The Sacred Rock of Tor

By Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Senior Editor

For years, Tor had one computer: an IBM PC AT with an amber monitor. Towards the end of its life, in the late 1980s, it could only be rebooted by smartly hitting its CPU on the side with a particular rock. Several people shared the computer and each person had his or her own style of rock banging, and over time, the side of the CPU gradually bowed in due to repeated impacts.

Claire Eddy still has the rock, kept in a high place of honor in her office.

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22 thoughts on “The Sacred Rock of Tor

  1. Yay for amber monochrome monitors! Much more restful on the eyes than green.

    As for the rock — I had a Macintosh SE with an external SCSI bootable hard drive which similarly needed to be “nudged” by violence to get the hard drive to start spinning. (grin) Of course, the IBM PC AT was always a temperamental beast, both in the pre- and post-Model 339 configurations, but for different reasons. (double-grin) But once you got it working, it was a true cast iron computer.

    Good times.

    Dr. Phil

  2. Pasting something I’ve written elsewhere:

    This brings back fond memories of the beamline control system we used
    at Fermilab from about 1983 to 1989. EPICS (Experimental Physics
    Interactive Control System) depended upon custom terminals with
    detatched keyboards that got flaky every now and then. (Too damned
    often, actually.) This resulted in calls from distraught
    experimenters to the Ops Center.

    “My terminal’s locked up!”

    “What’s the matter?”

    “Nothing happens when I type on the keyboard!”

    I would lead the user through standard fixes:

    “Try Control-Q.”

    “Nothing.”

    “Try Control-X.”

    “Nothing.”

    A note of desperation creeps in:

    “Try Control-C.”

    “Nope.”

    “Okay, I want you to do exactly as I say. Pick up the keyboard and
    lift it about four inches off the table. Then drop it.”

    “You’re kidding.”

    “No, I’m serious. Try it.”

    [nervous laugh] “Ooookay…” [sound of distant *WHUMP* in phone]
    “Hey! It’s working now! Thanks a lot!”

    I’d learned from the controls techs that the keyboards had a group of
    resistors in one corner that often shorted to the case, and that a
    good whack would shake them loose. I enjoyed such phone calls, as
    they always made me look good to the users.

  3. Hey, that’s a historic rock. It originally came to Tor when the offices were on 36th Street. That was so early in Tor’s history that they didn’t have enough books to fill up their shelves. They also didn’t have money for fripperies like bookends, so people brought in rocks to use instead.

    I’m not sure what happened to the other bookend rocks. By the time I started working at Tor, only the one in the photo was left. It had a name: the Tor Rock. It got used for all kinds of things, from cracking nuts to hammering nails to starting up the old computer.

    That computer had history too. It was the first one Tor ever bought. Beth Meacham talked Tom Doherty into buying it on the grounds that he’d buy her an IBM Selectric typewriter if she asked for one, so why not a computer? Tom okayed the purchase on the condition that it not cost more than an IBM Selectric. Beth nursed that computer along for years before handing it down to Claire Eddy, who eventually handed it down to one of the assistants, who …

    Tor in its early days: poor but ingenious.

  4. When St. Martins’ acquired Tor, there was a certain amount of bad feeling on the part of the St. Martins employees who were computerless but heard that Tor had computers. More than one. I was in the middle of a meeting with some people about organizing the move from the 24th Street building into the Flatiron Building, and someone started in about the computers and how it wasn’t fair that we had lots of computers and they didn’t. I mildly pointed out that some of the computers were, to put it kindly, geriatric. I pointed out that some people brought their own computers in to work with. I finally said, with some exasperation, “One of the computers has to be jumpstarted with a rock!”

    Someone else in the room piped up: “You get rocks?” Humorously.

  5. Back in the day when we all rode our dinosaurs to the mom-&-pop computer store down the street, and bragged about our fantabulous 128k machines, we had a daisy-wheel printer that was cranky and tempermental and not always reliable. We eventually found, however, that by holding an open packet of Taco Bell taco sauce above the machine and threatening to spill the sauce into the machine’s guts, we could get it to perform reliably.

  6. I used to have to whack my TRS-80 Model 3 really hard on the side to get it to boot. Sigh. Those were the days.

  7. At The New Yorker, there were a few editors using IBM selectrixes (sp?) as late as 2003. (If you have to ask, you were probably born after 1970.)

  8. I work in a public library. I believe we still have an electric typewriter or two in the basement offices. Not sure if they are Selectrics or not…

  9. Well…I dont have quite as much oldschool behind me…but my first computer (that was actually mine) came with an old HP monitor also. It lasted a few years, but eventually reached the point that the screen would begin to distort, something was obviously loose on the inside. My solution, whack it….hard. This worked for many months, almost a year in fact. In my room, playing a game, yelling into a microphone…a few seconds later, cursing and a loud banging noise, then play resumes….

  10. Ah the good old days. I was probably born around the time that Tor was buying that first computer, but I lived in a rural area where my dad was one of maybe three people in the entire county who bought one of those newfangled computing machines.

    Which meant that when I started school I became the go-to person for tech support on the army of ancient Apple IIs and Commodore 64s. Teachers would look on in horror when I started beating on one of their precious dinosaurs, then wonder when the beating brought them back to the land of the living.

  11. I used to do pasteups with an electric Croy (sp?) machine (If you know what either one means, you too are oldskool), turning that wheel, punching one-letter-at-a-time onto clear tape… WOW! Big letters! No wax or rubber cement! Better than taking typewritten text to the copy place for enlarging! And we had five wheels- FIVE different fonts. Jumpin’ Jehosephat. I still do write happily on an Apple “blueberry” laptop from ’99, which I’ve been told is “ancient”. Ha!

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