Lawrence's employer had heard that this newfangled "Desktop PC" could reduce their IT costs, and they wanted in on it. It was the mid 80s, and at the time, their plants scattered all over Alabama connected to a central mainframe via dumb terminals connected over very expensive leased lines. It was time to upgrade, and Lawrence wasn't in charge of it. He didn't get called in until things went wrong.

"This new PC system is really slow," he was told while on a plant tour. That didn't sound likely- the PCs were running blisteringly fast 4.77MHz, 8088 CPUs with 16Kb of RAM, and since someone had connected "arithmetic-heavy accounting usage" to "floating point processing", they all had 8087 co-processors. There was no way they were slow, especially since half the time they were just running a 3270 terminal emulator.

But sure enough, when they fired up the terminal emulator, it was slower than anything. Going from the login screen to the menu, and then from the menu to the order fulfillment screen took multiple minutes. Was the 300-baud smartmodem that slow? Lawrence fiddled connections, tested the line, and then eventually got around to cranking the volume on the modem's speaker. No, the modem wasn't that slow.

Whoever had configured the deployment had tried to mirror their old system as closely as possible. In the old system, the terminal started a new connection every time the user pressed enter, and then disconnected from the mainframe until the user triggered the next command. So in the new system, they did the same thing- which meant each time the client finished loading a screen, the modem would hang up.

That particular problem was easy to fix, and simply involved making sure each PC had its own phone line, and that the terminal emulator made sure to keep the connection open. But one of their remote offices, someplace deep in the Alabama backwoods, proved intractable- they couldn't connect at all.

Lawrence tried diagnosing their problem remotely at first. The phone line seemed good- he could dial it; the plant users could dial out. He shipped them a fresh modem, and eventually a fresh PC, but nothing seemed to make a difference. They couldn't dial the mainframe. So he had to go out to the plant.

Having learned his lesson, the first thing Lawrence did was crank the volume on the modem speaker. When the computer attempted to dial out, he heard the sound of touchtone bleeps followed by a crackly voice saying, "Number please."

That particular plant was so back in the backwoods of Alabama that it didn't have direct-dial long distance. The users were so used to it that they didn't even think it could be the problem. The small town phone company had no firm plan when they would start doing it. Lawrence helped pack up the PCs and reinstall the dumb terminals. By the time he left that company, they were still using them. They might still be using them today.

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