You probably don’t know the Red Baron Operating System, “R-Boss” (RBOS). It was named for a strip bar in Houston Texas and it carried billions, probably trillions, of dollars of credit card authorizations for American Express — including long after they lost the source code for it.
Back in the 1970s I worked at American Express, the credit card company. Like many companies, they occasionally tried other business ideas. One of these was a hotel/motel reservation service called Space Bank.
Since this was back in the 70s, the iron, the computer that kept track of all those hotel and motel rooms, was an IBM mainframe, a 360 model 50 to be precise. Several hundred telecommunications circuits ran from that computer to hotels, motels and restaurants in the United States, and quite a few overseas as well. At that time, it was a BIG network with thousands of devices out in those remote locations.
The software programming group I was in at the time was building a “front end” for what we soon called the “back end” computer. The front end, our invention, would handle all the telecommunications and, thereby, offload the back end computer. We used Honeywell series 16 minicomputers for our hardware.
I was low man on the totem pole at the time so I didn’t get to make the trip to Houston where the other programmers learned about these minicomputers. I would have to pick things up by RTFM — Read The F’ing Manual — or, as it turned out, mostly by trial and error.
Another thing I missed out on was the Red Baron Lounge across the street from the Honeywell school. My associates apparently made the Lounge their regular after-class stop for beer, dinner and chatting up the strippers when they weren’t performing.
When my co-workers returned from their travels, the name of the operating system was announced, RBOS. When the Vice President of the organization asked what that stood for, there were nervous looks before Barry, the lead engineer and chief architect, said, “The Red Baron Operating System … because I like the airplane.”
In the following months, RBOS took shape and eventually went “on-line” where it ran on a cluster of more than a dozen minicomputers. This was an early 24/7 operation and we were quite proud of our creations and their reliability. The systems would often run continuously for several weeks without interruption, a feat near unimaginable to the back end folks. Indeed, when we subsequently discovered that the computer that calculated up time for the week couldn’t print a number higher than 99.9%, we insisted upon and received a fix.
100% was our number.
One morning I came in and noticed that each of the computers was sporting a round sticker about 3″ in diameter. (Sadly, the picture above was taken either before the stickers were added, or during one of the periods in which management had them removed — before they would mysteriously return a month later.) The sticker had a cartoon figure of a bison in the pilot’s seat of the Red Baron’s bright red, tri-wing Fokker and beneath it was printed “Houston TX”. It was the logo from the strip bar.
Eventually, however, the real origin of the “Red Baron” name leaked out and management removed the stickers. The next day, new stickers appeared on each minicomputer. That night, management took them down again.
Sadly, after multiple purges followed by the application of new stickers, we just ran out. I volunteered to call the strip bar and ask for more. I spoke with “Brandy”. No doubt she thought us a pretty strange bunch to name a corporate computer network after their place of employment but, nonetheless, in a couple of days a package arrived with a generous supply of labels and the minicomputers were soon decorated yet again.
By the time I left American Express many years later, the name “Red Baron” and what it was associated with had spread well beyond the minicomputers. By then, the whole network including the mainframe, the minis and the thousands of terminals across the world had been encompassed by the name. There was even a big sign on the wall of the computer operations department with a light to indicate if the “Red Baron Network” was up or down.
Years later, someone would call me at home and ask if I still had a copy of the source code for RBOS.
“No, sorry,” I replied. “When I left, the personnel department was very insistent that I must have no company property in my possession. So I was careful to return every stapler, paper clip, punch card and computer listing.”
The caller went on, “Well, if you should happen to come across a copy, we’d be very happy to get it — no questions asked. You see, we lost our copy.”
Apparently the computers and the network had been going strong for quite some time before anyone noticed they no longer had a copy of the source code. Without that, they were unable to make improvements or expand the network.
WARNING! Unrepentant bragging follows.
It is a testament to the quality of work we did that RBOS lived with very few changes for twenty years. I’m not saying it was perfect but whatever defects it had, American Express lived with them for all that time.
Few software products live that long.
To the very best of my knowledge, only the inner core of that programming group ever knew that American Express’s primary credit authorization network, the one through which they ran trillions of dollars in credit card transactions over two decades, was named for a strip bar in Houston.
On a recent business trip to Houston I tried to look the place up but, like the source code to RBOS, it was history.