St. Peter’s College and the Mouse Balls

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, St. Peter’s College* had a number of labs with PCs for student use. Each lab was a separate room equipped with a relatively large number of identical systems. In this particular case the room was full of Northgate Intel® 386™SX systems. These were purchased as complete systems from Northgate, along with their Omnikey keyboards and “Microsoft mice”. These systems had been in use for some years (replacement of expensive working stuff takes a long time at private colleges). We’d learned earlier on that people would steal anything that “wasn’t nailed down”, so the PCs had metal cables wrapped around table legs and locked to the PC case, and the keyboards and mice had their cables tied onto those metal cables near the PC case with plastic cable ties.

The mice were your basic original Microsoft mice, shiny white plastic, 2 buttons, a roller ball and a 9-pin serial connector. None of that ergometric optical PS/2 wheel and 3-or-more buttons stuff.

We should have known that wasn’t sufficent security, as people had popped random keys off the keyboards every now and then. That wasn’t terribly difficult as they just popped off. Northgate even conveniently supplied a keycap removal tool with each keyboard.

Another thing you should know is that having an offbeat sense of humor** was pretty much a requirement for working in the Academic Computer Center at SPC. This was actually pretty common – you can see some other examples of it in The Jargon File and the original BOFH. The protagonist of this story is Joe, a fellow who looked a lot like Radar from the M*A*S*H TV series, who would often wear a hat with what looked like a fish sticking through it. One of Joe’s jobs was to handle minor wear-and-tear items in the computer labs.

One day, Joe comes downstairs to my office and tells me “Somebody took the balls out of all the mice in the Northgate lab!”, to which I replied “You mean someone castrated them?” He asked me what he should do, and I answered “Call Microsoft and order some new ones.” A few hours later he came back into my office and said he couldn’t get anybody on the phone at Microsoft who knew about Microsoft mice (Microsoft’s Hardware Division was apparently a secret at Microsoft, at least to the people who answered the main phone number at Microsoft). I tell him to keep trying and he eventually comes back and tells me he got the phone number of someone who could help him. Very proudly, he dialed the number from my office on speakerphone so I could hear the exchange:

Microsoft: “Microsoft, this is Ms. X at extension xxxx”
Joe: “Is this the group that handles Microsoft Mouse parts?”
Microsoft: “Yes, how can I help you?”
Joe: “Somebody castrated all our mice!”
Microsoft: <Click>
Joe: “Hello? Anyone there? Hello?”

I told him to wait a few hours and call them back from his office and order the darned mouse balls. He came back and said they agreed to the order, at which point we had to do the song-and-dance to get a purchase order issued (a story for another time).

In due time, a box arrived and Joe went to put the new balls into the mice. He comes back down and says “They don’t fit!”. I asked what he meant and he said they didn’t fit into the housing inside the mouse. I told him to call Microsoft back and ask what was going on. Again, he used the speakerphone in my office:

Microsoft: “Microsoft, this is Ms. X at extension xxxx”
Joe: “My balls are too big!”
Microsoft: <Click>
Joe: “Hello? Anyone there? Hello?”

Deja vu all over again. Eventually he gets a hold of someone who asks where he got them, and it turns out that when Microsoft increased the resolution of their mice, they did it simply by changing the size of the ball. They then fobbed their inventory of the older, lower-resolution mice off on their OEM Windows customers who needed cheap mice to sell with their computers.

Eventually, a package arrives from Microsoft with the correct size mouse balls and Joe installs them, much to the relief of the students who have been crowding into the other PC labs when they needed to use Windows software. This package was somewhat oddly-addressed, being sent to “St. Potato’s College”. Apparently someone at Microsoft shared our oddball sense of humor (or had been “infected” with it after the ball-ordering incidents). We decided to use superglue to glue the access covers for the mouse balls onto the mice to prevent this from happening in the future.

While I don’t have the address label from that second mouse ball shipment, Microsoft continued to use “St. Potato’s College” as the official name on our customer account for a number of years:


* The domain name at the time was Later on, they renamed the school to St. Peter’s University. Fortunately, (pronounced “spew” or “ess pee-yew”) was already taken by Seattle Pacific University, so they used Around the same time, Jersey City State College ( renamed itself to New Jersey City University. Shouldn’t that be New Jersey Jersey City University, or maybe New Jersey2 City University? Anyway, they went with – I don’t even know how to say that – nijj-koo, maybe?

** We actually developed a “litmus test” for co-workers to see if they would fit in. It was pretty simple – we’d ask someone to imagine Elmer Fudd singing the theme from “The Way We Were”. If they broke out laughing or cracked a smile, they’d be a perfect fit. If they looked puzzled because they didn’t get it, they’d need some on-the-job training in our particular sense of humor. If they didn’t like it, chances were close to 90% they wouldn’t fit in and would leave relatively soon. In case you don’t get it… Mem-wees… Misty watta-color mem-wees of da way we wuhhhhhhhhhhh…

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