Operation Copycon (A New Year’s Eve tale)

Late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1969, a few dozen young men gathered at a nondescript brick building in the swamps of northern New Jersey. They all wore crew cuts, short-sleeve white shirts, and skinny ties.

screenshotThey’d come to the U.S. Government’s secret supercomputer lab to collaborate on a project that would change computing history. For it was here that they created those mysterious files — the ones time-stamped 12/31/69, the ones that have annoyed and frustrated computer users ever since.

Arnie Ferret, now retired from government work and living in a small walk-up in Hoboken, tells the story.

“The big brass were coming to visit right after New Year’s. Our bosses were afraid they’d ask to see what we’d stored on our computers.

“You see, the NASA guys down at Cape Canaveral, they had all the files and data that had gotten Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Damned impressive. Compared to them, well….”

IBM_card_punch_029

Yes, kids. That’s an IBM keypunch machine. Image credit: Creative Commons (waelder)

His voice tailed off. In fact, according to recently declassified records, the New Jersey computer contained exactly 13 mix-tape song lists, a “Hello World” routine, and an early version of Pong.

So the word came down: create a bunch of files. Fast.

The team springs into action

On the afternoon of December 31, the computing team shuffled into the lab and sat at a row of keypunch machines facing the room-sized supercomputer, which packed all the processing power of a 2007 flip-phone.

Operation Copycon was underway.

They thought the whole thing would take a couple of hours. “I told my wife I’d be home in plenty of time for Auld Lang Syne.”

It didn’t work out that way. The programmers were told to create files with random names. But, being geeks, they tended to pick the same “random” name patterns. As the punch cards were fed into the supercomputer, it spat out hundreds of “Duplicate Filename” errors for names like 011235713.ini (the Fibonacci sequence) and 6022140857.txt (Avogadro’s constant).

It took hours to clean up the duplicate files and get everyone using different names. “I was handed an old sports page and told to use number patterns from the box scores,” recalls Ferret. “Afterward I gave some of that stuff to a kid next door named Bill James, who was into baseball. I don’t know what he did with it.”

Another problem: every 15 minutes or so, each man had to stop keypunching, grab a snow shovel, and clear the pile of chads from under his machine.

“Oh, the chads. Someone had the bright idea to use them for confetti.” Ferret sighed at the memory. 27 dump trucks waited outside, ready to haul the chads across the Hudson to Times Square for the New Year’s Eve festivities. The lead truck even bore a hand-lettered banner that read Guy Lombardo Special.

Trying to beat the clock

But the work dragged on, and midnight drew closer.

The last punch card was fed into the supercomputer at 11:57 p.m. The chads were hurriedly loaded onto the trucks, but it was too late.

dump_truck

Image credit: Creative Commons (Daniel Negron)

By the time the trucks reached Times Square, the New Year’s revelers had gone home and the last Royal Canadian had packed up his viola.

So the trucks headed upstate and, in the predawn twilight, they dumped their loads of chads into an abandoned quarry off the Taconic Parkway. A few years later a brash young real-estate developer bought the property, tried and failed to develop a golf course on it, and wound up donating it to New York state for use as Donald J. Trump State Park. (Really. Some stuff is too crazy to make up.)

A 46-year legacy

Later, after the brass had come and gone and as the supercomputer was used for actual work, the 12,000 or so files created on 12/31/69 were pretty much forgotten. Occasionally they found their way onto other computers as data was copied to, and then downloaded from, magnetic tape reels. Later, in the early days of ARPANET, copies of the files moved around via an early version of FTP — a process described by Internet pioneer Al Gore in An Inconvenient Transfer.

Still later, with the dawn of the modern Internet, copies of the files moved about more freely. Today nearly every computer has a few of them.

“They told us we might need to keep the files around for a while,” Ferret recalls. “I thought maybe six months, a year tops.” He never dreamed the files would still be annoying people 46 years later.

Is Ferret proud of his legacy? “Hell, no. I’ve got some of those stupid files on my laptop here. Can’t do anything with them.”

Happy New Year, everyone.

 

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