Reinventing Myself: From Hardware to Software

 

OCVS Booth, Windows Solutions Conference 1993

OCVS Booth, Windows Solutions Conference 1993

The 1993 photo above shows me effectively embarking on a new career, and not quite sure what I’d started! I was at my business’s own booth, during the first trade show where I was promoting my own product.

Of course, I’d attended, and even worked at, many trade shows prior to that, but I’d always been there as a representative of someone else’s company or organization.

Short-Sighted Employers

The series of events that led to my first attempt to develop and sell my own software provided a thought-provoking lesson in the tragic short-sightedness of many employers and businesses. Until then, I had implicitly but naively assumed that, as technology changed, my employers would “keep their eyes on the ball” and change their products (and my role in the organization) accordingly.

Far from it, in reality! Most employers seemed to think of their employees as fitting into neat, predefined boxes, and their view was that the box (and the employee within it) should stay the same for ever more. Their attitude seemed to be that, if they had once hired an oil-lamp lighter, then that person should continue to light the oil lamps for ever more, even if oil lamps had in the meantime become obsolete!

As a result of my education and industry experience, I felt that I could discern something about the way computer technology would evolve in the future, and it seemed obvious that I should attempt to evolve in the same direction. Unfortunately, as explained below, not only were my attempts to redefine my role not supported by my employer, but they even actively resisted my attempts to change!

Going with the Flow (or Trying to)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my goal in obtaining an electronics degree had been to get a job working “in video”. I’d come to consider that as a desirable career as a result of one day’s teenage experience, when my friend Graham Roberts took me along with him to his shift as a Continuity Announcer for Yorkshire Television.

I really hadn’t considered electronics for any other reason. Unlike some other boys, I was not an electronics hobbyist, and I didn’t even have a “microcomputer” to tinker with.

When I started my video engineering career, the reality was that real-time digital video processing required special hardware. General-purpose computers simply weren’t even fast enough to stream video in real time, let alone modify the pixels.

However, as processing speeds increased, computers became able to handle digital video in real time. As a result, it became possible to write software to process video in ways that would previously have required specialized hardware.

I wanted to move over to some type of software development, but my employer at the time (Media Vision) seemed to be trying to restrict me to hardware development only. My manager apparently decided (without consulting me) that I should become an integrated circuit design engineer, and bought development equipment for me to do that!

Frustrated by their short-sightedness, I quit my job and started my own business, initially with the intention of producing video in some form.

(As things turned out, Media Vision collapsed quite spectacularly some time after I left, so my decision to quit seemed very smart in retrospect!)

No Video Available

Oddly enough, despite my prior programming experience, when I started my own business I did not set out to develop a software product! My initial project was to develop an instructional video, which would be distributed on standard VHS tapes.

I’d created a “treatment” for my video, but I did not myself possess video cameras and editing equipment. It seemed fortunate that a friend of mine had simultaneously started his own video editing business, so we agreed to co-operate on the production. Unfortunately, as the months went by, it seemed that he was never quite ready to begin shooting, and I reluctantly realized that I was going to have to find another way to deliver my product.

My job at Media Vision had had me designing PC hardware for the new “multimedia” technology (which basically involved adding audio and video capabilities to PCs). It struck me, therefore, that perhaps I could create some kind of “multimedia computer tutorial” as a substitute for the planned video.

I had learned to program while at college, and as I related in a previous post, even before that, I had undergone an aptitude test that indicated that I would make a good programmer. Nonetheless, the only complete programs I’d written at that point were small utilities for my own use, or that of my colleagues, when processing data as part of our hardware design jobs. I had also written “embedded” software for custom hardware, but I had never tried to create what is called a “shrink-wrap” software application. Shrink-wrap software is a standalone product that can be sold to consumers, who then install it on their own computers and expect it to run with little or no further involvement from me.

Creating a shrink-wrap software application seemed like a significant challenge, and I wasn’t sure that I could actually do it. Nonetheless, there seemed to be little alternative, so I sat down to learn a multimedia software creation tool called Asymetrix Toolbook.

My First App

The eventual result was “Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets”, which was a software application for Windows computers (what would now be called an “app”). The initial screen looked like this:

PC Secrets Software Title

PC Secrets Software Title

Unfortunately, sales of the product were not great, which led me to seek consulting work. Although I did accept a couple of hardware design consulting projects, it was obvious that much more work was available for software consultants.

Fortunately, I discovered that the fact that I’d just created my first software “app” qualified me for consideration as a Windows software consultant! That led to many years of work for me as a consulting software developer.

Do Anything You Want to Do, But Don’t Expect Our Support!

That was how I learned that I couldn’t rely on my employer to have my best interests at heart, nor even to be concerned about my career development. It had been clear to me that the future of video (for me, at least) lay in software, but my employer would not support my ambitions.

While I think that most self-help advice along the lines of “do what you want” is simply naïve, I did find that, in order to achieve my goals, I had to define those goals myself, then actually invest considerable time and effort of my own to achieve the results I desired.

Complexity from Simplicity

Commodore776M

Commodore 776M Calculator: Our Family’s First Computer!

This flashback is slightly unusual, in that, instead of discussing an old photograph, I’m thinking about something that, back in the 1970s, seemed to me to be a technological miracle. Learning how it worked, and how to design even more complex devices, provided a valuable lesson in how amazingly complex systems can be built from simple components. The image above is my drawing of the first “digital computer” that my family ever owned: a Commodore 776M calculator.

This article explains how, in the space of less than 10 years, I went from regarding computers as mysterious marvels, to learning not only how they work, but also how to design and build them. I even obtained patents for my own new digital circuitry inventions. I’ve tried to keep the technical discussion as basic as possible, while still trying to show how complex systems are built up from simple components.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was at school I studied Advanced-Level Math and Physics, but much of what we were taught, even in Physics, was very theoretical, and it wasn’t at all clear how the principles applied to real-world technology, or indeed how real devices worked. To learn how real systems worked, I often had to resort to teaching myself.

Computers as Black Boxes

The same was true for understanding how computers worked. I was very excited when I was told that, as part of the Physics syllabus, we were going to learn to understand computers, but I was quite disappointed by what we were actually taught.

The teacher explained to us that digital computers use binary arithmetic (the value of every digit can only be 0 or 1), and that computers are built from simple circuits such as so-called “AND” and “OR” gates. The binary 0 and 1 values are represented in the computer by “low” and “high” voltages respectively.

We were able to play around with pluggable electronic “black box” modules that implemented these functions, and we confirmed the results of combining them. We could use Boolean Logic to combine the outputs from these gates.

But I still thought, “How do you get from that to a digital calculator?”

The answer (as I was to learn later on) is by combining thousands or millions of those basic gates together to make devices of increasing complexity.

Even after a career of designing digital electronic systems and the software associated with them, I still find it really astonishing how extremely complex devices can be created from such simple basic blocks.

Building Everything from NAND Gates

There are three basic types of digital computer logic circuit or “gate”:

  1. NOT gate. The output level is the opposite of the single input level.
  2. OR gate. The output level is high if any of the input levels is high. A NOR gate is the same but with the output inverted (i.e., an OR gate plus a NOT gate).
  3. AND gate. The output level is high only if all the input levels are high. A NAND gate is the same but with the output inverted (i.e., an AND gate plus a NOT gate).

It turns out that all three basic types of digital computer circuit can be built by combining one basic type of circuit, the NAND Gate.

A Real NAND Gate

My Advanced-Level Physics studies did not include electronic circuit design, of course, so it would have been unreasonable to expect to be taught exactly how these gates were implemented. I learned the details later on while studying for my Electronics degree.

The actual circuit for a real NAND Gate, implemented as Transistor-Transistor Logic (TTL) is as shown below. This is the diagram for one quarter of the Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate (because the actual chip contained 4 such circuits).

Circuit Diagram of Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate

Circuit Diagram of Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate

At the time that I began designing hardware, during the 1980s, TTL logic such as this was still the standard way of implementing many designs. I used these gates myself for many designs, starting with my undergraduate final-year project at Imperial College.

To avoid all the circuit details, the entire NAND gate can be represented with a symbol, as below.

NANDGateSymbol

NAND Gate in Symbolic Form

The diagram below shows how the connections on the symbol correspond to those in the actual circuit.

7400TTLCircuit2

TI 7400 NAND Gate: Symbol & Circuit

Memory from NAND Gates

To create a useful computer, you need to be able to store numbers in some type of memory.

It turns out that, by combining together a few NAND gates, you can create a simple memory for one bit of information. The combination is called a bistable circuit (aka a flip-flop), because (while the power is on) it remains in one of two stable states until an input causes it to change state. This allows you to store the outputs from logic circuits. Each bistable circuit allows you to store 1 bit of binary data.

Here is a diagram of a bistable 1-bit memory circuit, constructed entirely from NAND gates.

DataFlipFlopNANDs1

Data Flip-Flop (1-bit Memory) built from NAND Gates

The “Clock” input in this circuit can be obtained from another simple circuit constructed from NAND gates; the astable circuit, whose output continually oscillates between low and high states.

By lining up 8 bistables in parallel, you can store one byte of data.

From Gates to Functions

Well, that seemed simple enough, but I still didn’t understand how to get from that to a digital calculator.

Building a set of flip-flops gives you a way to store a number, but how do you combine numbers together? After all, the device is called a “computer” so how does it actually “compute”?

Well it turns out that you can also construct arithmetic circuits from—you’ve guessed it!—NAND gates. For example, you can build an adding circuit (called a Full Adder) to add together two 1-bit numbers, as shown below.

1-Bit Full Adder Circuit built from NAND Gates

1-Bit Full Adder Circuit built from NAND Gates

The circuit adds two 1-bit numbers, A and B, and accepts a carry-in bit from another adder (Cin). It generates the sum of the bits and the Cin  at S, and also a carry-out at Cout. By arranging any number of these adding circuits in parallel, and connecting their Cin inputs and Cout outputs to each other, you can build an adding circuit for numbers of any size.

Displaying Numbers

When you’ve constructed all the circuitry to allow users to type in numbers and compute the results, you still need a way to display the result to the user, because your calculator will be fairly useless without that.

Those early calculators used “seven segment” displays, which are sets of light-emitting diodes arranged so that, by switching segments on and off, any digit between 0 and 9 can be displayed in a human-readable form.

SevenSegmentDisplay

Seven-Segment Digital Display

So, how do you make the segments light up to display a particular number? Well, as you may have guessed by now, the answer is another logic circuit, called a Seven-Segment Display Driver. Texas Instruments also produced an integrated circuit to provide this function; the 7447 IC.

Complexity in Biology

Learning how complex computers (such as the device on which you’re reading this article) can be built from large numbers of very simple components made it easier for me to understand how the same principle could apply in other fields.

For example, in biology, evolution has created incredibly complex organisms (such as humans) from huge numbers of very basic cellular components. It’s much easier to understand such processes when you know how other complex systems are created, even though the results remain astonishing in all cases.

St. Martins School of Art: A Life-Changing Experience

Life Drawing Sketch, St Martins School of Art, 1982

Life Drawing Sketch, St Martins School of Art, 1982

The illustration above shows one of my very earliest “from life” pencil sketches. It was done during an Illustration class at St. Martins School of Art, London, during 1982. Strangely, prior to that, I had never participated in a formal “life drawing” art class anywhere.

My tutor at that class was an artist called Ian Ribbons. I’m ashamed to say that I knew nothing about Mr. Ribbons at the time, and it was only many years later that I discovered that he was in fact a successful and famous illustrator in his own right.

Developing a Technique

In earlier posts, I’ve exhibited a few later examples of my figure drawings from live models. Those examples were drawn when I’d already gained some experience of life drawing, and some confidence with my preferred technique. However, that knowledge was hard-won, and, as I’ve previously indicated, I seriously lacked confidence in my figure drawing skills until I reached my early twenties.

My lack of competence wasn’t entirely due to my own shortcomings. The inadequacy of what was offered to me as “Art education” at school did nothing to reinforce my confidence or help me to improve. We were not given any classes in drawing the human figure, ever, even as part of the so-called “Advanced Level” course, which seems appalling in retrospect. Occasionally we were given a homework assignment to “do a self-portrait” or “draw some people”, but with no accompanying guidance or help, so inevitably the results were disappointing and demotivating.

(I’m aware that I wasn’t the only one to suffer from this “teachers shouldn’t try to teach” approach to education. There seemed to be a weird but common attitude that trying to inculcate drawing or aesthetic expertise was somehow tyrannizing innocent students, who should instead be left to wallow in ignorance. The result was that we now encounter many “artists” who seem unable to summon much actual artistic skill, which must surely be frustrating for those who are aware of it.)

It was only when I got to Imperial College, and volunteered to be the Publicity Officer of the H G Wells Society, that it dawned on me that I might have “bitten off more than I could chew”. I realized that I was probably going to have to draw people, for public display, and make it look good! It somehow occurred to me that some professional instruction might help, so I sought out the course at St Martins.

Ian Ribbons

As I mentioned above, my tutor at St. Martins was Ian Ribbons. Years after taking the Illustration class there, I stumbled across a copy of a 1963 book called Illustrators at Work, at a secondhand book shop. The book’s dustcover is shown below.

Illustrators at Work, 1963

Illustrators at Work, 1963

As the cover shows, the book was compiled by the famous British illustrator Robin Jacques (who was the brother of the actress Hattie Jacques), but it includes biographies and samples of the work of many other British artists. There, on page 45, was a section about Ian Ribbons, complete with the following biography:

Ian Ribbons Biography from "Illustrators at Work"

Ian Ribbons Biography from “Illustrators at Work”

Incidentally, the same book also includes a section on Ronald Searle, another well-known British artist, who happened to be a bunkmate of my mother’s first husband in the Japanese POW camp at Changi, Singapore, during World War II. I’ll have more to say about him in a future post!

Benefits of the St Martins Class

There’s no doubt that Ian Ribbons’ guidance was excellent, and it helped me gain some vital artistic confidence, in a way that I had not remotely anticipated. Without that inspiration, I probably would not have produced much of the publicized artwork that I subsequently created while I was a student in London.

For the first time ever, I felt that I had the ability to produce work that could credibly be displayed in a public setting without inducing (unintended) laughter. In retrospect, not all of what I produced in those days was good, but at least I wasn’t paralyzed by perfectionist concerns.

I must add that another major benefit of the Illustration class at St. Martins was simply the opportunity to work alongside other not-so-famous, but very competent, professional artists. There wasn’t really any program of formal instruction, but each of us was working on our own drawings and developing our own techniques.

If I saw another artist using a technique that interested me, I could simply lean across and ask, “How did you do that?”

That was, in fact, how I learned the ballpoint pen technique that I used for the portrait of Pallab Ghosh. Another artist at the class had already used that technique (for a portrait of actor Roger Moore, as I recall), so I simply asked him about it, then tried it myself. I doubt that I would ever have thought of such a technique without his example to look at!

Pallab Ghosh as "Super-Ed" (Superman)

Pallab Ghosh as “Super-Ed” (Superman)

I don’t think that I have ever before or since found myself working among such a concentrated group of talented artists. Presumably that was due to the location: we were in Central London.

Jeopardizing My Degree?

When my tutor at Imperial College learned that I was taking a part-time class at St. Martins, he expressed concern that it could detract from my engineering studies, and possibly even jeopardize my prospects of obtaining a degree! (I was working at Selfridges on Saturdays too, which was also deemed inadvisable.) Fortunately, all those concerns turned out to be nonsense, and I’m really glad now that I took that opportunity to “broaden my horizons”.

The Value of University

 

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

What is the “value of a degree”? We frequently see articles in the media engaging in hand-wringing about the “value of a degree” or the “value of university”. Many such articles make questionable assumptions about the meaning of the word “value”. The real value of a degree, and of the university experience, to any individual, depends on many factors, including the skills, goals and personality of the individual.

There’s the frequently-unspoken question of whether the “value” of the qualification is purely financial, or else has less tangible value to the person possessing it. Do you just treat your entire future life as some kind of balance sheet, where you offset the cost of obtaining the degree against the extra earnings that you think it may bring you? What, also, of the value of the experience of obtaining the degree, and the skills learned during that process?

Finally, there’s the issue of the quality of the institution granting the so-called degree. These range from world-leading universities with established track records, to “Mickey Mouse” colleges that seem to be operating mostly for easy money rather than through any commitment to the furtherance of knowledge.

Each individual must evaluate his or her personal situation, but, as the first member of my family ever to have gone to university, I offer here my own experiences and reflections.

My Own Experience

Thunder over South Kensingtion, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

Thunder over South Kensington, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

In my case, I enjoyed learning for its own sake, and discovering more about how the universe works. (I realize that most of the population do not seem to share this view.)

Despite subsequent disappointments and unanticipated setbacks, I’m glad that I went to university and got the degree that I did. I would not have regretted it even if my degree had not led to better jobs.

Non-Academic Benefits

There are also many benefits to the university experience that are not directly related to courses of study, and those who haven’t had the experience often seem completely unaware of these aspects.

I had many non-academic experiences as a student that would simply never have been available to me had I not gone to university. For example, I became involved in the Student Television Club at Imperial College, which led to my meeting and interviewing many celebrities, such as Michael Palin, Sir Cliff Richard, Paul Eddington, Gordon Jackson, Sir David Attenborough, and so on. What chance would I ever have had to do any of that otherwise?

Now, in response to my comments, some people would point out that “It’s easy for you to say that”, because my degree was free to me, and I even got a grant for my living expenses. Although that was generally true for undergraduate students in Britain at that time, it wasn’t necessarily true for me when I decided to return to university after taking two years “out” in industry. There was no guarantee that I could obtain a grant for the year that the authorities considered “wasted”, although in the end I was persuasive. I do concede, though, that the threat of a long-term financial burden might have made me think again.

I realize that I was incredibly lucky to have obtained my degree free of any financial burden. Whenever I’m feeling how unfair life can be, I always try to remind myself of my good fortune in that regard!

I was also lucky to obtain a place in one of the world’s top ten universities. I must admit that the value of qualifications from low-caliber universities is more questionable.

Learning to Discover

The university academic experience also has benefits beyond what you actually learn while there. My university studies taught me how to do research and how to develop original ideas, which has led to my making many innovations and inventions. Some of the inventions have been patented, and I continue to strive to innovate today in the fields that interest me.

Summary & Recommendations

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Queens Tower, Imperial College, after a snow shower, 1981

Despite the financial concerns, my recommendation would be to try not to view obtaining a degree in purely mercenary terms. If you view the value of a degree and of university experience as being purely financial, then you’ll be missing out on many other tangible benefits.

In my case, one reason that I chose to go back to university after working in industry for a few years was because I realized that, the longer I waited, the more difficult it would become to return and obtain a degree. I decided that, if I went back and graduated, then, even if my qualification turned out to be less useful than I’d anticipated, the worst that would happen would be that I’d wasted a couple of years of my life. On the other hand, if I didn’t go back, I’d continue to be shut out of many jobs that I was quite capable of doing, and I’d never be able to get those years back.

After all, life is not a mechanical process where you press “Start” and then go through a mindless sequence of predictable operations, which inevitably will only culminate in your death. Surely, it’s just as important to enjoy each stage as much as you can, and it’s about appreciating the journey at least as much as the final destination.

Deconstructing the Future

The City of the Future (When I was Ten)

The City of the Future (As I envisaged when I was Ten)

Here’s a “throwback” to a drawing that I produced at the age of ten, to illustrate a story set in “the future”.

Last week, Mary and I went to see the documentary movie Deconstructing Sergeant Pepper, in which Scott Freiman analyzes the musical innovations that went into the creation of the Beatles’ 1967 album*. We both enjoyed the movie, because it doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from technical issues when they’re relevant. The presenter even discussed the Automatic Track Doubling circuit that was used to create echo effects, although he didn’t go so far as to display a circuit diagram!

(* We saw the movie at the Rialto in Sebastopol, but it will be screened again in other theaters around the US, along with other documentaries in the same series.)

Of course, I was just a young boy of six or seven when the Beatles were creating that innovative music, so I didn’t really grasp what was going on in the world around me. In retrospect, I do recall a general mood of optimism and change during those years, but I’m not sure to what extent that was shared by the adults around me, or was simply an aspect of my youth. I’m fairly certain that any such optimistic Zeitgeist was not shared by my parents!

Seeing the “Sergeant Pepper” movie did, however, bring to mind recollections of my own youthful expectations about the future and my role in the world. In 1970, I produced the drawing above to illustrate a story that I was writing at school. My story was ambitiously set in the year 2461, but was inevitably a “product of its time”. The tower I drew was supposed to be a city, but it also happened to be a rocket. The style was clearly inspired by the claims of 1960s-era architects about future buildings, but my innovative design also incorporated the boosters from the first stage of the Saturn V spaceship!

Goldfinger or Glassfinger?

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

Respected architects of the post-war period, such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ernö Goldfinger claimed that twenty-first century cities would be “managed environments,” probably consisting of huge glass-clad skyscrapers. Many of these architects clearly saw the creation of such cities as being socially beneficial.

Goldfinger himself wrote in 1941:

Cities can become centres of civilisation where men and women can live happy lives. The technical means exist to satisfy human needs. The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle but ignorance and wickedness.

Creativity & the Tyranny of Good Intentions

The fact that I was encouraged to spend time writing such a fantastic story at school seems surprising in retrospect. I do recall that, during my primary schooling, there was significant emphasis on “creativity”, in that we were encouraged or even required to write and draw every day.

If that policy was intended to turn all of us into creative adults, it seems to have been an utter failure in most cases! For me, though, it was generally enjoyable and probably beneficial, and I’m only disappointed that the emphasis of our education changed later to uncreative, rote preparation for exams.

The heart of this disconnect was, and still is, that there is a huge gulf between the kind of people that educators want to produce, and the kind of people that employers actually want schools to produce.

I’ve seen evidence that the emphasis on creativity in schools in those days was actually quite new, and stemmed from the “progressive” educational ideas that had been laid out in the Plowden Report, but the schools I attended were not notably progressive. The Church of England school that I was being forced to attend when I produced the story containing this illustration prided itself on being anything but progressive!

The book “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal contains an interesting discussion of the history and consequences of progressive education in Britain.

Revelation in Aylesbury

The Bell Hotel, Aylesbury, with the Buckinghamshire County Offices beyond, in 1980

The Bell Hotel, Aylesbury, with the Buckinghamshire County Offices beyond, in 1980

There have been some occasions in my life when I’ve attempted something that, at the time, seemed to be a failure, but eventually it became apparent that I had gained some unanticipated new insight or skill. One such instance happened at a job interview in 1980, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

I described in a previous post how, having commenced my first full-time “permanent” job at Swifts of Scarborough, I soon came to feel that I was capable of something better (and also hopefully better-paying), and began to look around for more suitable employment.

One field that was recognized as being the “white heat of technology”* in those days was “Computing”, and I wondered whether my math skills would make me a good fit for that daunting new field. Incredible though it may seem now, I’d never actually used a computer (except for a digital calculator) until I went to university. Even though I was working as an Accounts Clerk at an engineering company, there wasn’t a single computer of any kind in the business. Swifts’ accounts department used nothing more sophisticated than electric adding machines.

(* Ironically, Harold Wilson made his “white heat” speech in, of all places, my home town—Scarborough!)

My first brush with computer programming was very disheartening. During the first year engineering course, we were required to write a single computer program. However, we received no instruction in how to do this; apparently we were expected to know already, or to teach ourselves! I found this very difficult and frustrating, and I didn’t seem to achieve good results. I concluded that I probably wasn’t “cut out” for computing, and shouldn’t attempt to pursue it further.

Later, after I’d left Warwick, I discovered that quite a few of my fellow students there had actually obtained A-levels in Computing before starting at university; a subject that wasn’t even on offer in Scarborough! Thus it wasn’t at all surprising that I hadn’t been able to compete well against such students.

Insurance Building on Gatehouse Road, Aylesbury, in 1980

Insurance Building on Gatehouse Road, Aylesbury, in 1980

One of the potential jobs for which I somehow noticed an advertisement was for a “Computer Data Entry Clerk” at an insurance company in Aylesbury. I was warned that my interview would include a “Computer Programming Aptitude” test.

When it came time to take the test, the interviewer explained that there was no time limit. Accuracy was more important than speed. I could take as long as I needed to finish, but typically completion took about 4 hours.

I found that I’d finished and checked my work after about 3 hours, so I went over and handed my paper to the interviewer. He asked me if I was sure that I’d finished everything and done as much as I could, and repeated that there was no time limit for the test. I confirmed that I had completed everything. He gave me a skeptical look and accepted the paper, then I walked out.

I heard nothing further until weeks later, when I received a letter from the company, informing me that they were not offering me the Data Entry Clerk job. The letter went on to explain that I had done so well on the test that I “clearly” had great computer programming aptitude, and that my skills would be wasted in so lowly a position! As had happened at other interviews, I received the advice that I should instead return to university and try to obtain a technical degree.

So I didn’t get the job, but I did get some extremely valuable feedback that bolstered my self-confidence and caused me to renew my interest in a field that I had been ready to abandon.

I eventually followed the advice that I’d been given at those interviews, although I chose Electronic Engineering rather than Computer Science. In retrospect, CS may have been a better fit for my unusual skill mix, but, at the time, I hadn’t forgotten the difficulty of trying to compete with other students who had A-levels in Computing, when I had no formal qualifications in that field at all.

Old and New. Aylesbury Canal Wharf, with the County Offices building beyond

Old and New, in 1980. Aylesbury Canal Wharf, with the County Offices building beyond

Scarborough Railway Station: A Historical Mystery Tour

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

During my teenage years, for my A-level Art study of architecture, I did some original research on the history of Scarborough [Central] Railway Station (shown above), which led to a surprising conclusion about the building’s original appearance.

My conclusions were questioned at the time, but were verified decades later by someone else’s chance discovery.

It was always a well-known fact that Scarborough’s main railway station was built in 1845 (quite early in the history of railways), at a location that was then outside the town limits. It’s also well-known that, in 1882, a central tower was added to the frontage. Surprisingly, and despite the efforts of various developers over the decades, the station building has survived to this day in essentially its 1882 form, as shown in my 1977 photograph at the top of this article.

During my researches at Scarborough Reference Library, I discovered a copy of a catalog for an exhibition called “Marble Halls”, which had apparently taken place at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1973.

Marble Halls

An 1844-dated illustration in the Marble Halls catalog showed a plan of “Scarborough Station” that, at first glance, looked nothing like the existing structure. The image below is the copy of the catalog illustration that I created for my study.

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

I hadn’t expected to see the central tower, of course, but where are the three small pavilions in the building’s frontage? The plan also shows a colonnaded central entrance, of which there’s no trace in the existing building.

My initial impression was that this plan did not represent the station as built, but I was puzzled that the accompanying commentary did not mention any discrepancy between the plan and the structure as-built.

I wrote to some local experts on the subject, who provided me with the limited historical references that were available. None of this provided any clear details regarding alterations to the building, except for the addition of the tower. The general opinion seemed to be that the entire frontage of Scarborough Station had probably been rebuilt in 1882 (rather than just the tower), but there was no evidence to prove that claim. One expert pointed out that the architect’s illustration in “Marble Halls” may have been nothing more than an “architect’s impression”, and that there was no guarantee that the station as-constructed had ever resembled that plan.

Some Detective Work

If in fact the building’s frontage had been substantially altered in 1882, it struck me that perhaps I could find some evidence of that (although it seemed odd that nobody would have previously noticed anything).

I walked around the outside of the building, examining its architectural details. I looked particularly at the locations that would be the junctions between the 1845 structure and what were potentially later alterations. Eventually, at the East end of the joint between the easternmost pavilion and the main trainshed (on the far left in the heading photo), I found a mismatch in the details of the pediment, as shown in my sketch below.

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonecarving

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonework

The mismatched joint shown above would have occurred where the new pavilion was added to the main wall of the original building, if my suspicions about the station’s original appearance were correct.

Given the immense precision of the building’s stone carving, it seemed impossible that such a noticeable mismatch would have occurred (or be allowed to remain) during the original construction. It seemed much more likely that this mismatch occurred because of some miscalculation when new stone was carved later, the intention having been to match the details of the original building.

Conclusion & Confirmation

In my study, I presented my conclusion that the 1844 architectural plan did indeed show the original appearance of Scarborough station, but that the building had been subject to greater subsequent alteration in the 1880s than most people had suspected. Not only was the central tower added, but most of the original frontage had been removed, and replaced with the three small pavilions that still exist.

At the time, I had no evidence to support my assertion, except for the architectural plan and my own illustrations of the architectural details of the actual building. Thus, my conclusion remained unproven, and nothing more than an “interesting speculation”.

In 1995, long after the completion of my Art A-level, and by which time I’d moved away from Scarborough, first to London and then to California, one of my expert correspondents from 1977, J R Lidster, published his own book on Scarborough Railway Station. In that book, he included a drawing of the station frontage from a letterhead that had recently been discovered in the attic of a property in Scarborough.

Sure enough, the letterhead showed a building that closely matched that depicted in the 1844 plan in the book “Marble Halls”, thus finally verifying the conclusion of my investigation.

A Sense of History

At the age of thirteen, I was forced to select a restricted range of subjects at school for continued study, as preparation for taking “O-level” examinations. One of the subjects that I dropped was history, because my naïve belief at that time was that history was “already written down”, and thus there was nothing new to add. Even at that age, I knew that, whatever I was going to devote my life to, I wanted it to be something innovative.

The experience that I described above, where I was able to provide original insight into a historical problem, showed me that my earlier view of history had been wrong. The events under consideration were, after all, relatively recent history, dating back only about one century, and yet many details were unrecorded, and there were new contributions to be made. I was able to offer new information without even “getting my hands dirty”!

Postscript: More Marble Halls

This incident was my first encounter with the contents of the “Marble Halls” catalog. The book also contains illustrations of other Victorian buildings that featured in my later life. For example, there’s an illustration of the Imperial Institute in London, the buildings of which were subsequently incorporated into Imperial College, from where I would graduate.

The book also includes an image of Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, which was close to my home in Andover in later years. Highclere Castle is now world-famous as the fictitious Downton Abbey.