That Difficult Third Album

Having completed and published both the paperback and eBook versions of The Story of the Robot in July last year after nearly 3 years of effort, I was in no hurry to start another writing project. I’d succeeded in proving to myself that I could write a second book. Also, having covered the two areas of technology which I can claim some expertise in (computers and automation systems), I reckoned I had run out of suitable topics to cover.

However, there was one piece of unfinished business. When writing my first book, The Story of the Computer: A Technical and Business History, I’d omitted planned chapters on supercomputers and portable computers in order to keep the overall length of the book manageable. Perhaps one of these could be the subject of a new book?

I quickly ruled out supercomputers. Supercomputing is a highly specialised subject and my experience of it is limited so a full-length book on its origins and evolution would be a tall order for me and probably also of little interest to potential readers. That left portable computers.

I have to confess to disliking portable computing devices. I get frustrated by their tiny virtual or physical keyboards, miniscule screens and absence of a decent pointing device. I don’t actually want to compose an e-mail while walking down the street or in the back seat of a taxi. I’d rather do it from the comfort of my desk, where I can give the task my full attention without fear that my user experience will be severely compromised by the Lilliputian nature of the equipment. Despite this, I can’t help marvelling at the ingenuity of their design and the enormous effort that has gone into their development.

Therefore, in August 2022 I began scoping out a book on the history of portable computing technology with the working title ‘A Moving Story‘. After a few weeks of intensive research I had a rough outline of the new book, complete with chapter headings, subheadings and bullet points for content. The next stage would be to take each chapter outline and expand it into working draft but I now realised that I’d be going over much of the same old ground as The Story of the Computer, as portable computers are still computers after all, and this dampened my enthusiasm considerably. I needed to find a different subject if I was to have any hope of writing a third book, something that I had both the enthusiasm for and sufficient knowledge of.

In September 2022 I attended a reunion of former colleagues from the University of Glasgow. During a conversation with one of my oldest ex-colleagues, I mentioned my struggle to find a suitable subject for a third book. Knowing that I was a keen amateur musician with an abiding interest in the technological aspects of music making, he suggested the history of music technology. After mulling this suggestion over for a couple of months, I decided that it was indeed the right subject for my next book.

I’ve now completed an outline for the new book, which has the working title ‘Turn Up the Volume‘, and have started work on the first draft of Chapter 1. Music technology overlaps with automation and computing at several points in its history, which gives the book a sense of continuity with the two earlier books while remaining a standalone work. Progress was slow to begin with due to the large amount of background research required for a “new” subject but is now accelerating rapidly as my enthusiasm builds. The target date for completion is early 2026 so watch this space!


A Local Resource

One of the most challenging tasks I had when creating my latest book, The Story of the Robot: A Short History of Automation and Robotics, was finding suitable images that could be used without royalty fees or onerous licensing restrictions. The Internet is a rich source of images on all manner of subjects but the majority of these cannot be used without first obtaining a license unless the copyright has expired or the image has been made available under a public copyright license. You can see evidence of this on many Wikipedia pages, where images are either non-existent or are photographs of questionable quality taken by amateurs and licensed through Creative Commons.

Chapters 2 and 3 of the book were particularly challenging, as the choice of royalty-free images of early factory machinery was very poor. In some cases I was able to find PDF copies of relevant documents where the copyright had long since expired, such as early manuscripts and patent applications, and extract suitable images from them. I also had a few photographs of museum exhibits which I’d taken myself. However, this situation was less than ideal and ended up limiting the number of images included in the book.

Imagine my surprise when, on a recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland here in Edinburgh, I discovered a treasure trove of artefacts from the Industrial Revolution, including many of the items of machinery I had been writing about in the book. I’ve visited this excellent museum on countless occasions over the years but had somehow missed (or forgotten about) the ‘Scotland Transformed’ gallery which takes the visitor through the period during which Scotland began to change from a predominantly rural, medieval society to an urban, modern one. It’s a pity that I hadn’t found it before publishing the book, as I would have been able to include my own photographs of the relevant artefacts (see example above). Of course, this opens up the possibility of a new edition of the book containing a much larger number of images, as originally planned, but I’ll leave it for the time being and see how sales of the first edition progress.

An Impressive Collection

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Time-Line Computer Archive, a large collection of vintage computers located in Wigton, Cumbria. The aim of the Archive is to collect, restore and exhibit all types of early computers, electronics and associated peripherals. The collection boasts a number of historically important computers, including an English Electric DEUCE, Librascope Royal Precision LGP-30, IBM 1620, several Digital Equipment Corporation PDP minicomputers and a Kenbak-1 personal computer, one of only 14 believed to still exist.

The main reason for my visit was to donate a Compaq Portable 386 Model 2670 computer which I’d rescued from a skip many years ago (see photo above). The Archive is not currently open to the public so it was an honour to be given a private tour by curator Mike Armstrong. Mike’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject made for a most enjoyable visit.

The eBook Dilemma

When publishing my new paperback, The Story of the Robot, a few weeks ago via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, I decided initially not to create an eBook version. My main reason for this decision was the eBook format’s inability to support a proper index. This is no big deal for fiction books but can be a major drawback for non-fiction titles, where the reader relies on the index to dip in and out of the book in order to check facts or re-read certain sections.

Another reason was what I assumed to be the difficult and time-consuming task of reformatting my painstakingly formatted manuscript to make it suitable for an eBook. Unlike my previous book, The Story of the Computer, I’d gone straight to a highly formatted paperback edition, which I created using Adobe InDesign, rather than the more logical route of starting with a relatively unformatted eBook version before moving onto the paperback. InDesign does support eBook output formats but this would have meant manually stripping out all the paperback-specific formatting, a process that was likely to take some time and considerable trial and error to complete.

However, with initial sales of the new book in single figures, I soon realised that having an eBook version might help to stimulate demand. My previous book has sold in similar numbers of both formats over the past 5 years (although eBook sales do appear to be tailing off) and there is also the additional benefit of royalties from the Kindle Unlimited scheme, where you get paid for the number of pages a Kindle Unlimited subscriber reads in your eBook for the first time.

Having convinced myself of the need for an eBook version, I then investigated the options available for creating it. Several online resources suggested using Amazon’s Kindle Create to produce the eBook rather than doing it within InDesign. Kindle Create is a free desktop application that produces eBook interiors in Kindle Create Publishable Format (KPF) for publishing directly on the Kindle store. It will accept files in Microsoft Word format and will do its best to replicate the Word formatting in the eBook. As I’d written my book using MS Word before turning to InDesign to create the finished version, this sounded like the easiest option.

The conversion process was relatively straighforward, although Kindle Create does have a number of annoying bugs which required manual adjustment of formatting settings to bring certain elements back into line. The software is also quite limited in terms of functionality, particularly in how it handles images. Fortunately, it includes a built-in previewer which lets you see exactly how your eBook will look on a tablet, phone or Kindle reader. I found this feature invaluable for picking up several minor formatting issues that had crept into the eBook during the conversion process. Producing the eBook using Kindle Create took me about a day and a half, which was less time than expected and a fraction of the time taken to produce the paperback version using InDesign. It will be very interesting to see if having an eBook version has the desired effect in boosting sales of the new book!

New Book Completed

My new book is now finished and is available in paperback format through Amazon. Titled The Story of the Robot: A Short History of Automation and Robotics, the book examines the history of the robot within the wider context of automation, thereby allowing the reader to fully appreciate the origins and evolution of robotic systems.

It begins by tracing the historical roots of robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys.  The next four chapters guide the reader on a whistle-stop tour across more than 300 years of automation history.  Chapter 6 charts the rise of humanoid robots, beginning with their first appearance in science fiction stories to their physical realisation at the end of the 20th century.  In Chapter 7, the use of autonomous control technology in mobility applications is surveyed, from the earliest self-steering vehicles to autonomous robots and self-driving cars.  The final chapter brings the story up to date with the new industrial revolution now taking place as a result of the application of digitalisation and interconnectivity technologies to manufacturing.

Weighing in at a svelte 70,000 words, it’s much shorter than my first book but it still took around 3 years to research and write plus another couple of months to format for publishing using Adobe InDesign. Given my failure to attract a publisher for my first book, I decided not to waste my time again and went straight for the self-publishing option through Amazon’s KDP platform. Who knows, if the book does well it might attract the attention of a publisher.

Steady Progress

Boston Dynamics SpotI’ve now completed the first two chapters of my new book and have almost finished the first draft of Chapter 3.  The working title is The Story of the Robot: A Short History of Automation and Robotics.  As the title indicates, this will be a shorter book than The Story of the Computer, with 8 chapters planned instead of 13 and a relatively svelte estimated word count of around 80,000 words in contrast to the massive 235,000 words of my first book.

There are a couple of reasons for this:-

    1. The only real criticism of The Story of the Computer concerned its length which appears to have daunted some readers and scared off at least one potential publisher.  The book had to be long in order to cover the multiple development paths and competing technologies adequately, and would have been even longer if I had not decided to omit planned chapters on supercomputers and portable computing.  Fortunately, the subject of the new book is less convoluted and can be covered in a much more straightforward way.
    2. With over 500 pages of text in The Story of the Computer, I could only include a relatively small number of illustrations otherwise the total number of pages would have become unmanageable.  This was frustrating, as certain sections of the book would have benefitted from the addition of some carefully chosen images.  Having less text in the new book affords me the luxury of including as many illustrations as I like without worrying about the overall number of pages, although it will be a challenge to find sufficient good quality images in a subject area that is much less well represented online than the history of the computer.

Progress with the new book has been steady but slower than I’d have liked (due mainly to a lack of discipline on my part!).  Nevertheless, Chapter 3 should be finished by the end of this month and I’ll aim to increase the pace in the New Year to get back on track for completion of the book before the end of 2021.

The Origins of Simulation

LinkedIn Logo

I’ve recently published a new article on LinkedIn exploring the origins of simulation.  Modern simulation tools and techniques are almost exclusively computer-based but the origins of simulation lie in in the remarkable achievements of two 18th century inventors, Jacques de Vaucanson and Wolfgang von Kempelen.

A longer version of this article will form part of the opening chapter of my new book on the history of automation and robotics.  This chapter will trace the origins of robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys.  I’m pleased to report that I’ve now completed the first draft of this chapter and have started work on Chapter 2 which will cover the mechanisation of the textiles industry and the advent of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution.

New Book Taking Shape

Boston Dynamics Atlas RobotI’ve recently completed a detailed outline for my second book and am now in the process of writing the opening chapter.  Having completed The Story of the Computer back in 2015, I’ve kept my authorial hand in by penning the occasional article for LinkedIn but haven’t written anything substantial so I’m really enjoying the discipline of writing every day again.

The subject of the new book is the history of automation and robotics.  Unlike the history of the computer, this topic hasn’t been covered very widely by other authors.  There are a handful of books available on the history of the robot but none of these include the development of automation technology and in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two.  A robot is a specific example of automation technology, one which can perform a complex sequence of actions automatically without manual intervention.  Robots which can operate with a high degree of autonomy, so-called autonomous robots, are arguably the highest form of automation technology.  Therefore, in order to cover the history of the robot as comprehensively as possible, it’s necessary to examine it within the wider context of automation.

I’ve been fortunate to work with robots and other forms of automation technology extensively during my career as an R&D engineer so I have a reasonable baseline knowledge from which to start.  Nevertheless, a huge amount of research will be required in order to chart the evolution of this fascinating subject.  Some of this has been completed already during the course of creating the outline of the book but there is still much to do.

Here’s a brief summary of the new book:-

It begins by tracing the origins of automation and robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys.  The mechanisation of the textiles industry and the advent of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution are then described.  The story continues with the development of automatic control technologies before moving on to factory automation and industrial robots.  The book then focuses on the evolution of anthropomorphic robots before bringing the subject up to date with the development of UAVs, AGVs and Self-Driving Cars.  The final chapter examines the application of digital technologies to manufacturing in what is now being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Paul Allen Remembered

I was saddened to hear this week that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had died, aged 65, from complications due to the lymphoma which he had been battling since first being diagnosed with the disease in the early 1980s.  I researched his life extensively for my book and felt that I got to know him a little, even though I’d never met him.  Although he was not as well known as his friend and business partner Bill Gates, his contribution to the birth and early success of Microsoft was equally important, with Allen often taking the lead in the technology developments and business decisions that would propel Microsoft from start-up to giant corporation in under 15 years.

Like Gates, Allen was also a dedicated philanthropist and it will be a fitting memorial to see his enormous wealth being put to many good causes in the coming years.