "OK, see you soon". Instead he had to make a just-barely-plausible excuse.

Our house, like all English houses of its vintage, had no central heating. There was a coal fire, latterly replaced by a gas fire, for the living room. The kitchen was supposed to be kept warm by cooking, and in the bedrooms... you were supposed to be in bed anyway. I remember scraping ice from the inside of the windows during the winter. So in the kitchen and the bathroom, we had portable paraffin heaters. The ones we had were cylindrical, a couple of feet high and about a foot across, with a tank holding a gallon or so of fuel at the bottom. They needed constant adjustment and frequent maintenance, but no matter what you did, they stank. The very first thing to do on getting up on a winter's morning was to light the heater. By breakfast time the room would be just barely warm, and filled with a miasma of fumes and unburned paraffin.

For those who've never seen it, paraffin is a clear, greasy inflammable oil, a bit like diesel. Back then every house and workshop had paraffin heaters, and every hardware store had a big tank of the stuff, which they would sell by the gallon. To keep our heaters running, it was a weekly chore to go round with a five-gallon plastic container, returning with it filled. I occasionally did it myself, as a teenager, and I remember the weight lugging it home - 42 pounds, or about 18 kg, if my arithmetic is right (it weighs the same as jet fuel - these were English gallons, remember).

One of my Dad's excuses was this regular excursion, just before lunch, when he would place his bets. "I'm just popping out for the paraffin," he'd say, and he'd walk off up the three steps to the street, wrapped up tight against the chilly winter weather, the empty paraffin can in his hand.

The trip to the hardware store, waiting to be served, and coming home again, took about a ten or fifteen minutes. At least it did when I did it. My Dad took an hour or more, because, of course, most of the time was spent at Ernie's. I think it was as much a social occasion as anything else. He was a very social man, especially with people he knew but not all that well. He was a salesman by trade, and I think quite good at it although there wasn't much money to be made selling haberdashery.

That was the second trip of the day. The first, just after breakfast, was announced as "I'm just going to pay the papers." Like everyone back then, we had a newspaper delivered every day - the Daily Express, a favourite of the right-leaning working class. On Sundays there was the Sunday Express and - naturally - the News of the World, a titillating scandal sheet and favourite of the working classes right up to its own scandalous end a few years back, and the home of the phrase "then I made an excuse and left."

The papers were supplied on credit, and once a week there was a visit to the local newsagent (actually we had three) to stand in a long line of people waiting to pay their account. It was another fifteen minute round trip, which took my Dad an hour. I think his first trip was to study the form.

The afternoon was spent watching the races. I can still remember the noise and rhythm of the commentary, the stock phrases like "and now - now he's coming up on the inside! - and it's Bright Blaze, Bright Blaze by just a short head". Actually I hated it, and would hide away in the kitchen or my bedroom while it was going on, but like the football results later in the afternoon it was an inescapable part of every single Saturday. After the races there just might be some winnings to collect. In that case there would be some other domestic excuse for an outing - some cleaning product that needed to be replenished from the supermarket round the corner, another five minute trip that would take an hour.

Of course my mother knew perfectly well what was going on. In later years I learned that it annoyed her intensely, though I'm not really sure that honesty would have been any better a policy.

It wasn't only on Saturdays that things took longer than they needed. My Dad had a job that combined selling with delivering the things that he'd sold, and every evening he would drive a little delivery van home from the firm's base in the West End, full of odds and ends to be transformed into clothing in the sweatshops of East London. Occasionally in the school holidays he would take me with him. We'd leave just after five, and be home by 6.30 or so. Yet when my Dad was on his own he was never home until 7.30, an hour later. It's not hard to guess where the time went.

It was a blameless life, but still it needed a supply of excuses.