Monday, 26 January 2015

Story Time - The A3000 Break-in (My Story of Computing at pre-GCSE Level)

Yes, I'm going to tell a story again, this one pertains to my early teens, when at School I really discovered coding computers.  I went to a state Comprehensive, not a bad one, but not a fabulous one, named for the council estate I grew up on it was nothing special.  But in 1990 it was one of the first schools to start shedding it's older BBC Micro's for Acorn Archimedes Computers.

These caught my attention as just a couple of years earlier I had my Atari ST, my brother and I picked the ST because our cousin had one, and he got all the pirated games available, so we had that and loved it, but until after college I never really programmed it, the Archimedes at school however, they had a programming language built in... they had BBC Basic, just as the Micro's before had.

I also knew they were this "RISC" thing, which was big news in the 90's it was going to revolutionise computing, by making things easier and simpler to code.  "Reduced Instruction Set" after all, sounded simpler!

However, when it came time to pick my GCSE options I took one look at the IT (now called Information Communication Technology - ICT) syllabus and thought it a load of crap.  Who wanted to learn about Ceefax, or weather, or news broadcasts, I wanted to sit at the computer and pick through it's electrons.

So, I avoided ICT and IT, and went onto other things, as the years went on however, they moved two of the science rooms from old labs on the third floor down into another block, and in the vacant rooms they had nice power strung around the walls and they installed a suite of new Archimedes 3000 computers, with 2MB of RAM!...

I remember being entranced by these machines, they had the same form factor as my ST, but I only had 512K of RAM, with 2MB of RAM and a built in OS which was much more full featured than GEM was, I got to grips with these things quickly.  Not that I ever ever had a simple lesson with them... Oh no, because, I used to sneak in there.

I would actively bunk off of Physics and go into this often empty computer suite, I soon found built into the machine a RAM disk, so I could put 512K of ram aside as a disk!... And the speed of that was phenomenal!  Ensuring I had a script to write my files back to my disk, and then another script on another disk to load the RAM disk and copy the files in, I had a basic "boot & sync" mechanism such as many USB sticks come with today, but this was in 1991, on 2MB of RAM using 3.5" 720K DS DD Floppy disks!

Pretty soon I had a whole troop of school friends who would bunk off to the computer lab with me, Daniel, Nicola, Tracey, even the most buttoned down hard working lad in our shared physics class Gurpal bunked off to the Computer Lab with us.

I also used my ST at home for reports, especially doing Integrated Humanities, so I would be given permission from that teacher, to go write up my report on the Computers, it was only a text file so it worked a treat copying the data on and off the disk, even if it was formatted for my ST, the ST, IBM PC and Acorn machines could all read one another's disks... Unlike those poor Amiga Schmucks who had to jump through hoops to get their machines to change the disk idents and headers (yes, yes this was a dig - Atari Forever, Amiga Never - hehe).

Anyhew, leading this rag tag bunch, and exploring the inner workings of these Acorn A3000's one day I was found, in the supposedly locked room, by a teacher, I think his name was Atherton, he was a strange one, but what strikes me now is the manner of his reaction, he asked what I was doing, he saw the pages of code, he saw my sync program as I desperately tried to move the RAM disk back into the safe storage of the floppy, because he had his finger on the master trip switch - the teachers, if they caught you playing a game, or messing around had a tactic; and on machines without hard-drives this was perfectly sound; of hitting the master trip to isolate the power to the bench ring supplying the computers, everyones machine went dead and they had you bang to rights with a game disk in the machine.

This teacher however had the nous to see this wasn't a game, but he was only ICT syllabus trained, he had no idea what I was doing, or the power of the machines on these desks, he thought of them as a teaching aid, not a gateway to the future I now have as a programmer.

I explained I was coding, and I just said "I have a machine at home", and this is where the strangeness began, he assumed I meant an A3000 or similar, which were expensive back then, my Atari was not cheap, but it was already nearing five years old, the A3000 was brand new on the market, and cost nearly £800 each.  He'd not found me playing, it looked like work, he didn't know what code looked like.  Quite a damning statement for a school with him as the lead of IT subjects, with this fancy new computer suite, in the dawning of the 90's where the digital age and computers were fast on the ascendancy.

But he really had no clue, his punishment... yes, there I said it, rather than ask, or encourage me, or see what I was up to and realise I knew more about the computers than he did, he decided not to encourage, or help - which tells you a lot about that teacher - he decided I'd done wrong, being in the computer lab without permission.  So his punishment was... Well it was weird.

I don't think he believed I had one of those machines at home, so to challenge me, he locked the lab - stopping me getting into them - and he took me to his office, where he handed me a copy of Lemmings, yes the compute game... And a pack of 10 blank disks... He made me sign for the disks... And he said "Copy that disk onto all those disks"...

Yes, copyright theft via pirating was to be my punishment... I didn't know what he wanted the copies for, there was no internet, so no e-bay, so I guess he couldn't sell the copies... Maybe he had a class to show a game to, ironic considering the stance the school took for having games on machines etc.

So, off I went, I got home and spent a good hour copying these disks, it took ages on a 512K ST, you had to read the first half of the disk into RAM, then write it out, then read the second half in, and write it out, it was one of those tedious tasks, and I'm pretty sure even today my muscle memory is enough to let me swap disks onto the side slot mounted drive of the ST or Acorn machines at speed.

Anyway, with five disks done, we had to go out training that evening, so in the morning I had only half the task done and this bizarre punishment still at hand... My solution was easy, there were two ways into the computer lab at school, the first was through the door, the second was via an English classroom, into the store cupboard at the back, and then on my hands and knees through the floor level vent, this led into the store room in the computer lab, if it's door was unlocked I could get back in...

It would be risky, but I entered the English classroom before the first bell, and moved a pile of books out from under a table to expose the vent, unscrewed it and moved it aside, then found two T ring binder clips and hooked them through the vent, climbed through and pulled the vent back into place from the other side.

Dusting myself down it was pitch black, so I moved slowly with my feet trying to find the door and not hit anything, finding the handle I turned and it opened, thank god!  Because to go back out now would look very dodgy, as the English classroom had resumed.

I quickly fired on the power and brought the nearest five machines up, and started then making copies of the copies I already had.  It was an agonizing two or more minutes to copy the files into RAM, but the machines had RAM enough to hold the whole disk, so I just had to do one mass swap and press Space to continue.

Writing the files back out was even slower, and made more noise, suddenly I heard a key rattle in the door, someone was coming in... I ducked back into the store cupboard, as a teacher came in, a women, she spread out a group of first years to each machine, except the five which were on, thank goodness...

I decided to play it casual, I rattled a few things and emerged from the cupboard, "Morning Miss"... And I just got on with my machines, she didn't even ask why I was there, as I collected up my five disks, and she never queried why I was in the room with a locked door.  I don't think she had the nous.

Anyway, I had my booty, the ten copies, plus the original, and I went off to hand them into the bloke before break - which was his deadline - I knocked on his door and handed them over, he had a class so could not really talk to me, but he did ask - "Did that take long?", "yes Sir", "Let that be a lesson to you"...

You know, to this day, I'm not sure what lesson he was trying to teach, I look back on using 3.5" floppies with a nostalgia, and I look back on that day the sheer balls I had to get away with using the lab, now locked, and their attitude, it stank... They should have encouraged me, I'd have been somewhere other than I was, my skills and fluency with a computer were delays reaching my education by at least three years, I didn't learn anything more than BASIC and the prompting shell script languages until I learned my first 3rd Generation High Level Language (PASCAL) at college.

By then the internet revolution was burning it's way through the stock markets, but I always think, I could have been writing tools I use and wrote five years later that little bit earlier, I could have had an easier time at college and university by earning cash from the tools I had, or even giving them away to make a name or addition for my CV.

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