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The BBC model B in this picture was serial number 34 and was there for decoration only, as the driving software written for the GE digital camera (borrowed from Adrian March Electronics) did not run on it. The machine code software to capture 128 by 128 pixel images was written on a Commodore PET purchased from Cambridge Computer Store after a local electronics company closed down and left me out of a job.

The GE camera came with a hefty price tag putting it out of the reach of home computer users. This was not critical at the time as the aim was to develop a robotic imaging system. However, potential customers showed more interest in the hardware than my software. Steven Cronk and Stephen Childerly, who had both worked for the defunct electronics company on a day release scheme from technical college, suggested turning a project they had seen in Practical Electronics magazine into a product. A week of my unemployment benefit was spent on a batch of components and after four weeks and a re-write of the driver software there was picture on the screen. We named the resulting digitiser 'MicroEye'

The first customer was Dr Chapt, who lived in the South of France. In fact he was the only customer for the first 18 months. The box demonstrated on the ‘Making the Most of the Micro’ program was an early version of the MicroEye that, as it was in a plastic (Vero) box, overheated and eventually sent the analogue components out of range. The black rectangle on the front of the unit was an attempt to use the panel as a heat sink – not very user friendly.

The end of the academic year, and the interest generated by the BBC TV program, saw a sudden rush of customers and enough revenue to cover the costs to date and fund a redesign of the casing – an aluminium box that solved the heating problem.

There were numerous requests to interface the digitiser to other microcomputers. Without funds to buy another computer potential customers were told if they loaned their computer the MicroEye would be interfaced to it. (In fact the BBC Micro was delivered to my house late one evening just two days before the filming of the program). Computers, such as the Apple IIe and other 6502 based machines, were relatively simple to interface to. The Practical Electronics project was based on the Research Machine 380Z and the driving software written for it opened up the Z80 market (although we were too expensive for Sinclair customers.)

The company had expanded out of the back bedroom into the living room by the time the most interesting computer arrived on my doorstep. The Compucolor, claimed to be the first full colour home computer, had a built in screen and floppy disk drives. It was based on the Motorola 6809 processor. However, what made it unique was its tendency to explode if you uploaded a very large file from its disk or, as it turned out, from a digitiser. By explode I don’t mean the fizz and puff of vaporised electrolytic we all knew and loved but a ear splitting, flame spewing whallop with bits of PCB flying across the room.

We mentioned this to the Swiss based customer who said they were aware of the problem. Apparently data was being written over the end of the user RAM and into memory mapping the CRT controller. This, on some not so rare occasions, resulted in a zero ending up in the video line length register causing unfortunate things to happen to components on the cute little circuit sitting on the end of the CRT itself. No, Compucolor could not fix the problem because they had ceased trading – but don’t worry, said the customer, there were plenty more computers because they, the customer, had bought all the assets of Compucolor. And taken on one of its engineers. It was this engineer we were talking to. If the next computer, the replacement they were sending, started making a whistling noise we should just hit the on-off switch, which was at the back of the machine. Oh, and we should avoid digitising anything with a lot of black in it.

The replacement computer did start whistling and Steve reached behind it to turn it off – losing his eyebrows and part of his shirt sleeve in the explosion and fire that followed. Not a good time to ask him to come and work with me full time. I persuaded the customer to pay the airfare for me to travel to Switzerland to get a better understanding of the application, which was being kept secret in case my I stole the idea. The grand idea, once forced out of the customer, was to use the Compucolor as the basis for a marine navigation system. Maps would be digitised and stored on the computer disk and then used in conjunction with a radar navigation system to give an onscreen indication of a boat's position. The target market was private yacht owners. I suggested that the owner of a £2 million yacht may not be interested fitting out their boat with a device that exploded when a turtle swam underneath it. The customer accepted this and cancelled the project on the spot, which was a bitter blow – but not as bad as having my house burned down. But then he asked if I would accept £10,000 for the work done to date. This was far too much but, at the same time, I was hoping to get Steve to agree to being employee number two.

Steve did join Digithurst and soon became technical director (today he is technical director of the machine vision company Bevis Digitech Ltd) Stephen Childerly joined Techtronix and then Symbian and now works as a consultant in mobile communications. The Compucolor, or more specifically, the code we wrote for its 6809 processor, opened up the route to 68000 based devices such as the HP9816. This was one of two computers, an ACT Siruis being the other, purchased with the £10,000. They were used to develop our first mid-range PC based imaging software. From then on we never looked back – and certainly never had to write code while wearing asbestos gloves and a blast proof visor.

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