Electronics Devices, software, explosive devices and developing political awareness
In 1963, Philips introduced the “EE” electronics kit for kids featuring what were then quite exciting semiconductors such as the OC45 and OC71/2. This provided a means to experiment with simple electronics without having access to a soldering iron.
I’m not sure if it was the EE10 or the EE20 kit, either way, but my dad bought me the kit as a birthday present. this was the start. I recall being quite excited at the prospect of being able to jam the neighbour’s radio! All of this was done on an extreme budget of course my first lighting controller used a transistor (they used to be in small glass tubes- OC71 I think) which had been through a spin-dryer to remove the heat transfer paste and make it light-sensitive!!!
I think it was as much a need to find out how things work – as I also developed a keen interest in making explosives – though given the sad state we’re in today, I’m sure if I published the names of the chemicals I’d get banged away in jail – suffice it to say, at one time or another as a teen I made a whole variety of dangerous chemicals and I still have all my bits. Most of the chemicals are now banned because we’re all potential terrorists, don’t you know.
As a youngster I also developed a keen interest in photography. My dad bought me a half-decent camera (Pentax SLR) and by the time I was done I was buying army surplus chemicals and paper and doing everything from taking pictures (with real cameras and also a room-sized pin-hole camera) to developing (from recipes, not pre-mixed stuff) and printing them. When not doing that, I wrote countless articles for the electronics press, mostly for fun. Magazine names such as Practical Electronics, Radio Constructor, Practical Wireless and Elector come to mind.
The car devices article (image upper left) above used light-sensing and averaging technology and a solid-state switch to offer completely automatic car lighting LONG before this became standard on high-end cars.
I recall one design (published in Practical Electronics) for an alarm system, led to me being contacted by a local flying instructor called Bob Barnfather who wanted to get into the security industry – and so in exchange for designing simple alarm products for him, he taught me how to fly light aircraft. This developed into a friendly relationship – which was nice but I’ve not seen him for many years – I should imagine he is long gone as he was a lot older than me!
ADVEN-80 – A system for creating Adventure Games on the PC
Having been introduced to large computers by a pal of mine, Dave Wilson who worked in the computing department of Swan Hunter in Wallsend, I was then exposed to the original Crowther adventure on the mainframes of Newcastle University during my time with Newcastle’s first computer "club" (NPCS – Newcastle Personal Computing Society) in which I was the secretary and wrote the monthly newsletter.
I remember (after having been envious of computers that Americans could build and which were advertised in the likes of DC comics but not available here in the UK), building and then programming the first UK-commercially available Microprocessor which Clive Sinclair made available – the INS8060-based MK14 which was introduced in 1977, rapidly moving onto:
- 8080 – a not-very-nice 8-bit chip that needed multiple voltages
- 8085 – much better – single-voltage 8-bit processor
- Z80 – WAY better 8-bit processor which was powerful enough to write a complete adventure system in assembly language – see Dr Dobbs picture below
- The PIC and a dozen other chips along with platforms I owned at one time or another including the Nascom-1 (which I built from scratch, Z80 based), ZX-80, ZX-81, Spectrum, Commodore Pet, Acorn Atom, Amstrad, Tandy TRS-80 (GREAT Basic), Atari, Amiga, Commodore-64, Victor-9000, Exidy Sorcerer, S100 and finally to the PC.
For most of that time, the tools available were limited to assembly language and simple versions of BASIC (with one exception) and I started to take a deep interest in programming, the very idea that machines might one day emulate our thinking processes…. I found instantly irresistible.
Of course one gets side-tracked in hobbies and the first output of my fanatical interest was a publication in the local club magazine of my own FORTH language interpreter called SPIL (Simple Programming Interpreted Language) which achieved local recognition (for those who’ve never hear of the language it uses the strangest notation… for example 2+2= is represented as 2 2 + =).
In 1980, for fun, I wrote an article on some ideas for using binary trees to develop a simple AI system allowing the computer to ask the user questions and provide multiple answers depending on responses, in order to narrow down an answer to a problem.
This was a real challenge at the time but an eye-opener as it showed me the potential of PCs for artificial intelligence.
I could see the implications for gaming and education and first wrote an article for the US publication – David H Ahls’ Creative computing, describing the use of binary trees to make really simple artificial intelligence programs.
Two days before Christmas 1980 I received a cheque for $150 from the U.S. publisher and the article "Fantasia" appeared shortly thereafter. As you can imagine at that time, at that age, I was utterly delighted!
Spurred on by this success, I developed a complete system for creating Crowther-like adventures for the Z80 Microprocessor and was rewarded by the publication of the (large) article, covering many pages, in the prestigious "Dr Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia”. Many years later the magazine survived as “Dr Dobbs Journal” and is now I believe it is just called "Dr Dobbs".
Peter D. Scargill : Adven-80, An Advanced Adventure Development System; Dr. Dobb’s Journal, Number 61 (November 1981).
Links to the original article for those interested in the mechanics… are here:
- Source code for Adven-80 by Peter D. Scargill, plus a sample game by Robert W. Rasch. Requires a Z80-based CP/M system or emulator.
- Source code, manual and sample game for Adven-80, written by Peter D. Scargill. Requires a Z80-based CP/M system or emulator.
At around this time I started to develop a strong interest in higher level computer languages and packages, having started at the bottom with operating systems such as DOS –predecessors such as MDOS and migrating through using DOS, CP/M and all version of MS Windows not to mention the odd Linux package, along the way I gained more than a passing knowledge of Forth, Algol, Sam76, APL, Pascal and a load of other popular-at-the-time computer languages and with a small exposure to Cobol and Fortran. As time moved on my language of choice became C and its successors. I still use C and variants in hardware devices to this day.
When I finally left the family engineering business around the time of the recession, it was to help out as a consultant to a Newcastle-based company, Eltech Research, who’s employees included Aidan Ruff and Keith Kenny. My special interest at the time was computer graphics.
Around October 1982, the company’s first product "Star Video" hit the market and was featured in most of the trade magazines at the time. This machine was the first ever video equivalent of the audio jukebox – using VHS tapes. At £3,500 the first machine was not cheap and in fact we’d not really invented it as it used an American educational tape controller put together with some glue logic which Aidan and Keith had developed to handle cash input – and a graphics system I developed using a "Nascom" computer, a Z80-based machine which I just happened to know a lot about. That first American-based machine used only one VHS tape and took ages to find selections. That not-withstanding, we took it all over the place, starting at the World’s Fair in Tokyo (my first trip out of the UK) shortly to be followed by many more overseas trips to America, Germany (Pfaffenhofen) and many other international destinations.
That first product was developed by us for Eltech – which became a subsidiary of V.I. Leisure which was in turn owned by VibroPlant PLC and at that time VI were very keen on promising the earth to Aidan and I but pretty crap at delivery due to the people in charge being less than ideal – and enough of that, I took on Aidan as partner in my own company and we put together our very own creation, a Z80 based, twin-VCR system using our own multi-tasking operating system. The product and it’s successors were taken all over the world and it was at one demonstration I was supporting in the USA that I met Maureen, in the town of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania.
The demise of the jukebox was eventually hastened by major Japanese investment in video laser disks (as they were failing to sell them for the domestic market), combined with the greed and short-sightedness of the sales people we worked with, which led Aidan and I to go further afield but not before developing a range of these products under different names including a sleek wall-mounted unit with a hideaway unit containing the twin video players and the necessary microprocessor-based control electronics. The advert above looks corny now but at the time it was state of the art. The backlit design was largely mine as I was convinced that people were most interested in the aesthetics than the internal design – this proved to be correct and is still a valid thought today.
"SoftSpeak" was the first widely-available product to allow speech playback on the PC, created by Aidan and I, entirely in software using the PC’s primitive tone-generating hardware to produce quite legible speech – this led to developments allowing single-chip microprocessors to record and playback speech – one result of this is the award from Arizona Microchip that still sits on my wall, presented on 27th November 1990. This had all started off with the desire to get bog-standard PC speakers to speak – Aidan had figured out how to use the very limited PWM capabilities of the PC to do this and I developed the PIC equivalent along with much of the PC support software.
The SoftSpeak product eventually featured on the front cover of Practical Computing, followed by a string of follow-ups in subsequent months.
After that came a series of home-control products with the cover name of APPCON Home Control – which featured in just about every PC magazine in the western world and at least one in Russia!
Overseas magazines such as Compute! and BYTE come to mind.
I became very familiar with design tools such as MPLAB, PICSTART, ICEPIC and the PCB design tool Eagle (which I still use occasionally today). The Appcon system could route Softspeak sound through the premises thanks to the simple PWM we used and could be switched on and off by a single transistor. That, mains control, temperature sensing and more led to a general purpose, low cost home control product that ultimately was beaten because it was not wireless and because we were simply not good enough at producing marketing hype.
Other products: I co-developed with Aidan a machine vision system for the tobacco industry, access control systems for Videx Security and a video advertising system called “Carousel” which came from an initial desire to make a terminal emulator. We also developed all manner of specials – I recall one lady having us design a remote feeder for feral cats… and she bought several for use all over the world – the list goes on.
We also did a considerable amount of work for the gaming industry, developing solid-state replacements for mechanical coin counters for the likes of Nobles Amusements and learning a lot about that industry in the process. My first trip to Blackpool was to support our designs in their Coral Island installation along the sea front in Blackpool.
At around this time, Aidan was developing a keen interest in Conservative politics while I was more interested in small business issues, having joined the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). I met major politicians of the time by both routes. I’ve photos with William Hague, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and David Cameron, Vince Cable….
I first took on the role of IT Director of the FSB in 2001. That role ended in 2015 when I ripped up my election papers walked away due to changes in the organisation with which I disagreed, after I had held the post for 14 years uncontested, the only director to achieve such a record in this century.
During those years I attended ESBA (European Small Business Alliance) meetings in Europe and for 2 years help the post of vice-chairman of a technical part of the EU ESCO project in Brussels – specifically the ICT service activities group. The website I developed from scratch for the FSB operated for over 15 years without significant issue, an achievement of which I’m quite proud – the mail system I designed from scratch sent many, many millions of emails to members. In April 2000, vice-chairman John Emmins had this to say of the FSB’s collective efforts:
“History was made last month when James Twining, of GroupTrade. Com signed on the dotted line as the FSB’s 150,000th member. John Emmins FSB Vice-Chairman and Recruitment Chairman said, "The success of the FSB has been the result of sheer hard work by all concerned, volunteer and professional staff combined"…. [and] concluded, "In recent years we have passed a number of very important membership milestones- it is only 3 years since we achieved 100,000 members. Our next target will of course be 200,000".
That the organisation did, achieving 215,000 members at peak through collective hard work and involvement. Sadly at the time I decided to give it all a miss, membership was on the decline.
Today my interests still include electronics and software – I’m a dab hand with various modern chips including a modern day wonder the ESP8266. I maintain a very popular tech blog – http://tech.scargill.net and thanks to that I’ve been invited to shows at MIT in Boston, I’ve worked on MOD projects in Northern Spain and I’ve met many new friends. Modern kit I’m well versed in include the Raspberry Pi, various FriendlyArm units such as the M1,M2 and others, the LeGuitar units, Roseapple Pi, Banana Pi and many others (all detailed in the blog) and I spend much of my time working with Node-Red (one of the best software tools to appear for years) for my home control projects – with mostly Linux-based control systems.
The pictures with famous people
Some pics below with (then) famous people:
WAY, WAY back:
Originally as a teenager I worked in the family engineering business and in the course of cleaning out the (sheet metal store) workshops we found some wonderful old documents. I’ve some scans of old invoices/receipts from France and Company back in 1900 and thereabouts you might find interesting. See below…
We also found a whole host of old brass oil train lanterns with huge glass lenses that the company used to manufacture before WW2 – sadly no photos remain of this stuff.