Ron Weeden spent over 30 years working in the IT industry on calculator and desktop computer technology. He got into the calculator business when they were mechanical devices and computers were in their infancy and ended his formal career at HP in the late 90s, by then a global leader in PC’s and workstations.
Tech was only part of his life story though which started in 1932 when Tunbridge Wells was a traffic free haven and a boy could fill his leisure time on long cycle trips around Kent; the only entertainment available in a penniless upbringing. Ron describes himself as a loner, intensely curious and a polymath: which contributed to his many achievements and on which he touches (as well as the evolution of computing) in this snapshot of a fascinating life.
Grammar school saw him into an early career as a civil servant aged 16, followed by an unusual National Service experience, and a few short-term jobs in the 50s while pursuing his varied intellectual interests. In 1961 Ron found his way to Muldivo, a supplier of calculators, which led him to be employee Number 1 in Wang UK, and thence on to the rapidly developing HP in 1969. Ron has been a member of the BCS and ACM since 1968 and continues to be active in the profession.
Ron Weeden was born in 1932 in Kent. Ron says of life in Kent before the war: “The impressions that I feel the most about are the way there was no traffic. I lived in a long road, about three-quarters of a mile long, and in the whole of that road there were only two vehicle owners. One was a sign-writer who had an Austin van and the other was the coal merchant with a lorry. All week the only vehicle I can recollect seeing, other than those two, was a steam engine lorry from the Gas Light & Coke Company, coming up the road, which delivered coke. Even the doctor used to come on a bicycle… We used to play out there in the road. All the other residential roads were just the same”
Ron’s mother did not go to work; he adds “It wasn’t done in those days” His father had suffered severe head wounds and shell-shock from an exploding shell in the trenches in France in the first world war, which left him unable to work. Ron says: “He acted as a casual labourer doing golf caddying, emptying great big colanders in laundries, and acted as a hospital porter taking bodies to the mortuary in the local hospital; that kind of thing. We were extremely poor.”
The family rented a house which had been a greengrocer’s shop. Asked about how they managed financially, Ron says: “It was wartime so there was very little food, whether you had the money to pay for it or not, so that didn’t make an awful lot of difference, to be quite frank. Everyone that could, grew vegetables in their front gardens as well as in their back gardens and allotments, and so one ate an awful lot of vegetables. As for meat, we lived mainly on rabbits.”
He describes his childhood as utterly happy, adding: “I was exceedingly free. From about the age of nine, I could be out at a weekend all day long, from 7 o’clock in the morning until seven at night. We had an enormous common land nearby which was covered in gorse, ferns and trees; it was wild and vast. I used to play there for hours and hours. Also I used to cycle an awful lot. We kids would go up to the rubbish tip and recover stuff, and so that’s how I came to have a bicycle; a couple of wheels and an old bicycle frame all from the rubbish dump and you just put it together.”
Ron had seven siblings who, due to the family’s financial situation, had been taken into social care five years before he was born. At the age of sixteen, his eldest sister Kathleen went to live with his ‘aunt and uncle’, and Ron’s father used to take him to London to see them. Some times Ron used to stay there and was taken out by his sister and the ‘aunts’ daughter to the zoo and to London museums, etc.
Despite frequently playing with the local children and making friends, Ron describes himself a a ‘loner’. He says: “I played a lot with the local children from when I was about 7, and later as a young teenager, I had quite a lot of association with others of my own age, but nevertheless, I was often a loner. Very frequently, I would go on very, very long cycle rides all day on my own. I used to cycle the 30 miles from Tunbridge Wells down to Hastings a lot and also to Maidstone and Gravesend, all on my own. I was interested in industrial locomotives and so I used to visit the cement works in Northfleet and Greenhithe, and on the other side of the Thames in Purfleet and Thurrock. I also used to go to the enormous rubbish tip at Rainham Marshes (next to the Ford motor car factory at Dagenham in Essex) where there were lots of these steam engines which pulled the rubbish around the tip. So I used to cycle all over the place looking for these railway engines and recording their details.”
Ron attended Christ Church School in Tunbridge Wells. He says: “It was right next to the Tunbridge Wells Central railway station. I can still remember my mother taking me there for my first day at school. I also remember having a class-mate; the one I sat next to, and how we got into trouble for talking. I was very good at long division and multiplication. I can’t remember much about anything else there except for sewing; young boys were taught sewing in those days.”
When war broke out in 1939, Ron was moved to St John’s Primary School which was considered to be closer to where the family had then moved to. At the age of eleven, he gained a scholarship to attend the Skinners’ Grammar School further along the same road. It was a boys only school (about 450 pupils) and he was there until he was sixteen.
He says of that school: “I liked the English classes because of the teacher who taught it; he was great fun. He used to tell us amusing stories, invented by him on the spot. I quite liked physics, biology and chemistry. I didn’t have much liking for mathematics there. Our headmaster tried to teach us calculus but it was so abstract and not related to anything practical that it didn’t sink in at all. It seemed to be utterly boring. (I only got to grips with it much later in life when I was about 27 when I understood what I needed it for)”
Of sports options, Ron adds: “I wasn’t into team sports or anything like that. You could volunteer to go running instead of playing rugby or cricket, and so I was always one of the runners. Our four mile route took us into the countryside & on the route we were supposed to run, there was a long abandoned quarry, all overgrown with trees in a large wood. Some of us used to play commandos on the faces of this quarry until the rest of the runners came back on the other side of the wood and then we’d join them for the way back.
Ron left school at sixteen with a school certificate.
The War Damage Commission
Ron and seven of his fellow students were recruited at school by the War Damage Commission to work for them. The WDC was housed in a mansion built about 1776 and located in a parkland owned by the local town council. Ron says: “It was a beautiful place to work in.”
After about four months, Ron was asked to sit the civil service exam in London which he passed to become a salaried clerical officer. He says: “Apparently it was quite unusual; I was the youngest clerical officer in the country.”
His work involved examining war damage claims from domestic premises and from factories. He says: “The main thing was going through the correspondence, basically to see what the history of the claim was, to determine, given the circumstances, whether it ought to be paid.”
In November 1950, when Ron was turned eighteen, he was called up for National Service. As an ex-grammar school pupil who had been in the school’s CCF, he was allowed the choice of two services. He explains: “I said I’d like to be either in the REME or the Royal Air Force, because I had a distinct desire to be a radar engineer, and I knew that was what the REME did and I knew that they also had them in the RAF”
Unfortunately, things did not work as he hoped and after six weeks, he was sent to Feltham in Middlesex, to the REME vehicle depot workshops. He continues: “They were just about to take over an army camp about three miles down the road in Ashford, Middlesex from the Royal Army Service Corps. I was told ‘You’re not going to be a radar engineer; you’ve been a qualified civil servant and we need administrators and you’re being assigned to a captain quartermaster and staff sergeant to take over a camp that we’ve just acquired down the road. So I had to join them and do an inventory of the entire camp before we could take it over from the RASC. That was the end of any hopes I had for being a radar engineer.”
“However the captain quartermaster and his quartermaster staff sergeant were buddies and there was a local golf course and all they wanted to do, every day of the week, including Sundays, was go off and play golf all day, which they did. They didn’t do anything to do with running the camp. That was my responsibility. I had to go into their office before they went off to play golf every morning at eight o’clock and get all my requisition documents signed for vehicles and manpower and whatever else I needed. I didn’t see them from 8 AM one day to 8 o’clock in the morning the next day, ever. If anything in the camp didn’t move, I was responsible for it and that meant not just all the supplies, but the fences and buildings and organising any maintenance and plumbing or electrical work which needed doing.”
Ron’s experience was not typical of the National Service many others experienced; He didn’t do any military duties, parades or guard duties. He continues: “My responsibility was the whole camp and the stores. I had to organise all the personal laundry collection once a week, all the food for the cookhouse, collection of ice for refrigeration, the boot repairs, the bedding supplies, the coal supplies, the camp library, etc. Even the pig-swill collection of left-over food.
“I was also in charge of the dance hall which was just outside the camp perimeter fence and I had to run that each Friday night and sit at the door taking the money from the civilians who came in. I also had to book the band and pay them at the end of the evening.”
Asked if he enjoyed his National Service, Ron says “I was very happy. I was my own boss. I was a lance corporal (one up from a ‘squaddie’) with all this to look after. I enjoyed it very much.”
After his compulsory two years were completed, Ron was asked to return to the Civil Service, but opted to stay in the forces and took a similar job with the Royal Army Service Corps, Airborne Brigade, in Southall, Middlesex. He says that he did this because he had got used to what he was doing, adding: “One of the reasons I did that was I had a desire to be a helicopter pilot and thought that parachute experience might improve my chances. When I was rigorously checked by the RNAS, I was eventually told that one of my eyes was lacking fifty-fifty vision and so I could only be a navigator. I didn’t want to be just a navigator, and so I opted out. I then left the RASC.”
International Aeradio (A subsidiary of BOAC)
After about three years at RASC, Southall, Ron joined International Aeradio in Southall which supplied components to all the Middle Eastern air traffic control centres.
One of the components Ron was working with were ‘klystron’ valves. He says: “They were about four feet high and they came packed in an open latticed wooden crate. They looked just like an old-fashioned radio valve except that they were enormous; they were exactly the same shape.”
To help Ron do his job, he was supplied with an electro-mechanical calculator (about the size of a typewriter) He says: “A Marchant electromechanical calculator cost about 350 pounds in 1953; an enormous amount of money in those days; really enormous. My expertise with it greatly affected my career later on.”
Over the next few years, Ron moved jobs several times, including working at Thorn EMI at Hayes in the audio wire recorders unit. He explains: “Wire recoders preceded the use of magnetic tape; you had reels of wire that you recorded upon.” He also worked in the food laboratory at Joseph Lyons & Company in Greenford, Middlesex.
In 1961, Ron went to work at a company engaged in the production of calculating machines. He says: “My partner (Mary) saw an advert in one of the London newspapers from a calculating machine company and I thought to myself, I know about those and used one for some time. I went for an interview with them at the back of Fleet Street, next to Van den Berghs and Jergens. It was a firm named Muldivo which had been set up in 1912 by the father of two sons from Eastern Europe to manufacture and sell such things as mechanical calculators, adding machines, cash registers, etc. They had a factory at Wood Green in North London which manufactured mechanical calculators.”
Soon after the time that Ron joined the company, the government had launched the Schools Mathematics Project which included the introduction of mechanical calculators into all the schools across England. Ron explains his role: “This involved talking to HMIs, (the education inspectors) and getting them to try the brands that we were associated with & leaving samples with them to experiment with. It also involved going to primary schools and showing the teachers how to use them and showing the children as well. It was quite fascinating.
“Instead of a keyboard, there were columns of levers which you moved up and down to any of the digit positions 0 to 9 and there was a movable carriage in which there was an accumulator register. A second register counted numbers of turns of the handle. That allowed you to do multiplication because the carriage could move relative to the main body of the machine to any relevant power of ten position. You could turn the handle backwards to undo anything previously done. Some of the machines had an extra register at the bottom to which values from the accumulator could be transferred. If you knew the right procedure, you could even calculate the square root of a value located in the accumulator, digit by digit in a process slightly similar to division. The result ended up in the counter register. Almost everyone who who worked with mechanical calculators knew how to use the ‘13579’ method to compute square roots. I have since turned it into a computer algorithm.”
Apart from schools, mechanical calculators were also used by scientists and engineers and there were people dedicated to their use who were also known as ‘computers’. Ron cites RAE, Farnborough, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington and the National Institute for Research in Dairying as establishments which were major users of mechanical calculators. But so also were the stockbrokers in the City of London.
The Shift to Electronics
In 1964, with mechanical calculators shifting towards electronics, Ron says: “I was in the right place at the right time, when the electronics revolution began and transistors were introduced by Fairchild’s which promptly started getting incorporated into calculating devices. The mechanical and electromechanical calculator industry started turning over to electronics and so I had to familiarise myself with numerous varieties of such electronic products (mainly of American origin) for which Muldivo were looking at taking up the UK distribution rights. I saw many of the early systems of that kind, most of which never made it to market. All of that information I have set out in fine detail in two issues of ‘Resurrection’; The Journal of the Computer Conservation Society (Issues 96 and 97 of Winter 2021/2 & Spring, 2022 respectively)”
The new electronic calculators featured a numeric keypad. Ron says: “They had a ten-key numeric keyboard together with the keys that you’d get on a modern cheap pocket calculator; ie Plus, Minus, Times, Divide, etc and often a square root key as well. The display was usually a row of digital ‘nixie tubes'” (Some of the electro-mechanical devices which preceded them had also had the same kind of keyboard layout)
Ron goes on to describe what he believes to have been the first electronic calculator which ever went to market. It was produced by an Italian company named IME (short for Industria Macchine Elettroniche) and marketed in the UK by Muldivo Ltd in 1964.
He adds: “They first produced the IME84, with a Nixie tube digital display and a programmable unit which consisted of a gramophone turn-table with a spindle sticking up in the middle and a read-write head which was just like an old-fashioned gramophone head with a pivoted arm. It utilised real ‘floppy’ disks; circular sheets of mylar coated with magnetic oxide on both sides, so you could record onto both sides if you wished to. You connected it to the electronic calculator and selected record mode, having put a floppy disk on it and placed by hand the read-write head somewhere you thought to be appropriate, and then tapped away on the keyboard of the calculator the sequence that would accomplish the calculation required. When you entered numbers, it replaced them with a ‘pause’ instruction.”
“The instruction sequence was thereby recorded onto the floppy disk. When you finished you could then switch to ‘replay’ mode and tell it to start. Whenever it needed a number entry, it would pause whilst you entered the appropriate value and told it to accept it. You proceeded in that way until the final answer was visible on the Nixie tube display. There were no alphabetics and so no messages to keep track of whereabouts in the sequence of number entries you were. It would come to a ‘pause’ and you’d key in a number, press ‘continue’ and it would go on until it needed another number; you’d key that in and press ‘continue’ and so on until the calculation was completed.”
These machines were mainly used for accountancy purposes. Within about six months, that programming system was abandoned and replaced by an electronic memory unit and a vastly improved new calculator model called the IME 86s (‘s’ meant square root because it had a key for that) The IME86s was far more successful and was very pleasant to use. As well as being used for payrolls, invoices and general accountancy, the IME 86s was also used in research. Ron says that he was demonstrating it in establishments such as AERE, Harwell.
Ron left Muldivo at the end of 1967 to set up the UK branch of Wang, an American desktop computer firm. He was the first Wang employee in the UK and established its UK offices in the British Medical Association building in Tavistock Square in central London.
Ron says of Doctor An Wang: “He was in the USA from Taiwan and had patented a very special item of computer hardware which he called a logarithmic generator; it was also an anti-log generator. His desk- top computers uniquely did arithmetic via logarithms and anti-logs. His hardware held two very small sets of constants in ROM; one for logarithms, the other for exponentials, together with algorithms for correctly generating interpolated values of the entire range of his computer’s arithmetic system.
“What we used for programming with the Wang computers were things that looked a bit like a toaster because they opened up like that. Each one could hold one eighty row Hollerith card (8 binary columns per row) which you punched out by hand (in binary) using an IBM hand-held card holder with a clear plastic template of 8*80 holes. If your program consisted of more than 80 ‘opcodes’ then you could connect the card holders in series until you could accommodate enough Hollerith cards. So far as I can recollect, the opcodes were read sequentially by the computer and executed one opcode at a time.
Three months after Ron had set up Wang in the UK on 1st January 1968, Hewlett Packard announced to the world their first programmable desk- top calculator on April 1st 1968. It was called the HP 9100a and was produced in Loveland, Colorado in the USA by the Loveland Instrument
Division of Hewlett Packard. Ron says: “It was so superior to what Wang had got that I couldn’t resist wanting to be involved with it. It was a desktop programmable calculator about 15 inches square and about five inches high with all of the transcendental trigonometric and hyperbolic functions and their inverses together with rectangular to Polar conversion and vice versa. It used tiny little magnetic cards not much bigger than a cigarette card for recording and reloading its programs. It had a switch which could be moved from ‘load’ to ‘record’ I considered it to be absolutely wonderful and the answer to all my dreams for such a device. (Since the advent of transistors, I had been thinking of how they could be used in a desktop computer) It embodied a tiny CRT with a three line numerical display, 12 decimal digits per line, in a range from ten to the power -99 to ten to the power +99. It had no alphabetical capabilities. As I recollect, each magnetic card could hold a maximum of 192 ‘opcodes’, each opcode being equivalent to the keystroke for a specific key. The arithmetic was of the RPN form (reverse Polish notation) as used in later HP pocket scientific calculators (using a three level stack)
Ron stayed with Wang for a further nine months after the launch of the HP 9100a, before being ‘head-hunted’ by Hewlett Packard after having his ‘brain picked’ at an exhibition at the London based Olympia centre by the HP European HQ manager from Geneva and the newly appointed desk-top computer sales manager for HP UK
Ron says: “Neither of them knew anything about who would want to use these machines, so they were picking my brains about it. I knew exactly who needed them, what for, what professions they belonged to and so on. I understood the electronics; not at a service engineer level, but I was competent enough to understand the design and how these computers worked internally.”
Ron continues to give examples of the types of users such as optical engineers, land surveyors, highway design engineers, gear designers, gear hob designers, colorimetrists (colour measurement), etc, etc. He adds “Their computations often involved masses of trigonometric functions which, up until then, they had to look up in log table books and now, at the touch of a button to probably three times the accuracy you had before. What’s more, you could program a whole sequence. For instance, gear designers used a mathematical function that I’ve never known anyone else in the world to use. Its the Arc Involute function and its a truncated version of a tangent series and the only way that you can calculate it is to write an iterative program for it. It is absolutely essential for designing gears, so you can imagine what a relief the HP 9100 was for those design engineers.
HPs 9100 cost about 2500 pounds in 1968, with the option of a strip printer to sit on top of it for an extra 500 pounds. Ron adds: “You could also have another box about as big as the 9100 itself which had a lot of extra memory. Memory in those days was ferrite core memory put together by nimble fingered women in Singapore, threading the tiny annular ferrite rings. One of the attractions of ferrite core memory was that when you switched off the power supply, it didn’t lose any information. If you switched it off in the middle of running a program, you could take it home, switch it on again and it would continue running the program as though nothing had happened in between.”
Ron says that further innovation occurred when HP produced the HP 35 scientific pocket calculator in November, 1971. It was the world’s first pocket calculator and sold in the UK for 199 pounds. They were enormously popular with engineers and scientists. Except for program- ability, it did everything which the HP 9100 did, including all the Trigonometric and Hyperbolic functions and their inverses. It was invented because Bill Hewlett, as a very practical & practicing engineer, used the 9100 a great deal and he had a personal R & D team. One day he said to his team, “I want that in my shirt pocket”, pointing to his 9100. They took six months to do it. About 6 to 8 months after the HP 35 was introduced, Clive Sinclair in the UK, brought his ordinary pocket calculator to market. It was far cheaper than the HP 35 but it only did ordinary arithmetic (multiply, divide, add and subtract) and was just for general public use. A great avalanche of varieties of pocket calculators later occurred.
In 1972, programmable desk-top computers were subject to a major change in their design, whereby the were equipped with typewriter like key- boards with full alphabetic capability, together with high level progamming languages. That was certainly a ‘milestone’ in computing. The changes occurred at much the same time for all the manufacturers of desktop programmable computers including HP, Wang, Olivetti and Tektronix.
HP were later heavily involved with the development of personal (office) computers, but that is another story involving other divisions of HP. Ron had no direct association with those developments and therefore has little to contribute there except later when it comes to the development of the Windows Operating System.
In other directions, HP produced their own large business computers, rivalling those of companies such as Burroughs and even ICL. Once again, Ron had no direct association with those. In the realm of mini-computers, HP introduced the A1000 series in 1966, similar to the DEC PDP8 using paper-tape to feed in programs, typically written in Fortran. They were frequently used in conjunction with HP electronic instruments for control and monitoring. Again, Ron had no direct association with those and therefore does not comment upon them.
A particular part of the HP manufacturing business does require some mention. That was the part of HP dedicated to designing and manufacturing computer terminals. HP made a wide variety of such devices incorporating of course, CRT screens, for use with the HP mainframe computers. Some of them were graphics terminals with their own graphics memory as well as the normal text memory. In the course of time, some of these were provided with an additional Intel processor so that they were programmable and could run local programs as well as act as remote monitors of the mainframe computers. This resulted in the development of a proprietary HP programming language known as AGL (a Graphics Language) with facilities for producing graphics on the terminal screen as well as on HP mechanical plotters. (There was a whole manufacturing division in San Diego devoted to the design and manufacture of mechanical plotters.) Such plotters were always part of the range of computer peripherals supported by the HP programmable desk-top computers, along with many other devices, including digitising tablets for graphics input to the computers. (Even the HP 9100 supported the use of external HP mechanical plotters from the start)
AGL was a very good language mainly based upon Dartmouth BASIC (with procedures and functions) with many extensions especially for graphics. It became the basis for the HP Rocky Mountain BASIC later used in HP Motorola based workstation & instrument controller desk-top computers. AGL got used for scientific, engineering and technical applications as well as office applications such as pie charts and histograms.
Because HP produced so many varieties of computer terminals, we got to a stage in October 1982 when a company wide directive was issued that no more varieties of computer box were to be developed and that all divisions must make use of existing varieties of terminal boxes. That had a direct result not only on the PCs which HP were producing, but also on the Motorola based workstations/Instrument Controllers. Another indirect effect was the move from 5 & 1/4 Floppy Disk Drives to 3 & 1/2 Inch Floppy Drives. We were producing a small CRT based terminal called a 2382, and we used it to house an Intel processor based PC (I believe that it was running MSDOS) Sony in Japan had just announced their development of the 3 & 1/2 Floppy disk drive and HP ordered 20000 of them of a size such that the 2382 terminal box housing an MSDOS PC would sit exactly on top of one of these Floppy Disk Drive boxes equipped with twin drives. As was the case with all HP disk drives of whatever kind, the 3 & 1/2 inch floppy drives were connected to the computer via IEEE 488 (known within HP as HPIB because it was invented by HP as an international standard in 1975. It had been used for all HP electronic instrumentation ever since and also for almost all computer peripherals such as plotters, printers, disc drives, tape drives, etc) (On a single HPIB port, you could have 31 individually addressable devices, and on an HP workstation you could have numerous such ports; the control of banks of electronic instrumentation being a primary requirement of those workstations)
The directive affected the Motorola based desk-top computers produced by HPs Fort Collins and Loveland Instrumenmt Division which were running HP proprietary combined language/operating systems; foremost of which was the one known internally as Rocky Mountain BASIC. We promptly produced one that used the 2382 terminal box and which of course could sit upon the new 3 & 1/2 inch floppy drives.
I will not discuss the HP MSDOS PCs because I was not associated with them, but I was very much involved with the Motorola based workstation just described. We called it the 9816 as part of the HP Series 200 workstations, running one of 3 HP combined language/operating systems. The primary one was Rocky Mountain BASIC, but we also had HP Pascal and another called HPL (which originated in 1975) (HPL = Hewlett Packard Language; never used outside of HP workstations) The model 9816 was extremely popular and sold extremely well. It used a Motorola 8 MHz 68000 processor (far superior to anything produced by Intel)
The 3 & 1/2 inch floppy drives introduced by HP in November 1982 were far superior to the 5 & 1/4 inch floppy drives used by all the rest of the industry but it took some 5 years or more, for any other company to change to using 3 & 1/2 inch floppy drives. (Probably because they were more expensive)
HP and Windows
In May 1983, Hewlett Packard accepted a contract from Bill Gates of Microsoft to upgrade his MSDOS to something similar to the operating system of the Apple ‘Lisa’ machine (and later the ‘MacIntosh’) The Apple operating system was a windows type OS originally designed by Xerox in the USA but never patented. It relied on the use of a ‘mouse’ driven pointer for human interaction. Unlike MSDOS, it was a multi- tasking operating system. The project was a tightly kept secret with those working upon it asked to sign secrecy agreements (so I was told) It was decided that it would be written in the UK at an HP software R & D establishment located on a campus at Nine Mile Ride near Crowthorne in Berkshire. I was also located there at the time and those in the team of 16 or so were close colleagues of mine. The first I knew of the project was in May 1983 when I came back from lunch and received a call from one of my colleagues about 20 yards away in another part of the building. ‘Come and look at our new toy’ he said, and so I did. They had just received delivery of an Apple ‘Lisa’ machine; one of the first three to arrive in the UK. I learnt that the other two had been delivered that day to Digital Equipment Corporation in Reading and to IBM Research at Hursley, near Winchester. Thus commenced the ten year development to design the Windows Operating System for Microsoft. It took about ten years to deliver the prototype to Microsoft. (nb: IBM designed IBM PCs at Hursley & used HP work- stations in doing so because of the electronic instrumentation control involved, for which HPs RMB was the primary programming language) Both HP and Microsoft were then both promptly sued by Apple in the New York courts for some vast amount of money. It was settled out of court.
In order to conserve them for the scientific and mathematical community, Ron has acquired the rights to two proprietary computing languages. They are the two most sophisticated forms of BASIC ever invented. One of the two is Hewlett Packard Rocky Mountain BASIC. They are both derivatives of the original Dartmouth BASIC invented by Kemeny and Kurtz in 1964 at Dartmouth College in the USA. Dartmouth College invented the original form of BASIC for use by students in conjunction with ASR 33 teletypes acting as terminals connected to the Dartmouth College mainframe computer. That was instead of producing Hollerith punched cards and submitting them to the computing centre and was thus interactive with error messages to the students, line by line as they transmitted the programs; a very great advance in computer programming.
The language was soon taken up by many computer timeshare companies renting out time on mainframe computers. In the process, the language became fractured into many incompatible dialects and debased in order to use less main computer memory. Then came the era of home computers and Bill Gates was producing an even more diverse and mutually incompatible range of versions of the language; a different one for each manufacturer. As a consequence the name BASIC got an exceedingly bad name amongst computer professionals; especially in academia. Kemeny and Kurtz later wrote a book entitled TRUE BASIC describing exactly what their original BASIC language was like and how it had been debased. The debasement of the language was not the fault of Kemeny and Kurtz except that they had not taken any precautions to protect it from such a fate.
However, HPs Rocky Mountain BASIC was never like that. It was a proper high level fully structured language from the start with vast effort put into ensuring that engineers and scientists could use it with the minimum of learning effort and such that as much as possible it was intuitive. It was not just the capabilities of the language that was of concern; it was the whole programming environment, both software and hardware. Rocky Mountain BASIC was designed very much with Fortran as a model but always taking into account the latest features of the time in expectations for a computer language. It was derived from the HP language called AGL (described earlier)
Ron says: “My aim is now to make Rocky Mountain BASIC ‘open-source’ software running under Ubuntu Linux and revising it to even higher standards and capabilities. I am not academically a mathematician, but I am a ‘de facto’ one by self tuition. I classify myself as an algorithmicist. I have designed tens of thousands of algorithms over the past 56 years and still continue to do so. I have also collected them from all over the world during that period (the great majority of the collected ones being in Fortran) I am, of course, a great ‘fan’ of Donald Knuth.
I am doing my utmost at the age of 90 to achieve my aims for RMB. I have so far recruited about six individuals to assist in the process of running RMB under Ubuntu Linux, one of which is the proprietor of a company in Thame who already produce a computer of the right kind. It is shaped so as to look exactly like a BBC Micro from the 1980s, has exactly the same keyboard but uses an HDMI screen, has a ‘Raspberry Pie’ processor board, runs Ubuntu Linux, is fully equipped with USB and all the rest that you would expect in the modern era. They are now getting to grips with the source code of RMB (which is written in ‘C’ and ‘C++’) to run under Ubuntu Linux. There have been all sorts of wonderful coincidences and people relationships which have made it possible. The company in Thame is of much the same mindset as mine & actively & frequently runs workshops for school children in programming.
Rocky Mountain BASIC is the finest language which I have ever examined for writing algorithms in a humanly readable and easily understandable form. I’ve looked at many hundreds of varieties of computer languages in fine detail, looking for the best features that could be found. My concern is for future generations of algorithmicists to be able to readily understand existing algorithms & improve them & have a hardware environment which is idealised for that purpose; a fully comprehensive mathematical engine free from the constraints imposed by the common keyboards and screens of current ‘laptop’ computers.
Rocky Mountain BASIC is already a beautiful language for designing and documenting algorithms. In HP UK, we knew that as a fact because it was the language of choice of the UK MOD for prototyping of such things.
There were HP desk-top computers running Rocky Mountain BASIC on board every ship of the Royal Navy, not to mention many in the RAF and in all the government R & D establishments, as well as the vast majority of commercial R & D sites.
You have to experience RMB as a programmer to properly appreciate the quality of the language. The HP R & D team put an intellectual effort into its design that is never likely to be repeated.
Ron goes on to say how he regrets the impact that the introduction of the Windows operating system had on the market for PCs and conversely on the use of dedicated programmable desk-top computers for engineers and scientists. He said: “I greatly regret the effect that its had, both upon the world and upon such devices. I believe that there is still a very strong place for dedicated mathematical programming computing engines with keyboards designed for that environment.
Proper research and development establishments such as AERE, Harwell, RAE, Farnborough, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, etc used programmable desk-top computers by the dozens. At Harwell, I was there so frequently that they provided me with a dedicated refrigerator to keep milk for my tea and coffee in and I was treated like a member of staff.”
Always be Inquisitive
Asked whether he ever had a career plan or can offer any advice to anyone thinking of IT as a career, Ron says: “I can’t offer any advice, because it all happened for me by accident. I seemed to have always been in the right place at the right time. I never had a career plan. I’ve always had an extremely inquisitive mind, right from when I was less than four years old. I stick my nose into all sorts of things that other people wouldn’t dream of. Even in mathematics, I study what I call digit by digit transcendental function algorithms where you generate numerical values of single parameter functions digit by digit in a way slightly akin to division. There are few mathematicians who would even recognise the terminology, let alone know what they are. (I should add that they were the basis of Wang’s algorithms and also those of the designers of the HP 9100 desktop programmable machine and also of HPs subsequent pocket calculators) I also study a geometrical topic which I call ‘Hexlets’ (associated with a particular variety of circle packing & with logarithmic spirals) try looking up those topics on the internet.”
The same sort of thing goes for me with particle & cosmological physics and with political and cultural history.
Interviewed by Tom Abram
Transcribed by Susan Nicholls
Abstracted by Lynda Feeley