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Blinking Lights
Lionel E. Deimel

The computer network in my office usually has two computers connected to it. Occasionally, a third computer that I’m working on joins them. I recently removed an old 10 Mbps network hub and replaced it with a 10/100 Mbps cable/DSL router. I did this primarily to relieve one computer of the burden of running Internet Connection Sharing and, possibly, of running Mainframe console, circa 1969 ZoneAlarm. Because my cable company recently began charging a monthly fee for modem rental, I also decided to buy my own cable modem. I now have two compact, interlocked, black and blue Linksys boxes sitting atop one of the computer cases.

Web pages, I think, load a bit faster than before, and there are more resources free on my primary workstation. An unexpected bonus of the network upgrades, however, has been acquisition of banks of blinking lights that I can now watch on the front panels of the Linksys boxes. I’ve missed blinking lights, and it’s nice to have some back.

Electric lights have long been used to display the status of machines, so that it can be determined at a glance. They are a common feature of sophisticated apparatus and invariably appear as elements of powerful, futuristic devices in movies and on television. One thinks immediately of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and, of course, Star Trek. (I always marveled at the ability of the Enterprise crew to interpret the unlabeled annunciator panels on the bridge.)

Early mainframe computers made extensive use of lights on their control consoles. I remember watching the lights on the console of an IBM 7094 at the University of Chicago as a program of mine was running. The contents of important registers was shown by means of lights—one lamp for each bit of the register, on for 1, off for 0. Though a powerful computing engine for its time, the 7094 ran slowly enough for me to guess where it was in my program by watching the changing light patterns. Those lights were very reassuring—an outward and visible sign that something real was taking place inside the otherwise inscrutable blue cabinets.

When the personal computer hit the consumer market, lights were not much in evidence. Usually there was a power light, the little-understood turbo light, and lights to indicate activity of disk drives—at first, only floppy drives, then both floppy drives and the less visible hard drive. Of these, the hard drive indicator proved the most useful, often providing the only evidence of whether the computer was doing something useful or had simply crashed. Alas, PC manufacturers now seem to be eliminating those hard drive lights—the turbo lights went away years ago—no doubt to save a dollar or two on manufacturing costs. Now one can only tell from front-panel lights whether a computer is turned on or not, and even the meaning of “on” has become fuzzy.

But I now have my router and modem lights to watch, 25 of them, though 9 are regularly dark. The others indicate connectivity, high-speed operation, synchronization, and attest to data packets moving in one direction or the other. The patterns are not nearly so meaningful as those of the 7094, but they provide reassurance nonetheless.

— LED, 12/5/2002


Blinking lightbulb

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