Never Buy Version 1.0 Torpedoes

From my files dated May 1994. Anyone who has owned a car with a Lucas-made electrical system will certainly relate to this one.

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Some years ago, I worked with a fellow with the very British name of Ken Appleby. He had a Spitfire, I had my '74 B, and we used to motor out to Pickwick's Pub and throw darts after work on occasion.

Ken used to work for Lucas in the UK, specifically for a division of Lucas that did military electronics. My favorite of his stories was about the time he had been working on a computer-controlled torpedo. It used magnetic core memory to store the programs, which had the advantage of being very non-volatile as well as not susceptible to EMP discharge.

So Ken got to ride on the boat for the first test of the torpedo that used the computer with his program in it. Somewhere out in the North Sea, on a Royal Navy cutter, Ken and his crew launched the first ever run of this new weapon, and Ken learned a new respect for debugging.

The program was supposed to make the torpedo shoot off the boat, dive to a depth at which it couldn't be easily detected, then circle toward the target, climb to striking depth, and hit the target. There were on-board sensors to detect sea level, and the torpedo was supposed to travel at a preset distance below sea level, with constant feedback keeping it on track.

Somehow, somewhere, Ken had multiplied one of the 3D coordinates by a negative number, and this error soon propagated through the transformation matrix (the mathematical construct that models 3D space), with predictable results.

Within instants of hitting the water, the torpedo -- instead of sinking out of visible range -- blasted up and out from the water in a great silver fountain, then continued skipping across the surface of the blue like some sort of deranged wingless flying fish. Worse yet, instead of circling toward the target, it circled all right, but began to return to the ship that launched it. Fortunately it was not armed, but they still detonated the self-destruct on it rather than let it slice through their ship at 50 knots or whatever rate it traveled. Because of the non-volatile core memory, Ken was able to debug the program from what the Royal Navy frogmen could recover from it, and he fixed the problem for Rev 2.0.

But I must admit that the image of the torpedo, splashing happily above the surface of the water like an aroused porpoise, is one that returns to me in idle moments such this. What else would a Lucas torpedo do but try to fly?

Posted October 29, 2012 8:00 AM

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