Bits (and PCs)...

I like gadgets, and believe that "He who dies with the most toys, wins" (though I've no clue what the prize is).

I've been lured down many an expensive technology cul-de-sac,1 believe me. But they have mostly been fun while they lasted, and isn't that partly the function of toys? I managed to dodge the Elcaset, HD-DVD, all initial variants of mobile phone technology, and only used fax because Christa needed it for her business.

Feel free to enter my little hi-tech Aladdin's Cave (click the button above). In it, you'll find details of some personal computing toys. I was a shockingly-late starter. My computing adventures didn't even begin2 until October 1985!

Personal computing

I had what was, in hindsight, a weird liking3 for hand-worked long division and multiplication. I can still tell (instantly) how many seconds there are in a "standard" year (not because I have any special maths prowess but simply because I worked it out so many times that I reckon I probably got it right) and I quite enjoyed calculating how many miles there were in a light-year too. Not that the answer ever seemed to change.

I was a mainframe chap. The first I recall of "personal" computing was in Larry Niven's turgid 1977 tome about an asteroid strike — "Lucifer's Hammer". Back then, I was a first-line manager in ICL with little spare time, energy, or cash to explore the concept. I was too busy with my freelance writing and programming career — both for other bits of ICL, and for a chunk of Michael Heseltine's publishing empire, for which I was both carrying out hi-fi equipment and record reviewing, and programming an ICL 1500 Series minicomputer originally designed by one of my computing heroes: George Cogar.

A couple of weeks after joining IBM in June 1981 came my first system crash.4 I all-unknowingly provoked my first-ever "OC4 abend" on one of their 31-bit machines. All I was doing was trying to format a one-page memo on a mainframe running the TSO "system" — for want of a better term. I was tersely informed that an OC4 abend meant I had run out of virtual memory. Fair enough.
"How much memory have I got?" I mildly inquired.
"One megabyte" came the reply.
Given the programming I was then doing on a 32KB ICL 1500 desktop machine in one of my several evening freelance careers I fear I laughed. I simply couldn't believe an IBM mainframe system with 30x more memory could have been so badly-implemented.
"What," I wondered, "have I let myself in for?"


1  The inglorious list includes 35mm slides, vinyl LPs, cassettes, analogue noise-reduction technologies, Amstrad 3" data discs, CP/M, Acorn RISC-OS ADFS and StrongARM machines, a SCSI grey-scale scanner, some disgracefully short-lived IBM SCSI disc drives (before they got handed off to Hitachi, I believe), several variants on the programmable calculator theme, whole swathes of home printer technology (including, but not limited to, a Canon direct-drive laser printer interface to squeeze 600dpi out of a 300dpi engine), Sinclair's Black Watch, LaserDiscs, S-VHS recorders, possibly even my unlamented iMac. All spring expensively to mind. I blame my transient focused enthusiasms.
2  Starting with an 8-bit Amstrad word processor, moving along through several 26-bit Acorn RISC machines, and culminating in an early Intel Pentium 4 squeezed into a tiny 'Shuttle' case to allow for better and quicker overheating.
3  The liking wore off, or at least partially transformed, into what is possibly an equally weird fascination for programmable calculators. I guess I was never cut out for the IT profession therefore. Mind you, at least I stopped writing endless columns of ascending numbers in blank exercise books, and filling in graph paper with intricate colour crayon patterns. Thus unwittingly ruling myself out from any future as an IT manager.
4  It was not, of course, to be my last.