Author Archives: Stephen J Marshall

An Apple for the Teacher

I saw in the news a couple of days ago that another Apple-1 microcomputer was sold at auction last week for $815,000.  This was less than the record amount of $905,000 paid for an Apple-1 in October 2014 but is still an impressive figure given the downward trend in prices fetched for these rare early microcomputers (as reported in my previous posts on this subject).

The likely reason for the high price paid is that this particular example would appear to be one of a very small number of pre-production prototypes in which the electronic components were soldered onto the motherboard by hand (rather than using a wave soldering machine, as was done with the production units).  This also suggests that it was not originally sold through the Byte Shop or by mail order but was probably one of the units sold directly by Jobs and Wozniak to their fellow Homebrew Computer Club members.

Apple-1 PrototypeUnusually, this story has an altruistic aspect, as the Apple-1 prototype was sold by online charity auction site Charitybuzz, with 10% of the proceeds from the sale going to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Arizona.  The buyers, Glenn and Shannon Dellimore, are also planning to take the machine into schools and universities to “help inspire young people“, although this might prove quite challenging, having purchased a non-working example of an Apple-1.

This reminded me of a project I was involved in a few years ago to create a virtual working replica of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  The idea was to prove that Babbage’s unrealised design for the Analytical Engine was indeed complete and would have functioned according to plan, and to use the resulting fully functional 3D computer model of the Engine as a teaching aid for students of computing.  Unfortunately, we were unable to secure funding for the project and it never went ahead but good ideas have a habit of resurfacing and there is now a similar project underway called Plan 28 which involves Babbage expert Doron Swade amongst others.

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The Countess of Computing

Ada LovelaceI watched an excellent documentary on BBC Four television recently about Ada Lovelace (or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace to give her her proper name).  The title of the documentary was Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing.  Presented by mathematician Dr Hannah Fry of University College London, it chronicled Ada’s involvement with mechanical computing pioneer Charles Babbage, and the role she played in promoting Babbage’s Analytical Engine design through her now famous ‘Notes’ of 1843.

By treading a fine line between journalistic hyperbole and factual accuracy, aided and abetted by the subject’s fascinating background and turbulent life story, the documentary explained the historical significance of Ada Lovelace’s Notes in a way that appealed to both the casual viewer and those with a keen interest in the history of technology.  It was also good to see some of Babbage’s hardware in action and to hear interviews with some genuine experts in the mechanical computing field, such as Doron Swade, who masterminded the construction of the full-scale replica of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2.

Despite bowing to convention and acknowledging Ada Lovelace’s contribution in Chapter 1 of my book, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of Ada’s authorship of the Notes, suspecting that Babbage was the true originator of many of the ideas presented in them.  However, this documentary has helped to set my mind at ease, as it was clear from the interviews with the experts that they all agree that she was indeed the originator of these ideas.  As Swade himself explains in the programme;

This is not a suggestive hint.  This is not a backwards projection.  This is Lovelace thumping the table saying this is what is significant about this machine

The Importance of Computer Graphics

I gave a presentation last night at my local British Computer Society branch meeting.  The subject chosen was the origins and development of computer graphics.  I chose this particular subject as graphics is one of the key component technologies in modern computers but seems to have been neglected by historians despite this importance.  It also happens to be a very interesting chapter in the history of the computer and very unusual in that all the earliest developments have a single source, Project Whirlwind at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A PDF file containing my PowerPoint slides for the presentation can be downloaded by clicking on the Download button below.

Click to Dowload

Publish and Be Damned – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I described my efforts to get The Story of the Computer published and the decision to try self-publishing following a lack of interest from the few remaining UK-based publishers of non-fiction titles who accept unsolicited proposals.  Part 2 brings the story up to date by describing how I used Amazon’s KDP platform to self-publish my book as an eBook in the Kindle format.

Having first looked at self-publishing back in 2013 (see ‘The Self-Publishing Dilemma’), I’d formed the distinct impression that it was an expensive and time-consuming business, requiring the author to pay for costly professional design and formatting services in order to produce a suitable manuscript in the appropriate eBook format.  As a canny Scot, the idea of having to shell out serious amounts of cash upfront, with little prospect of a return on my investment, filled me with horror.  Fortunately, it’s now much easier to self-publish an eBook, particularly if your target platform is the Kindle, by making use of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) facility.

KDP allows the author to upload a manuscript created in one of several popular document formats, including Microsoft Word and PDF, and automatically converts it into the native Kindle format.  A cover image, which is uploaded separately, is appended to the manuscript to create the finished eBook which then appears for sale on the Amazon site a short time later.  For best results, Amazon recommends converting the file to HTML first, as the more sophisticated formats contain complex formatting information which may not convert well.

The downside of KDP is that you have no control over the conversion process, which can be very hit or miss in terms of the end result, other than using the preview facility along with some trial-and-error adjustment to the source document in the hope of improving the formatting before publishing.  However, there are a couple of alternative methods if you do want more control over the conversion process, as I did.  If you have InDesign (the high-end desktop publishing application from Adobe Systems) there is a Kindle plug-in available which allows InDesign to convert documents directly to Kindle format.  It is also possible to use Scrivener (the productivity tool for writers from Literature & Latte Ltd) in combination with Amazon’s KindleGen utility to create documents in Kindle format.  As Scrivener is much less expensive to buy than InDesign and is also available as a free trial version, I decided to give it a try.

After downloading and installing the Windows version of Scrivener, I followed the steps described by Ed Ditto in his article on The Book Designer web site entitled ‘How to Publish Your eBook from Word to Kindle in under Ten Minutes’.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get Scrivener to do my bidding.  Formatting of headings and subheadings could not be controlled and images could not be centred or sized correctly.  As Ed points out in his article, the Windows version of Scrivener is less advanced than the Mac version he was using, so certain key features, such as preserving the original alignment, were missing.  Also, Ed’s novel did not include images and incorporating images into eBooks will always be a challenging task.

After two frustrating days, I finally abandoned Scrivener and went back to using Microsoft Word.  By following the instructions given in the Amazon guide ‘Building your book for Kindle‘, I was able to get the text of my book formatted satisfactorily but images remained problematic as a result of Word automatically resizing the images to fit the page.  The only solution I could think of was to replace the resized images (which are stored in the folder Word creates when the document is saved as an HTML file) with the original images then edit the HTML file itself using Notepad to change the size specified for each image to the correct dimensions.  There may be a more elegant solution out there somewhere but this one worked for me and I was able to create a satisfactory HTML file and folder of correctly sized images for uploading to KDP.  To see the end result for yourself, click on the book cover image below.

Book Cover

Publish and Be Damned

Having finally completed the first draft of my book back in November, my attention in recent months has been focused on getting the book published.  As outlined in my previous post on this subject (Publishers Rejoice!), the first step was to compile a ‘hit list’ of non-fiction publishers who accept unsolicited proposals in categories relevant to the book.  This was not a long list, as I’d already ruled out academic publishers and other UK-based publishers of history of technology titles would appear to be as rare as a female programmer.  I then set about drafting and submitting proposals to each of them in the specified format (which was indeed different for each publisher) and eagerly awaited their responses.

Of the 7 publishers contacted, I received 5 responses, a pretty decent hit rate considering the poor reputation of publishers in this respect.  However, none were willing to accept the book for publication.  The two most promising in terms of the relevance of my book to their core markets were probably the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).  Both are well-respected professional societies with large international memberships and enviable track records as publishers of quality books in their respective fields.  Unfortunately, my timing was bad, as both had recently chosen to refocus their publishing efforts on titles which address the specific technical requirements of their members and my book no longer fitted their requirements.

Of the other 3 publishers who responded, only one (Palgrave Macmillan) took the time to carefully evaluate the book before deciding that it wasn’t for them, being neither an academic nor a trade (general audience) offering.  They also expressed concern over the length of the book which, at 235,000 words, was almost 3 times the length of a typical non-fiction title, making it much more expensive to publish.  One solution would have been to divide it into two volumes but this would have compromised the comprehensiveness which is one of the main selling points of the book.

So, having tried and failed to secure a publishing deal, I then moved on to Option 2, self-publishing.  Fortunately, this has become much easier in recent years with the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform.  I’ll describe my experiences with KDP in my next post.

A Juicy Pair of Apples

Following my last post on the subject, The Apple Falls, two more Apple-1 computers have come up for auction in the past few months, with a puzzlingly wide disparity between the prices fetched.  In October 2014, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, smashed the previous record by paying $905,000 for a working example of an Apple-1 at an auction held by Bonham’s in New York.  Two months later, another working example was auctioned by Christie’s in New York for $365,000, less than half the price paid only weeks before.  Both machines included a full complement of accessories and peripherals, although the higher priced example was said to be in “superb overall condition“.

Apple-1 Computer Auctioned by Bonham'sThese latest sales bring the total number of Apple-1 computers which have appeared at auction in recent years to 13.  There are also a similar number of examples held in other museums around the world plus around 30 known to be in private collections.  By my reckoning, that still leaves a few undiscovered examples in circulation from the 63 which are thought to have survived out of an estimated total of 175 Apple-1 machines originally built.  However, it’s very unlikely that one of these undiscovered treasures will turn up in a junk shop or car boot sale in my neighbourhood anytime soon, as Apple had no UK sales distribution channels at that time.

The original batch of 50 units were sold through the Byte Shop, an early computer retail store based in Mountain View, California, and the remaining machines were sold direct by Jobs and Wozniak to their fellow Homebrew Computer Club members located around the Silicon Valley area.  A handful were also sold as a result of adverts placed by Apple in two computer hobbyist magazines, Byte and Dr Dobb’s Journal, but none are known to have gone to overseas buyers.  A significant proportion of these machines were subsequently taken out of circulation as a result of a generous trade-in allowance offered on the Apple ][ following its introduction in April 1977 which tempted many Apple-1 owners into trading in their ‘bare bones’ machine for the sleek new model, hence the relatively low figure of 63 which are thought to have survived.

Given the high prices paid in recent years for Apple-1 computers, there are likely to be some fakes in circulation and authenticating genuine examples will be an extremely difficult task as Apple did not use serial numbers.  It will be very interesting to see what happens when the next Apple-1 comes up for auction.  With around 30 examples still in private hands, it should only be a matter of time before one of these owners succumbs to temptation and puts his or her precious machine up for sale.

Computer Games Are Older Than You Think

I read with interest the recent news reports of the death of Ralph H Baer, the German-born electronics engineer who is credited with inventing the first video game console in 1966.  Baer, who died aged 92 on 6 December, pioneered the concept of a unit which would allow two people to play a selection of simple interactive video games using a domestic television set as the display device.  He and two colleagues developed a prototype unit which incorporated two controllers, each with two input dials and a pushbutton, and a bank of switches for selecting which game to play from a choice of 12.  This was subsequently licensed to US consumer electronics firm Magnavox and introduced as the Magnavox Odyssey in August 1972.

The success of the Odyssey prompted other companies such as Atari to introduce similar products and by 1976 the video game console market was worth over $240 million per year in the US alone.  The market has continued to grow at an astounding rate and is now worth an estimated $49 billion per year in worldwide sales.  Ralph Baer’s invention was the first successful hardware implementation of an interactive video game and his contribution to the birth of an industry was recognised by his adopted country in 2004 when he was awarded the US National Medal of Technology.

Of course, you no longer have to buy a dedicated game console in order to play interactive video games.  Most popular console games are also available as software versions which can be installed and run on a standard personal computer (providing that it meets the minimum hardware specification required by the game itself).  In conducting the research for my book, I was amazed to discover that the earliest known example of such a game predates the early video game consoles of the 1970s by more than 20 years.  It was a bouncing ball simulation written in 1950 for the MIT Whirlwind computer by Charles W Adams and John T Gilmore, two of the eight programmers on the Whirlwind development team.  Adams and Gilmore created a program that employed three differential equations to calculate the trajectory of a bouncing ball and display it on the computer’s oscilloscope screen.  By adjusting the bounce frequency using a control knob, the ball could be made to pass through a gap as if it had gone down a hole in the floor.

MIT WhirlwindThis was not the only notable achievement of the MIT Whirlwind project.  The machine itself is one of the most significant of the first generation of stored-program computers.  It provided a platform for MIT’s contribution to the development of magnetic core memory, a revolutionary type of memory technology which transformed the speed and reliability of early electronic computers.  More importantly, it is also the source of virtually all of the earliest developments in computer graphics and its design was later adopted by the US Air Force for the largest computer system ever built, the Project SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defence system.