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If you’ve come here from Docklands News ….

Perhaps you’ve arrived here via the link in Docklands News where I’m this month’s Docklander! If so, you’ll probably find one or more of the following more interesting than the most recent posts on computer hardware. I hope so.

Thanks for dropping by and I’ll try not to get too dizzy with fame!

On Hardware 5: Printers

To round off this series, printers. Given that my business produces software which churns out pages of calculations, printing has always been important.

My first ever printer was a dot-matrix printer coupled to my Commodore PET – it was an Epson TX80 dot-matrix printer customised to work with the PET – very slow, very noisy. You can see an example of the output on this Greentram museum page. When I moved to a BBC computer, it was replaced by a Star NL10 which became my first PC printer, then being replaced by a Star NB24-10 which gave much better resolution.

Along side these, my correspondence (my plan drawing business lasted until 1992) was printed on daisy-wheel printers. Initially I had a Silver-Reed EX-44 electronic typewriter with added computer interface. A Triumph Adler TRD7020 (1986: £148) followed; it was built like a Rolls-Royce and was bought from Boots when they gave up their unsuccessful home computing venture. It sounded like a machine gun when printing at speed! The third, a Silver-Reed EXP800 wide carriage printer was bought from Morgan (1988: £250) – I was amazed to find that ribbons for all these printers are still available. Wikipedia reminds me that “Most daisy-wheel printers could print a line and then, using built-in memory, print the following line backwards, from right to left.” This was always memorising!

The first SuperBeam manuals were originated on the NB24-10 printer, then photocopied, but it was obvious that something better was needed, so 1989 saw me finding £1426 for a Brother HL8E laser printer. This gave good service until it was replaced in 1995 by a Lexmark Optra S with duplexing, £1,643. This was a lovely piece of work but in the end the duplexer wore out (too many church newsletters!). It was cheap to run too, courtesy of a Wembley supplier of remanufactured cartridges.

Needing a new printer and doing a lot of printing and copying at the time (1999, well before everyone was using the internet), I took a very deep breath and shelled out £4,610 for a Canon GP215 copy-printer – initially I’d thought machines like this to be far too expensive, then was tipped off that for copiers the going cash price was around 50% of list, the latter being set so as to make lease deals look cheap.

Time proved the Canon to be one of my best purchases ever: it was still going strong when I emigrated, having printed several hundred thousand pages at less than 1p per side. The six bins each held a different colour paper – long standing users of SDA’s software will remember the product leaflets on different colours (SuperBeam: gold; SuperHeat: green; ProSteel: purple) and the personalised blue order forms. The printer selected the required colour without manual intervention.

Meanwhile two other printers were at work. A 1994 Epson LQ570+ (£199) did sterling work printing continuous feed floppy disk and address labels by the thousand. Then when we switched to CDs a HP DeskJet 950 printed CD labels.

Here in Australia? I now do very little printing compared with times past. My current printer is a top of the range Brother mono laser with duplexing, current cost about A$500 (say £250). It does much the same as the Optra, 15% of the cost. Nice, but as with monitors, nothing to stun a 1990 time traveller!

On Hardware 4: Monitors

This part is a bit different: no astronomical drops in price, just more year on year for the same money.

Pre-PC, my Commodore PET came with its built-in mono screen, 9”, 40×25 characters. Then my BBCs were coupled to the default Microvitec Cub 14” 1431 colour monitor.

On to PCs. My Dell came with the optional VGA monitor, resolution 640×480 pixels, when many users were still using EGA (640×350) or CGA (640×200). My next three monitors were all 15” VGA, costing around £200-250. The next step up was my 1995 Christmas present to myself, a lovely Idek 17”, offering a superb 1280×1024 resolution. It stayed on the books until 2001 and was a joy to look at.

Then the seismic change. November 1999 saw my first purchase of a TFT (flat screen) monitor, a 15” Panasonic LC50S, 1024x768px. As it was an ex-display model I got it for ‘just’ £637. Two more 15” screens followed, Nov 2001 (£385) and Aug 2003 (£205), then a 19” Benq FP91V in Oct 2005 for £257. Then in April 2007, a year before emigrating, these were replaced by a pair of HP W20 screens for £144 each.

On coming to Australia I started with a couple of Samsung monitors 22”/24” each costing around A$300 (say £150). Surprisingly one failed after a couple of years and was judged beyond economic repair. I’m writing this looking at a 2015 27” LG monitor which I plan to keep for a good few years yet, supplemented by a Hisense 43” 4K TV which serves as a second screen and is used for 4K testing.

So unlike some of the other posts in this series, perhaps not much to see here? A 1990 time-traveller would be dumfounded by 2TB drives for little more than pocket money; as for today’s monitors, polite appreciation at best?

On Hardware 3: Storage

This post covers memory and disk storage. Both have shown a fall in price that would have been unimaginable 30+ years ago. And with the advent of SSDs and memory sticks, the two are now closely intertwined.

Memory

In 1979 I started with a top of the line 32K Commodore PET – £100 more than the 16K version – so that’s £6,400 per MB. 1983 saw a BBC B with 32K, then 1986 a BBC Master with 128K. Then in 1989 I joined the PC world, my first Dell having 1MB.

By 1992 4MB was the new norm; late in the year 4MB cost me just £72 – £18/MB. During this time memory prices fluctuated significantly, 16MB costing me £429 in 1994.
By mid 1996 a 16MB SIMM cost just £85 – just over £5/MB. Then it was 32MB sticks: £100 in August 1997 and £68 six months later – £2/MB, then June 1998 I added a 128MB stick for £99, breaching the £1 barrier. June 2001 saw 256MB for £96, 27p/MB and that was the last memory I bought – since then I’ve bought ready built systems with more than enough memory.
But today? On Googling UK component suppliers and picking the first, I can buy an 8GB stick for £37 – that’s less than 0.5p per MB – or to look at it another way, at 1979 prices 8GB would cost just over £52 million!

Disks

Pre-hard disk, my PET and first BBC used cassette tapes for storage. Adding a floppy disk drive to my second BBC cost around £400. Then for my first PC, I paid extra for a 40MB hard disk instead of the standard 20MB. For the next 20 years I was buying ever bigger hard disks – now I’m nowhere filling the one in front of me.
Some purchases along the way – price per MB in brackets: Mar 92: 130MB/£264 (£2.03); Aug 93: 340MB/£249 (73p); Jun 95: 540MB/£139 (26p); Aug 96: 1GB/£119 (11p); Jun 98: 6.4GB/£129 (2p) and my last separate HD purchase, Sep 01: 40GB/£133 (0.3p).
And now? You can buy a 2TB drive for £54 – that’s next nothing per MB, though SSDs, given their falling price, are now almost universal. 2TB at 1992 prices: about £4.25million!

USB sticks

Disk or memory? You decide. 64GB for £6 – unbelievable to those of us who remember what memory used to cost.

On Hardware 2: Playing cards

One of the massive changes during the PC era has been that motherboards now include all the functionality that once required a handful of plug-in cards. Apart from a video card or two I’ve not bought a card since 2001. But before then:
1989: An early purchase was an I/O card allowing me to run two printers from the same PC. Like all cards from the era, installation was preceded by careful reading of an instruction leaflet and setting numerous jumpers to give the required functionality. Hooray for Plug and Play.
1991: A Compaticard, £182, allowing the same PC to have a 5¼” 360K floppy drive in addition to the default 5¼” 1.2MB and 3½” 1.44MB drives. 1.2MB drives would read 360K disks, but to write a disk that could be read on a 360K drive you needed to use a virgin disk. Adding a 360K drive got over this. There was a time when we bought 360K floppy disks by the thousand. Now we send out a few CDs each week; everyone else downloads. A Promise hard disk cache controller followed in 1993, claimed to make things work a lot faster, followed by several more HD controller cards as technology changed: EIDE in 1995, then PCI
1992: My first network: two PCs linked with 10Base-2 coax cable. Two network cards cost £202, and the networking software, Netware Lite, then Lantastic, another £50 or so per PC. Now you can link multiple home PCs for next to nothing – Windows provides the software, the motherboard the hardware.
1992 also saw my first modem, £41 – dial-up of course – to connect to CompuServe. Speed not recorded but it was replaced by an Intel 14.4 faxmodem in 1994 and a 33.6 faxmodem in 1996 – that’s 33,600 bits per second; now I am on fibre, nominal download speed 100,000,000 bits per second, nearly 3,000 times as fast. And thanks to bloat some websites still work at dial-up speed!
Video cards: 1991 saw my first recorded separate video card purchase (of course my ready-built systems came with HD, video and basic I/O cards), a Trident VGA for £60. For my sort of programming, there’s no need for a high performance video card, save the one I bought for 4K testing last year. Of the video cards bought over the years the outliers were a pair of Diamond Viper Weitek cards bought in 1996 when I was an OS/2 user – as I recall these cards had issues with Windows so were sold off cheaply (£107) but worked brilliantly with OS/2. When I moved to Windows, a Matrox Millennium, then Matrox Productiva AGP and ATI All-in-Wonder cards took over
And somewhere during this decade was a sound card, bought as a personal purchase, another function now handled by even the cheapest motherboard.

On Hardware 1: Desktops and CPUs

I started in computing with a Commodore PET and a couple of BBC computers, then joined the PC world in 1988, spending £2,414 on a Dell 286 system; this price included the optional 3½” floppy drive, 40MB hard drive and VGA graphics. This system was the one on which the first versions of SuperBeam were written and produced.

With my software business (initially a sideline to plan drawing) growing, 1990 saw the addition of a second system, which was designated for admin and disk production, the Dell then becoming the development machine. The new machine came from Morgan Computers, still trading today – I used to love their full page magazine ads. It was an NTS 386SX (£1,419) – when NTS was liquidated, Morgan bought the stock.

The 1990s saw repeated replacement and upgrading of systems with lots of self-building and parts swapping – looking back, much of it was probably unnecessary. The records show a 286-20 (1991); 486SX and 386-40 (1992); 486SX (1994); 486DX-100 and 486DX-75 (1995) and AMD586-133 (1996). Then a ready built MMX200 Pentium system from Mesh (1997: £1,589) and a little more DIY: AMD K6-200 (1997), Pentium II 266 (1998) and Celeron 400 (1999) and Athlon 1GB (2001).

That was the end of self-building and the pace of replacement slowed down. An XP system (2001: £570) and Carrera A64-3200 (2004: £1,033) followed. The last two bought in UK were a HP M7410UK (2005: £373) and Compaq 6400 (2007: £566), both of which came with me to Australia and are still used occasionally as XP and Vista test boxes respectively.

And in my near-12 years in Australia? An I5 box (2009) was my development machine for five years now serves as my Windows 7 and 4K test box. In its place a HP Z230 I7 desktop has served me well for five years and I have no plans to change it. Yes I could buy a newer faster box, but these days the constraint is how fast my brain works!

Covid-19: Month 1

1919 flu pandemic cartoon

1919 flu pandemic cartoon

What a month! Of course coronavirus has been around since the start of the year but here it only started to impact on my life a month ago. Back in November Mary Sheehan gave a talk to the Box Hill Historical Society on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919. Schools were closed, many turned into temporary hospitals as was the Royal Exhibition Building. The only public gatherings allowed were church services, on condition that worshippers wore masks, thus the cartoon shown here, caption: “These are not anarchists en-route to a rendezvous. They are really nice people going to attend a church service.” Unlike Covid-19, the 1919 pandemic hit 20-40 year olds hardest.

Fast forward to 2020. February 29th saw friends get married: a large open-air gathering. On the Labor Day long weekend (March 7th-9th) we at the Newport Railway Museum partnered with Steamrail for their biennial open days. On a typical Saturday we get 70-100 visitors; over the three day weekend more than 2,000 visitors passed through our gates. The following Saturday we opened as usual, the last time until this is over.

That weekend saw the end of normal church gatherings – unlike 1919, no exemption for churches. Our Sunday services put together by a handful of people (including our seriously gifted tech team) are now live screened – check out City on a Hill Digital, with our weekly church home group meeting taking place over Zoom. That week all the other groups I belong to suspended their normal activities. On Monday morning I met up with an old school friend visiting from UK at the Docklands Library coffee shop. At 2.00p.m. all city libraries were closed.

Moreland Hotel interior

Moreland Hotel interior

That Monday afternoon I drove to the airport to collect one of my cousins + husband from UK who had arranged to stay with me for the week starting March 16th after visiting WA. Their plan to return home via USA had already been changed, but they were still planning to go on to Queensland and Sydney. I met them at the airport and we had a good meal at the Moreland Hotel with its quite extraordinary interior. It wasn’t long before they got a message from one of their daughters, telling them that things were deteriorating, they needed to get home asap, and she’d booked them on a  Wednesday night flight.

A near deserted Sovereign Hill, 18 March 2020

A near deserted Sovereign Hill, 18 March 2020

To make the most of their short visit, on Tuesday we took the ferry to Williamstown, then on Wednesday the train to Ballarat, to visit the Sovereign Hill open air museum, then still open (it closed a few days later). Not surprisingly it was very quiet.

Then back to Docklands for dinner before I saw them on to the airport bus. I was due to have other UK friends visit in April with the high spot of their visit being a road trip to Broken Hill and back but, needless to say, that’s cancelled.

So the new (for now) normality has taken over. Lots of time to work, some online contact, minimal interaction with others. Outdoor exercise is still allowed so I take a daily walk to get to my 6,000 step target – harder work now, since pre-virus a good portion of this was generally attained without trying, trips to supermarket (even if I didn’t really need anything), library coffee shop, Men’s Shed walk on Mondays, church mums and bubs group on Tuesdays etc.

But compared with so many I am truly fortunate: a spacious home, a business that so far has been unaffected by events, and good health. Here in Australia we’re currently counting the daily death toll in single figures; back in the UK it’s hundreds: with all my family there, including my mother, siblings and niece and partner working on the NHS front line, I’m far from complacent. To all those working hard to keep things going, and especially those on the front line, thank you.

 

Port Arthur 2020

I’m writing this on March 23rd, ten weeks after my cruise call to Hobart. How the world has changed! Then the news was dominated by bushfires, whilst millions of us enjoyed the carefree life of an ocean cruise. Now the ships are moored and idle, the crews who looked after us so well stood down. Ten days ago our railway museum was still open, Sunday a week ago I was in church (now livestreamed to our homes). On the Monday, UK relatives arrived, only to have to cut their Australia visit short and get on the next available flight to UK. But we were able to visit Sovereign Hill and eat at local restaurants – all now closed.

With this in mind, let me briefly return to happier times. After visiting Adelaide we were meant to have a day on Kangaroo Island, but due to the fires we had to give KI a miss and made straight for Hobart. As I’d visited Hobart before, I decided to go on the full day excursion to Port Arthur, named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Knowing a little of its history and reputation, I went with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. I knew of Port Arthur’s reputation for brutality, and how the only access was guarded by a line of chained dogs. Perhaps not too surprising given that from 1833 until 1853, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having reoffended after their arrival in Australia. Port Arthur’s use as a prison ended in 1877 after which the buildings were left to decay, before being resurrected as a tourist attraction.

After disembarking, and a 90-minute coach trip we were at the site. First a guided walking tour to get our bearings, then a boat cruise, and we free to explore at our leisure.

Port Arthur Penetentiary

Port Arthur Penetentiary

The most prominent structure is the remains of the penitentiary, built as a flour mill and granary in 1845, then converted into convict accommodation: 136 separate cells on the lower two floors and a dormitory for 348 on the top floor. The building was burnt out in 1897.

Port Arthur hospital

Port Arthur hospital

On the hill is the hospital, accommodating 80 patients, also burnt out in the 1890s.

Port Arthur’s regime was tough, but less so in the physical sense as compared to earlier prison regimes. The hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used elsewhere was now thought to harden criminals, doing nothing to turn them from their immoral ways.

Port Arthur Separate Prison

Port Arthur Separate Prison

Instead in Port Arthur’s silent prison (1849) newer inmates were kept in complete and anonymous solitude and silence at all times. They were not to speak, sing, whistle or communicate in any way except when they needed to pass essential information to a guard or when singing in chapel. When outside their cells they wore masks to prevent recognition by other inmates. 

Port Arthur asylum

Port Arthur asylum

Not too surprisingly, many prisoners lost their minds, thus the need for the next door asylum (1868), the last major penal structure to be constructed, now the restaurant and museum where we repaired to for a welcome lunch. Due to the age of the remaining convicts on site, the authorities were forced to employ building tradesmen to assist with the asylum’s construction.

Port Arthur Church

Port Arthur Church

After lunch, increasing rain prompted a hasty retreat to the gift ship but I did get to see the remains of one more  burnt out building, the church, built 1836-7 and destroyed 1884. It could accommodate 1000 worshippers: convicts seated on benches whilst 200 free settlers had pews that had been produced by the Point Puer (boys prison) boys.

Then back to the ship for dinner and the homeward sail to Melbourne.

 

Adelaide 2020

As outlined in my last post, my 2020 cruise’s first port of call was Adelaide. I’d been there four times before so with no pressure to do anything in particular. I decided to revisit the National Rail Museum (NRM) and make a first-time visit to the South Australian Aviation Museum. Both these, along with the South Australian Maritime Museum, which I’d visited before, are at Port Adelaide, an 11-stop 10.2km train ride from Outer Harbour, where we were docked (the train station is conveniently next to the cruise terminal).

As a volunteer at the Melbourne Newport Railway Museum, railway museums now have a special interest to me, and on this second visit to the NRM I was able to see a number of exhibits with fresh eyes.

National Rail Museum Loco 504

National Rail Museum Loco 504

A great find last year was the book, ‘Kings of the Iron Horse’, the story of two of Australia’s greatest railway engineers, Alf Smith and Fred Shea. Shea was Chief Mechanical Engineer (1923-39) of the South Australian Railways (SAR). Working with William Webb, Chief Commissioner, he oversaw a massive re-equipping of the SAR during the 1920s. The 500 class, built by Armstrong Whitworth UK, was over twice the size of the biggest pre-Webb engine, and was the most powerful locomotive in Australia. 504, seen here was in service from 1926-1962.

National Rail Museum Clyde GM2 loco

National Rail Museum Clyde GM2 loco

One of Australia’s big mistakes was not building its railways to one gauge – South Australia has all three: 3’6” narrow gauge, 4’8½” standard gauge and 5’3” Irish or broad gauge.

Over time standard gauge interstate lines were constructed. Finally on 23 February 1970, just 50 years ago, the first Indian Pacific service left Sydney for Perth, becoming the first direct train to cross the Australian continent. GM2, here, built 1951, hauled the train from Port Pirie to Kalgoorlie, a distance of nearly 1800km.

Fokker F27, South Australian Aviation Museum

South Australian Aviation Museum

These are but two highlights of the NRM and by the time I’d dragged myself away I only had an hour for the Aviation Museum. Lots of to see and all very well arranged and signed. This Fokker Friendship was used for scientific research.

Then back to the Queen Elizabeth and on to Hobart.

2020 cruise – back on the Queen Elizabeth

2020’s cruise was my fifth and longest so far: seven nights from Melbourne to Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and Hobart, then home. After last year’s Queen Elizabeth cruise to Brisbane I was really looking forward to being back on board.

No upgrade this year! After two out of two Cunard upgrades it would have been a bit much to expect another one. A couple of days before departure my heart leapt on seeing an email titled ATTN: Anthony Bryer – Upgrade Notice but it was merely notifying me that I’d been moved from a cabin on Deck 8 to a very similar one (grade BB to grade BA) on Deck 6. It suited me well – deck plans

Queen Elizabeth Britannia restaurant

Queen Elizabeth Britannia restaurant

With no upgrade, boarding meant joining an unnecessarily long queue (it would have been a lot shorter had people not been allowed to join it until their allotted time) and each night turning up promptly for dinner in the Britannia Room at 5.45p.m. (I chose early dining) rather than any time dining. As on previous cruises, I was very fortunate in my table companions, especially 93-year old Patricia, still enjoying life to the full. Excellent food and top-notch service.

Not surprisingly soon after sailing we were told that we would skip Kangaroo Island because of the bushfires, with an extra day at sea being substituted. All us passengers felt for the people of eastern Kangaroo Island who weren’t in the immediate fire zone but lost out on thousands of money-spending cruise visitors – we were one of several cruise ships whose planned visits were cancelled.

But the extra sea day was fine by me: there’s never enough time to do everything on the daily entertainments programme. On this cruise one of the guest lecturers was Dr Richard Harris, a key member of the Thailand cave rescue diver team. Unfortunately due to a programme clash I had to miss his main talk, but his Q&A session gave us all an insight into the massive responsibility he and his colleagues had shouldered, knowing that it could all have ended in tragedy. His recognition as joint Australian of the Year last weekend was all too well deserved.

Afternoon tea in the Queens Room

Afternoon tea in the Queens Room

For the first time, I joined the solo traveller group – ‘solo’ not be confused with ‘single’, since some solos may well have left partners at home. On sea days social host Cordelia did a brilliant job organising coffee mornings, a couple of lunches and reserved tables at afternoon tea. Like my dinner table, good company, much enjoyed.

Finally the other first-time experience was to go on the behind the scenes tour, not cheap but a great experience. I’d love to post some pics but it was strictly no cameras, no phones. The tour included going backstage in the theatre, meeting a couple of the ‘Top Hat’ cast, the medical centre, winch room, massive food stores, print shop, galley and, the high spot, meeting the captain on the bridge.

All in all, a brilliant cruise. Coming soon, my day in Port Adelaide.