Ahh, the DECWriter. The DECwriter Model LA36 is a (no, the) tty. No, not a virtual one...the real deal, a TeleTYpe terminal. It consists of a Teleprinter with a built-in keyboard, and a serial connection that was capable of handling 110-300 baud input. The DECWriter lived on long after CRT terminals had come into widespread use, because of one endearing feature - they logged all their doings on fanfold paper (you know, the kind with perforated seams between sheets, some of which had alternating green-and-white bars). DECWriters were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s as system consoles, for this very reason.

The print head was an 8-pin unit, producing barely-readable dot-matrix alphanumerics. It used a cloth ribbon, and tractor-feed paper (with holes in the edges) which was fed from a box which sat beneath the keyboard. All in all, it looked sort of like a typewriter for THX-1138.

One of my most ingrained memories of the DECWriter is the wonderful noise it made. For a taste of this, search Slashdot for Symphony for Dot-Matrix Printers. Most memorable is the fact that after finishing a long run of printout, the terminal would usually print a 'READY>' prompt (using, shudder, RSTS in those days) which would sound out as a little, tentative, comforting ERRRRT noise, almost like a coda, at the end of the run. After printing the prompt, the print head would move out of the way so that you could read what it had typed, after a preprogrammed delay of around 1.5 seconds. The motors moving the print head would make a sound as well, a hum and the thump of the head against the stop. So, a complete prompt on a DECWriter would sound like:


Another reason the DECWriter is remembered with such fondness is that it was probably responsible for more breaches of security than any handwritten 'note to self' with password ever was. Terminal operators, in those early days, would log on to the system just like anyone else...and the machine would faithfully print out their password. Although some systems implemented 'blanking' routines that shut off duplexing for that sequence, many older corporate systems (cough AT&T COSMOScough) did not. As a result, 'trashing' was a popular method of gaining illicit access to machines. Er, I've heard. Essentially, enterprising young folk would snoop about outside the datacenters of popular target organizations, and steal any trash bags that were light, fluffy and didn't smell (much). These usually contained reams of fanfold printout from the day's runs...and if you unfolded it back far enough, voilà.

My high school threw out its last DECWriters my senior year. I was too stupid to nab one. I'd love to have one hooked up to my Powermac G4 running MacOS X - as a console.

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