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JamesThornton.com -\> Fun -\> Blinkenlights Posters

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1959 Stanford University version
1999 Internet version

What a massively cool idea! I want one! :-)
- Eric S. Raymond

Blinkenlights Posters

The famous blackletter-Gothic sign in mangled pseudo-German that once graced about half the computer rooms in the English-speaking world (read the story behind the posters). High-quaility 35.0" X 23.0" posters printed on heavyweight semi-gloss paper using superior dye ink, from CafePress.com (coffee mugs available too).

The Story Behind the Posters

From the on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.2.3, 23 Nov 2000, and its print version, The New Hacker's Dictionary, by Eric S. Raymond (MIT Press):

blinkenlights /blink'*n-li:tz/ n.

[common] Front-panel diagnostic lights on a computer, esp. a dinosaur. Now that dinosaurs are rare, this term usually refers to status lights on a modem, network hub, or the like.

This term derives from the last word of the famous blackletter-Gothic sign in mangled pseudo-German that once graced about half the computer rooms in the English-speaking world. One version ran in its entirety as follows:

ACHTUNG! ALLES LOOKENSPEEPERS!

Das computermachine ist nicht fuer gefingerpoken und mittengrabben. Ist easy schnappen der springenwerk, blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparken. Ist nicht fuer gewerken bei das dumpkopfen. Das rubbernecken sichtseeren keepen das cotten-pickenen hans in das pockets muss; relaxen und watchen das blinkenlichten.

This silliness dates back at least as far as 1959 at Stanford University and had already gone international by the early 1960s, when it was reported at London University's ATLAS computing site. There are several variants of it in circulation, some of which actually do end with the word `blinkenlights'.

In an amusing example of turnabout-is-fair-play, German hackers have developed their own versions of the blinkenlights poster in fractured English, one of which is reproduced here:

ATTENTION

This room is fullfilled mit special electronische equippment. Fingergrabbing and pressing the cnoeppkes from the computers is allowed for die experts only! So all the "lefthanders" stay away and do not disturben the brainstorming von here working intelligencies. Otherwise you will be out thrown and kicked anderswhere! Also: please keep still and only watchen astaunished the blinkenlights.

See also geef.

Old-time hackers sometimes get nostalgic for blinkenlights because they were so much more fun to look at than a blank panel. Sadly, very few computers still have them (the three LEDs on a PC keyboard certainly don't count). The obvious reasons (cost of wiring, cost of front-panel cutouts, almost nobody needs or wants to interpret machine-register states on the fly anymore) are only part of the story. Another part of it is that radio-frequency leakage from the lamp wiring was beginning to be a problem as far back as transistor machines. But the most fundamental fact is that there are very few signals slow enough to blink an LED these days! With slow CPUs, you could watch the bus register or instruction counter tick, but at 33/66/150MHz it's all a blur.

Despite this, a couple of relatively recent computer designs of note have featured programmable blinkenlights that were added just because they looked cool. The Connection Machine, a 65,536-processor parallel computer designed in the mid-1980s, was a black cube with one side covered with a grid of red blinkenlights; the sales demo had them evolving life patterns. A few years later the ill-fated BeBox (a personal computer designed to run the BeOS operating system) featured twin rows of blinkenlights on the case front. When Be, Inc. decided to get out of the hardware business in 1996 and instead ported their OS to the PowerPC and later to the Intel architecture, many users severly suffered from the absence of their beloved blinkenlights. Before long an external version of the blinkenlights driven by a PC serial port became available; there is some sort of plot symmetry in the fact that it was assembled by a German.

Finally, a version updated for the Internet has been seen on news.admin.net-abuse.email:

ACHTUNG! ALLES LOOKENSPEEPERS!

Das Internet is nicht fuer gefingerclicken und giffengrabben. Ist easy droppenpacket der routers und overloaden der backbone mit der spammen und der me-tooen. Ist nicht fuer gewerken bei das dumpkopfen. Das mausklicken sichtseeren keepen das bandwit-spewin hans in das pockets muss; relaxen und watchen das cursorblinken.

This newest version partly reflects reports that the word `blinkenlights' is (in 1999) undergoing something of a revival in usage, but applied to networking equipment. The transmit and receive lights on routers, activity lights on switches and hubs, and other network equipment often blink in visually pleasing and seemingly coordinated ways. Although this is different in some ways from register readings, a tall stack of Cisco equipment or a 19-inch rack of ISDN terminals can provoke a similar feeling of hypnotic awe, especially in a darkened network operations center or server room.


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Reader's Comments

In alt.folklore.computers, Earl Boebert <boebert@swcp.com> wrote:

It is highly likely that the text was written by Al "Jazzbo" Collins, Chief of Machine Operations at the Stanford Computation Center when it was in the basement of Encina Hall. Al was a WWII ETO vet (and big jazz fan, hence the assumption of the sobriquet of a well-known NYC DJ) and big on "Kraut" jokes.

The sign was posted on Stanford's Burroughs 220, a machine with such an impressive light display that salvaged versions showed up in sci-fi movies well into the 1970s (as well as the Batman TV series).

The 220 was a 10 digit plus sign BCD machine. Each register was displayed on the console as an 11 x 4 matrix of neon bulbs. The bulbs were in a plastic "eggrate" matrix. The kicker, and the reason for the sign, was that the bottom divider under each bulb was actually a contact switch that, when pushed, inserted a bit into the register, even if the machine was running (i.e., not stopped). So if a tourist went "neat lights!" and touched what they thought was just a frame holding lights they could inject an interesting error in the computation.

When I told my father what I made as night operator/part time programmer/Algol 60 support weenie ($4.50 an hour) he was mightily impressed -- "My God," he said,"That's what a plumber makes." Those were indeed the days.

-- James Thornton, April 3, 2001

There is a reason why the blinking lights are called "idiot lights". And "push-down-buttons" on a Windows desktop are only slightly improved from the blinking light syndrome. Why else would you press the Start button to STOP the computer?

-- Miles Wade, November 13, 2003
The Visual 2000 (a brilliant IMHO but ill-fated 286-based Unix machine from '85; it had nothing in common with PC architecture but the processor) had a row of about eight LEDs: Disk Activity; Disk Write; and the rest would blink rapidly in rotation any time the processor was idle for more than n microseconds. When not idle, whatever one was currently lit would remain so, resulting in a sort of stuttering progression that was initially counterintuitive but rapidly became second nature to read at a glance. Spreading the blinking across a few inches of space allowed it to be very responsive while staying both visible and psychologically comfortable -- businesslike but not frantic.

This proved extremely informative as the balance of activity between the disk and CPU lights sections accurately reflected the disk/CPU load balance, and if a terminal appeared hung it was rapidly obvious whether the machine was working hard, 100% busy and likely hung, or off somewhere gazing at its navel. It was cheap to implement and attractive to look at, too.

Whether by accident or genius the psychological factors of left-right balance, blink rate and apparent LED intensity reinforced each other to impart information quickly and effortlessly, and from considerable distance as well. Overall it was about perfect. I miss it still, and looking back I'm sorry I never learned who precisely (I was involved with the project) was responsible for it. If someone here knows I'd be grateful.

-- David Beierl, November 18, 2003