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.

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.

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.