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.

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