Univac 494s at BEA

Univac 494 consoleI worked for British European Airways in London from 12/68-9/72.  BEA ran 3 Univac 494 machines: one for ASRS (Automatic Seat Reservation System), one for CALC (Cargo Acceptance & Load Control) and FICO (Flight Information and Control of Operations), and a third machine used for testing and standby, which could be switched to either online machine.

The machines ran a mixture of different models of drums.  One type were FastrandsFastrands, about 2 feet in diameter and 6 feet long.  I never knew how long they took to come up to speed, but it must have been substantial!  BEA also ran smaller fixed-head drums; FH-432 (“Flying Head”, “Fixed Head”?) if I recall correctly.

Each machine had dual drum channels, with writes taking place on both channels and reads taking place on the channel that would be fastest.  Each machine had around 100 MB online.

The processors used 30-bit words, split into 2×15-bits.  An engineer told me that they actually used the same 36-bit memory as Univac 1108s but ignored 6 bits. The predecessor Univac 490 had a 15-bit address space, and the 494 followed suit, but had 4 banks for a total of 2**17 30-bit words, or 480KB in today’s terms. I completely forget how bank-switching occurred, except that I have a vague recall of supervisor and user modes.

The 494 had 2 registers, A and Q, and very powerful bit operators: Q could hold a mask through which A could operate on memory.  There were no conditional branch operators, only a skip, but this allowed two-condition tests in only three words:

    Skip if case 1
    Skip if case 2
    Jump to X
    // continue

It was a ones-complement machine, so it had both +0 and -0 (see fourmilab). It had a Stop instruction with 8 variants, of which #4 was unconditional.  I never discovered the use of the other 7, but a system halt was universally known as a 4-stop.

MultiplexorsIt was connected to terminals around the country (and possibly on the continent) through leased lines, probably at 110 or 300 baud, which came in through multiplexors, colloquially known as muxes.

ASRS used special-purpose terminals which selected the flight by physically putting in a card representing that flight, but later systems used U-100 and U-300 terminals, the latter having no keyboard.

The operating system was Contorts 7, which was developed in-house; whether from the ground up or based on a Univac system I do not know.  Projects were written in SPURT IV, the assembler, or Neliac, an ALGOL variant developed by the U.S. Navy.  Modules were swapped in and out of 3 3K areas, and data for the process was held in a transdata, or TD.

I first worked on CALC in Neliac, but then moved to the comms team writing synchronous and asynchronous comms handlers, followed by a stint in a team providing 24/7 quality assurance and problem diagnosis for the on-line system. Reliability was an important factor, and each week a memo gave the availability excluding scheduled downtime.  This figure was typically 99.5%, and I have a photograph of a colleague with the blackboard behind him boasting “12 DAYS WITHOUT A 4-STOP”.

When the system failed, it would write the whole of memory to drum, known as a Flying Core Dump, or FCD, and then restart. Space was reserved for 7 FCDs, and they were printed out as a half-inch-thick listing of 10-digit octal numbers.  I wrote a memo for the QA team on ways to analyse this

After I left, BEA merged with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to form the current British Airways, and the reservation system was abandoned in favor of BOAC’s S/360 system. There is a great page about West London Air Terminal where these machines were located.

38 Comments on “Univac 494s at BEA

  1. Thanks for this page Phil. I worked as operator and senior shift leader on Beacon 1968-1974. Have been trying to get some images of the computer room, but very few online! I think BOAC and IBM tried to lose all trace! So nice to see your pics! Have many happy memories. Remember your name but not your face! Cheers, John.

  2. Hello Mr Mayes,
    Like your ‘BEACON’ website.
    Just two small points for you.
    I remember CALC as standing for Cargo Acceptance and Load Control.
    ( There was also a PALC for Passengers)
    What you remember as FIDO was actually FICO, which stood for Flight Information and
    Control of Operations. This was still going strong when I retired in 2003 having gone through several rewrites and fundamental changes of mainframe platform.
    As I was leaving, it was being replaced with a (typical BA) all singing, all dancing, bells and whistles system which was far less robust or reliable.
    Thanks again for the site. Shame about the lack of 3rd floor WLAT pics.
    G. Latimer.
    BEA/BA real time operations, 1974 to 2003

  3. Hi George, glad you like the page, and thanks for the corrections. I’ve updated the page to reflect them. That’s quite a feat to port FICO across platforms.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Really love reading about the history of Computing in British Airways and it’s predecessor airlines. Especially after obtaining a book about the later. If anyone comes across this posting that has any documentation, user guides etc.. on BABS please let me know as I’d like to start a site dedicated to the history of BABS.

    Adrian Smith

  5. Hi Adrian, it’s great to have the occasional visitor come by and enjoy the notes. When you get your site up, leave a link here for people.

  6. I started as a trainee programmer on ASRS on 26 August 1968. I then moved to the CALC (cargo handling) project and then DISC (Defect Information and Serviceability Control). By then BEA had been taken over by BOAC and we were on IBM 360/370. I worked at WLAT and left to join ICL (as did many of my colleagues) in 1977. This brought back many memories. From ICL I eventually moved to Oracle and still work for them.

  7. Of course I remember working in the same team with you Phil, despite the name change. FH-880’s come to mind. And I remember John Grafham and many others. Core dumps were known as ‘sickdogs’ for some reason.

  8. Hi Charles; this new-fangled internet thingie is quite something, isn’t it? Amazing to connect across all these years!

  9. Yes Phil, we have come a long way from the punched cards and flicking rubber bands at each other!

  10. I joined at the same time as Charles B in 1968 joining a team in ASRS with team leader Ros Minchin, will we ever forget Charles? Some will remember TDSUPBs and also the Transaction Utility (TU), an attempt to produce a proper database system. The 30 bit registers could be joined in what was called double precision coding; I still have my SPURT code guide somewhere. BEA was a really good organisation to work for and its a shame it was subsumed into BOAC and the whole thing rebranded as BA.

  11. Yes Keith, I remember Ros….. We were just given a few programs to update but nobody really gave us any real training so we just sort of sat there and looked at them, wondering what to do. On joining, we went on a programming course with Monty Cooke. Half of the trainees were to go to the ICL side (using PLAN) and our half to Univac (using SPURT). Monty devised the brilliant plan of combining the two languages into a hybrid which he called SPAN. The result was that we were all thoroughly confused and didn’t properly learn either language. Happy days!

  12. My grandfather – Dudley Dalton – worked at BEA / BOAC and was involved with the installation of the Univac computer system and subsequent upgrades (and then went on to work for Sperry, presumably as a result). I will find out which years he was there but I wonder if anyone on here knew him? He was previously in the BOAC maps dept at Hendon / Heathrow and had worked for the airline at Gatwick (in the beehive) when it was BA first time round. In fact his connection with Gatwick went back to about 1930 when it was a grass strip. (Got some pics from those days too).
    I will try and find out more about the computer system and post it sometime. I also have a lot of old photos of the assembly, installation and operation of those old systems plus the original press shots of the grand delivery (by crane through the windows of the BA bookings office on Cromwell Road. Sounds like it might be relevant here and of interest to Adrian Smith, Keith Robinson, George Latimer amongst others. Very happy if anyone wanted to be in direct contact on this subject. I have a whole box full of pictures to go through and lots of internal communications on this topic. I’m based in Cornwall.
    Best wishes,
    Nick Dalton
    07979 241607

  13. How cool, Nick; you should definitely get those pictures online. I love the idea that the sum of human knowledge, from individual recollections to large events, is becoming availabel on the internet. (Of course, there are big questions about archiving, but that’s another issue.)

    You may like the page on WLAT too; I’ll edit the post so that other readers will find it.

  14. Thanks Phil, yes, I did see that and I’ll now go and see what pics I might have of it, inside and out. Thank you. It’s funny to think how many times I must have been past that place and never knew of it, nor that that was where my grandpa worked! If I were to scan some images and send them to you would you have some means of posting them where they could be shared? I have set up a dropbox which i will happily share with anyone interested but it’s not the same as getting them truly online and viewable. I got your email…..I will send anything interesting but it might not be for a week or two. Feel free to prompt! Do your members / readers have any interest in Gatwick / BA / BEA in pre-computer days? Cheers, Nick

  15. That’s very cool, Nick! I have a Beacon brochure stashed away somewhere, though after many house moves I am not quite sure where… If I find it I will scan it and send it to Phil to post here.

  16. I worked at BEA as a senior operator. John Grafham was my boss along with others including George Stewart.

  17. Hi Phil,

    This sure brings back fond memories. I was a systems programmer for SITA from 1979 to 1984. SPURT was my second all-time favorite language, just barely behind IBM 1401 AUTOCODER, and slightly ahead of Univac 1100 MASM. It’s great to see that others are around with good memories of the 494!

  18. I started out with 1401 AUTOCODER. The 1401 had some interesting capabilities. I remember joining BEA and being shocked that I couldn’t move a block of data at one go, but had to do it a word at a time. Aargh, when I was young, I lived in a paper bag in the middle of the road with only 8K of memory.

  19. > Aargh, when I was young, I
    > lived in a paper bag in the
    > middle of the road with only
    > 8K of memory.

    Well, when I was young, I had
    22 bits of each word taken from
    me (418). But it seems like
    the 418-III had faster channels than it’s contemporary on
    campus, a 360/65…
    (the -II, however, was dog-slow)

  20. Dear Mr Mayes

    I have stumbled across your memories of UNIVAC and BEA at WLAT where I worked for a year from 1969 as a check-in clerk. After that I worked in Terminal one. I left BA Group Sales in 1988. I for long have had interest in airline and railway transport, mainly in the inter-war years.

    I am currently reviewing the latest history of BOAC. The author, Graham Simons,asserts that the BEA/BOAC 1974 merger was difficult but almost painless. I do not agree. I know you had left BEA before this but I recall that the BEA computer staff went on strike over the decision to choose IBM. I think my memory is correct.

    Do you know anything about this?

    Best wishes

  21. Hi John,
    sorry for the delay in replying; I only just found your comment. No, I know nothing about this. (Feel free to repeat in Manuel’s accent.) Perhaps some other readers will read this and comment.


  22. John King – yes, I remember going on a one-day strike at WLAT. We were unionised of course. There was a lot of ill-feeling about Peter Hermon and his plans to move to IBM, and I remember one stormy meeting he chaired where we made our views very clear. So painless it was indeed not!

  23. I have just happened across this thread of stories and certainly remember a number of the people who have contributed to it. I joined the BEA computer section as a trainee computer operator in 1968 and worked there until all of the systems were transferred to a brand new Data Centre in Comet House at Heathrow. There was a period of time when we operated both Univac 494’s and a couple of secondhand IBM 360’s alongside each other on the third floor. The 360’s were used to host Saudia Airline Reservations system as well as the MOD booking.system.
    In 1968 the boss was John Fowler along with Syd Foster. Mike Drury was there with Alan Chapman and Bill Slade as senior shift leaders. In fact a few years ago I found out that Mike had a property in France only 30 minutes from where I was living. He and I spent many hours chewing the fat over the past. I am also still in regular touch with Dave Morrison who was a shift leader when I first arrived at WLAT. It was a great life at the terminal even though I do remember being on shift when on a bomb went off in 1973. As I said I was there until we moved systems and by that time I was Operations Manager. I continued to work with BA in many roles until I retired in 1999. Happy days!! Regards to all David

  24. Just a few more names of computer operations people around in 1968:
    Mike Keynes, Julie Brimble, Jean Anderson, John Green, Mike Roy and Rick Bowden

  25. Don’t really know why but last night I drifted down memory lane and did a search for Univac 494 and came across this page, thank you Phil, what a delight to read !!
    I completed my BEA General Apprentice course in 69 and was then an operator on the Beacon system 69-72. The size of that machine room and the 3 mainframes was epic, the spirit and the team work was special – we were all very young with big responsibilities .The experience and training I received never left me and stood me in good stead during my working life . I remember many of the names mentioned above especially John Graffham ( I think you were a G. Apprentice too?), Graham “Basher ” Baylis, Dave Soar , Dave Morrison, George Stewart (an XK Jag !!). I can add some more names to the rogues gallery of operations staff from my time there – Dave “you don’t say that to a Geordie ” Peart, Roger Oakden, John Angus,Phil Simon, Neil Ferris, Steve Hartgroves, Bob Reeves ( also a General Apprentice ), Chris Moon, Joe “Che” Byrne and also Danny Clark who I have been in close touch with ever since we both left.

  26. On a web search trip down memory lane recently I stumbled upon the page – thank you Phil for saving these photos and recording the history of the legendary Beacon system. I loved it !

    In 1970 I joined the computer operations team at WLAT on the completion of my 3 year BEA General Apprenticeship (GA) scheme, the extra shift pay for working nights was the main attraction! I gained great experience and really received really good training in regular formal sessions that stood me in good stead when I moved on

    The description of Flying Core Dumps was great to be reminded of – I have been using FCD as a euphemism ever since my time there. And also the Fastrands – I spent many years of my later career in sales of disk storage to OEMs and I would often recall to wide eyed youngsters in the hard drive industry about my first encounter with a FASTRAND – “the size of a car!!” I also remember the FH drums – 5 MB each ? The sheer size of the computer room with the 3 “spaceship” style consoles in the operating area was impressive and not to be forgotten.

    I very well remember the people mentioned in earlier posts, John Graffham (a GA the year before me) , Graham ‘Basher’ Baylis ( a big Aldersot FC fan), Dave Soar , shift leaders Dave Morrison and George Stewart ( drove a JAG XK120). I met the two Daves, S and Dave M again in around 1986 , I was with Control Data ( remember them? Once number 2 in size to Big Blue IBM) when we had a customer golf day which they came to , our plug compatible sales guys were trying to sell BA some storage I think.- Hi both- did you buy?

    Here are some other names to add to the roster:
    I have kept in touch with Danny Clark since we both left BEA, we see each other at least once a year. Dave Peart, Roger Oakden , John Angus , John Drakes, Neil Ferris , Chris Moon, Jeff Retallick ( I think that’s the spelling), Joe ‘Che’ Byrne, Bob Reeve (also ex GA), Steve Hartgroves ( he lodged with me for a while after leaving, last time I saw him he was on TV in ‘Time team!’) and Phil Simon ( a very cool Aussie who always had an air of wisdom about him). Another ex GA colleague Nigel Gilbert ( Bond Bug owner!) was in the programming team . I am surprised that I can recall all these names after nearly 50 years , I am sure it is because they were fast moving exciting times that they remain seared in my memory.

    I left in 1972, the terrible train service in from Kent and the shiftwork (a horrible late to early switch in the 6 day pattern) was killing me. I wanted a transfer to a role without such savage (for me) shift hours but it was not on, with the BEA/BOAC merger hiding in the shadows and a staff freeze in place I think they were happy to see any staff reduction, or more likely Mike Drury was just happy to see me go ! (no hard feelings Mike)

  27. Hello Tom – This is unexpected; I remember staying with you in Meopham, and annoying your wife by insisting on drinking tarry tea! I am still in contact with Phil Simon and John Drakes, but no-one else from that period of my life. They both live in Australia – I went out there last year and spent some time with both of them. Many of the names mentioned above are still familiar to me; I’d like to get in touch with Chris Moon – to see if he’s still got the racing bike I ‘lent’ him in 1971. After BEA I did my ‘journey to the east’ like a good hippie, then fooled around for a few years and one day volunteered for a dig on a Roman Villa just a couple of fields away from where I was living in Wiltshire. After the dig they (the County Archaeological Service) employed me to set up a database for their archaeological records and the rest is history (well, pre-history). I did something similar for Cornwall Archaeological Unit in 1984, and I’ve been living here ever since 1984.

  28. now you’ve started something Phil !
    I started work as a computer operator at the WLAT in 1970
    With a 90% staff fare concession on all major airlines it was my dream job
    [ie £25 return to san francisco], on a pan-am jumbo 1st class
    I seem to remember the actual job required a lot of concentration, with dire consequences if a mistake was made [ie real time passenger/cargo booking]
    I met some interesting people at BEA
    Tom Davis, a lifelong friend who [precovid] would organise the annual London west end bash [a show, a drink and a hearty meal] We communicate regularly
    Steve Hartgroves, who came to work in a kaftan coat and mosquito boots
    Roger Oakden, we shared a journey on the Marrakesh express [ a bus] together
    John Angus, he went to jamaica for a 2 week annual holiday,and stayed an extra 2 weeks when he should have been in the ops room !
    John Drakes, used to make some strange multicoloured cookies, and when Mike Drury insisted we all wear a suit and a tie, he turned up in a tiedye boiler suit with a bow tie ,i t’s true,I was there on shift !
    and last but not least Phil Simon, I was young and easily influenced, he convinced me [ and others] ther was a better way of life to be had if I “opted out” of the system
    So, after doing the hippie thing around europe, I became a commercial lobster fisherman, and have been so for 45 years ! [now retired]
    Great memories, heady days, my best wishes to you all
    Danny Clark
    link for phil simon.. http://www.midcoast.com.au/~psimon/bees.htm

  29. Hi Steve. Chris had a track record with bikes – he borrowed mine too, it came back with bent forks ( but he did recompense )

  30. I worked for Univac as a systems programmer at WLAT in the late 1960s on the newly installed Univac 494s and wrote the automatic 30 second system recovery code to complement the “flying core dump” feature. This meant that the systems did not have to be switched over after a 4-Stop.
    By the way the dumps were called sick dogs because the names of labels and buffers in that section of the CONTORTS system were called Vomit1, Vomit2, Vomit3 etc. as we could only use 6 alphanumeric characters for names in the SPURT assembler.
    FH stood for Flying Head as the heads float on the boundary layer of air generated by drum rotation.
    Although I worked in the programmer’s office I remember Bill Slade very well – he ran a tight shop!

  31. Well Phil. You certainly set off a chain of memories from us Univac Old Gits. I have great memories of some of them that I can’t reveal here!
    Perhaps if any of you , operators or programmers, fancy a good chew of the fat we might organise a little drinkie somewhere convenient? Contact me on johngrafham@hotmail.com.

  32. Was a Univac employee working at WlAT in 1966 programming in SPURT. Wrote NUFOR, Nightly Update Freeing Obsolete Records, and a Fastrand scanning program. Was impressed with the visions of Phil Fellows and Ed Mack. Lived in a bedsitter a five minute walk from WLAT, near Earls Court. Became friends with Henri F W Pinkenburg, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, and made visits around London with Henri.
    Wish I could have spent more time there to see the systems fully operational.

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