Tuesday 29 November 2016

Dumb terminals

I was so glad to find the wonderful VT100 website is still up, though it doesn't seem to have been updated for 10 years now. Its a website about dumb terminals, ancient technology to most geeks these days maybe but full of memories for me. Dumb terminals look a bit like computers (in that they have screens, keyboards and sometimes mice) but they do no computing themselves. Instead they access a remote computer where all the actual computing takes place, i suppose you could say they are the ancestors of Chromebooks?

When i started my HND at Birmingham Polytechnic (as it was back then, now BCU of course) in 1990, as well as rooms full of IBM PCs (real ones) there was a Pr1me minicomputer which we logged into for programming class (Pascal) and sending e-mail (the first e-mail i ever had). We usually logged into the Pr1me from one of the PCs using Kermit terminal emulation software but there were also a number of real terminals dotted around the polytechnic.

Baker building (B208) had a whole room full of Volker-Craig VC404 terminals, and there were also some in the library as well as some other type of terminal (i think they were Volker-Craigs too) for accessing the library catalogue. Many an hour was spent pounding away on these terminals (and PCs) logged into the Pr1me. Firstly on the XCOM BBS which was installed on the Pr1me but also in a chat program. Later on we were able to venture out onto JANET and FTP files down using the Pr1me/Kermit (we couldn't use the terminals for this alas) and connecting to the Monochrome BBS (which still exists) and talking to students from other universities using Relay.

Social networking and living a life on-line being a new thing? I was doing this in the early 90s!

I miss the simplicity of using a dumb terminal to access the Pr1me and the internet in general, it was robust, reliable and simple. Just ASCII characters on a screen. Limited and slow maybe but it had a lot of charm. Of course getting any files was a bit long winded. As mentioned above this had to be done on one of the PCs running the Kermit terminal emulation software. First of all you needed to log into an FTP site from your Pr1me account, and bring the files you wanted to your Pr1me space. Then you used Kermit to download the files to the PC. Then you had to take the files home on a floppy disc! Downloading files is a lot easier now.

A document i still have is the university IT department's user guide to using EMACS (a text editor) on the VC404, i scanned the document a number of years ago and you can see it below:

Monday 28 November 2016

Walking the waterways (2) : Gower Branch Canal

The Gower Branch Canal in Tividale is a short canal that links the old and new Birmingham Main Lines. The half mile long canal branches off the Birmingham New Main Line at Albion Junction.
Albion Junction
The other end of the canal connects to the Birmingham Old Main Line at Brades Hall Junction via a triple "staircase" lock or 3 locks close together anyway.

The canal was authorised by the 1768 Birmingham Canal Act but not built until 1836. It was built to enable boats coming (or going to) the Netherton Canal to get to the old main line without a long detour via Tipton and Smethwick.
Staircase Lock
Brades Hall Junction

Saturday 26 November 2016

A return to the Cromford Canal

I made a return to the Cromford Canal today, you may remember i first visited the canal at Ambergate last month. Today i went to Cromford itself which is where the canal started (or ended depending on your point of view) down to Whatstandwell. A good portion of this stretch of the canal is navigable unlike most other places on the canal, restoration is ongoing though has a long way to go. Derbyshire is a great place for a walk and the scenery is lovely along the canal. Its a very interesting stretch of canal too with 2 aqueducts and a tunnel. You can see my photos here.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Electric canal boats

The traditional way to haul canal boats was using muscle, usually horse muscle but sometimes human too. Steam and later internal combustion engines later powered barges but there was an experiment to power barges via an electric overhead line. This Pathé newsreel shows an experiment held in Kidderminster (the photo below is of the canal at Kidderminster so maybe near to where the experiment was).

I don't know about you but powering canal boats this way doesn't seem all that safe. A live electric line and water is an accident waiting to happen, plus all of those overhanging trees and bushes arn't helping the safety case much.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

A mysterious drone

Many times as i lay in bed at night as a kid (and beyond) i would hear a far off drone. Some sort of aircraft of course but with the otherwise peace of the night the drone felt so alone. I would listen to the drone until it faded away and would wonder what plane it was (i of course was a plane spotter back then too). As it seemed like a smaller propeller plane i imagined it could be a light aircraft, maybe some specialist transport link running late at night. Maybe even MI5 or the US government running a black network of secret agents.

Although i've always lived under the BHX flight path (and indeed my own house is a mile closer to the airport) my fascination with the drone went away, no doubt replaced by girls or Class 47 diesel locomotives. In recent years however i've started noticing the drone again, though a somewhat different tone, not as mournful. A few months ago i was in the garden on a light night when i heard the drone, and as it was a clear night i could finally see the source of this drone (and also could see what it was on a flight tracking app, this wasn't available to me in the early 1980s!)

It turned out to just be a propeller regional airliner flying high above, maybe flying into East Midlands Airport. Some of the romance has now been lost. My fantasy of secret missions have turned into the last flight out of Belfast of the day. How disappointing, sometimes its better not to know everything and keep some mysteries alive. I suspect the drone i knew so well was that of RR Dart turboprops which powered so many airliners back in the 70s and 80s. The newer breed of turboprop are no doubt much more efficient, but don't sound as good!
A photo i took at B'ham Airport in the 1980s of a British Midland F27, great drone!

A modern airliner, not as good a drone!

Monday 21 November 2016

MV : "White room" by Cream

So i'm watching a period drama, well set in 1969 to be exact. "Good Girls Revolt" is the name and its very good, especially the inclusion of music from the era. Including the song below, sometimes i wish i had been born a couple of decades earlier so i could have experienced this scene for the first time. But then again now i would be 20 years older and have 20 years worse aches and pains. So we'll stick to Youtube.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Walking the waterways (1) : Stratford-upon-Avon Canal

One of the things i do a lot is walk along inland waterways. Some i have visited many times and know really well, and indeed in quite a few cases i have walked the full length. In this new series i write about these waterways that are as familiar to me as the inside of my wallet.

The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal starts at Kings Norton Junction where it splits off the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The canal was built between 1793 and 1816 originally intended as a way to get Black Country coal to Oxford and London without going through Birmingham.
Kings Norton Junction
Just by Kings Norton Junction is the Kings Norton Stop Lock, originally intended to stop water flowing from one canal to another (in the days when canals were owned by rival companies). Its the only guillotine stop lock on the canal network.
Kings Norton Stop Lock
The canal runs for over 25 miles and has 56 locks. It has feeder reservoirs at Earlswood where a number of manmade lakes were built, these are now used for fishing and a nature reserve.
Canal feeder channel at Earlswood

The canal winds on through Warwickshire, meeting the Grand Union Canal at Lapworth (Kingswood Junction). This is considered the boundary between the Northern and Southern sections of the canal. After Lapworth the canal continues south heading through some of the most beautiful countryside to finally end up at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Wootton Wawen

The canal has a junction with the river Avon, in the original plans for the canal it was intended for the canal to stop short of the river (about where the railway station is now) but wiser heads prevailed. By the 1950s the canal was in a poor state with navigation impossible on the Southern section. This section was put at risk at Wilmcote where a bridge (bridge 59) needed replacing and the council wished to avoid the expense of providing sufficient headroom by applying to have the canal legally abandoned. Two canoeists proved the canal could still be used and the canal survived. In the 1960s it was restored to working order by pioneering the use of volunteer labour (and also prisoners from Winson Green HMP!), the process of which helped also spur on the survival and restoration of canals elsewhere in the country.
Bridge 59 in Wilmcote

Nowadays the canal is very popular with pleasure boaters with Bancroft Basin in Stratford always busy with visitors to the historic town. I've visited the canal dozens of times over the years (and taken 1000s of photographs!) The following links may give an idea of what the canal is like:

Bancroft Basin in Stratford-upon-Avon

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Tile motifs of the Victoria Line

The Victoria Line is the most intensively used line on the London Underground. It is a fairly recent addition to the network being built in the 1960s and opening (in stages) from 1968 [1]. One interesting feature of the new stations built for the line, which runs from Walthamstow Central to Brixton, is that every station has a unique motif incorporated into the tiling [2].

These motifs were intended to aid identification of the station for passengers though a casual visitor might have a bit of trouble working out what some of the motifs stood for. Finsbury Park for example has a motif of a pair of pistols as it was where duels took place in the past. Warren Street has a maze, or you could say a warren?!
Finsbury Park

Warren Street

[1] Oliver Green, The London Underground (Ian Allan, 1987) p. 59
[2] Chris Heaps, BR Diary 1968-1977 (Ian Allan, 1988) p. 13

Monday 14 November 2016

700 departure

I was stoked to finally get to see one of these new Class 700 units in London at the weekend, i finally was able to photograph and video this one at St Pancras after twice being thwarted by other trains getting in the way at the wrong moment at Blackfriars!

Sunday 13 November 2016

Old and new on London rails

I headed down to London yesterday to continue my exploration of the capital's extraordinarily complicated railway network. I explored around Kings Cross and Moorgate, with the aim of seeing a Class 313 for the first time (time is running out to do this as they are due to be withdrawn in a year or so).

Signalling problems out of Moorgate meant that finding a 313 was a bit difficult though i did manage to see one in the end, and indeed travel on it too! I was also able to see one of the brand new Class 700s which was a nice bonus. You can see my photos here.

Friday 11 November 2016

A Personal Computer History (4) : Macworld

In 1995 i graduated from university and began work in one of the first web design agencies, actually it was a traditional print design agency dipping its toes in the then new world of the web (Netscape 2.0 was still in beta, thats how prehistoric this was). Most of the people in the company used Macintoshes and naturally after a while i wanted to get one myself...
Macintosh SE, where it all started
My first Mac was a Macintosh SE i bought second hand from a Cash Converters. It worked fine though the floppy drive had an annoying flaw in that while it could read floppy discs it had formatted itself fine these discs were unreadable in any other Mac and the same with floppies from elsewhere. My first Mac was an island therefore, though i was able to use a Localtalk bridge and Ethernet to access the SE from an iMac later on...
Mac Plus

The iMac yes, my first proper and brand new Mac was a Bondi Blue iMac. This replaced the Tulip PC as my main computer and set my computing down a new design and not programming orientated path. I've still got the iMac (and indeed the SE) though i'm unsure if it works. The last time i was using it i was trying to use OpenBSD on it and configure X Windows.

Over the years i managed to accumulate a mountain of Macs... at one stage i had over 18. I've still got many of them now including a PowerMac 7200Mac IIci, a Macintosh LCIII, a Workgroup Server 60, a Mac Plus and my pride and joy a Mac 512K (which was the second ever model). I use this as a stand for my digital clock.
Workgroup Server 60 atop a tower of LCs and Mac IIs

Nowadays i'm on my second Macbook though of course nowadays it is used with a plethora of other devices including a Chromebook Pixel and an iPhone SE. We've come a long way from Pong clones and Cheese Nibbler for sure.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Spaghetti Junction

Fascinating footage of the Gravelly Hill Interchange from 1971, the most interesting thing about it is how different the Spaghetti Junction (as it is more commonly known) looks sans traffic! I've lived within earshot of this since 1975, hopefully one day i will move away. I'll miss that distant roar, though not that much.

How about some photos i took in 2009 underneath the interchange too? The Tame Valley Canal runs underneath the interchange (of course the canal was here long before the motorways) and there are some interesting views of the underside of the interchange which (as the railway also runs though here) is a very complicated system - though fairly straight forward if you are actually driving across it. More photos can be seen here, here and here!

Monday 7 November 2016

Berwood Bridge

Berwood Bridge, one of the Listed Buildings in Erdington, is one of the last remaining traces of the Berwood sub-manor of Erdington.

Berwood Hall, which once stood where the modern day Farnborough Road is now, dates from the 13th century. The land originally, it is recorded, was given by Hugh de Arderne[1] to the Abbey of St Mary of the Meadows in Leicester for use of a monastic grange. A moated hall is recorded in the 13th century but by the 17th century it had fallen in disrepair. A chapel on the manor (built by the canons in return for the gifts of land to sing masses for the souls of Hugh's descendants) fell into disuse by the early 15th century. The manor remained the possession of the abbey until the dissolution of the monastries and the manor was sold to Thomas Arden in 1540.

It remained owned by the Ardens until a later descendant (Dorothy) married into the Bagot family of Staffordshire[2]. The Reverend Walter Bagot was lord of the manor in 1783, his son was also later lord of the manor at nearby Pype Hayes Hall. The Bagot Arms pub still bears their name.

Much of the land was sold in the 1880s by the Bagots to the Birmingham Tame & Rae Drainage Board (a sewage farm is listed as being here in the late 1800s before it was moved to its current location in Minworth) but by then the manor probably no longer existed in any real sense.
December 1945 view of Berwood Bridge (via Google Earth), the bridge can be seen just left of the centre of the image.
A farmhouse built on the site of the former manor house served as the officers' mess at Castle Bromwich Aerodrome during the First World War[3] though by the Second World War the farmhouse and much of the rest of the Berwood estate had been swallowed up by the airfield. Following the war the Castle Vale estate was built on the site of the old airfield.

A few names survive here and then on new buildings and roads but it is likely the only surviving remnant of the old manor is Berwood Bridge which was built in the early 19th century to allow Berwood Lane to cross the then-new Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. Nowadays the bridge allows people to travel between a main road and industrial units to a housing estate, when the bridge was built though it would have been a very different environment!

1) L. F. Salzman (editor). "Parishes: Curdworth." A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4: Hemlingford Hundred (1947): 60-67. British History Online. Web. 26 March 2012. <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42656&strquery=berwood>
2) William Fowler. "A history of Erdington: an address to the members of the Erdington Institute... delivered April 27th, 1885 (London:British Library)"
3) William Dargue. "A History of Birmingham Places & Placenames . . . from A to Y" Berwood, Berwood Common <http://billdargue.jimdo.com/placenames-gazetteer-a-to-y/places-b/berwood/>

Arriving at KGS

A Chiltern service arriving at Kings Sutton station.

Thursday 3 November 2016

A Personal Computer History (3) : The PC world

After our third microcomputer, a BBC Model B, blew up it was time to "progress" to the PC world. The Amstrad PC was by then becoming popular being cheap enough for many to consider (though still expensive compared to today). We got a PC1640DD, 1MB of RAM, double 5.25" floppy drives and a CGA colour monitor. It might not seem much these days but it was a quantum leap after the days of loading programs off cassette tape. We upgraded the Amstrad PC a lot, adding a 3.5" floppy drive and a 32MB hard drive. Although a crude plastic machine in many ways it was also pretty robust and reliable.

By now we were in the early 1990s and i was at university, thus armed with my student grant (yes we got paid to be students back then) i decided it was time i bought my own computer. My first was an Amstrad too, a PPC512, so a kind of crude laptop. I didn't like it though and soon sold it on buying a Zenith minisport instead. This was a small notebook a bit like the Macbook and Chromebook Pixel i use these days though of course much less advanced.

The minisport had no hard drive though had a RAM drive and MS-DOS was installed on a ROM. The minisport had a 2" floppy drive, which was cute though no other computer used this format and getting the disks was difficult. Luckily it came with an external 3.5" floppy drive too though this made it rather less portable. The screen was quite nice as it was a backlit LCD though was a rather strange resolution as can be seen from the photograph above. 640 by 300 so any pie charts would be a bit squashed.

A year or so later i bought my first desktop PC, a Unisys with a mighty 386SX-33 CPU! This also had a hard drive so could be used for some decent computing. I had Windows 3.1 on it and did some Pascal and Visual BASIC programming and the like, useful for my degree in Software Engineering anyway. The 4MB RAM was later doubled to 8 (my present for graduating!) and i bought an external CD-ROM drive so i could install OS/2 Warp on it. It was just about usable...

Finally a number of years later i upgraded to a Tulip PC with a 100MHz 486 CPU. This i ran Windows 95 on. A fine computer but by now i was working at a design agency full of Apple Macintoshes... that would soon guide my next computer purchase.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

The case of the Birmingham Ship Canal(s)

Birmingham is famously supposed to have more canals than Venice (albeit over a wider area) but lacks easy access to the sea by larger vessels. In the 1880s there were a number of schemes to enlarge some of the canals linking Birmingham to the major rivers of the country to create a ship canal that could allow vessels in the 200-300 ton range (depending on the scheme).

River steamer on the Severn
at Worcester
The scheme which probably came closest to getting the go-ahead was a link to the river Severn above Worcester by enlarging the Worcester & Birmingham Canal[1]. The scheme envisaged going through Droitwich so presumably the Droitwich Canal would also have been enlarged. The Birmingham City Council formed a Ship Canal Enquiry Committee to look into the scheme which would have allowed vessels up to 200 tons right into the centre of the city. The cost of the scheme was estimated at £2 million (when of course this was real money).

However in 1888 the Council declined going ahead with the scheme and disbanded the committee, citing that it was outside of their municipal concerns[2]. Of course by now the canals were being surpassed by the railways and there were also worries that the railways would undercut the new canal (which would be a considerable engineering and financial undertaking) making it economically unviable.

This wasn't the only scheme however, a number of the city's great and good also proposed a ship canal scheme linking Birmingham to the river Mersey[3]. This canal, which would have allowed ships up to 300 tons would have linked Birmingham to the Weaver Navigation Canal and then through to the Mersey, Liverpool and the sea. This canal would have been 60ft wide and 11ft deep and would have passed through South Staffordshire, the Potteries and Cheshire[4]. However this scheme (which would have cost a mere £1.6 million) came to naught as did a scheme to link Birmingham to the Thames[5].

By the late 1890s canals were beginning to be seen as old hat as the railway network continued to grow and few if any canal schemes were in development anywhere. In many ways it is a shame none of the ship canal schemes came to anything. Ships up to 300 tons would be much larger than anything that usually chugs through the canals at Birmingham's heart. The Edwardian steamer TSS Earnslaw perhaps can give us an idea of the sort of boat we could have expected making it up to Birmingham in the early 1900s (although it would be slightly oversize at 330t). The canal schemes came to nothing though may have inspired this song...
Photo (c) trakesht at Wikipedia

(1) Charles Anthony Vince MA, History of the Corporation of Birmingham Vol 3 1885-1899 (Cornish:Birmingham, 1902), p. 365
(2) Vince, p. 368
(3) Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal (Pamphlet, 1888), p. 5
(4) Birmingham Daily Gazette 6th July 1888
(5) Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal, p. 17