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IT and web work

I met my first microcomputers - a Tandy TRS80, a Sinclair ZX80 and a Commodore PET, all in rapid succession- in 1980.

The TRS80 was brought into the staff room at Brookside School by an educational psychologist, who left it on the table, running one of the early text-only dungeons-and-dragons adventure games, for the staff to look at. Only three of us were interested. I was instantly hooked. ’Christ!’ I remember saying. ’Interactive telly!’ I knew I had to get my hands on one of these machines right away.

The school secretary overheard my bubbling enthsiasm and told me her son had his own computer. As he was at Repton, the local public school, he had longer holidays than those of us in the state sector, and he was persuaded to bring his precious new toy into my classoom. It was a Sinclair ZX80, the amazing little white plastic thing with the membrane keyboard. We got it hooked up to a TV and were presented with not much more than a flashing cursor. I think I must have been doing a bit of research in the meantime, because by the end of the lesson we had cobbled together a little BASIC program that presented the kids with simple addition sums and marked their answers right or wrong. Now I really was hooked.

I’m not sure how it happened - probably I nobbled the County Adviser for Special Education and bent his ear until he couldn’t stand it any longer, so he told me to go to a ’PET Fair’ in Chesterfield the following Saturday and talk to the Maths Adviser. I did just that - and was issued with a PET. That’s a Commodore PET (which I seem to remember stood for ’Personal Electronic Transactor’ or something similar). It looked like this - but a lot grubbier...

The 8K Commodore PET microcomputer

But it worked.

The screen display says:

*** COMMODORE BASIC 8K ***
   7167 BYTES FREE
READY _

This tells you that you are being dropped straight into the BASIC programming language, that the computer has used a whole 1025 bytes of memory for its own purposes (most of it for screen memory), and that it is ready for your first instruction.

Looked at from 2009, when computers have gigabytes of memory and terabytes of disc space, this needs careful explanation. This PET had just 8192 bytes or 8 kilobytes of memory. There are a million kilobytes in a gigabyte and a billion in a terabyte. To me this seemed lke a lot, because my young friend’s Sinclair ZX80 only had 1024 bytes or one kilobyte!

The PET didn’t have a colour screen - just a 9-inch monochrome one.

It didn’t have a hard disc drive, or even a floppy disc drive. It had a built-in cassette recorder - the square black thing with the five keys on the left. Programs were stored on ordinary audio cassettes.

And it didn’t even have a proper keyboard - just two keypads like those on a pocket calculator.

But it was totally wonderful. It also nearly got me divorced, because I spent all that first evening programming it with the kids and carried on by myself until about 3am. Wife Number Two was decidedly not amused - and even less so when this became a regular pattern. I had never encountered anything so addictive in my life. Luckily I was sleeping in at school five nights a week in those days, and Mrs M had already decided she’d had anough of that. So once my evening duties were finished I could stay up all night if I wanted.

I got straight into programming because at this time the only educational software around was cottage-industry stuff produced by people like me. As the only special-school teacher who could program, I dropped straight into a one-day-a-week secondment, escaping from school every Friday to support the use of computers in Derbyshire special education. To facilitate this, the County issued me with a PET 4032, with a 12-inch monchrome screen and a real, full-size keyboard. It wasn’t long before this was joined by a dual 5Ľ-inch floppy-disc drive as big as the computer and then a dot-matrix printer. Each of these items, as I recall, cost Ł795.

I was churning out drill-and-practice programs as fast as I could type, and to my amazement I was co-opted onto the National Advisory Committee for Microelectronics in Special Education, which met in very plus offices in Mayfair. Probably as a result of this, I landed a one-term secondment (actually, it was five months, because I kept my one-day-a-week job supporting the schools) to develop computer applications for children with severe physical disabilities. This happened just as Acorn launched the new BBC Computer, with colour and sound and all that. But for some arcane political reason it was decided that my project would be based on the Sinclair ZX81 (the black version of the ZX80) and Spectrum. Basically, I had a wonderful time at home, teaching myself Z80 machine-code programming and logic circuit design while listening to David Bowie and Randy Newman on the same cassette recorder I used for loading and saving my programs. The really silly bit was that I had bought a BBC Computer for myself and was using it to type documentation and Z80 assembly language listings while programming the ZX81. The various outcomes worked, but of course the Sinclair kit was never used in schools. Fortunately, I was able to make them happen on the Beeb in my own time.

In 1984, I became a full-time advisory teacher for what was then called ’Computer Education’ (we only just fought off ’Computer Studies’, which it definitely wasn’t) but soon became, more sensibly, ’Computers in Education’. By 1995 I was supporting all the ’ICT in the Curriculum’ in schools and colleges in Derby and South Derbyshire.

During the reign of the BBC Computer my programming went to a pretty high level, with two products that had a brief commercial life: Predictype, a predictive typing system that worked with all the word-processors then available for the BBC; and The Tarka Keyboard Emulator, a scanning keyboard replacement which children with severe motor disabilities could operate with one or two switches (this was what I had developed at Government expense for the Sinclair platform). Both of these ran in the Beeb’s ’sideways memory’, Tarka in ROM and Predictype in sideways-RAM. They were written very intuitively in raw 6502 Assembly Language, which you could do from BBC BASIC, using all the wonderful hooks which Acorn built into their operating system to intercept the keyboard routines at a very low level.

The mighty Beeb

I do want to pay tribute to Acorn. The BBC Computer was an extraordinary achievement at a time when Clive Sinclair was, frankly, messing about with the technology. The fact that I could make products like Tarka and Predictype work on this little 8-bit micro is entirely down to the wonderfully-structured operating system that the Acorn guys managed to produce against nightmare deadlines. The 6502 was a great little processor, BBC Basic was a superb implementation of the language, and the inclusion of an inline assembler for machine-code programming was positively inspired.

All these features were preserved in RiscOS, the operating system for Acorn’s amazing 32-bit Archimedes computers, but when they acquired a genuine multi-tasking system this phase of my programming life came to an abrupt end. However, I was heavily involved with specifying Derbyshire’s My World framework package, developed many applications for it using Acorn Draw and wrote the documentation for the original, My World 2 and My World for Windows.

It would be great to hear from any old friends and colleagues from that period - please click the Contact me button.

Then along came Voluntary Early Retirement - an offer I couldn’t refuse.

CampusWorld and the Web

I became a freelance educational ICT consultant and, thanks to a former Derbyshire colleague who was running some educational projects for BT, I found myself on a very steep learning curve (another one!), this time learning HTML (HyperText Markup Language) on the hoof as I set up and managed several areas of BT CampusWorld - a wide-ranging suite of websites for schools and colleges.

When I started this, PCs had an operating system called Windows for Workgroups 3.1, but there was very little software that actually used windows or the mouse - most of it was text-based with the MS-DOS interface. My email and newsgroup access, for example, didn’t get into a Windows application for ages. The only usable web browser was Netscape Navigator, and I did my web-page development in Microsoft Word!

This consultancy lasted for nearly four years. Any old colleagues from that period please get in touch using the Contact me button.

When BT finally gave up on CampusWorld (because the regulator wouldn’t allow them to subsidise even such an altruistic business from the telephone business) I started supporting local schools, small businesses and home-computer users. I also developed some Key Stage One suites of My World applications for Research Machines in collaboration with Hardwick Infant School in Derby.

Then I was contracted to re-create Derby City Council’s Education Online website (now defunct). As soon as I had finished, they decided to appoint a full-time Web Manager to look after the site I’d created. I was interviewed for the post (I should think so, too, after all the work I’d done for them!) but was not appointed. My version is that the ICT manager involved didn’t want anyone with a background in teaching and advisory work as a full-time subordinate, because he wasn’t an ex-teacher - but that could just be my rationalisation! I had a second interview, this time for an IT training job in the voluntary sector, and didn’t get that either.

NHS Web Development Manager

Third time lucky - I was appointed Web Development Manager by Southern Derbyshire Health Authority on a three-year contract. The good news was that, of the three jobs I was interviewed for, this was the best-paid. The bad news is that I felt a lot less comfortable in the NHS than I did in education - the management culture was very different and, of course, I didn’t have the professional status I had as a former teacher and advisory teacher in the education service. But I stuck it out for the scheduled three years and left voluntarily after the post was made permanent. For a further three years I worked part-time from home for what by then had become Derwent Shared Services, finally leaving on Friday 13 July 2007 (lucky for some!). I acquired a huge range of skills I didn’t have before, so I shouldn’t complain! I developed The Southern Derbyshire Health Services portal and sites for five Primary Care Trusts: Amber Valley, Central Derby, Erewash, Greater Derby, and Derbyshire Dales and South Derbyshire (now merged into the Derby City and Derbyshire County PCTs), as well as for Derbyshire Mental Health Services NHS Trust and Trent Strategic Health Authority (now also reorganised). There were sites for local services and initiatives, and I also did sites on a more commercial basis for Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire & Rutland Local Medical Committees.

The portal incorporated two major information sites which really got me back into programming again, this time using VBscript, a sloppy Microsoft dialect of BASIC (the language I’d programmed in for many years previously) dedicated to scripting for web pages on Active Server Pages (ASP).

Information for Patients and the Public (IPP) provided separate sites for Amber Valley, Derby, Derbyshire Dales & South Derbyshire and Erewash, providing access to a huge database of health-related services and organisations. Five information officers managed the data on the community intranet, feeding a powerful Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database. Data was copied from this every day into an Access database on the public web server (managed by a commercial hosting company). The Mark 2 version of IPP gave web-users direct searching capability using the online Access database. This development, which I worked on intermittently for my entire time with the NHS, provided a challenging but fascinating learning experience, using ASP, VBscript, SQL Server 2000, Access and SQL (structured query language).

The second was JobTracker, which operated on a similar basis to IPP. Personnel staff enter details of vacancies into a SQL Server 2000 database, and they were copied to Access for use on the public website. Unlike IPP, the intranet version was driven directly off the SQL Server system.

By the time I left the NHS, both packages were using only SQL Server.

When I tidied up the crude HTML on the original version of this site a while ago, I realised how far I’d come technically in my time with the NHS, writing to the XHTML standard - much more disciplined and demanding than the old HTML 3 I used when I created that site - and using Cascading Style Sheets instead of style tags in the text, which meant a whole site could be given a new look-and-feel in minutes. For the NHS sites, I developed a powerful templating system, with intelligent button-bars, based on Server Side Includes (SSI), which allowed new pages to be added to sites very quickly and easily.

I applied all the experience gained using Microsoft technology to a content-management system running run on the Linux operating system and the Apache web server, using the PHP scripting language and the MySQL database system which my own host, 1&1 Internet, uses. Nothing on God’s green earth would ever coax me back into the Microsoft fold!

In June 2005 the site you’re looking at, which until then had been based entirely on static HTML pages, was shifted into the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, which was launched as soon as I left my full-time job in the NHS in 2004. This site wasn’t quite as big then as it is now, but was still sizeable - yet it was still moved in just a couple of hours of copying and pasting. There’s much more about this here...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.