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Interview Part 5: Give us a break

It’s the mid 1980s and after my Digital Thermometer and Controller debacle (see part 4) I decided to keep things simple and try to re-establish a flow of smaller projects.  A 555-unit called Radio Sleep Timer was rejected but in ’86 I submitted a Door Chime which used a melodious (kind of) chime generator chip. It appeared in June 1987 (article and prototype notes) which was not too bad a delay. Also in ’86 came a Door Sentinel which was a little CMOS door alarm that you switched on or off using hidden magnetic switches. (EE was big on the word ‘Sentinel’ and they even used it on Issue 1.)  Time dragged on for this project and it was finally published in EE May 1988 (article and prototype notes). Unfortunately the Door Sentinel PCB was printed on page 286 back to front!

More changes were under way with the magazine’s owners too, and the March 1986 issue was published not by IPC Magazines – the name until now behind the “Practical” magazine titles (originally published by Newnes) that everyone knew so well – but by Wimborne Publishing Ltd., a new company owned by Editor Mike Kenward. A new office opened in the very pretty town of Wimborne, in the shadow of the Minster.

Alfac rub-down transfers for labelling controls (~1982)In January 1987 EE saw a redesign of the masthead, back to Everyday Electronics (writ large) and ‘incorporating Electronics Monthly’ as a minor sub-heading. Thus the rival EM was subsumed into EE. The following year opened for me with a Power Controller design that I submitted in February’87. It used a thick-film phase-control device and a huge suppressor, built into a large diecast box. I had been toying with these things a lot, as I had developed a small commercial unit for the local bee-keeping community (for electric honey separators). The prototype was a rugged, near bulletproof piece of construction and I recall using it on our electric heater to dim the elements and save money! My Power Controller finally appeared 18 months later in EE September 1988 (article and prototype notes). Happily, although 1½ years had elapsed there were no component supply problems that time.

Alfac tool for dry transfersThe pattern of life was turning out generally the same:  working flat out on a day job, then returning home and starting work on my hobby electronics/ part-time job instead. Maybe I would hit the big time one day! Modest circuits would be devised, parts were sent away for by mail-order, breadboarded and tested; manuscripts would be hand-written in full and edited before I typed out the copy on my Silver Reed electric typewriter. Diagrams were drawn using stencils and rulers, as clearly as possible to help the artists and avoid mistakes. Letters went to- and fro- between the Publishers and me, and prototypes would be sent out for cross-referencing and photography.

It was very labour-intensive for the Publishers too, as articles had to be got ready for typesetting and printing, and prototypes photographed by them; apparently the chemists in Wimborne did brisk business developing all the photographs. Having a good track record made it easier for me to get material published ‘on the nod’ but the work could be onerous and it would be a few years before the production process became more efficient.

Life was nothing if not eventful and in the mid 1980s some major surgery set me back a bit, but being young I shook off the after-effects and pressed on the same as ever afterwards. In the latter 1980’s I had a very unsettled spell with some truly awful employers, but sometimes I made useful contacts and an interesting career diversification in the early 1990’s would add to my skills, but more of that another time.

As a result of disruption in my career, there was an interlude to my constructional projects.  More than 40 of my little projects had appeared in every volume of Everyday Electronics since 1978 but competition was tough, publishing schedules were erratic, it was increasingly hit-and-miss and my tank was running on empty. So after a decade I decided to take a breather in 1988 and the Power Controller (EE, Sept. 88) was my last project for a while. The total loss of interest and general malaise explains the gap in my EE collection, as most of 1987 to 1990 are in fact missing from my archives.

This period was undoubtedly the lowest point in my career, but I often kept one eye on a sketchpad and the other on my soldering iron, and my electronics-related exploits would doubtless turn the corner as time marched on.  Thanks to an advanced industrial project that I was involved with at this time, I made some interesting new contacts at the local University along the way, including some that play a valuable part in Everyday Practical Electronics to the present day!

Amsoft CF-2 3" Compact Floppy for Amstrad PCW word processors (~1989) © AWAfter a torrid time in industry and with health matters behind me, life started to look up a little in the 1990s. How to improve productivity and make a viable job out of my hobby electronics? I was gifted an Amstrad PCW9512 word processor in September 1990 (£550!) to help me start up again, and thanks to Locomotive Software’s Locoscript (available at ). I taught myself the principles of booting up, formatting disks, cut & paste, pagination and spell checking, and I spent several happy years getting to grips with my first word processor and everything that it could do, squinting at its white-on-black screen and rattling out reams of material on its tractor-fed daisy wheel printer!

Again, I still wasn’t really interested in coding and did just a little Mallard BASIC programming on it, based on my school skills gained 15 years earlier. My Silver Reed typewriter finally wore out and was replaced by the Amstrad: better to wear out that rust out, but the daisy wheel typewriter from Smith’s had been a milestone investment and I threw it in the skip with a heavy heart, mindful of the tons of manuscripts and letters that had sallied forth from its platen.

In order to keep my hand in with electronic projects, in the early 1990s I developed just a couple of simpler project ideas. The Auto Garage Light (EE March 92) operated the garage light for a few minutes when I got home after a hard day’s work and it worked a treat, serving me well for many years (article and prototype notes).  The Auto Nightlight (EE December 91) used the same idea as my original from July 1978, i.e. fitting an MES bulb into a plastic aerosol top as a diffuser (article and prototype notes). The bulb dimmed gently.

By now my printed circuit boards were starting to integrate the mains side by using a p.c.b. mounting transformer, fuseholder and p.c.b. screw terminals to reduce the chore of interwiring. All p.c.b. artwork was still designed by hand though. Constructional projects were becoming hard work, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to do an elegant job even at the simplest levels. I focussed almost exclusively on gadgetry and d.c. linear projects rather than, say, audio or computer designs. By this time my circuits were increasingly intended to fulfil a specific need that I had at home as that sparked an idea. However there was the nagging risk that projects might be rejected for publication:  the Publishers may have one already on the books, or if they requested a design they might not like my solution. Also the lead times for publishing could be so long as to make it unrewarding for me.

And now for something completely different

After another lull, I started to think more along the lines of writing a short series, trying to get some momentum with a run of articles which could prove more viable. As I’d been working with printed circuit boards for the past few articles, I decided to try for a short series of practical articles describing how to design and etch PCBs in case it hadn’t been covered for a long time. There were some interesting products around that helped with the p.c.b. production process – including my favourite Seno GS “Etch in a Bag” that I first came across in the late 1970’s (see Part 3). That product is still available today.

So I floated the idea of running some articles about p.c.b. techniques. Making Your Own PCBs would be my first series since Uniboards back in the 1970’s/ early 1980s so I set about drafting the three part series, explaining boards, components and multi-layer printed circuit boards (which I’d worked with in industry), how to etch and drill them individually, how to design artwork using rub-down transfers or crepe tape and how to produce boards using UV-sensitive resist materials. EPE’s Dave Barrington produced a run of centre-page supplements and overall I was very pleased with the presentation. The series ran from May 1992 to July 1992.

UV Exposure Timer prototype (1992)I included a smart little UV Exposure Timer, (July ’92 EE, article and prototype notes) which would help constructors obtain more consistent exposures when producing UV circuit boards. The 555 circuit was based on my (rejected) Radio Sleep Timer with some neat space-saving tricks for the front panel (my Thunderbirds control panel heritage again). Same construction style again, with p.c.b. -mounting transformer and fuse, although the timing resistors were soldered to the rotary switch that time. Separately I had to build a suppressor unit (as mentioned) because I found my UV exposure unit would re-trigger the timer! It was neat little design and 20 years on I still use it to this day.

An Artwork Light Box (Aug. 92 EE) rounded off the series. It was a sloping illuminated console with a 2D fluorescent lamp in it, on which all my UV artwork was drafted. Photography for the entire series was handled by a local professional studio that I’d known since school days; it was shot on film, remember, with not a digital camera in sight. By the way, July & August 1992 EE published the only photos of me at work! I puzzled out how to assemble props and materials for a photoshoot, the photos were expertly shot and the results spoke for themselves; the same photo studio handled some subsequent work as I’ll explain in the next part.

Also of interest this year, April 1992 Everyday Electronics published the first ever Circuit Surgery column, hosted by Mike Tooley who’d thought up the idea of a readers’ help page. Mike and Richard Tooley still write for EPE to this day. The “Readout” readers’ letters column also appeared for the first time in that issue.

Next month another small constructional project appeared, an updated Washer Fluid Monitor (article and prototype notes) for cars (EE Sept. 92) based on National’s interesting LM1830N fluid detector chip. It worked well in my Renault 5GT, and was probably the most reliable part of the entire car! The chip largely overcame the problems of d.c. electrolytic action damaging the sensor wires which I’d suffered in my earlier version (Aug. 84 issue, see part 4). I noticed that an LM1830 was being sold on ebay for £25 recently.

Amsoft CF-2 3" Floppy Disc (~1989) used on early Amstrad word processors © AWRemember there was still no Email at this time, so I rattled away with my Amstrad PCW9512 word processor, submitting written copy by letter post. The PCW with its Maxell 3” disks was a very liberating machine, because at long last I could draft text directly onto screen as I went along, then print drafts and hack it around until I was happy, instead of drafting text by longhand first. Locoscript’s cut & paste (all new to me) was the best thing since sliced bread! The PCW tractor-fed daisy wheel printer worked overtime and (joy) I could use different typeface daisywheels too, including a proportional font!

The machine worked hard, and I also used it to help me with my day job (I often had to bring work home with me, working to tight project deadlines). In due course I finally installed a 3½” floppy drive that allowed me to convert Locoscript files and submit ASCII text on floppy diskette for the very first time, so that EE’s typesetter (Terry Farmilowe) could “pour” text electronically into the page. I had never done any such PC-type upgrade work before and was very proud of this achievement, and the advances in typesetting and desktop publishing were enhancing my productivity no end.

To speed things along I also updated my telecoms equipment with a new, expensive, big and bulky Amstrad fax machine! Now I could fax proofs back to Wimborne during the small hours (because by now I worked as a product designer daytimes), and the fax machine stamped each page with a red cross as evidence of transmission. I recall dialling the wrong number very late one night and ended up trying to placate a pleasant chap in Scotland, whom I pestered repeatedly when my fax machine went berserk and phoned him incessantly, poor chap.

With work flowing more easily and life settling down a little bit, I pondered the future and decided that constructional projects were becoming very hard work. It was increasingly a case of ‘been there, done that’ – I was working flat out on two jobs now and couldn’t live with the erratic and disruptive project timetables that were part and parcel of publishing a monthly magazine. In the end, any projects that I submitted would become a bonus if they were published at all, and I focused on taking a more commercial view of my work. In particular I liked the idea of running a magazine series, so that a steady and predictable conveyor-belt of work could be organised.

By now I enjoyed a decent enough relationship with the publishers. My work was modest but it was dependable and the quality of manuscript presentation and prototyping was generally good, something I prided myself on.  After all, publishing a magazine is very hectic and publishers aren’t looking for work, so anything that makes their life easy could only be a good thing from my point of view. Ed. said they liked my work because it could go “straight through” with very little attention being needed to knock it into shape (maybe a clue there for prospective designers or writers). Thanks also to my widening industrial and commercial experience, my work took on a more business-like approach.

The Amstrad word processor worked hard but the era of the personal computer was almost upon us and the Internet and world-wide web were on the horizon. Pondering the potential to carve myself a freelance career, I looked at several options as the sun shone on the 1990s, and although I still had some constructional projects up my sleeve I decided to aim even higher in my electronics authoring, as I’ll explain in the next part as I talk about the mid 1990’s.

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