Friday 27 April 2012

Bill Gates and Me

Bill Gates and I share a momentous time in the 1970s but our paths have diverged somewhat since then. At that time, there were computers of course but they were large and heavy and spoke a variety of different languages: Some sat on desktops but they were still large and heavy. You will probably think that I'm going to say that this period marked the arrival of the personal computer but that came later, in 1981. What changed the world was the microprocessor which first arrived in a very simple form in the early 70s.

I clearly remember being at the Sotheby's Sale Room in London watching and waiting while an IBM desktop computer whirred and clunked as it loaded its programme from a tape cartridge. (You can just see it bottom-left in the photo). The computer was being programmed to calculate prices in various currencies as the bidding went up in Pounds Sterling. I was there because I'd designed and built a large (and very heavy) display which hung above the auctioneer, it connected to the computer and displayed the foreign currencies for all to see. I had used small mains-powered bulbs to make up the numbers and I had painted reflective paint around each bulb to prevent light from spilling onto other unlit bulbs. Unfortunately, this increased the temperature inside the bulbs and they started burning out. In the end I had to buy a variac (transformer) to reduce the mains voltage to the display. I'm not sure how Sotheby's heard about me, they didn't do a search in Google, that's for sure.

I looked up an old colour slide of the display and was staggered to see a piece of Veroboard (prototype board) in there. You can see it next to "Pounds Sterling". The crudity and complexity of the manufacturing was incredible! I can't believe I built that thing, it's like another world.

Another large display that I built was destined for Nigeria, in fact I went there to install it. Again, another company had written a programme on a computer, a PDP-11 (remember, this was the beginning of the 70s so there were no PCs). The project was a lottery for the state of Ilorin but tickets, previously using books of tickets, were sold throughout Nigeria so it was quite big. The main prize was usually a car. I was with the software designer in Nigeria when an awful penny dropped. Books of tickets, with their stubs, ensure that only numbers sold go into the draw. But the software didn't take account of that, it simply chose a 6 digit number at random and there was no guarantee that the number had been sold. Oops! Well, I was in the clear, I was only the messenger. I think the whole system ended up in the Atlantic.

So, at this time, at the beginning of the 70s, IBM was making computers (together with many other manufacturers, of course) and I was designing and building electronic devices, having aborted a career with the BBC as a sound engineer in TV. My products were digital (in other words, controlling or displaying things) as opposed to analogue products such as audio amplifiers. They usually comprised many logic chips - building blocks - mounted on a circuit board. If, on testing the product, I found a mistake, it would be "back to the drawing board" and I would have to re-solder components or cut tracks on the circuit board. It would be wrong to say that the microprocessor changed all that; it still involved lots of chips on a circuit board but much of the functionality was in software which could be changed without hacking up the circuit board. But what happened in these traditional designs, before the microprocessor, was that everything happened more or less at the same time in various chip neighbourhoods on the circuit board. Then, in 1971, a very simple microprocessor arrived on the scene.  Intel produced the 4004, a 4-bit processor followed by the 8080, 8086, 80286 and now we have all singing dancing, dual core processors but they are still based on the original Intel architecture. Forgive me if I get rather dewy-eyed. For an electronics engineer of this epoque, these are magic numbers.

I could see the possibilities fairly quickly but I couldn't get my head round this new way of doing things. I pored over the Intel documents but I could see no way in. At the same time as Intel produced its first 8-bit processor, Motorola had produced their own, the 6800, with a completely different architecture and they sold it in a "bubble pack" kit with one or two other support chips. I soldered it all together, pressed Reset, and the terminal printed an asterisk! By the way, at this time, I was using a mechanical teletype machine with a punched-tape reader. It hardly seems credible in these modern days but I was there.

(the photo shows the "computer" that I designed around the Motorola 6800 microprocessor, with 8 inch floppy disk!)

So where does Bill Gates fit into the picture? I guess he is a fair bit younger than I am and he would have been a student during the later 70s. To me, his great success was not so much technical as political in that he managed to persuade various developers, all of whom had their own pet projects, to create a common effort (this is rather an imperfect way of describing how it happened). During the latter part of the 70s, the microprocessor had spawned many personal computers which no longer exist (with the exception of one, Apple, which pre-dated the PC).
Bill Gates persuaded IBM to use his operating system, MSDOS, in their new personal computer and there was no looking back for Microsoft. As we all know, MSDOS grew into Windows and all personal computers, at least in the early days, used MSDOS. I know it's a bit daft comparing my career with that of Bill Gates but I feel an affinity with him because I remember those formative years so well. And it was very exciting because, even then, one could see the possibilities. Anyway, I continued in electronic design as opposed to computer design but both used the same device: the microprocessor. Later came the microcontroller which had loads of legs which one could waggle up and down in order to control external devices. By the late 70s, I was producing what is called BMS, building management systems. This is a general term meaning control and monitoring of heating, air conditioning etc. My systems went into several large shopping centres.

Microsoft comes into a lot of flak on the grounds of monopolising the market much of which I feel is unjustified. Had Bill Gates not cornered the market by getting MSDOS and Windows as the default operating system for the PC, we would now have a plethora of different operating systems all talking different languages. A similar situation occurred several years later when Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman working at CERN, banged heads together to persuade developers to abandon their pet projects in favour of a common language for the World Wide Web: HTML. Before that, the Internet existed but it was a network of computers all talking different languages, initially government establishments and, later, colleges in the USA. To define the Internet and WWW: the Internet, in my view, is the physical network of cables and wireless links which (amazingly to my mind) circle the earth. The WWW is the community - the protocol - that resides in the Internet. And Tim Berners-Lee still works in the constant development of the web which has to move with every new development that comes along, not the least of which is mobile computing.
I continued to use Motorola microcontrollers in my products right up to 2003 when I retired. My company gradually lost its clients due to the fact that regulations were tightening up regarding products for buildings, especially fire alarms, and they could no longer deal with a one-man-band. Incredible as it seems now, my BMS system not only controlled the lighting in the shopping centre in Dubai but it was the fire alarm system. And I still slept at night, possibly through naivety at what might happen if it failed.

I must mention one thing before I close. At one time in the 80s, I had systems installed in various centres in the Middle East and I could phone them and update the software or diagnose problems. I used to tell friends that I could turn off the fountains in a shopping centre from my office in the UK. How did I do this? Spyware! Yes, effectively. I was using a remote control programme called Carbon Copy - perfectly legal. I installed the Host software in the remote PC (this is what is uploaded illegally when one's computer is infected) and the Guest software ran on my PC back in the UK. I could go into the PC in Dubai and fiddle around with it, delete files etc. Sounds familiar? And this was before the WWW; it was simply on a telephone link.

Now, living in Catalonia, I use my PC a lot. It gets switched on even before I have my breakfast and it's the last thing that goes to sleep before I do. I use all the regular programmes, Word, Excel and some which are orientated towards art, Illustrator and Photoshop. I use Dreamweaver for web design. It's all backed up but I don't relish the thought of re-installing everything if my hard drive packs up. It's all come a long way since the 4004 and I've been fortunate to have lived through such an exciting time. I guess younger people these days take technological marvels for granted but, for one who remembers film arriving from America on a 707 (no other way), I will always be in awe of how much has changed and will also thank the pioneers who helped make it happen.

E&OE! I wrote this piece primarily to recount my own story rather than present an accurate history of the microprocessor and the personal computer so my apologies for any inaccuracies - I'm afraid I didn't do many hours of research in Wikipedia! If you want an accurate history of the period, then that's the place to look.

Friday 13 April 2012

An Exhibition in Celrà

All mi Own Work

About 4 years ago, I put on an exhibition in the Civic Centre in Celrà. I called it "All mi own work" and I sold 7 paintings, including one to the Civic Centre. The original remains in the office of the Centro Cultura and 500 litho copies were printed and distributed to visiting dignitaries, including José Montillo who, at that time, was President of The Generalitat de Catalunya (the central government in Barcelona). You can see this picture on my web-site.

Admittedly most of the paintings were sold during the inauguration with wine flowing freely!

I had another exhibition in the same space during May so I thought I'd write a little bit about it.

I would rate it as a greater success than the previous one although I'm for ever being told that no one has any money. The highlight was being featured on TV during the TV3 News Feature for Comarques de Girona. I didn't see it but several people cam up to me to tell me they had. Previously I had made sure that the two main newspapers in Girona had details of the show so maybe they passed them on to TV3.

Today, three days after the show ended, I'm handing over three pictures with a value of about €200 - I sold 9 pictures in total but the big success was "A Rainy Day in Girona" which wasn't actually at the show but it is on my website and in the catalogue; either I gave it away or I lost it. So far I've sold 6 copies and given one to El Punt as a prize for their raffle as part of the TV3 "Red Nose Day" (sorry, I don't know the name of the programme). Maybe TV3 heard about me through that.

One or two people told me to make a note of what has been popular so that I can repeat the same style. Certainly, there is one oil that springs to mind, The Picnic. I must have spent days fiddling around with it but it didn't sell and isn't likely to. On the other hand, I had a simple watercolour of the cathedral and Onyar houses in Girona (ref 71) in grey and blue which I painted very quickly and I sold it quickly too!

Now I intend to continue selling my pictures, both the current catalogue and new pictures. With the summer coming up, there will be loads of visitors to Girona and, next week, I'm going to try to find somewhere to show the pictures.

Obviously one way of selling my art is to sell prints of my paintings and so I need to build up a stock or devise some way of printing to order.

The swimming pool in Celrà opens on 9th June so that will be something of a temptation and I love to go out on my bike. But I'm greatly encouraged by the exhibition. Lots of people said very nice things about my art (when they didn't have to) but I know my place in the general scale of things. But then none of my pictures is over €100!