Early days

Mike Lake, one of the three founders of QUS. covers his early days in computing.

During the final year of a Pyschology degree in 1968 I spotted "Teach Yourself Computers" in the University of Leicester bookshop. By 2.00am the following morning I had read it, completed all the exercises and realised "I can do this stuff!" - even though my "A" levels had been English, History and Geography!

During the University "Milk Round" of Easter 1968, when manufacturers were falling over themselves to recruit people, I was invited to visit several computer companies including Ferranti, English Electric, Elliott, IBM and ICL. However, I settled on a Computer Management Trainee position at the Rolls Royce Aero Engine division in Derby because it had more computers than anyone else - a goldfish bowl containing three IBM 360 65s linked under HASP.

I did everything from three-shift ops (ah, the joys of hitting the IPL button after the system crashed!) to programming. I ended my time there lecturing at the RR training centre in Mickleover, covering operating systems, Job Control Language (JCL), PL/1 and System 360 Assembler.

During my last year at RR (one says "Royces" in Derby) I wrote a system (in PL/1) that simulated the 24/7 load on the 360s to enable the company to plan future computer requirements.

The photo below shows the machine room just before I started work there - the boxes were a sea of IBM blue! The system was so large IBM had a regional office in the building and all their machine manuals were kept inside one of the blue boxes!

Please click here for a scanned copy of a Computer Weekely article written in June 1967 about computing at RR. I worked for Len Griffiths and, later, John Allan.

The photo below shows the computer block on Moor Lane in the early 1980s.

The last photos of the goldfish bowl (shown below) were taken by Rick Nuth on January 28th, 2016 as the computer block was being demolished.

All gone. Still, 50 years of existence isn't bad!

My wife was a teacher and she seemed to have a more interesting time than me so in 1973 I left Royces and did a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) at Bishop Lonsdale College in Derby before spending several very enjoyable years teaching at a Junior school in Alvaston.

Then the Commodore PET arrived in 1977.

At the time I was driving a Honda 750 F1 motorbike to school and I couldn't afford a computer. So, the F1 got sold, I caught the bus to Nottingham and bought one of the first chicklet keboard PET 2001s to arrive in the UK.

I wrote a couple of articles for a computer magazine and got together with a few other PET users to create the Independent PET Users Group (IPUG) - partly to apply pressure on Commodore to come up with the things we wanted - spare key stickers (the originals wore out very quickly!), printers, disk drives etc. At the first meeting I met Pete Dowson who was a manager with ICL (International Computers Limited) in Kidsgrove near Stoke On Trent. Pete and I had a pint together and chatted about what we could do with these new microcomputers - and we came up with the idea of a word processor which went on to be called Wordcraft.

I left teaching and got a job with Sperry Univac in Birmingham lecturing in operating systems and assembler - only to find that Univac computers were almost identical to the IBM machines I had used at Rolls Royce. This meant I had a lot of time on my hands as I was supposed to be learning what I was to teach. I spent that time commuting from Derby to Birmingham during the days, from Derby to Stoke in the evenings to work with Pete, and lunchtimes getting Wordcraft manuals printed at the local copy shop! By the time I found myself filling the boot of my car with Wordcraft packages, driving down the M1 motorway to Leicester Forest East, unloading the software into the back of a car belonging to a London dealer and returning home, I realised this was becoming serious!

Short sightedness

I was at Sperry for less than a year and during my last weeks, in my spare time at home, I knocked up a Commodore PET program that simulated the operator's console on the Univac 1100/80. I was really pleased with it and I thought it would be great for training purposes.

Why are days are so much longer when you are young?

I put the PET in the back of the car, took it in to work and was busy demonstrating it to an enthusiastic group of my fellow lecturers when the Operations Manager turned up. It was a very short conversation:

"What's that?"

"It's a Commodore PET."

"How much does it cost?"

"About £700."

"What's it doing?"

"It's simulating an 1100/80 console?"

"Why?"

"So we can use it for training rather than taking up valuable time in the machine room."

"Get that thing out of here - I never want to see it again!"

Of course, he had no job if there were no students in his machine room!

The Sperry Univac name vanished (after being bought out by Burroughs - it is now renamed "Unisys") - and he lost his job.

I quit my job at Sperry and worked from home. I also made contact with Paul Handover of Dataview in Colchester and Pete and I agreed that he would do a much better job of selling Wordcraft than we could - and he did!

A rant about "free" software

It never ceases to amaze me that some people think that software should be free because "it costs nothing to make copies".

Nothing is ever "free", there is always a cost. There is no such thing as a "free lunch" or "a five minute job". Those who think software should be "free" are the same ones who believe "free postage" really means "free postage" on ebay or AliExpress! Duhh!

One look at jobs available for programmers and others in the software or electronics business shows they don't come cheap! Good, well supported, software never comes free.

I was once asked to review a system called "The Last One" which claimed that "there will never be a need for programmers again". Laugh? I could have died! I hate the word "coders", it implies a task that could be handled by robots and is so far from the truth that it reveals unplumbed depths of ignorance.

Creative software development is very hard, very time consuming, very expensive and never finished. There is always the next feature and the next version - on top of the normal maintenance and support workload.

I have no objection to people giving their spare-time labour for free in the Open Source Community - as long as they don't do it during their employer's time. Anyone who wants to give their labour for free is welcome to come and work for me.

It becomes a different matter when you are developing professional sofware commercially and when your customers use that software for "mission critical" tasks. They expect you to take responsibility for that software, to maintain it, to support it, to train them in it and to add new functions as required. None of this is cheap - and we all have to make a living to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table!

Good software is expensive - Wordcraft sold for about 50% of the price of the PET and the arrival of disk drives made it easy to make copies - so we needed some form of protection. Pete and I talked this over and we visited another PET user, Graham Heggie, at his home in Coventry. Graham was an electronics engineer and between us we came up with the idea of a device we could plug into the back of a PET so the software would work only if that device was present.

Graham lashed up a 74LS165 8 bit shift register on a piece of Veroboard wired to a connector on the tape cassette port - the PET had two such ports. The logic was simple: the software would waggle a clock line to the shift register and shift the 8 bit data in on another line. The shift register lines were tied randomly to ground or 5V providing 255 possible values (excluding zero!) This was really simple stuff but we felt it was enough - especially if the whole thing could be potted in epoxy resin so no-one could see what was going on. By the time we left Graham's place the PET was on his kitchen table with the wires and Veroboard dangling out of the back - so we called it a "dongle".

"Dangle", "Dongle - not exactly rocket science - all those urban myths about the dongle being invented by "Don Gall" made me smile - in fact, I am Don Gall! (Well, Pete, Graham and I are Don Gall.) Maybe I should get a T shirt with "I am Don Gall" printed on it - that should impress no-one!

Looking back we should have patented the idea and registered the name - but we didn't - we just wanted to shift loads of Wordcrafts.

The system worked very well, though one chap, a very clever software engineer working for Derbyshire County Council, in his spare time came up with a gadget containing 8 DIP switches so it could emulate the value in a dongle. We had a quiet word with him and it vanished forever.

Paul Handover was very successful in selling Wordcraft and over time we modified the software, and the dongles, to work on a variety of machines that appeared in the early 1980s. Dongles now sprouted connectors for Centronics parallel ports, 25 way parallel ports, 25 way RS232C ports and 9 way IBM serial ports and they were being sold to other companies to protect their software.

When Wordcraft International Limited was registered, dongle production moved to Derbyshire and was handled by Brian Edmundson of Small Plastic Parts (SPP) in Draycot. Brian is also a founder of QUS.

I was contacted by a typsetting company almost next door to where I lived and asked if we could make a version of Wordcraft that could be linked to a Lintotron 202N typsetter - a device which produced formatted text "set" on a continuous roll of photographic paper. Brian did the electronics, Pete did the software, I "set" the manual using the software as it developed, and Typecraft was launched in May, 1982 - also protected by dongles. Typecraft was adopted by a number of publishers, including Eddy Shah who used it on his regional newspapers and for the "Today" newspaper which he established in 1986. Typecraft led the digital revolution away from hot metal typsetting during the 1980s.

With the arrival of significant competition from Microsoft Word, Wordcraft International moved into the world of facsimile communications and into software for Multi Functional Peripherals - devices which can print, fax, copy, scan and make the tea. Wordcraft's customers included all the world's major office equipment manufacturers.

In 2001 I "retired" from day-to-day management of Wordcraft International and went clay shooting. That led to the invention and development of the DryFire simulation sytem which is now used world-wide by competitive shotgun and rifle shooters. Wordcraft has now taken over the development, manufacture, marketing and sale of DryFire - and they make a much better job of it than I ever did!

The short video below shows DryFire displaying targets for Olympic Skeet, station 4, doubles. The red light is the laser projecting the target and alongside it is the aperture for the camera which detects a spot of invisible infrared laser light "fired" from the shotgun when the user presses the trigger.

Sheet metal enclosure manufactured by Diaploy in Ilkeston, plastic parts made by Brian's company, Small Plastic Parts (SPP), electronics design by Mike Harrison of White Wing Logic and Brian, original software design by me (with considerable help from Nick Hickman of Wordcraft on the hard bits!), current development, assembly, marketing and sales handled by Wordcraft International Limited in Derby.

Mike Harrison's YouTube channel is highly recommended for anyone interested in things electronic.

Over the years I have had everything from a Lambretta scooter, BSA bantam, 50cc Honda Cub on up to a Harley Davidson Low rider - with various Suzukis, BMWs, Kawasakis, Hondas and Triumphs in between.

This is now the only motorbike I have in my garage, a Beta Alp 200. It's light and flickable - ideal for country lanes and a bit of off-road.