Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a bomb

Raymond Chen

Raymond

One of my relatives is an electrical engineer, and he was part of a small team sent to a customer site to run diagnostics and do other things that electrical engineers do.

The team traveled with suitcases filled with advanced electronic diagnostic equipment to help them do those things that electrical engineers do. (You can tell that I’m very knowledgeable about electrical engineering.)

Upon arrival at the hotel, they opened the suitcases and plugged in the equipment batteries to charge them up, so that they would be ready for the site visit. And then they all went out to look for lunch. When they returned from lunch, they discovered that the hotel was surrounded by police, fire trucks, and even an ambulance. The engineers asked what the hubbub was.

“Somebody found a bomb. Do you happen to know anything about who is in room 1234?”

“Um, that’s us.”

It turns out that the housekeeper had noticed a suitcase filled with complicated electronics, wires everywhere, digital LED readouts, all that stuff. So the housekeeper reported a bomb.

The engineers had a lot of explaining to do.

After the dust figuratively settled, the hotel manager told them, “I’m okay with you charging your electronic equipment in the hotel room. But the next time you do it, do me a favor and close the suitcase so housekeeping doesn’t see it.”

Believe it or not, this is all a prelude to the actual story.

Back in the day, there was the Compaq Portable 486. The base model with a 80486DX2/66MHz processor, a 640×480 color screen, 4MB RAM, and a 120MB hard drive set you back $5899 in 1992 (around $10,600 in 2019 dollars). Or you could upgrade to a 210MB hard drive for just $1000 more (+$1800 in 2019 dollars).

The system itself was quite attractive for its time. Here’s a nice picture of a unit with an external CD-ROM drive attached via the SCSI port. But it was very heavy. Furthermore, it ran only on AC power; it had no battery. So you could bring it on board your airplane flight, but you couldn’t use it, because airplanes didn’t have electric outlets in the seats, and even if they did, the outlets couldn’t provide enough power to run this beast, and even if they did, you still wouldn’t be able to use it because its weight would likely have collapsed the tray table.

It is my understanding that these units were popular with Microsoft account managers, since they were on the road a lot, and the built-in modem let them dial in to work and check email.

One such account manager accidentally left his computer on the curb at the airport in Santiago, Chile. He realized he had left it behind when he arrived at the hotel and noticed that his arm hadn’t yet fallen off. By the time he tracked the computer down and returned to the airport, the bomb squad had already come, placed the explosives where the computer’s fan goes, and detonated it.

They returned the blown-up computer to him, and he brought it back to the hotel.

“Why not?” he figured, and plugged it in and turned it on.

It booted up.

Bonus trivia: It appeared that the Compaq Portable 486 served as the hardware for the Network General network packet sniffer. The packet sniffers were very expensive, and according to legend, when the LAN Manager development team lost access to their only packet sniffer, they wrote NetMon as a software-only replacement.

 

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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15 comments

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  • Avatar
    Keith Patrick

    I had the 386 version (or maybe a 286) of the Compaq “portable” (aka “luggable”)….a heavy PC case that the keyboard locked into  The thing had a greenscale monitor that was about 5″x4″ and a 10MB hard drive.  I used it for HS papers and to play Populous (amazingly, it ran that game quite well).

    • Avatar
      Jeremy Richards

      You may be thinking of the Compaq 286 portable (I had the desktop version of the same system).  The manual bragged about how the system weighed “only” 33 pounds (the desktop was 50+).

      • Avatar
        Keith Patrick

        Yep, it was the Compaq Portable.  It was the size of a full desktop and weighed about as much as a Silicon Graphics Indy (those things were DENSE), with the comparative power of a netbook.  Populous was a blast on it, though…totally playable.

    • Avatar
      Keith Patrick

      IIRC some Bernouli Boxes (?) survived a building demolition and/or fire ages ago (I recall a magazine article about them being recovered after their cases were replaced).  A Nintendo Switch survived a drop off a building, but since that (and so many other devices now) has a lith-io battery inside, I definitely wouldn’t count on it to survive a fire….Nintendo seems pretty good at ruggedizing their hardware.

  • Avatar
    Brian_EE

    Answering your question from the subheadline – yes electronics can “tick”.
    I worked on battery backup box for a radio communications system a few years back. It was controlled by a 16-bit µController that spent most of it’s time sleeping (the system was portable so power consumption needed to average in microwatt range). Whenever it woke up from sleep state to do event processing it caused an impulse in the switching power supply. That in turn caused the wires in the inductor coil to move slightly resulting in a “tick”. Listen closely (i.e. hold it near your ear) and you could hear a tick at about a 1 Hz rate.

  • Avatar
    Jeremy Richards

    Didn’t they have proper, if primitive by modern standards, laptops by the 486 era? (i.e. some sort of clamshell with a display on top and keyboard on the bottom and a battery that could power the thing for an hour or so).  What is the use case of the Compaq 486 portable over normal laptop

  • Harold H
    Harold H

    A few years ago I was travelling and didn’t want my iPod rattling around in my suitcase so I put it into one of the extra pair of shoes I was carrying, along with my earbuds.  Apparently, when aiport security x-rayed my suitcase they saw a shoe with wires sticking out of it.  Next thing I know I’m being taken into a room for some questioning.

  • Avatar
    Jonathan Smith

    Speaking of airport security, back in the day a friend I was traveling with got the X-ray operators quite excited, for a minute or two, with his portably CD player and 200 CD binder.  Apparently there is just enough metal in the reflective foil foil layer of the stacked CDs to create 4 opaque cylinders on the X-ray; and since he’d stuck his Discman-style CD player into the binder there were also partial views of batteries and electronics showing in the gaps between those opaque cyliders.Fortunately no bomb squad called; they just had him open his bag, and then the binder, to show what was causing the weird images.

  • Avatar
    Yuhong Bao

    This reminds me of when 128-bit encryption was non-exportable “munitions” and the State Department had to create a “personal use” exception for travel in 1996. Matt Blaze went through the process in 1994/1995.

  • Avatar
    Alexandre Grigoriev

    1000 dollars for 210MB hard drive upgrade in 1992 was a ripoff. I bought a 210 MB Western Digital HDD back in 1992 (or 1993?) for $250. In Russia.

  • Avatar
    Jan Ringoš

    Only a small charge is generally used when detonating a bomb. The bomb’s actual payload is expected to finish the job.

  • Avatar
    Don Benson

    I used to carry one of these when I traveled all over the United States for customer training engagements. The device had two expansion card slots. We filled one of those slots with a propietary hardware board that emulated a business computer system that was very popular in the hotel industry at the time. With the board, the whole thing weighed about 22 pounds.
    On a cross-country trip, the bag’s shoulder strap had broken, so I had to carry it by the handle on the top. On that trip, I had to change airlines from United to American in O’Hare. My incoming flight was delayed, so I had to make a mad dash between those terminals without the benefit of the shoulder strap. I was quite the sight, literally running down the conveyor belts with my briefcase in one hand and the portable in the other. When one arm got tired, I would swap, without stopping.
    I still missed my connection…