How to create a Computing Laboratory (!)

Quite apart from everything else going on (IBM 360-67 exhibitions, Sir Robert McAlpine gutting and rebuilding Claremont Tower, Thompsons of Prudhoe removing every last shred of asbestos…) I am continuing to “consolidate the Collection”.

When not swanning off on holiday, or sitting in the garden reading (which as every fule kno, is what every retired person does, most of the time), I visit the Collection twice a week, the goals being (a) to keep an anxious eye on it while the builders are in and (b), the greater goal, to ensure that we know exactly what we have, by checking  Roger’s database against the actual artefacts.

Goal B is now almost complete, after two years  ( I will be delighted to tell you how it has taken two years).  Of the 400+ items in Roger’s database, all but a score or so have now been accounted for.  (Meanwhile I’d guess that possibly another 200 have filtered into the Collection since we started this project, and Roger himself had an unknown number of other artefacts;  NONE of these are yet catalogued.)

I have at last been able to start going through the heaps of miscellaneous documents (as opposed to objects) which pack out Roger’s old office. I’m pleased to say that I tracked down another six “missing” artefacts today, and photographed many others for the database.

The piles are very miscellaneous: an old catalogue, a pamphlet from a local nature reserve, computer printouts, handbooks, technical papers, hand-written jottings about power-demands, an obituary, hardware specifications, a shopping list … all in the same pile (his office is extremely small: heaps are the natural storage method).

The heap I was going through today contained what I can confidently proclaim is the oldest document in our collection: an architect’s drawing of No.1 Kensington Terrace, dated 1951. This building (recently converted to — guess what! — student accommodation) was where the Computing Laboratory was first located, in the early 50s: possibly this drawing was used as a basis for planning how space was to be used. We have no idea who gave it to Roger, or when, and — like many, many of the documents in his office — it has not been catalogued. There were other interesting documents in that particular part of the pile: I include them here for your amusement — a relief from bits of computing hardware 🙂

“No. 1 Kensington Terrace”. In the small inset you can see how the Great North Road went past Sydenham Terrace (demolished for the Central Motorway).

“Furniture required for University Computing Laboratory”.

You moan about the FANGs monitoring your activities? In those far-off days (1958, here), you had to account for every phone call that was made, and pay for if it was personal. ALL of this was typed out; on a piece of paper, by one of the office staff.   How busy, and yet how relaxed and unhurried life was then! Now you’ve got your own phone!  And look at the life you lead! 😀

… but only 12 years later, the office staff had the use of custom-made logging pads like this: progress. See next.

A typical page from 1971. I see someone (EB) called the Brazilian Embassy; that was Ella Barrett, the much-respected (feared?) Departmental Administrator. Elizabeth Barraclough is always EDB .. and I see that she called Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre (who had use of our IBM 360/67 — a condition of our getting it).
Another thrilling aspect of this artefact (I am not boring you, I am sure) is that on February 17 1971, the UK changed from £sd to decimal, and this book soon changes its notation (and its adding up – try it yourself on this page) to that system.



Please welcome our new Chair!

After approximately a year as chair of the Historic Computing Committee, I have come to the hard decision that I must step down in order to give more time to my other endeavours, not least my family and my PhD. I will continue to be involved in historic computing but in a more diminished capacity.

We are very lucky that Troy Astarte, Research in the history of Computing, has agreed to take on the role of chair going forward. Troy’s academic interest and skills are a fantastic asset for the committee.

There are some exciting developments just around the corner, watch this space!

Two dazzlers for the Collection

Today I went to the University Library and also to the Medical School to pick up artefacts which (tragically) were otherwise destined for the WEEE Collection.

A true pioneer

First, our valued colleague in NUIT, Paul Kobasa, had lined up three “Visualisers” for us to pick up from the Library. For the first time in my career as a Museum Volunteer, I had to refuse an item! We really are running out of space, and so we put the two best examples in my car, and shamefacedly turned away from the third. They are not computers, BUT: they are valuable examples of old educational technology, which will never be seen again.These were used in the Library to assist visually disabled readers, and date from the mid-80s.

Paul put a hard disk under the camera,but it was usually used for books (I believe).

The other item that Paul had for us is an OSBORNE 1 PORTABLE COMPUTER! This was the very first (1981) “portable” (c.11Kg) computer. It’s a really valuable (to us) artefact, and what’s more it has come with a large number of disks, manuals, and even the order papers and invoice!

Weighs 11 kilos, hence the retrospective name for such computers as “luggables”, not “portables”, much less “laptops”.

That screen is at least 4″! The owner of this machine bought a 20Mb hard disk at the same time: it cost 3.5 times more than the Osborne (£2500 against £695, in the early 80s).

Tiger, tiger …

Secondly today, I went to see another valued NUIT colleague, Steve Bradwel, in Digital Media Services. He had said he had a superannuated Apple Mac G5 that we could have if we wanted it. “Oh yes”, had been my reply at the time of the call .. not knowing what it actually is (even though I’m an inveterate Apple user).
I didn’t reallise what was waiting for me. Such is its sleek, flawless beauty, combined with evident immense power … it was like taking a walk to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden and finding a Bengal tiger lying there, calmly regarding you. Or something. You have to see this thing in its solid, aluminium flesh, to feel its beauty. [Of course, these days it’s just a weak, old pussycat, even though it’s kept its looks.]

It’s a complete video editing system …

… see?

The computer itself weighs over 20Kg. (One of McAlpine’s lads offered to carry it for me … I don’t know why.)

WOW! Apple at the top of their game.

There’s a transparent cover in the previous photo – it’s off in this one. This system is about 15 years old, but it’s like new.

The inside of the side. “And this is how you …” errr.. add memory? Both of today’s donors feel that the two systems could be made to work again. If anyone ever wanted to make them do so!

Collections and calculators

I’m acutely aware that the Blog is very biased towards Claremont Tower, and the Collection’s Repository which is held there. Never mind! Even I (i.e. John Law) have not blogged recently, and so here’s a little picture to liven up your day.

11 uncatalogued items from the “Calculator sub-collection– see end of this entry.

My activities of “verifying the Catalogue” continue: “verification”, in this definition means just this: making sure that everything that Roger said that he had in his Collection (via his database), is actually there, so that we in the Committee know that we are starting exactly  where Roger left off.

This process of verfification has so far taken two years! Why? Well: we had to build a new repository to start with  – all of Roger’s collection had to be moved from other locations in Claremont Tower; our two companion  departments (School of Computing, and NUIT) moved to different buildings across town, causing immense disruption in terms of rescuing artefacts, and/or moving them; displays were organised in one of those buildings (USB); Claremont Tower itself became a building site last September (requiring special access procedures to be granted and strictly adopted); and above all because there are very few of us at present, and all of us very much part-time.

But the end is in sight! I have now been through a listing of the database several times, comparing the entries with the artefacts. I tell you what: if Artefact Number 1 were in position Number 1 on Rack number 1, and so on up to Artefact Number 429, this job would have been done a lot sooner; but in fact, the artefacts could not have been distributed more randomly. (But let me be clear: randomness is completely inevitable!)

This fragment of paper tape (24 hole) is dated c.1940 – it is thought to be a relic of the Harvard Mk 1. (Note the drawing pin for scale.)

I’m almost at the end of what I see as my final review. Not least because we have a new database/catalogue being written for us! Lindsay Marshall erupted on to the scene about 3 weeks ago, and already has an extremely functional model of a new Catalogue … which will be accessible to all via the web. (Roger had only a single licence for the database he used, which NUIT has renewed each year; this restricted any use of the database to one person — whoever was sitting at the project’s own laptop.)

Lindsay’s new Catalogue is coinciding with my finishing verifying the old database. This was not planned. (“planning”?)

This last week I have been working on a fascinating “sub-collection” of calculating machines, which belongs to a certain Professor of Computing, and has been a “sub-collection” of the larger Collection for many years. It was on display in School of Computing in Claremont Tower, but is currently in storage. Apart from abacuses, slide rules, and “ready-calculators” made for aeroplane navigators, this is the sort of device that makes up the sub-collection:

This picture of the handbook is more informative than if I had merely shown the machine itself 🙂

It behoves us all to remember that it was only a few decades ago that nobody  – from physicists and chemists down to accountants – could write, let alone use, computer programs: they didn’t exist. You had to do mathematics: hard mathematics! The devices in the mechanical calculator sub-collection gave, as it were, rocket-propelled assistance to those mathematicians, and were the technological miracles of their day.

When we have finished verifying the 420-odd catalogued artefacts, we already have about the same number again of new (well – far from “new”) items to catalogue – that will be another story, but thanks to Lindsay’s new catalogue there will be rather more of us doing that job 🙂

More donations!

On Monday 4th I visited Nigel Cross in Jesmond, a friend of Brian’s, who had some interesting artefacts from the early days of “micros”. These were his personal purchases, and must have cost a pretty penny in 1979. Nigel worked for Burroughs in those days, but he was (is) an engineer at heart, and he had bought these to assist in design and other private projects. Nigel says that it can all be made to work: the computer works, but the disk drives will need a little expert fiddling from an electronics buff.
SRM’s gateman very kindly let me into the site in my car to enable me to unload these down into the Sub-Basement: SB6 is now just about FULL.

This is an Apple II “Europlus”: Apple modified their successful II Plus for sales in Europe (also the “J” for Japan) in 1979: they changed the power supplies, and the video system from NSTC to PAL; etc. As you can see, it has two disk drives, and a modest monitor (B/W).

Apple Graphics Tablet. (The stylus is safe inside the Apple II, I am told.)

And here is Nigel’s plotter from that era: this Watanabe WX4671 retailed at $1400, plus $300 for the software, in 1981 … It _would_ still work, said Nigel, but the drive belt has split with age, as you may be able to see.

Progress in the Basement: a nice view towards the Loading Bay: a view, in fact, never ever seen before. (It was lunchtime for the lads: I sneaked into this area when passing.).

A typical visit to Claremont Tower at this time

Quick (ha ha, say some) report on what I did on Friday 18th, to give an idea of how things are going at the Repository in Claremont Tower.

  1. Parked at 1025; went to Black Horse House to borrow the key for the Mezzanine steel door; went to Estates Security, to sign out a radio for emergency use (working alone in the building without a radio is now, rightly, not permitted); signed in at McAlpine’s gatehouse and entered the Tower at 1045.
  2. The main job at present in CT is demolition: they are ripping out all the breezeblock walls in the Basement. This is incredibly tough, dirty work, and creates what seems like a faint mist: it is plaster dust, hanging in the air: all the men wear facemasks. It’s no hazard to those of us going downstairs (it takes about 4 seconds to go from the entrance to the stairs) but the dust does make its way downstairs, and – almost invisibly – covers the floors, and everything else. A plan has been devised to prevent “the mist” going Below Stairs, and hopefully next week it will have been put in place.
  3. Some of my time in the Tower today was taken up with talking with Estates and SRM, who visited to check this problem, and with actually starting to clean the floors on the Mezzanine (I have my own brush (:-)), and I found a vacuum cleaner, but there is no water (in the building)).
  4. For the rest of my time, I moved on to the Catalogue Verification exercise, which at last is going well again. I’m now tackling the filing cabinet in Roger’s Office, which contains all his catalogued documents. These range from a single test punch card, through to a set of programming manuals for the English Electric KDF9 computer (1964 – 1972); there are also many unique artefacts, such as (ex-confidential) internal letters proposing the acquistions of the various mainframes that Newcastle had, machine room plans, network plans, and manufacturers’ manuals about installing those juggernauts. I’m a little over 1/2 way through the filing cabinet.
  5. Then it was time to leave: reverse the process in (1) above.

A routine has now been established, in this new year, and we are picking up speed again.

The Grey Mist .. having fallen to the floor.

Last workday of 2018

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because the overheads of actually getting into the place outweighed the amount of actual work done. I visited on 7th , 14th, 18th and today the 21st.

Each visit managed to make a little more progress towards getting into a productive work pattern. On Tues 18th we had network restored for the laptop in our office, thanks to the generous help of Jeff Craig (NUIT); this enables email and web searching (obviously), but also backing up the laptop to the University filestore.

There have been various hitches in access to the building (at least it shows how good Sir Robert McAlpine’s security is) but all have been overcome so far. We are becoming familiar faces to SRM’s people, and this also is a good thing.

We (and NUIT as a whole) continue to appreciate the warm cooperation that we get from SRM’s site foremen, and also from the gate staff whom we see most of.

And from the point of view of this Project, I cannot emphasise enough the widespread support we get from NUIT staff, in all their various roles, each of whom will go out of their way, if asked, to help us out of a difficulty. First and foremost I will mention Jason Bain (Assistant Director, Infrastructure), who has quietly given us extremely significant support at several crucial stages, right from the start, in 2016, when we first sought a place to store Roger’s Collection.

Finally:  I happened to be Last Man Out today: Phil the Gateman was just coming to lock up as I left. It was nostalgic being momentarily alone in the Tower, and remembering times past, when – on the last afternoon of work before Christmas – we’d merrily wend our way to the Computer Room, to pick people up to go to the pub(s). The one who stayed behind to look after the Computer Room while we were all out on the town would be Roger.

“We’re having some work done”

The Sub-Basement is relatively untouched, but not so the rest of the Tower. The Basement for example is going to be wonderful when it’s finished, but meanwhile…

Basement, corridor outside Janice’s office

Opposite corridor (Basement Entrance)

Data Prep Room

Director’s Office


BOMs and Bulbs

I was able to do something positively useful today, as well as cleaning up and checking doors (see entry below), and this was to (a) check the BOMs that we have, for imminent display in the USB and (b) retrieve some spare bulbs 🙂

This is a BOM – Basic Operational Memory Unit. (It has nothing to do with Bletchley’s Bombes) :

Roger tells you all about BOMs here — it’s a great web page; see the link 3rd from bottom, which shows you where the BOMs fit in on the 360-67 mainframe. There were eight BOMs in 1967 (in two immense cabinets), but NUMAC later bought another two memory units, thus making 16 in all … thus giving this juggernaut One Whole Megabyte of memory. There are two in the Collection: one wonders where the other 14 went — not all to the scrapman, I’ll bet.

I also retrieved some spare bulbs that we can put in any blank holes that we find in the 360 console or the DAT panel — I knew we had some somewhere, and by golly I found them.

Back to Claremont Tower: service is resumed

Long entry sorry: important to record procedures in case of accident, premature demise, and so on and so forth..

Today I was able to visit the Claremont Tower Repository again for the first time since 5th October (see entry).   The Repository is where the Roger Broughton Collection actually lives: it feeds the Computing displays in the Urban Sciences Building.
On Monday I was issued with the correct Personal Protection Equipment by NUIT, and Safety-inducted by SRM (Sir Robert McAlpine), who have an extremely strict safety and security regime.  Today I made my first foray alone into the building, and it all worked (entrance is by fingerprint).

I was glad to find that our “territory” was unchanged from when we left on 5th October (not by any means a certainty: I was very relieved). Before going to CT, I had to go to Black Horse House, where NUIT now live, to sign out the key which is needed to enter the specific area where our two offices are: the steel security door  now remains locked, since NUIT staff are no longer permanently located in CT.

Changes made: there is no water in the building (this does not mean that there will be no flood!  although it does reduce the odds); emergency lighting has been installed all over the lower floors, because they are now one of the builders’ fire exits. This installation has caused muck and dust to be deposited all over the floors. I spent a little time sweeping up, so that your feet don’t crunch wherever you walk. I’m sorry: I forgot to take pictures of this interesting part of a curator’s job.

I  checked each of our locations: all seem to be untouched, and our four locked doors were all still locked. I remain nervous:  SRM are not going to go below Basement Level, but there is a  large air conditioning contract going on in the Sub-Basement, there are signs that Estates keep doing “things” in the Sub-Basement, and in addition yet more contractors will be coming some time in the next few months to upgrade network cabling. In short: I have no jolly idea of what is going on, or is planned to be going on, in these sensitive areas.

Finally: the network in our office has gone off, so we cannot email from there, or back-up the catalogue to central store, etc. I am contacting the relevant people to enquire about this.

How should we communicate?

We are a volunteer-driven project, and volunteer-driven projects live or die by their community. Thankfully, there’s a lot of interest in this project and we are frequently contacted by people who want to get involved.

At the moment, our main method of communication is e-mail via mailing list. This works for the current volunteers, but I’m worried it isn’t attractive or welcoming for newcomers.

It’s high-volume mailing list, and managing high volume  lists is a bit of a lost art. I’ve just taken a look at my “cs-history” mail folder, which goes back to 2015. I have 2,577 messages, totalling 462M of storage. So whenever I recommend to people that they subscribe to the mailing list, I also strongly suggest setting up mail filters to keep the list out of people’s inboxes.

So I’m wondering: should we be doing something else? Are you interested in taking part, but put off by the mailing list? Should we tweak its settings: perhaps open up the archives so non-subscribers can read them? Do you have a suggestion for something else we should try? Please either email (heh) me suggestions or leave a comment on this blog post.