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Tuesday
Oct282014

Interview Part 6: A labour of love

Teach-In 93

Welcome to Part 6 of my potted history (nearly there now!), picking up the story as we entered the early 1990s. The hobby electronics market was still quite buoyant at this time but most of the competition had either disappeared or been absorbed into Everyday Electronics. EE (or Everyday Electronics and Electronics Monthly to give it its full title then) was going from strength to strength and the market was keeping everyone busy.

Submitting constructional projects for publication, though, had been a hit and miss affair. Options were shrinking as the number of hobby magazines had declined. There was a lot of pressure on magazine space together with the ever-present risk that work could be rejected, or there was something similar in the publisher’s pipeline already, or even if it was accepted it would take a year or two before it was published due to the squeeze on column inches.

Teach-In 93 Mini Lab [click for full size image]Instead of persevering with constructional projects, in early 1992 I took aim at the magazine’s flagship educational series instead. Teach-In was (and still is) a popular tutorial series that appeared from the very first edition of Everyday Electronics in November 1971.

Bagging such a series would bring a regular income each month so I broached the idea with EE’s Editor Mike Kenward, who replied that they were indeed considering the next Teach-In 93 series and that it should support the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education in Britain) and “A” Level (Advanced Level) Electronics syllabus. These were still being taught in schools.

There would be far too much work for one writer so I floated some ideas with Keith Dye, a freelance electronics engineer whom I’d first meet via the University of Hull where we worked on an industrial project together.  I could specify what was needed for the series, and handle much of the copy-writing, if Keith could handle the hardware and microprocessor side of things.

Gradually our ideas for a Teach-In tutorial series took shape, and we faxed some scribbled notes to each other all the time (I’d invested in an Amstrad FX-9600AT fax machine). I would call in at Keith’s home office and we worked together late after work at least one evening a week or so, and I would not get home until midnight or later.

Teach-In 93 would launch in November 1992’s magazine so work started in earnest in early 1992. I started on the core syllabus, working out the whole programme for the GCSE part of the series: Keith would handle the microprocessor Advanced-level part along with Geoff MacDonald, another contact from Hull University who was a genius in programming and who would design the Micro Lab monitor sequence.

I had to follow the current electronics syllabus carefully and reckoned we might republish old exam questions as worked examples to test our students.  So I mailshotted every examining board asking for their electronics syllabus before buying past exam papers and getting down to detail for the content of the series. An awkward spat arose with the Cambridge Examining Board when I accidentally referred to “O” Level Electronics in my mailshot rather than the correct “GCSE”.  A representative of the Cambridge board located the publisher of Everyday Electronics and phoned Editor Mike to suggest that if I didn’t know that “O” levels no longer existed then I wasn’t fit for the job (or that was the gist, as Mike put it); she suggested a teacher who could tackle the job instead. Fortunately Mike ignored them anyway, but it caused a serious wobble in my confidence and nearly damaged my reputation beyond repair.

Into production!

As the writing and Mini and Micro Lab designs got into full swing during mid 1992, parts lists and diagrams flew all over the place and the Mini Lab design file was soon over an inch thick, full of CAD files, printouts and faxes. All parts were duly sourced and a lengthy parts lists was distributed to some advertisers who wanted to support it, notably Magenta Electronics and Greenweld.

Work progressed extremely well with the circuit board designs and generally everything was coming together on time. Recall that I also had a day job in industry to handle, and so I often worked till 2 a.m. or later on a monthly timetable and I was often pretty exhausted for work the next day. Several parts had to be written in advance to build a buffer of material. Writing Teach-In ‘93 was the busiest, toughest and most pressurised phase of my career, and I guess it was symptomatic of one of my traits, namely the tendency to overpromise something, and then overwork and somehow deliver it on time anyway, often at a great personal cost.

This was a very industrious period for me, liaising with several parties and industry suppliers like Farnell, the various GCSE examining boards, and generally co-ordinating the project. There was no email at this time, remember. I would sketch the diagrams with pen and ink and create the manuscripts using an Amstrad PCW9512 word processor  and I posted off a package to Wimborne Publishing every month. At this time, incidentally, Keith showed me how to use a PC mouse and double-click, as I had never used either of them before and I experienced Windows 3.1 for the first time.

I managed a scary upgrade of the Amstrad, adding a 3½” floppy drive that would enable me to export Amstrad’s Locoscript text as an ASCII file and send a disk off to the Publishers – desktop publishing was fast heading our way and Wimborne’s in-house typesetting bureau (Typefit) was going digital. The time would soon come when I’d finally outgrow the Amstrad, a problem I’d address later once the royalty cheques started arriving.

I got a professional studio photographer to handle the initial camera work. Being in the pre-digital era, he used a back-projector and slides to create a neon grid backdrop in colour, getting it right first time and the Mini Lab and Micro Lab were both pictured this way. Disappointingly none of those shots made it into the magazine to begin with but did appear later in book form.

The EE speaker grille of the Teach-In 93 Mini Lab [click to see]It was also at this time, the November 1992 issue, that the takeover of Practical Electronics (PE) magazine was announced. The Mini Lab’s loudspeaker grille was formed from the letters “EE”, but unfortunately in the November 92 issue the magazine changed its name from EE to EPE instead. That issue would be a triple whammy, celebrating 21 Years of Everyday Electronics magazine, taking over PE and also launching Teach-In 93. I learned of the takeover only when I visited Wimborne’s office in 1992, with a Mini Lab and Micro Lab under my arm.

Over lunch Mike reckoned that if we sold 200 Mini Lab circuit boards, the series would be deemed a success. As it turned out, the first order was for 150 boards, quickly followed by another 250, then more still. We sold 1,200 Mini Labs in total and the series was extremely well received by the readership. Or most of it, anyway...

Attack of the Passive Aggressives

Mindful that freelancers were treated by the highly-protective and defensive teaching establishment as outsiders not to be suffered lightly (if at all), we signed up a course moderator to proof-read our material and add some ‘educational sector’ input, and it was at that time that a certain resistor colour code mnemonic – the infamous ‘Bad Boys....’ resistor memory aid was suggested.  I added it "nervously" to the text in Part One without a second thought.

Suffice to say that after Part One appeared, the mnemonic generated the biggest mailbag of complaints from assorted readers and a band of teachers in particular, who reported our very non-PC conduct to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Interestingly, others wrote in with back-slapping letters of support. A local authority councillor from Scotland sent a menacing letter as well, so I retorted that if he wanted to clean up the newsstands he should start by banning Page Three pinups instead, and stop picking on small independent publishers. A teacher from Bangladesh sent the most rabid complaint I ever saw, condemning our supposed condoning of violence against women.

We duly back-pedalled and offered a prize for a better alternative mnemonic, none of which I remember today. (Nearly twenty years later, a British supply teacher (James Hersey) suffered the same problem after using the same mnemonic, and he lost his job over it. I can sympathise.)

Readers of Teach-In ‘93 sent in their questions by letter post and we enjoyed handling their queries or setting readers on the right path of electronic enlightenment. One disgruntled reader sent an extremely rude letter berating us all as mere ‘academics’ – picking up on Keith’s engineering qualifications – and chuntering that we had not published the Mini Lab copper track patterns. They were © Keith and were staying that way; I wondered who was being greedier, the reader, or us. Another demanded the entire parts list for the whole series, because he wanted to complete his board straight away and couldn’t wait. We refused!

Having fought off some passive aggressives in the teaching establishment as well as the Equal Opportunities Commission, there were no other unsettling incidents and Teach-In 93 series quickly settled down and was blessed to have an enthusiastic following.

Getting more PC

During this time I beetled along with my Amstrad PCW9512, a word processor and daisy-wheel printer which my Mum had gifted to me in the late 1980’s to help me with my new (part time) career. As I mentioned before, its 3” Amsoft disks were incompatible with anything on the planet so a 3½” floppy drive enabled me to export ASCII files on disk and put them in the post.  That was how it was done.

The Ambra Hurdla set the PC-compatible market ablaze in the mid 90's, until IBM closed it down [click to see]At the end of 1992 I invested some royalties in a new Ambra Hurdla 486 PC and an HP LaserJet IIIP laser printer.  The Ambra was a very smart and stylish IBM-compatible PC that was produced by ICPI, a subsidiary of IBM themselves. It ran Windows 3.1 and DOS 6. I didn’t dare look inside without shuddering, and I spent some time getting to grips with Ami Pro, a truly superb word processor that came bundled with the Ambra. Although I took to the Ambra 486 PC straight away, I will be for ever grateful to the Amstrad PCW and Locomotive Software’s marvellous Locoscript for teaching me all the basics of cut and paste, pagination, spellchecking, printer control and file management.

ICPI was eventually shut down as IBM wanted to push its own ValuePoint series more. For old time's sake I still have the original 1992 Ambra PS/2 mouse and the Intel Overdrive co-processor that I installed at vast expense later on.

I also have the original Teach-In floppies: Part 1-6 were ASCII files, but Parts 7 onwards  were Ami Pro files (.sam) files – which the Typefit bureau couldn’t read to start with!  My first ever computer-generated graphic would be a rough bitmap of the IDC ribbon cable needed to connect the Micro Lab – but Wimborne still re-drew it by hand anyway (Part 9). Never the less, it was very clear how the tools of the trade were evolving, and communications and design were all going digital.

The following year in 1993, I felt confident enough to add an internal modem to my PC, which was not a trivial thing to set up, and a 14,400 baud Trust modem soon filled an ISA slot. Before long, I could dial into Typefit’s system and transmit my files over a phone line. I was very fond of Datastorm’s ProComm Plus for Windows for this, as it also let me send faxes from my desktop, which was quite some achievement at that time.

Of course, a modem would also open up the world of bulletin boards and services such as Compuserve (whose cover CDs were on every computer magazine).  I used a telephone cable reel to hook my PC to the phone socket in the next room at night-time, and from 1993 the air would screech with the sound of my modem dialling up. A short time later, I would reach out onto the Internet for the first time and design my first web pages, hosted on CompuServe’s free 100kB of web space. As web sites were very slow and very tough to put together I didn’t bother with the Internet at that time, and in fact the world wide web was seen as just a minor application, nothing more.

Ambra Sprinta (left) and Ambra Hurdla (right) [click to see]The Hurdla 486SX was upgraded with a twin speed CD-ROM (at last!) and Soundblaster sound card & CD interface (£250), followed by a second hard disk and – feeling braver by now – an Intel Overdrive co-processor. Gradually I gained confidence in working with PC motherboards on a need-to-know basis. In due course I gifted the Ambra PC back to my Mum and taught her email and surfing the web, which she still does to this day on a faster machine. Although the Ambra Hurdla had less than 1% of the power of a modern PC, I loved it to bits and it was with a heavy heart that the Hurdla was finally scrapped, thrown (disgracefully) into a landfill skip.

Time for a break

With the GCSE parts of Teach-In 93 successfully published I could take a breather from the punishing workload. The final parts of Teach-In were the province of Keith Dye and Geoff MacDonald, and I left them to showcase their Micro Lab and the pages soon filled with their programs and demo listings.

Despite the excellent quality of the Micro Lab, sales were never the same volume as the Mini Lab so some promised development work (starting with a printer port, and then a mobile buggy) proved to be non-viable. I guess everyone was pretty well exhausted after over a year’s unrelenting slog, and nerves were a bit frayed at times. Despite this, the Micro Lab worked exceptionally well and I was stunned to hear what some colleges etc. were doing with it years after the series had finished. I heard that one college had their Micro Lab stolen and was devastated by the loss.

Teach-In No. 7 book, with the Micro Lab in colour on the neon grid backdrop taken from my earlier photoshoot [click to see]In late 1993 the entire Teach-In series was re-released as a book (Electronics Teach-In No.7). I popped into a newsagents in Lincoln and glowed with pride when I suddenly saw my own work in book form, on sale on the newsstand, complete with my colour photo of the Micro Lab against the neon backdrop.

Overall, the Teach-In 93 Mini Lab was right for its time and we sold 1,200 units, six times the expected volume. It was very tough and challenging work, all this on top of a day job too, but Teach-In ’93 was my proudest and most satisfying practical achievement in my hobby electronics career.

You can read my Mini Lab development notes and see more colour photos in a PDF here.

We also managed to get our Micro Labs running again, some notes are here.

In the next part, the Teach-In 93 Micro Lab is included along with what would be my last offerings of constructional projects.

Reader Comments (5)

I recently read your article on the creation of the "Mini Lab" for "Teach-In 93" and I am believe that I have discovered a mistake. Early on in the article you state,

"A former Teach-In series also involved a Mini Lab which was built into an attaché case but it was entirely co-incidental that we adopted the same moniker for our own TI 93 circuit board."

The item in the attaché case was the "EE Labcentre" which was published over four issues, March to June 1979. This was an independent unit, i.e. not connected to a "Teach-In" series, and was credited to R. W. Coles and B. Cullen.

The original "Minilab" was designed for "Teach In '82", written by O. N. Bishop. This Minilab, whose construction was described in the October 1981 issue of EE, used a wooden base unit which contained similair facilties to the Labcentre and the TI93 MiniLab, i.e. breadboard, power supplies, signal generator, speaker, LED indicators, etc.

One unfortunate aspect of the TI93 Mini Lab is that the PCB design was never published. Still, it may be an interesting candidate for reverse engineering at some point.

All the best

Chris

January 13, 2015 at 11:24 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Thanks for the post, your comments do ring a bell and thank you for clarifying the matter of the original Teach-In 82 Minilab by O.N. Bishop that appeared in Everyday Electronics Oct. 81.

That issue also carried a supplement of Ten Popular Designs to build on the (free) piece of Veroboard (which was celebrating its 20th birthday), and I found three of them (Soil Moisture Unit, Opto Alarm and Ice Alarm) were mine.

With reference to the Teach-In 93 Mini Lab, Keith Dye recently gave me the gerber files on some very old floppy disks, which fortunately were still readable after all this time. Against all odds, Brian at Magenta Electronics succeeded in extracting some artwork as a PDF with one or two limitations. I hope to publish this as a matter of course.

January 13, 2015 at 11:35 | Registered CommenterAlan W

Really enjoyed reading this. I still have my MiniLab from 1992, and it is still in regular use for prototyping simple circuits. It still works perfectly, so I've put a photo up on Flickr of it in use, testing a reed switch and LED circuit, while listening to the radio of course!

It was originally used to teach my two teenage sons electronics, and may get use in the future for grandchildren. There's no substitute for hands-on learning. All I need to do is find copies of the original teach-in articles, which seem to have got lost over the years :(

[URL gone]

February 9, 2015 at 10:14 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Gray

Help me out will you Alan? I don't remember which way round a resistor goes. You do remember what a resistor is?

June 11, 2016 at 18:27 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Scarborough

I think the coloured stripes go at the top, unless they are gold or silver, in which case they go at the bottom. ;-)

June 13, 2016 at 21:41 | Registered CommenterAlan W

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