An engineer fondly recalls the time-honored tradition of nicknames.
From the earliest days of my career in electrical engineering, I have noticed that engineers have a penchant for naming things. Names like Hewlett-Packard, Wang, and Rand Corp. have obvious etymologies, but others can be somewhat obscure or subject to cultural sensitivities. Obscure names for companies like Accenture, Ampire, and n*Ask, seem to be on the rise. So what is an “accenture” -- an accent, a venture?
Other names that are now ubiquitous in the public landscape may have turned out differently in an earlier generation: Microsoft might have been a lingerie company; Yahoo and Google could have been “girly” magazines; and FireFox would likely have been banned by PETA.
Strangely enough, Compaq Computer actually made computers that were compact; Bell Labs did research related to things with bells (telephones); International Business Machines (IBM) internationally sold business machines; and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) made advanced micro devices. One could make the case that company names are driven more by marketing types than by engineers, so let’s explore names that arise within the field of hardware design.
Thirty years ago, I was developing a high-speed image memory plane. In order to “pipeline” writes to the memory and prevent flicker on the display, there were two banks in the memory plane. When one was being displayed, the other was being written to. When writes were complete, the display was “ping-ponged” to the other bank. The signal that gave the status that this transition was about to occur was aptly named PPP (ping-pong pending). One of my early successes as a hardware design engineer was selling that name to the lead engineer.
Later, I worked on a team that developed interface boards that adhered to the VME Bus standard. Every read and write cycle was completed by asserting the DTACK (DaTa ACKnowledge) signal. The timing was a “pain in the rear,” hence the name “DTACK” would have been memorable (if you get my “point”).
Another issue that we had with the VME bus standard was that, although there was a priority scheme that VME bus masters used to adjudicate priority, there was no way to tell exactly when a bus master would relinquish the bus after a higher-priority bus master requested priority.
Given the nature of our system, my old boss, Bob Buxton, thought it wise to implement all bus masters in a manner that would limit how many transfers they could do in one bus priority request interval. He chose 32 transfers (128 bytes) for the size of these “Buxton Blocks,” as we soon nicknamed them. Fifteen years later, I was debugging some built-in test equipment (BITE) code and ran across the term “Buxton Blocks” in the comments… definitely gave me a chuckle after all those years.
I think every hardware designer has had the experience of overdriving a zener diode, thereby creating a NED (noise emitting diode). When I was at Georgia Tech, someone in the switching lab used a capacitor with too low a voltage rating in his power supply. The loud “POP!” gave us the impression that he had created a very efficient signal-to-noise converter.
Think back over your own career and see what funny names you recall using in your own designs. Who says engineers don’t have a sense of humor?
— Dwight Bues is a Georgia Tech Computer Engineer with 30 years' experience in computer hardware, software, and systems and interface design.