Monday, February 14, 2011

Mabel The Swimming Wonder Monkey, or The Great Dead Monkey Project

DEC VAX 11/780
Okay, so, this story seems to vary wildly from one source to the other, so I have no idea how much is true and how much is urban legend. But there's no way in hell I'm passing up the opportunity to write a post about The Great Dead Monkey Project, so here goes:

They say Mabel was a monkey, maybe a chimpanzee, trained by scientists at the University of Toronto in the late '70s. They called her Mabel The Swimming Wonder Monkey  because they'd taught her how to swim underwater; she could breathe with a kind of scuba system. The researchers would pump in various gasses to determine the kind of effects they had on her body. 

The whole system was controlled by an early computer—the DEC VAX-11/780. It was a brand new, state of the art machine which took up most of a room, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and came with up to 2 MB of memory. But the one the researchers at U of T were using had developed some kind of problem, so one day, while Mabel was in the pool, a technician came in to fix it. And while he was working on it, he accidentally screwed with part of the system regulating Mabel's air. The Swimming Wonder Monkey drowned.

Her death, according to a dictionary of computer geek slang, is how they got the term "scratch monkey"—an extra drive used to back-up data while troubleshooting. Apparently it's a common expression for safety-conscious computer folk: "Always mount a scratch monkey". If they'd done that at U of T, their monkey wouldn't have died.

There's another version of the story out there as well. It comes from someone who claims to have interviewed the woman who programmed the computer. According to her, the experiment had nothing to do with swimming underwater, but involved five monkeys who were hooked up to the computer so that it could read their brain waves. When the DEC VAX-11/780 was being worked on, it supposedly accidentally sent out electrical signals, directly into the monkeys' brains. It killed three and stunned the other two. The experiment became known as The Great Dead Monkey Project.


I was tipped off to this one by a couple of friends who run the Once Again, to Zelda blog and are editors with me over at the Little Red Umbrella and who were trying to figure out why an ad for a "Toronto Bucket List" with a photo of a chimpanzee in a wetsuit kept showing up in the sidebar of their Facebook feeds. Which is still confusing. You can read the online dictionary's version of the story here, and The Great Dead Monkey Project version here. Also, coincidentally, there's a monkey gargoyle at U of T, on one of the doorways to University College, which you can see a photo of here.

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