The IBM PC

The IBM PC slowly seeped into our dealer network. Our Austrian representative still promoted themselves as a Victor dealer, but specialised in CAD. Their demonstration room was still full of Victor computers but in name only, as these were IBM clones rather than Victor 9000s. After a rather dispiriting day explaining, again, that even our MicroSight IIR system wouldn’t digitise drawings, I set off by train for Heilbronn to visit AEG and an engineer called Dr Dahlberg. En route, I visited SMV’s office in Nurnberg to check that the MicroScale IIR had been set up correctly, and hopefully discover what the company planned to do with it. There was a technical issue with the framestore that was proving difficult to resolve: the high-quality, top-of-the-range BICC-Vero power supply was prone to sudden and unexplained failure. Usually, this failure occurred within the first few days of operation and I was carrying a spare power supply on the off-chance that SMV’s unit had died. The power supply cost £120, so most likely the problem was due to incorrect installation – by me, as I spent my evenings assembling MicroEye IIRs.

Rainer took only a passing interest in what I was doing. Jürgen, who was on the other side of the room, plugged a stylus into a PC then briefly scribbled onto a pad. Shrugging, then shaking his head, he unplugged the stylus from the PC and threw it on a pile of discarded peripherals in the corner of the room. Then, he tore another light pen, a different make, from its packaging and repeated the test. Rainer realised an explanation was required. Apparently, if equipment didn’t work first time or do what Jürgen expected, it ended up on the junk pile.

‘There’s a lot of stuff out there,’ Rainer said. ‘Why waste time on a phone call?’ Or, judging by the rate Jürgen was going through products, even reading the manual.

I flicked the switch on the MicroEye. The power supply lights blinked, then the unit shut down. Opening the case, I adjusted the wiring, turned the MicroEye off, then turned it on again (yes, even in those days). The lights blinked and this time an image appeared on the monitor. My instinct was to change the power supply anyway, but Rainer said, ‘Good, fine,’ and replaced the casing. He was too polite to add, ‘Now goodbye.’

Getting up to leave, I noticed, near the top of the pile of peripherals, the MicroEye I Martin Coyle had obviously managed to sell to SMV.

- 01000010 -

Heilbronn provided an interlude. Digithurst had a problem – an unusual one that start-ups, especially those growing organically, rarely experience. It was our bank manager who pointed it out. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘was it necessary to hold so much money in our current account?’ So, we transferred £100,000 to a deposit account, where it then sat doing nothing save accrue interest. We should have spent the money on development, but the plodding IBM PC was proving a technological bottleneck. Its poor-quality graphics and slow processor made it a poor platform for image processing. Also, Digithurst was still only Stephen, Sue and myself, and I hadn’t touched a keyboard for almost a year. So, Heilbronn was both a diversion and, hopefully, a diversification.

Dr Dahlberg, an engineering consultant, had been asked by AEG to find alternative uses for photovoltaic cells it manufactured for the space industry. He came up with a project to cover areas of North Africa with solar farms and harvest the sun’s energy. The electricity produced would be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Liquefied hydrogen would then be shipped to Europe for use as a substitute for oil. Dahlberg deduced the project would not be feasible while oil prices were low and the cost of photovoltaic cells remained above $1 per watt produced.

Stephen and I setup a company called International Photovoltaic Research and set up a project at Imperial College. Dahlberg’s work was reviewed by George Bouziotis, who determined at what price, and output per square metre, a photovoltaic-based energy farm became feasible. AEG also provided us with solar cells to experiment with. In the event, we were unable to dedicate much time to the project. Imperial College completed the feasibility study, which was used belatedly in 2006 as a basis of a report called ‘Farming Renewable Energy’. Since then, Chinese manufacturers have forced down the price of solar cells to the point where large-scale solar farms, as envisaged by Dahlberg, have become both cost-effective and commonplace.

I was due to return to the UK after the meeting with Dahlberg, but I couldn’t get the image of our MicroEye on the junk pile in SMV’s office out of my mind and so returned to Nurnberg to change that power supply. Back in the UK, still unsure what SMV planned to do with our equipment, Stephen suggested that perhaps they intended marketing a T-shirt printing system; however, for now we had a new challenge.

The IBM sat, lost and forlorn, on a table in the office. After all the hype, it looked much like a Sirius someone had beaten with a hammer until it turned into a Commodore 8032. It was certainly a step backwards in the evolution of personal computing. The PC was big and cumbersome and required a graphics card – the Hercules, in this case – to display images captured with a MicroEye I. While no one got fired for buying an IBM, they were certainly left out of pocket and probably ended up with a hernia when they tried to move it.

- 01010010 -

Our lack of commitment to, or faith in, the IBM PC was evidenced by the fact that it would be over a year before we redesigned our MicroEye as a plug-in PC card. Instead, we built adapters to mimic a 6522-control. While Stephen wrote software for the IBM PC adapters, I worked on a HP 9816-based program for Unilever: 68000 programming at long last. The software analysed moray fringes created using structured light to determine the extent to which a plastic bottle distorted when it was filled with liquid soap. Later, Unilever asked us to build a custom MicroScale system to measure lesions on customers’ hands thought to be caused by soap powder – a whole new meaning to ‘the boil wash’. The request came on a Thursday and the software was required by the following week. This was the Oberon Pen all over again, except this time there was no tedious project manager and it paid better, enough to buy Stephen a new car …


... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)


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