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.

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!

High Praise Indeed

The new paperback edition of the Story of the Computer received a very positive review in the Autumn 2017 issue of Resurrection, the journal of the Computer Conservation Society.  The review by Dik Leatherdale, who is the journal’s editor, praised both the structure of the book and the quality of writing.  What really pleased me, however, was that he also intimated that he learned much from the book.  This is high praise indeed, coming from an officer of the Computer Conservation Society and expert on historic computers.

You can read the review online here:-

Paperback Writer

Since publishing my book in eBook format in March 2015, I’ve been keen to produce a paperback version.  eBooks are a great way of getting your book published with the minimum amount of additional effort but the format is limited, particularly for non-fiction as there is no way of creating a proper index, and nothing compares to the satisfaction that comes from holding a physical copy of your book in your own hands.  It also makes sound commercial sense, as eBook sales have recently begun to fall in both the UK and US while paperback sales are rising for the first time in years.

For self-published authors, there are a number of options available based on the print-on-demand (POD) model, where no stock is held and a copy is only printed when an order for the book is received.  The latest of these is KDP Print, an extension of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform which allows authors of eBooks published through KDP to publish a paperback version which is then automatically linked to their eBook in the Amazon store.  KDP Print also provides various tools and guides for formatting the manuscript and creating the cover.  As my own eBook was published through KDP, this appeared to be the most straightforward route but closer inspection revealed that KDP Print still lacks some important features, such as the ability to order proof copies and to purchase author copies at wholesale prices.  Instead, I decided to use another Amazon POD service, CreateSpace, which does provide these features and also allows paperback and eBook versions to be linked in the Amazon store.

The next stage was to produce a suitably formatted manuscript in PDF format for uploading to the CreateSpace site.  I wanted to do this myself rather than use a book formatting service but I knew it would involve considerable time and effort, which is one of the reasons why it had taken me a couple of years to get around to doing it in the first place.  I’d used Microsoft Word when writing the manuscript so I could have simply tidied up the Word file and converted it to PDF but Word is very limited in its ability to perform the type of formatting required for books, such as setting up different page headers for different chapters or using Roman numerals for numbering pages in the front matter.  In order to create a high quality manuscript I would need access to professional desktop publishing software so, after exploring the options, I installed Adobe InDesign CC.  InDesign is expensive but I was able to minimise the cost by taking advantage of the free trial (which lasts for 7 days) and then taking out a monthly subscription which I then cancelled as soon as I’d completed the formatting.

Learning to use InDesign was a formidable challenge, as the user interface is not intuitive and was clearly designed for the Apple Mac environment rather than Windows.  I learned the basics from an excellent video tutorial on YouTube by Sean Foushee but learning how to create an index was much less straightforward, as this is a more specialised task and isn’t covered in most of the InDesign tutorial material available online.  Adobe’s support pages on indexing provided the necessary instructions but creating an index is a highly labour-intensive task which required weeks of effort to complete.  On the plus side, the process of creating the index highlighted several inconsistencies in the spelling of terms used throughout the book which I was able to correct.

Having completed the formatting of the manuscript, I then turned my attention to the cover.  It wasn’t possible to use my eBook cover directly, as the proportions and pixel resolution requirements were different, so I recreated the cover to the new requirements in InDesign.  I also added a spine and back cover, making sure to follow the detailed requirements for cover design given in the CreateSpace Submission Specification.  For the blurb on the back cover, I simply reused the book description I’d written for the eBook.

For printed books, an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is required in order to identify the edition, publisher and physical properties such as trim size, page count, and binding type.  With CreateSpace there is the choice of using your own ISBN, which can either be purchased through CreateSpace or from an ISBN agency, or allowing CreateSpace to assign a free ISBN to your book.  The main difference is that the CreateSpace-assigned ISBN will record the publisher as CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, so the book is effectively tied to the CreateSpace platform and a new ISBN would be required if changing to a different publisher.  As I’m not planning to use other POD platforms anytime soon, I opted for the CreateSpace-assigned ISBN.

Having completed the manuscript and cover files, I uploaded them to the CreateSpace site at the end of May.  The platform has a digital proofing tool which creates an online proof copy for checking but it’s always a good idea to order a physical proof copy to make absolutely sure there are no formatting errors.  For some reason CreateSpace proof copies are expensive and delivery is slow unless you pay extra for air mail but I was very glad I ordered one, as it showed I’d accidentally omitted the bleed (the area to be trimmed off) when outputting my InDesign cover file to PDF.  I was then able to correct this before finally releasing the book for publishing.  You can see the finished product here:-

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.