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.

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.

The Mighty Micro

The British Broadcasting Corporation recently announced that it is making its archive of material from the Computer Literacy Project available online for the first time.  The BBC Computer Literacy Project was a pioneering educational initiative which ran from 1980 to 1989 and included literally hundreds of television programmes on how to use and program microcomputers plus a wealth of supporting material such as computer programs which viewers could try out for themselves.

The Project also spawned its own microcomputer, the BBC Micro, which became a very popular model in the UK home computer market, selling more than 1.5 million units over a 13 year period.  BBC Micros were a common sight in UK schools and colleges, where they were responsible for nurturing a generation of games programmers.  I even had one on my kitchen table for a while, one of a batch of unwanted machines from the R&D laboratory where I worked, which had replaced them with more capable models such as the Commodore PET, Apple ][ and IBM PC.The huge success of the BBC Micro in the UK did not extend beyond its home market and the machine is almost unheard of in other parts of the world.  However, the company behind it,  Acorn Computers, later evolved into Arm Holdings, the firm responsible for the design of most of the CPU chips used in today’s smartphones.  So, the powerful mobile computing and telecommunications device that you probably have in your pocket right now owes at least part of its existence to an obscure, low-cost microcomputer from the 1980s.  A mighty Micro indeed!

The Antikythera Mechanism

On a short trip to Athens in January this year, I was able to spend a couple of hours in the city’s National Archaeological Museum.  One of the highlights of the collection is the Antikythera Mechanism, a mysterious object which was found by sponge divers in the wreckage of an ancient Roman ship off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900.  It is the earliest known example of a geared mechanism, having been dated to around 150-100 BC, and its discovery changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world.

The Antikythera Mechanism is described in Chapter 1 of my book in a section on the evolution of geared mechanisms, one of the ‘building blocks’ that facilitated the development of calculating machines.  I researched the Mechanism extensively during the writing of the book but had never had the opportunity to study it in person before.

The curators have done a superb job of exhibiting the Antikythera Mechanism, a difficult task due to the calcified condition of the remaining fragments.  The extensive display includes both physical and computer-based reconstructions of the Mechanism plus explanatory material from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.  Below are a couple of photographs I took of the exhibit during my visit.  The left hand photo shows the three main fragments from the front.  The right hand photo is a close-up of the largest fragment from the rear.

Antikythera Mechanism FrontAntikythera Mechanism Rear

A Tale of Two Museums

I recently had the pleasure of visiting two museums whose collections include computers and computer-related exhibits.  The first, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, has recently reopened its Science & Technology galleries following a £14.1 million redevelopment programme.  The suite of six new galleries are considered to be the UK’s most comprehensive outside London and feature objects covering over 250 years of enquiry and innovation.  Computers on display include a Commodore PET 2001 (pictured below), one of the ‘1977 Trinity’ of early microcomputers and the first desktop computer I ever used.

Commodore PET 2001

The collection also includes a rare example of an Apple-1.  The Apple-1 model was originally sold without a case so the owner of this particular example built it into a leather briefcase in order to provide a suitable protective housing for the computer, echoing subsequent developments in portable computing.  Also featured are several early portable computers including a GRiD Compass, the first computer to feature the now familiar ‘clamshell’ design.

A few weeks after my visit to Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to visit London’s Design Museum.  Billed as “the world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form“, the Design Museum has recently relocated to a stunning new building in Kensington High Street.  However, despite having a huge amount of display space available, the permanent collection is disappointingly small.  Computers are reasonably well represented but the labelling of items is rather confusing and I did notice what appeared to be a mislabeled Friden EC-132 Electronic Calculator.  Although I am Scottish, I don’t think I’m being biased by stating that I preferred the displays in Edinburgh to those in London.

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