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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1973 and 1997

Flashback time again — check me out on BBC Radio Manchester at 16:20ish today talking about 1973 and 1997 with Becky Want. 95.1 FM or online on Listen Again.


  • This year my favourite technology losers put out their most famous invention. Researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center demonstrated the Xerox Alto workstation, which had a graphical user interface and a controller for moving a cursor around on screen. Inventions you and I now know as Windows and the Mouse. Steve Jobs was the first to rip these off at Apple, followed by the even more successful Bill Gates at Microsoft. But when was the last time you saw a Xerox PC, mouse or operating system…?
  • Also in 1973 the first Voice over Internet Protocal call was made. If you’ve used Skype or MSN Messenger, you know what VoIP is — sending a voice call over the internet rather than the traditional phone lines. What you may not realise is that just about all calls internationally or over certain networks such as TalkTalk, use VoIP — whether or not you make them from a normal phone. Carrying voice calls over Internet Protocol (IP) is cheaper, so quite often your call will be converted to IP and then back again before it reaches its destination.
  • Bic launched the disposable lighter. Gilette had a working model in 1972 but Bic quickly came to dominate the market with a low price and clever, and very sexual, advertising. Flick my Bic became a part of the slang Lexicon in the US.
  • Gene splicing was invented by Stanford scientists Stanley Cohen and Paul Berg. We seem to be suspicious of anything involving genetics, but it’s hard to argue with the medical value of this innovation. For example, by splicing specific genes in to bacteria scientists can create little microbial factories for the production of human hormones, growth factors and other medically important chemicals.
  • The first UK link to ArpaNet, what would become the internet, was made from University College London. The Department for Trade and Industry didn’t even offer moral support and wanted evidence that it would offer value from companies in the IT sector.
  • British scientists Clifford Cocks and James Ellis discover cryptographic public key mechanism
  • The SWIFT (Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network is launched to enable secure electronic communication and transfers between banks. Twenty-five years later and it still takes three working days to send money between accounts…


  • A much less exciting year bizarrely. It seems that all the exciting stuff really happened in the 1970s! But there was some good news. IEEE released the 802.11 (WiFi) standard, which means we can all work on the sofa, in the garden, or if you’re feeling really lazy, in bed.
  • The dancing baby appeared, becoming one of the first Internet’s first fads. The short 3D animation spawned a recurring apparition in Ally McBeal.
  • Bill Gates became the world’s richest businessman
  • And the Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) battery came in to commercial use, extending the life and reducing the weight of laptops and making innovations like the iPod possible. It’s now being used in performance electric cars like the Tesla eV1.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Icelandic Model

Great article in this week’s Observer about Iceland. The country has the highest birth rate, the highest divorce rate, and the highest percentage of women working outside the home in Europe. It is also the best place in the world to live according to the UN. It has a booming economy and a very strong society, with almost no crime. It is as close to a Gene Roddenberry-style Utopia as we have on this planet, yet ignores many commonly-held notions of what is important for a ‘good’ society.

The principles on which Icelandic society is built are very interesting. The country was never converted to Christianity, so approached the modern world with a value set based on paganism. This has driven a respect for the, often harsh, environment, but the spiritual aspects seem to have been largely replaced with an appreciation of science and a love of progress.

This practical, open-minded approach contrasts strongly with much of the debate that has taken place around the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill over the last month. I try not to talk about religion in this blog because of the ease with which I could cause offence, both to prospective clients and to friends and family. But it seems that all the major religions are increasingly attacking the principles of science and humanism that form my ‘faith’. So though I will continue to try to avoid offence, there are some issues that really should be addressed in a blog looking at the future.

The article about Iceland reminded me that our value system is coloured by our historical religion, and the disproportionate sway that it continues to hold in our media and parliament. We all need to examine the natural bias in ourselves that this produces. Even an atheist such as I can subconsciously value a classic ‘nuclear’ family over other models, whether they be gay or lesbian couples, or other systems in which children may be raised.

Throughout the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, those lobbying to maintain the guidance that a father is vital in raising children have referenced unspecified ‘research’. This apparently shows that the absence of a father figure means children are more likely to commit crime, take drugs etc. Yet surely the weight of global evidence shows the opposite. In parts of Africa children are often raised by the community. And in Iceland, a tradition of strong women comes from the fact that Viking men were off pillaging often for years at a time, raising the children together in their absence. The fact that children may suffer in a broken version of our traditional model does not mean that other models are not just as valid, if not more so.

If we are going to continue human progress, and work towards a day when the whole world shares the quality of life enjoyed in Iceland, we all need to be open-minded about our beliefs and values. Are they based on fact and reason, or misunderstanding and prejudice? Or worst of all, on the values of a many-thousand year old civilisation that knew nothing of our reality and the potential of our society?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1963 and 1995

Flashback time again this afternoon. You can catch me on BBC Radio Manchester on 95.1 at 16:30 or on Listen Again via the iPlayer. This week’s years are 1963 and 1995.


  • The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (Ascii) system was introduced. Dull but vital — before this came along all computers spoke different languages making it tricky to exchange information between them.
  • The first Touch-Tone phones were introduced, beginning the end for the electro-mechanical dial introduced in 1919.
  • Syncom 2 became the first artificial satellite to go into a geosynchronousorbit. Without this capability there would be no satellite TV and no satnav.
  • Philips introduced the ‘compact cassette tape cartridge’, the standard for for recording and playing music for many years after. The mix tape was born, as was the classic slogan ‘Home taping is killing music’. You can draw your own parallels with the modern day debate about downloading.
  • “Instant” color film, or self-developing color photography, is introduced by the Polaroid Land Company.
  • Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windscreen wiper. Car manufacturers infringed his patent until 1990 before they agreed to pay him royalties.
  • The first emoticon — the smiley — was invented by Harvey Ball


  • The Java software platform was launched, with the dream that a piece of software could be written once and run anywhere. Though this dream hasn’t come true exactly, it has reached more than 4.5 billion devices and is probably on your PC, your mobile phone and possibly even your TV and Bluray player. It is an integral part of many ‘Web 2.0’ applications.
  • DVD was announced in November 1995
  • Windows 95 was introduced, making the internet much more accessible to the mass market.
  • Apple tried, and failed to enter the console market with the ‘Pippin’. Though it was never marketed as an Apple product (it was produced and badged by Bandai) it is still known as one of the company’s biggest failures
  • Nintendo had its own failure in 1995, the Virtual Boy, a console built in to a set of monochrome 3D goggles. It was no match for the PlayStation.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

DIY Digital Picture Frame (with LinuxMCE)

I am planning a LinuxMCE-based home automation and entertainment system. As well as all the fully multimedia units that will do voice, video and music, I wanted a rather simpler node on the network: a digital picture frame.

Using LinuxMCE for this is something of a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach, but it will allow me to control the frame over the network. And I figure I might as well keep one consistent software system across the whole house.

Having seen a few articles around the web and in Custom PC on the subject, I started digging around in my box(es) of spares for some parts. In the end I settled on an old and very battered Sony Vaio notebook. The battery was completely shot and the case was falling apart, so it was neither economical nor practical to keep using it as it was. But it worked OK and had a very slim case, so it seemed to make an ideal donor.

In the photo above you can see the semi-dismantled laptop alongside the frame it was to be mounted in. This is a 30x40cm Copenhagen oak frame from Habitat with matching cutout.

Once the laptop was dismantled and the screen separated from the body of the machine, the next step was to mount both on a piece of foam artboard. I chose this for its strength to weight ratio, and the ease of cutting. Double-sided adhesive foam strips were used to hold it all together.

In the final image above you can see the loading screen for Kubuntu running on the device. I installed this and LinuxMCE before I dismantled the laptop, but with a USB keyboard and PCMCIA-mounted CD drive, it’s pretty easy to muck around with the software even with the whole lot inside the frame.

Unfortunately the software is proving tricky at the moment. LinuxMCE remains a little fiddly, and with the slightly unusual hardware combo found in a Sony Vaio, it is refusing to play ball at the moment. Sure that can be solved though and I’ll put a post up about how I solved it when I do. I will also post a photo of the finished item — somehow I forgot to get a shot of that!

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1971 and 1992

It’s Flashback time again and today at 4:15–4:30ish I’ll be talking about 1971 and 1992. Listen on 95.1 FM if you are in the Manchester area, or check it out online via the BBC iPlayer. I have a stinking cold so I’ll be trying not to sneeze and snuffle all the way through.


  • Intel released the world’s first microprocessor, the 4004. There’s some debate about whether this was genuinely the first — the other candidate is Four Phase Systems’ AL1. But the Intel 4004 seems to have been more influential in the future development of computing. It first appeared in a calculator from Japanese company Busicom and ran at 740KHz. My (now relatively slow) 2GHz office computer is more than two and a half thousand times as fast in clock speed alone. It’s real-life processing power is astronomically greater.
  • The first pocket calculator was launched in Japan by Busicom — the LE-120A. There’s lots of confusion about this one too. Texas Instruments owned the patent for the pocket calculator but it appears the Japanese were the first to market. It was the UK’s Sinclair who dramatically dropped the price of the devices, introducing the Cambidge for just £25.99 by 1973.
  • The first commercial CAT scanner was built by EMI, allegedly funded by the success of the Beatles! CAT stands for Computer Assisted Tomography, and requires the machine to take multiple images of the human body slice by slice. The first example was installed in Atkinson Morley hospital in Wimbledon.
  • The email address was invented by Ray Tomlinson. The idea of electronic mail had been around for five or six years by this time but this was the first time the @ sign had been used to separate the name of a person from the name of their machine.
  • IBM introduced the floppy disk. This was even bigger than the 5.25in disks that the older ones amongst us will remember. It was 8 inches wide! Over time it was replaced by the 5.25 in disk, then the 3.5 in, then finally the CD-ROM and flash disk.
  • Liquid Crystal Displays ( LCD ) were patented in Switzerland and the US by different inventors. They quickly made their way in to wrist watches but it took another twenty-five years before they became commonplace in home computers and TVs.


  • Windows 3.1 was released by Microsoft, bringing the graphical computer interface to the masses for the first time. Windows 1, 2 and 3 were not exactly resounding successes, but third (and a bit) time lucky. Given how much time has passed, the standard computer interface has changed remarkably little today.
  • BT and AT&T; in the US both launched video telephones. The UK version cost around £400 while the US one started at $1,499. They weren’t exactly a huge hit…
  • Nicotine patches were licensed for use on prescription to help people stop smoking. they became available over the counter a few years later.
  • The First Person Shooter or FPS became popular with the launch of Wolfenstein 3D. This was the predecessor to the Doom series of games that even spawned a film, and more recently Halo on the X-Box.
  • SMS: the first text message was sent in 1992 by British engineer Neil Papworth. It said ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’. The success of SMS and the subsequent creation of text speak took the mobile phone operators totally by surprise. Today it remains a major source of income for them, and has become the basis for a range of new businesses, such as Pop Idol and X-Factor.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on


True to my word I have acquired my first pieces of HomeEasy kit — a remote and three sockets. Each one switches up to 3kW and is configurable to respond to up to six remotes, and each socket can be assembled in to a series of groups. All this for just £20. The equivalent in X10 would cost over £50.

The equivalent in X10 would also not perform anywhere near as successfully — at least not in my house where the powerlines are dirtier than a stag weekend in Amsterdam. The HomeEasy sockets switch instantaneously and successfully on every test so far.

Tom Cheesewright