Hitting computers with rocks: the history of publishing

From the early days of computerized publisher, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden explains the mystical thing they did with the rock: "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."

The Sacred Rock of Tor


  1. A while back, a friend brought me her ‘broken’ Dell laptop. It wouldn’t boot when turned on, instead just treating you to a strobe effect with all its lights. After a few hours spent online, I found that this was a common problem with this particular laptop. One guy had stumbled upon the solution. Press hard (really hard) on the F7 and F8 keys during the strobe effect.

    I still use that laptop.

    1. If you pry off the top piece of plastic directly above the function keys (the one that extends over the hinges) you will find a small connector that is coming loose. If you can’t get it to stay put any other way you can glue a small stiff foam shim on to the plastic so that it presses firmly on the back of the connector.

  2. Keep this anecdot in mind while you watch the publishing industry react to the brave new wold of electronic books.

    1. Keep this anecdot in mind while you watch the publishing industry react to the brave new wold of electronic books.

      That they’ll do whatever they have to to make things work, even though they’re working under desperate financial constraints? Yes, that would be the correct lesson here.

  3. i had a laptop (i passed out and spilled a beer into it a few years back) that would lose video unless a little iron statuette of an owl was place in a particular place.

    i was a research assistant at the time, and it made for some slightly awkward moments in lab meetings, presentations, etc. i think they already know i was weird though.

    press to hard, and it didn’t work. too light, and it didn’t work. little owl new the trick.

  4. By CPU, I assume you mean PC? A CPU is Central Processing Unit inside your computer. PC is a Personal Computer. I can’t imagine that hitting a CPU with a rock would do anything but break it permanently.

  5. By CPU I assume you mean tower. And by tower, I mean…strip mall? Housing project? What do you call the old horizontal ones, anyway?

    1. @anon…
      Desktops. Consoles. Heaters.
      The IBM PC/AT was a beast. Only the folks from IBM could make something that tough; the cases were steel, top and bottom, with plastic front and rear pieces (that’s right; per the original design, there was a plastic lid that fit on the back; they seldom stayed attached long).
      Make no mistake, they were heavy as hell. But their form factor would influence computers for the better part of a decade.

  6. Back in the late ’80s, the office I worked in had one computer with a hard drive that suffered from stiction. Hard drives cost real money back then, and my boss was a cheapskate, so rather than replace the drive, we just left that section of the case front off. To boot that machine, I had to slide the drive out of the case as the machine started, stick my thumb on the end of the drive axel, and twist until I felt the drive start to spin under its own power. It was like cranking a Model-T.

  7. I had an ibook that I accidentally broke the power switch on. (I pulled the socket cup off the mother board when I was trying to fiddle with the airport antenna, yes, I was being dumb).
    I very gently put the socket back in the same spot, the angle pins were still on the board, it just snapped the leads off. When I reassembled it it wouldn’t turn on unless I hit the case hard above the left speaker while pressing the power button. Once on I almost never turned off the computer. About 9 months later, after I learned how to solder, I fixed the problem fully by ditching the socket and soldering right to the board a pair of wires to tie to the switch. It held up for 3 more years until the GPU came off the board.

  8. this reminds me of the part in Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency when the character sees an old computer he helped design at the police station. Thinking it odd to see that model still in use, he asked what they used it for. The cop said ” a doorstop,” and the designer totally agreed with him.

  9. I had a TV with a similar start-up procedure; you had to wallop it hard with the flat of an axe, then stomp on a loose floorboard to get the colour balance right. They don’t make ’em like they used to. Nowadays, you hit something, it stays broke…

  10. That’s just an extra security feature. No unauthorized people can use the computer if they don’t know how to turn it on!

  11. Ah, percussive maintenance. Also useful for whacking one of the colours back into your tube monitor when it goes out…

  12. Like Avram said — I’m betting this had a Seagate 20MB drive which was getting stuck. Slightly gentler method for getting them started (and getting your morning exercise) was to take the whole case and rotate it abruptly in the plane of the hard drive… and then set it gently down (because now the drive is (audibly!) spinning).

  13. Ah, yes, the old ST-225 hard disks. I’d whack ’em with the butt-end of a screwdriver to get ’em spinning again. Lots of disks used to grindingly spin up with a little kinetic persuasion.

    I once cooked a burrito on a Seagate Baracuda.

  14. I had an old 286 PC that would reboot if you accidentally touched a metal key lock on the front of the case. I thought this was extremely clever, and instead of rebooting it the normal way, I would scruff my feet on the carpet so that I could reboot it with static.

  15. Hit it with a rock? Hey, that’s nothing. Consider the ill-fated Apple ///, which was so inherently flawed that “customers who were experiencing certain problems were instructed to lift the machine 3 inches (76 mm) and drop it in order to re-seat the chips on the logic board.”

    1. The Mac+ and SE30 had a similar problem… the video board slowly crept up out of its slot. You could re-seat ’em by slamming your hand into the top of the chassis in exactly the right spot. If you were doing telephone support you’d tell the end-user to drop the computer since they’d never hit it with the right force in the right spot.

  16. #3

    I used to have an old iBook (when it was really old – I got it for free) that would lose its video at times and the only way to get it back was to squeeze the case next to the trackpad. It turned out the motherboard had warped, pulling the video chip off of it’s contact pads. I fixed it by wedging a piece of cardboard under where the chip was.

  17. You know I LOVE hearing these stories. I wonder if the designers of the computers do?

    I have a Toshiba lap top that would die for no apparent reason. The CompUSA people couldn’t figure out the problem so they replaced a few things and returned it. Worked for a day. I returned it and it sat in a lab for months until they returned it saying, “Liquid damage” (i.e. I had spilled something on the computer)

    When did this damage occur? During the 24 hours that I had it? No. They couldn’t figure out the problem and blamed the user. I challenged it and got a replacement laptop that was 1/2 the cost of the old one but at least it worked.
    I’ll bet the designers at Toshiba would have liked to know why my laptop went bad, but they never found out because the repair depot people blamed the end user.

  18. Ah, geek war stories, my favourite type of stories! :)

    My stepdad (the one who got me interested in electronics) had a slap-on-the-side-to-start TV (it would start by itself, sometimes, too). That was a dodgy capacitor. One time I was in the local quarry/dump and saw a similar ancient TV, dismantled it, and brought back the bits. A few weeks later, the slap-on-the-side TV’s electrolitic finally went boom, and I was able to give him the bits (the fat electrolytic, and the HT lead with the sucker on the end that plugged into the tube, and the diode on the other end) that he needed to fix it.

    I was happy to have been useful, but sad to no longer be able to turn it on with a slap :(

    More recently, I had a Dell laptop that the keys wouldn’t work on unless you flexed the frame a certain way. It would get worse and worse until you had to almost twist the machine apart to get the keys to work, so most of the time I used a USB keyboard.

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