Chapter 4 - 1978

As I mentioned in chapter 3 my work involved servicing mainframe computers, and I was always very conscious of the fact that dozens and sometimes hundreds of people were using the system at any one time.

This was always in the back of my mind as I tried to solve a problem with the hardware, it wasn’t a big problem when working on a peripheral device such as a tape drive or CDC disk drive as there were other devices that could be used by the operators.

But if it was the main controller cabinet for all the tape or disk drives or even the mainframe itself, then any wrong action could be disruptive, downtime on a site could mean that orders did not get processed or stock did not get picked or even worse, salaries did not get paid.

That is why I loved working on the smaller mini and later personal computers, I had more control and I did not have so worry about affecting lots of users.

In 1978 I left ICL and went to work for W H Smith & Son in their Computer Evaluation and Planning Team, the main reason was so I could work on a more diverse range of computers, they had other systems besides ICL, they included DEC PDPs & Vax’s as well as some of the new Personal computers, Apple II, Wang Word Processors, DEC Profesional & Rainbows.

DEC Vax 8550 & Professional on topDEC Vax 8550 & Professional on top

Apple II systemApple II system

We were testing and evaluating cutting edge systems and peripherals, it was a great place to be working.

In 1979, they decided to trial selling the new Personal Computers to small businesses, so they opened three stores. I saw this as an opportunity to get in at the start of the PC revolution and transferred to the new WH Smith Business Computer Centres as a technical consultant.

We sold a range of computers but the star was the newly launched IBM PC, later we added Compaq and Apricot to the portfolio.

The first IBM PC (Model 5150) came with two Floppy Disk Drive, an Intel 8088 4.77 MHz Processor, Ram of 16Kb to 256Kb and a Mono green screen monitor.

IBM PC 5150IBM PC 5150

The 5150 was available with one or two 5-1/4” floppy drives - with two drives the program disc(s) would be in drive A while drive B would hold the disc(s) for working files; with one drive the user had to swap program and file discs into the single drive.

Initially, there was a choice if CP/M-86 or PCDos as the operating system, but PCDos (IBMs version of MSDos) soon became the norm, the disk drive capacity was originally 160kb, but after a few months this was doubled to 320KB.

Back in 1981, there wasn’t a lot of software available for the IBM PC, however, sales really took off after the launch of the spreadsheet, initially, we had VisiCalc which was the killer App for the Apple II, but on the IBM, it only worked on the CP/M operating system. That all changed in 1983 when Lotus 123 came out, Lotus 1-2-3 drove sales of the PC due to the improvements in speed and graphics compared to VisiCalc on the Apple II.

The other main reason the IBM PC was so successful was it’s open standards, this meant that we soon had a choice of hardware add-ons that could be used in the machine, and we were soon mixing and matching various hardware add-ons, Hard Drives, tape drives, Memory upgrades, colour monitors, I spent a lot of my time testing and evaluating all these new add-ons.

I stayed at WHS Computer Centres until 1986 when events took me down a new path.

….more in the next chapter.

March 12, 2016

Chapter 3 - 1976

The month is June the year 1976, I have just got married and I am saying goodbye to my new wife as she and her best friend leave for our honeymoon, that’s right I did not go on my honeymoon.

Since finishing my apprenticeship and college I had worked in a variety of jobs as an electronic service engineer, industrial, tv & audio, gaming machines & musical Instruments.

At this time I was a tv & audio service manager for a retail store, the job was OK, the money OK but not brilliant, but I wanted to do something more interesting and rewarding.

I happened to become friends with a guy who worked for IBM, at that time he was servicing the new ATM machines that were being deployed in all the banks.

Well, I could not believe how much he was earning compared to what I was, so I made up my mind to getting a job in computing.

I tried IBM but they were only taking on graduates, not lowly apprentice trained engineers.

As luck would have it I applied and got offered a job with ICL (International Computers Ltd), they were the British equivalent of IBM.

The problem was the next intake to their training school was in June, so the choice was to start at the school or wait another 6 months.

Both my girlfriend and I agreed that it was too good an opportunity to wait for another 6 months, so she had a great holiday with her friend in the Greek Islands, and I started on my career in computing.

One nice anecdote to this story is that my wife’s friend who went on our honeymoon met her future husband while on the trip, so that sort of made up for the disappointment of not going.

Back in 1976 ICL had two main ranges of computer systems the 1900 series and the new 2900 series, the course at the training school concentrated mainly on the 1900 series mainframes and their associated peripherals.

ICL 2900 SiteICL 2900 Site

So for 6 months I learned about magnetic tape decks, paper punch & card readers, CDC removable disk storage, impact printers the associated controllers for these peripherals and, of course, the mainframe computers they served.

After four months at the school, you were assigned to a large ICL computer installation for a weeks familiarization, mine was at the Birmingham Univerity Computer department.

Birmingham Univeristy had a large site, the computer hall was the size of a football pitch, they had a 1906A mainframe, which incidentally was water cooled, there were dozens of tape-decks, CDC drives and impact printers.

It all seemed a bit daunting to me, there were half a dozen engineers on the day shift but it seemed a fairly relaxed environment so I settled in to learn from the team.

Now back in 1976 when the students or professors wanted to use the computer, they would sit a terminal and type in the code, this code was then transferred to Punch Tape

Paper Punch TapePaper Punch Tape

Punch Tape ReaderPunch Tape Reader

or Punch Cards, the tape or cards were then loaded into the computer and the program run.

Punch CardPunch Card

Card ReaderCard Reader

So at the end of my week all the engineers decide to go down the pub for a lunch time drink and I was left to watch the shop, the system was fairly busy with lots of students and teachers busy keying in programs.

We had a large alarm in the engineers room which informed us if the temperature in the mainframe was getting too high, and yes you guessed, it went off, so I dashed out to the mainframe and, sure enough, the temperature gauge was slowly climbing towards the red danger area.

So what did I do, yep, pulled the big red switch to OFF, the pumps and fans came to halt and there was silence in the room, that was until the phones started to ring.

We had a lot of unhappy and verbal students who had lost all the work they had been inputting, and I was a very worried trainee engineer.

Somebody must have telephoned the pub, as all the engineers returned looking very unhappy at having their lunch interrupted, they gathered around the mainframe and proceeded to remove the outer panels.

I stood and watched feeling very apprehensive, but 20 minutes later the mood had changed, I was now a hero, apparently the water cooler was blocked and if I had not powered down all the itsy bitsy transistors would have been toast, so I saved days of downtime replacing circuit boards.

I graduated from the training school and was offered a position in Swindon, based at W H Smith & Son they had a large computer site with both ICL 1900 & 2900 systems.

Swindon had a large team of engineers looking after some big names, W H Smith & Son, Woolworth, House of Fraser and Thorn EMI, so we were kept fairly busy and operated a three shift system covering 24 hours, seven days a week.

It was a great time and I learned a lot, but my heart and mind were more interested in the smaller personal computers that were starting to appear.

My next journey takes me from mainframes to mini-computers

February 26, 2016

Chapter 2 - 1981

My first computer, the Transam Tuscan languished unused in the attic, my new toy the BBC Micro model B sat proudly on my dining room table.

BBC Micro B ComuterBBC Micro B Comuter

Connected to small tv and a cassette player as the program loader and storage, I diligently entered list after list of code from magazines as I grappled with learning the Basic language.

After many nights, I was finally ready to code my own program, and that was to be The Football Pools Predictor”, I was convinced I could predict the draw results in the Saturday football (Soccer) games, and at a stroke become rich.

I spent weeks coding, debugging and testing, it was based on giving each team a weighting factor for previous results, whether it was a home or away fixture, and if key players were injured.

I will never know if it would have ever worked because it took so long to enter all the results for each team in the four leagues I gave up, back in 1980 the BBC basic did not have a database I could store previous results in so they all had to be re-entered every time I wanted to run the program.

The process taught me a lot about programming in Basic and would prove to be invaluable in the future.

The BBC Micro was a great little computer, it had a good selection of peripheral add-ons

* Joysticks
* Tape recorder
* Floppy drives (single and double)
* Econet networking upgrade
* Winchester disk system (Hard Disk)
* 6502 Second Processor
* Z80 Second processor (with CP/M and business software suite)
* 32016 Second processor
* ARM Evaluation System
* Teletext adapter
* Prestel adapter
* Speech synthesiser
* Music 500 synthesiser
* BBC Turtle (robot)
* BBC Buggy
* IEEE 488 Interface

The other great feature about the computer was a wide selection of games, my favorite, which I became quite addicted to, spending long hours into the night playing was Elite the space trading video game, which has been re-released for modern platforms called Elite Dangerous.

The Transam & then the BBC Micro were my introduction to personal computing, it was a revelation to me, as my day job was as a systems engineer for ICL (international Computers Ltd), I was used to mainframes in computer halls the size of a football pitch and you were constantly aware that dozens of users were logged onto the system.

But more of that on my next trip back to the future…………..

February 21, 2016

Chapter 1 - 1980

The year was 1980 I had just purchased the beginnings of my first computer, the Transam Tuscan it was based on the Z80 processor, with 8KB of static RAM and four EPROM sockets each of 2KB. It had the S100 bus with 5 expansion sockets.

It came as a complete kit or you could purchase the individual components. I opted to do it the hard way, component by component, so my first item was the motherboard.

Transam Tuscan MotherboardTransam Tuscan Motherboard

So it began, chip by chip until 8 months later the board was complete. I constructed a case built the power supply, borrowed a keyboard and used an old B/W TV for the monitor.

The 8KB EPROMs came with TCL basic and after a few bugs, mainly dry joints, I was up and running.

It proved to be a great learning experience and cemented my love of personal computing.

However, my affair with the Transam Tuscan did not last long, as a new love appeared on the horizon, sleeker in design, more powerful and with better graphics.

Enter the BBC Mico model B ………….. to be continued

February 13, 2016

Blot - Start Blogging Today

I had been thinking about starting a blog for some time.

There are plenty of platforms out there to get started quickly, problem was I wanted control of my content, and I wanted to be able to style the blog.

Then I discovered Blot and I had this blog up and running in a few hours.

Blot” links to Dropbox, for those that do not know Dropbox, it is a home for all your files, photos etc. it creates a folder on your device and anything you put in the folder gets automatically saved to the cloud, you can then view or use on any device, desktop, laptop, tablet or phone.

The first 2Gb of storage is free, you can give people a private link to your documents or photos, and revoke it later if you want, it is a must for anybody who wants to share files or work remotely.

So back to Blot, it creates a folder in Dropbox and anything you put into the folder gets published on the web on your blog.

It turns images, text or HTML into posts, it has no ads and no third-party tracking.

Other features are;

Hosting included
Five themes to choose from or create you own
Use your own Domain
Supports Markdown
Built-in search engine
RSS feed
Allows Disqus Comments if you want them
You can do Draft previews before publishing

There is a small $20 a year fee, but it is well worth this small outlay.

So if you have been thinking of starting a blog, why wait, take a look at Blot

February 7, 2016

Flotilla by Pimoroni

This was one of my Kickstarter-backed projects, it is a set of modules that link to a Raspberry Pi. The Mega Chest kit arrived a few weeks ago, and I have not yet had time to pay with it yet.

The kit contains the following:-

The dock plugs into your Raspberry Pi with a standard USB cable and
provides eight(8) plug & play ports for connecting your flotilla modules.

You can connect to these modules

Touch sensitive pads
Rainbow strip of full-colour LED's
Two motors
Temperature/ Barometer sensor
LED matrix of cells
Numeric LED display
Light sensitive sensors
Motion sensors
Joystick control
Slider control
Potentiometer control

The kit also includes hardware to construct a line following robot + much more

I am really looking forward to using this kit with my grandson.

Before I even start to use it, this one of the most professionally produce kits I have ever received.

More information on their website - here

Follow me as I play with the kit.

Here are some images from the product

flotilla project treasure chestflotilla project treasure chest

flotilla chest openflotilla chest open

modules from the chestmodules from the chest

February 6, 2016