S. J. Farthing

www.farthing.me.uk

Technical interests

Early interests

I was always interested in science and technology, and particularly those things which I could do myself with a modest and affordable amount of equipment at home. My earliest scientific interest was chemistry from the age of about 10. I was also keen on photography and had a reasonably good 35mm camera from quite an early age and later went on to do some photographic processing (in black and white).

At school I did well at chemistry up to GCE O-level, but became more interested in physics and mathematics which I did at A-level.

Electronics

At about the age of 16 I started to get interested in electronics. Traditionally the only electronics hobbyists were working with radio of some sort. That was not really my interest. There was something of a new movement in hobby electronics with magazines to cater for it which were not just about radio. There was audio for a start, but other things, largely electronic novelties. My first interest was in an article in Practical Electronics to build an electronic flash gun for photography. I bought the magazine and got interested in the whole subject. I experimented with electronic components including light sensitive devices and was particularly interested in controlling equipment electrically and remotely.

Audio

Being a big fan of pop music I wanted to get good quality record playing equipment. With this in mind, just before I went to university I built a stereo amplifier for my own use and connected up a stereo record deck. This was quite an unusual thing to do at the time with most people having all-in-one record players.

The idea of being able to record music from the radio appealed to me. At some stage I had an old valve tape recorder but didn't know how to record directly from a radio without using a microphone (which was what most tape recorder owners did). Around the time of my first year at university I bought a good Sony stereo tape deck. (TC350 or similar). When I went back to university I took it with me. At university I met others who were interested in Hi-fi and learnt a lot. I had previously believed that good sound quality was something only an expert could recognise, but began to realise that there were clear improvements in the sound if good equipment was used. Much of my leisure time at university was spent in the company of people studying electronics and who were interested in music and audio.

Later I got interested in the design of transistor amplifiers, particularly the power amplifier stage. There was still a belief among hi-fi enthusiasts that valve amplifiers sounded better even though the technical specification of a transistor amplifier might be better. When I left university and moved back to Yorkshire I read a lot about amplifier design, especially in Wireless World, and built one or two amplifiers from designs published in the electronics magazines. I also experimented with designs of my own.

Computers

In the 60's and 70's computers were horribly expensive and large enough to fill a room. I was fortunate at university to have the use of the main computer but commercially, computer time was charged at a rate of many tens of pounds per minute. I knew that once I finished my course I would no longer have the luxury of being able to play around with my own programming ideas. The idea of having a computer for personal use was out of the question.

When integrated circuits became cheaply available in the mid 70's I set out to learn about them, particularly operational amplifiers and digital ICs such as TTL. Then when microprocessors became available the possibility of having my own computer became viable.

In 1978 the Sinclair MK 14 was released.

It was advertised in electronics magazines and sold by mail order for around 45 as a kit. Probably Sinclair's first computer. About 1980 a work collegue offered me one which he had built but been unable to get to work properly. I bought it and managed to get it working. It had just 256 bytes of RAM!

Around this time there were a number of projects published in electronics magazines for similar microprocessor development systems and small computers. I set out to design my own based on a 6502, and succeeded in building it. I used the MK 14 to program the EPROM with the help of extra circuitry which I added.

At this time there were some very small computers available for enthusiasts, but even these were quite expensive. The first user-friendly home computer was the Sinclair ZX80, which is now quite rare. It was soon followed by the ZX81, but it was still quite expensive. Soon after this, about 1982 the Commodore Vic 20 came out. It had about 4K of RAM and a dedicated cassette deck for data storage.

I moved to Portsmouth and got established, working at Marconi Defence Systems.

Now home computers were coming down in price and I bought a second hand Vic 20 in about 1984 for about 50. I did a lot of programming in Basic, and wrote a program to edit 6502 assembly language.

Assembly language, and especially machine code is very compact and does not need much computer resources to write quite large programs. When writing in assembly language, suddenly a small computer becomes a big computer!

Later I got a Dragon computer, British made and based on the Tandy Color Computer. This had 32K of RAM and used an external audio cassette recorder to store data. It used the Motorola 6809 processor, one of the best 8 bit processors ever to be made before 16 bit and higher processors took over. I bought a commercial assembler called 'Alldream' and did a lot of programming using it. I was interested in programming at low-level, closely interfacing with the hardware of the machine.

I was doing a lot of programming at work, and I recognised the advantage of being able to type properly.

I used the Dragon to learn to touch type with a very good program for the purpose. It was based on a 'proper' typing course, previously implemented in printed form, but now made available as a computer version. I continued to practice touch typing while I was programming at work, and soon became proficient.

The Dragon had a good quality keyboard but in the course of my touch typing I noticed that the keyboard was not consistent in the way it dealt with key-rollover, i.e. when more than one key is momentarily pressed. I set out to write low level software to scan the keyboard and deal with this in a superior way. I also wrote software to improve the cassette I/O and eventually a complete text editor which used my own keyboard and cassette software. I also wrote encryption software and added this to the text editor.

I also experimented with interfacing computers to each other and to other electronic equipment.

Also around this time, the early to mid 80's the IBM PC was beginning to evolve. It was horribly expensive, priced in thousands of pounds I think. A typical early PC's had only a single floppy drive and 256K of RAM.

In 1988 I changed jobs and went to work at Wayne Kerr where we used the IBM PC. This was the first time I had used one.

I bought a Tandy 1000EX and started learning to use the MS DOS operating system. It was the first computer I ever had which had a proper operating system, rather than the built-in Basic language of earlier home computers. It was still quite difficult to use for any kind of high level programming and I did a lot of programming in 8086 assembly language which could all be done using a single floppy disk. Soon after this I got an older, second hand Tandy 1000 with a 10Megabyte hard disk drive.

It was now about 1990. Most of my work in the 80's was with automatic test equipment. This was a mix of electronics and programming. The electronics was quite interesting, but the programming was still locked in a time-warp of 'legacy' languages which were very high level, not well structured, and totally unsatisfying from a programmer's point of view. With my home computer I could at last program in Pascal, which was similar to what I learnt at university 20 years earlier. This was the first time I had been able to use those programming skills at home.

I bought Borland's Turbo C/C++ and learnt the C language in my own time. Much of this was learning particular requirements of programming for the PC, i.e. dealing with screen displays and handling disk files.

Electronics and Music

I had had a small reed organ in the mid 60's but never really learnt to play it. Electronic keyboards were being developed. Initially these were organs, and some of the electroncs magazines published designs for home construction. However it was a big project and expensive. One of the magazines which featured organs was Electronics Today International, (ETI). Maplin also were a big supplier of components and kits.

Organs were partially superseded by synthesisers and these were also offered for home construction from around 1970. It was all very interesting but the early synthesisers were very expensive, had tuning problems, and could only play one note at a time.

Some time in the late 80's I became interested again in playing the keyboard. After first buying an old Colorsound electronic piano, I bought a Yamaha DX 27 synthesiser. I think I paid about 300 for it! I was impressed with the huge amount of settings which could be done on it to alter the sounds. I was also very pleased with the ability to tune the whole instrument very accurately, and also the ability to transpose the whole instrument to any key. These things solved many of the old disadvantages of traditional keyboard instruments.

I soon upgraded my keyboard to a Yamaha DX7 Mk II which I really liked and still have. These keyboards have a MIDI interface and I looked into the MIDI standards, and designed and built a MIDI interface for my computer. This did not operate in real-time, but I could use it to transfer machine settings between the keyboard and a computer, and hence to disk.

For several years in the early to mid 90's I began my own business working at home and was able to combine my interests with my work. This was a very satisfying time as far as my work was concerned. My work and my hobbies were becoming one. Much of my time was spent doing electronic servicing of amplification equipment for musicians. Most of my work came from one local music shop, but there was work from elsewhere too. It included the repair of valve amplifiers, and high-powered transistor amplifiers. I found my knowledge of audio electronics was rare and sought-after.

I continued doing a lot of research and development towards writing computer software for the PC. I furthered my knowledge of C and the PC considerably. I developed a number of software products for the PC. Some of my programming was for the processing of MIDI data in various ways on the PC. and the Atari ST. Some of this was real-time processing of 'live' midi signal flows from keyboards. Some was the processing of standard MIDI files.

The software industry was advancing greatly. Windows was beginning to take over everything on the PC. (Windows 3.1 was introduced in 1993). At the time Windows programming was very complicated. For much of the time since Windows 3.1 was introduced my PC was not sufficiently modern or powerful to even run Windows itself, and I certainly couldn't justify the expense of a better PC, the Windows operating system itself, and the programming software for developing Windows applications. Typical products available were Microsoft Visual C++ and Borland C++ and cost hundreds of pounds at the time.

Recent Times

From around 1997 the demands of work became too great to afford time to play around with technology at home. Also from 2000 my work was very satisfying technically. I was working with many things which interested me in the field of automation. This was a combination of programming, electronics, robotics, and fibre optics. My activity in my spare time was mainly confined to the use of my PC and Internet. I did some early web site design.

Nowadays there is much less motivation to design and build things for oneself whether it be electronics hardware or computer software. These things are now much better than they once were, and also much cheaper. Having seen the technology evolve I have a great appreciation for some of the wonderful electronic equipment which is now available, and software which does what you want it to at last. Digital technologies in sound, photography and now video are all of interest to me. The combination of digital technologies and computers have made things possible which I would never have anticipated.

I am now more interested in being a user of technical equipment. I am still very interested in sound recording, but now am particularly interested in making original live recordings of my own rather than just reproducing commercial material. I also enjoy applying my computing skills to creative artistic work and am particularly interested in electronic music and graphical work including web site design. My interest in photography has undergone a revival with the availability of digital cameras and the ability to combine photography with computing and Internet.


The following web site is a sort of extension to this page and has an emphasis on topics of interest to me.

www.technology1.co.uk