The First Computer I Worked On…

…was also the second and then many more, this brand stayed with me for over twenty years. This is going to be a long one but there’s much ground to cover so I’ll start now with the logo. I thought it was a good logo as it always meant good things for me.


Just the other day, I was watching one of my favorite youtubers, a Swiss guy named Andreas Spiess. Like Andreas, I also operate out of my home and I like to keep an eye out for ideas on utilizing space and useful pieces of equipment. In his video, Andreas had an interesting mix of old and new gear, plus he showed off his book collection. Seeing that reminded me of some books I either used to have, or always wanted. One of the titles Andreas showed was The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation by Glenn Rifkin and George Harrar. Andreas commented that he used to work for DEC, (Digital Equipment Corporation of Maynard, MA) and remembered it fondly.

This brought back a lot of memories for me. While I never formally worked for DEC proper, I did have many associations with them and they greatly influenced me, and my experiences with them guided me on many choices throughout my varied career.

My DEC Beginnings


My first experience with computers was in 1977. I attended a rural high school that happened to have a DEC PDP 8/E minicomputer in a room attached to the math lab. The computer was a multicolored box with flashing lights and switches that looked more like audio equipment than a computer. In another box was a reel to reel tape machine. Next to that was a teletype machine and an optical computer card reader that was used for teaching data input and programming. The lessons taught were more like number sorting than what you think of as computer programming today.

There wasn’t much for a kid like me to do in a farm town but fortunately, the other kids had equally little interest in the computer room. It was always empty, so that’s where I spent much of my time, reading the manual and looking at electronics magazines. Once the teacher realized I had some skills, he put me to use cleaning out the card reader and the teletype paper tape puncher. I kept notes on the machine and its issues and, after a while, I started to get called out of class when the DEC tech arrived to service the equipment. We’d talk and I’d make sure he addressed all our issues.

My Days as a Teenage DEC “Expert”

The next year, my parents moved us back to the city and I enrolled in a technical high school. The school had a computer room, complete with an upgraded and much newer DEC PDP 11, two tape drives, and — low and behold — a VT100 video display terminal! Unlike the rural school, there were already some other students in the computer room. I earned their respect by mentioning that I was trained by a DEC rep to clean and maintain the card reader and tape punch. I said I would be happy to train the other students. For extra incentive, I dropped the name of the rep. Upon hearing that, the teacher’s eyebrows rose. Turns out he knew and liked the guy. I was in!

The DEC VT100 Terminal

In addition to being a very modern school, the building was located next to Radio Valve Road, which had housed the local RCA vacuum tube plant. The plant had been shut down a year or two earlier, but before that they had supplied the school with TV tubes for the electronics course. So not only was I involved in the computer program, I was also in the last class to build a TV from tubes and parts. Also noteworthy, the local DEC head office where the service techs were dispatched from was located within a mile of the school.

As with my old school, it wasn’t long before the teacher was calling me out from class when the machine had to be serviced. Since we were an educational customer, we were entitled to run a copy of DEC Unix which I asked about. Tapes were delivered and a schedule was made so that we could run unix up to one day a week as long as it wasn’t during exams or finals. We also got a copy of the quintessential book on programming: The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie.

This was my first introduction to unix and C. It was 1978 but many of the commands that I learned I still use today. Almost daily, I drop into the command line and type those same characters and words, just as I have done during every major part of my career. Clearly, as an old computer language, unix is a stable and mature language with the bugs stamped out long ago. It was here that I played my first computer game Star Trek on the PDP11.

Using DEC in the Working World

When it came time to graduate high school, I was pretty sure I wanted to continue my learning with computers. However, I didn’t choose computer science as the computer science departments of that time had time-share computers that nobody touched, you would write programs on cards and wait for the results. The school had a cart in the hall and students would pile their boxes of cards on them. A day or two later, the cart returned filled with listings. This was not “hands-on” enough for me, so I enrolled in a physics program that featured their own DEC VAX computer.

The DEC VMS Terminal

My first adult job was with a scientific/lab firm that supplied equipment for photonics and materials testing. They also happened to be a DEC value added reseller (VAR), so on my first day, I could not only sit down and get the company’s software running, but I also knew the hardware and already had my own connections at DEC. In this job I had to travel coast-to-coast, visiting customers and going into labs. I got to work with scientists, who not only were great people, but were involved in solving the problems they brought me in on. We supplemented DEC with the odd Apple ][ computer, mostly used as a terminal, but when the Macintosh came out, we bought tons of them.

The first Macs made great low-cost replacements for the expensive unix terminals. They also had that newfangled “mouse,” which was great on the shop floor, as the computer could be built in a steel safety cabinet and the mouse connector could be fitted to a bulkhead connector on the front. Those would last a lot longer in dirt or moisture. Macs also had built-in networking years before a PC even had a network card, so you weren’t stuck using only the serial terminal. Macs weren’t unix yet, but they were solid and had enough smarts for networking years before the internet.

DECnet: Before There Was an Internet

We’d been using DECnet since the early 80s, and as a VAR we were allowed to connect to DECnet mail via a special telephone line that we paid for by counting the number of telephones between our offices (which, luckily, wasn’t far from the local DEC office!) From there, I could join special boards where other VARs, users, and DEC offices around the world shared information. Mostly, it was helpful for getting DEC systems running, but there were other boards I used, like the one for science fiction fans and one for windsurfers (my supervisor was a windsurfer). I also remember getting a lot of help from the reps and VARs in Australia who, I guess due to time zones, were answering my questions while I slept.

DECnet running on a Mac

There was still no PC at this time. Well, there might have been, but not on our floors. And why would there be? VAXs were barely fast enough for our needs, even though they were magnitudes faster than a 486 which was a board with a few slots, no networking, and barely any memory. You couldn’t even get near to filling those tin boxes due to other limitations so I never worked on them. Why would I when I had access to computers that were worth over $40,000? At this point, the big VAX machines were running the VMS operating system, which was the most stable and elegant operating system I have ever used. These machines easily went years between rebooting. I have another story here of the time I went to Japan to train on a scientific system powered by a large VAX VMS machine

DEC Rainbow

The DEC Rainbow

By the time the PC had almost progressed into a workable machine, the company I was working with had engineering test a number of them against the new DEC version of a PC called the DEC Rainbow. The Rainbow was a professional machine that had been engineered to be serviceable. It had pull-out cards and innards that needed no tools to work on, and it came with many extras already built into the machine. These were extras that a professional would need but consumers could be hoodwinked into purchasing later. The Rainbow ran CP/M, which was not too different from unix, so a unix shop could port to it or design for it without too much trouble. At the time, CP/M was more popular than MSDOS. Engineering chose the Rainbow, but the world picked the PC, which, in my opinion, might have made a mistake. Fortunately, we were spared the switch to PCs, as our computer tasks and computing complexity increased so exponentially that we were back to unix computers for a few more years.  

Handheld lab instruments

Rapid Changes and Re-careering

By now in my career the economy was changing. Labs were closing and manufacturing was slowing down, turning the huge factories I was going to into big box stores. The handheld instruments that were emerging were fast and cheap, almost disposable, and were starting to replace minicomputers. At the same time, the owner of my company had made me some promises and then reneged on them, which left me open to looking for new employment. Luckily, there was a huge boom in the graphic arts industry. I had ten years’ experience in color science and a pretty strong unix background. So even though I had enjoyed my job and the travel and all the good people I met and got to work with, I was also ready for a change.

It was pretty easy to find another job and the break from travel was a relief. I took a position at a high-end graphics house that served advertising agencies and public relations firms. Custom, special, and high-end jobs were the calling card of this shop, and they were on the verge of making the jump to digital from traditional photo and hand artwork. It was my job to assist this jump. By this time, people were using networked PCs, but only highly trained people had any connection to the internet. People also had drawing programs and could print out to an ink jet printer, but it was nowhere near the quality of commercial printing, let alone traditional high-end printing methods like the ones we were using.

High Quality Printing

Back when you thought your new laser printer was an amazing piece of technology, I was working with devices that had 324 times that resolution. And that was for just one color! Some systems printed up to eight or ten colors, on sheets over a meter wide at a rate of 10,000 per hour. Producing a high quality printed image at a traditional 150 line per inch halftone screen for something like a coffee table book or a year-end report requires the digital equivalent of 2,540 dots per inch squared, over the entire printable area of the press.

All this digital manipulation created large files — up to a few gigabytes — that had to be moved around in professional computer systems. This is one reason why unix systems were so popular at the time. Where I worked, we’d have something like a VAX server that ran our image programs, a Sun server to save and store the files, and SGI workstations to view and work on the files. There were other servers in the workflow that did specific jobs, like moving all the pages around on the big sheet to fit in a pattern for making books, or the server that optimized the images and compensated for the limitations of presses.

The NeXT Cube

These other servers may have been DEC, but just as often they had names like Data General or Tektronix or even HP. Regardless, they usually ran some version of unix. Other unix machines I used in graphics were NeXT Computers. They were the precursor to the present Mac OS and iOS systems. We used a NeXT computer with a huge grayscale CRT monitor for only one task: to preview the files that went to the very large film making machines. Another NeXT ran a trapping program and sat beside the Sun server. Some people complained that there were too many different versions of unix but in my experience there is much more in common between any two versions of unix than any two versions of MS Windows.

My Time with Barco Graphics

Another graphic system company from this era that I really enjoyed and think back on fondly was Barco Graphics, a Belgian company that had started out making their own proprietary graphic workstations. By the time I worked with them in the 90s, they were using DEC VAX servers running VMS and SGI graphic workstations. This was called “client/server,” and the CPU-intensive work was done on the VAX, while the input and visualization was done on the SGI. The third part of the system would have been the output. Barco excelled with the specialized hardware they made, such as the PrintStreamer — a large box of hard drives that split the image over all the drives and allowed it to be spooled rapidly — and the Megasetter, which was a photo film printer that had a high enough resolution for printed money and security documents. I’ll write about my working with producing bank notes in another article soon.

I was lucky enough to have not only have factory training on these Barco Graphic systems but I got to operate their equipment in a number of countries around the world. The full Barco graphic package running on a client/server system was an awesome tool that could do things nothing else at the time could. There are things I did then that could not be easily reproduced today. The Barco software, Lineworks, was similar to Adobe Illustrator, but could open files that would have brought Illustrator to its knees. The same could be said about the Brix image manipulation program.

Among the projects I worked on was a continuous printing project with data from General Motors that ran as one long page and took almost a week to print. It was cut up into tens of thousands of custom printed forms, each one different. We won an award from a large marketing magazine for that one. We also created highly sophisticated line work like you see in the background of a bank note and used personal data to create security badges that could not be duplicated. We took GIS data from cities and satellite data and merged them into huge, highly detailed, multilayer maps for city planners. All this and we’re still a few years before the 21st century.

This was not high end in 1988

The Early Days of Photoshop

Speaking of Adobe, the early version of Photoshop was unsuitable for professional work. It did not support printer colors and wouldn’t for a few years. Hell, the beta version wasn’t even in color. Another reason early Photoshop sucked was that it taxed the memory of the computers it ran on. Remember what I wrote earlier regarding memory usage? [insert internal hyperlink] A meager 300dpi image covering one sheet greyscale takes over 8MB. Most of the computers of the time had barely half that. For example, the Macintosh IIfx was sold as a professional machine for about $10,000 and came with only 4MB of RAM. Home computers came with much less. To be able to view an 8MB image on a 2- or 4-MB machine, the Knoll brothers (who sold what became Photoshop to Adobe) came up with a system to pull a few bits at a time off the hard drive, which enabled you to scroll around and edit your image. While this workaround might have been okay for the amateur user, it was not acceptable for professionals who needed to move hundreds — if not thousands — of large images around in a day. But, sadly, systems like the Barco have been forgotten.

QMDI 46-4

My Time with Heidelberg

1995 was a very big year for digital graphics and it was the year Heidelberg introduced the Quickmaster DI. The QMDI 46-4 was the first offset press to automatically image and process its own printing plates on the machine. I was lucky enough to be involved with the North American introduction, which I’ve covered in more depth in another article. This machine not only replaced a room full of support machines and staff, it fit into an area that was smaller than the previous machine itself. All you needed was the QMDI press and a Mac and you were in the offset printing business — it was that much of a game changer. It included one of the final DEC machines, the DEC AlphaStation. These DECs came in the box with the press but did not include any service from DEC. I did manage once to get a rep to deliver an ethernet card to replace a new failure, but that was it. A few years later, Compaq bought DEC. Then HP bought Compaq. Today, all that is left to show DEC existed is a few fan sites and a wikipedia page. I think I still have a DEC Alpha ethernet card in a box somewhere. Who knows, maybe it’ll be a good eBay find for someone.

Here’s a link to my blog about analog computing and the early HunterLab color measuring instruments.

Here’s a link to my blog about digital printing in 1995.

Here’s link to my blog about meeting two digital color pioneers.

Keywords: DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC Rainbow, DECnet, unix, professional printing, VAX, VAR, Sun server, Data General, Tektronix, HP, NeXT Computers, Mac OS, Mac iOS, Lineworks, Heidelberg, QMDI-46, DEC Alpha

When Analog Computers Ruled the World

Boy that reads like science fiction! This is actually a nonfiction story about my experience with a type of analog computer that was alluded to in a thesis by Mr. Richard S. Hunter and found by a scientist at Procter & Gamble who just had to have one. Actually he couldn’t have one as the crafty Mr. Hunter insisted that it would take an order of 25 to make it worth his while to set up a development project hence the machines were called the D25.

D25 (Analog Computer)

The machine was designed in 1956 and remained in production for many years, after that they were kept running with parts salvaged from retired machines. The D25 measured colors, it did this by producing a specific illumination and focusing it on the specimen then it then gathered the reflected light looking for what was missing. The missing light represents whatever the specimen absorbed. The model pictured above is from the original 25 and is said to be still working.

By analyzing the difference between the light you shine and the light you record can give you certain information that can be used to give numbers to what you can see. This is not an absolute method which is why the machine is called a color difference meter. Inside the heart of the machine was four photomultiplier tubes, each tube was behind a different filter. Those filters are referred to as X,Y and Z plus Xa, Xa was added later.

Analog computers need constant calibration, lamps fail, voltages fluctuate, tubes age, filters solarize, even the temperature causes the readings to change. This was one of my first jobs keeping these old kunkers going just long enough for the company to allocate enough money to buy a newer one. The newer one was also called the D25 but to differentiate it from the tube behemoth the suffix “-2 solid state” was added.

Hunterlab D25-2Δ
(I searched hard but could not find a photo of this machine, If I find one I’ll replace this)

Both models were essentially the same machine, they had to be as by then industries all around the world had written specifications that required that the new one read the same as the old one just smaller, lighter and without the vacuum tubes.

Q: BUT HOW DO YOU READ COLOR? Well I’m glad you asked. The machine does not read the whole color but looks at specific areas and that has been determined to give enough data to make certain assumptions about the color. The real purpose of the machine is to tell how far off the ideal color you are and not the absolute color, that’s a much easier job.

tristimulus color space

Above you can see the four filters of the tristimulus colorimeter. Calibrated plates plus a zeroing mechanism or standards are used to make the readings equil the standards. Once done you can read the percent reflectance of light from your sample. Percent reflectance X,Y,Z does let you write down the numbers but tells little about what color you are looking at.

Mr. Hunter’s brilliant idea

If you are familiar with tools like Photoshop you may have noticed next to the crayon color picker there’s a scale called L,a,b. This is one of Mr. Hunter’s greatest contributions to the world of color. He figured out a way to take the XYZ numbers and output Lab. Lab is great because for the first time you can look at the number and have an idea of what the color is. L is the value of light from very dark to very light, a is the shift from green to red going from negative to positive and b is the shift from blue to yellow. This is called the opponent color scale and works similarly to your eyes as you can see a reddish green or a yellowish blue.


XYZ to Lab

Here’s where the analog computer of the two machines comes in, you take the voltages coming out of the photomultiplier/germanium photocell represented by the formula above and apply that math and your results will be in the appropriate voltages. In the early machine you had to turn a twenty-five turn dial until a meter went null and take your reading off the dial for each reading. On the more modern D25-2 you pushed a row of radio buttons and read the value off a volt meter one reading at a time.

Digital Color Measurement

If you’re interested you can reproduce this experiment if you have a color image editor like Photoshop. Open a photo you took, find the color picker and set the scales to XYZ and Lab. Hover the picker over the color in the image you want to see the tristimulus value for and look in the info panel to see your results. That’s it! If you want to calibrate your image make sure there is one know color standard is in your photograph and use the Image -> Color balance to adjust your standard then read your sample. Wasn’t that easy?

The computer had a special board with a very expensive operation amplifiers that would output a voltage that was the square root of the input voltage, others were multipliers and dividers. These machines lasted a very long time in the field and as they aged many of them could no longer be fully calibrated but this mattered little as their intended purpose was as a color difference meter so we could calibrate them to the customer’s standard and they only had to measure the small difference their production was varying from their standard.

My calibration helper

When I started to calibrate analog computers in 1983 I used this calculator to make sure my conversion results were correct for the range of colors I was working with. I still have this calculator and I had it a few years earlier when I took electronics at college. As you can see you can program in formulas, slide the switch and hit the COMP button and it would query you for XYZ and produce Lab so I didn’t have to carry around any tables. Of course I was holding in my hand what would eventually end the work I was doing.

HunterLab Standards


Above is a photo of my personal set of standards, given to me by my good friend and mentor Randy Bohman when I left after ten years of selling, servicing and installing HunterLab equipment and software. This was an amazing experience to not only travel all over Canada and parts of the world but to meet and work with so many leaders in the field from innovators like Mr. Hunter and Mr. Harold to all the color scientists working in the industry and sitting in on the development of technical standards to be invited into the labs, studios and testing areas of every industry imaginable.

By the late 1980s these machines were heading to the junk pile when the D25-9 was introduced. It could display all the readings at one time on its fluorescent display and used an analog to digital converter that eliminated the need to carry around tables to figure out what was going on. The source/sensor was changed little for the new model.

D25-9 M sensor

The D9 as we called it was a terrific machine and had options out the wazoo like the printer you can see in the photo above. It also had a row of hidden buttons that could contain options like extra memories or color scales. The tomato industry had a special button and so did a number of P&G products, there was also a hidden button that accessed the diagnostics.

This new wonder machine ran on a somewhat propetitery card bus. This was sort of an industrial standard for plug in cards, on one card was an 8088 processor and another card had the ROM and another the RAM, there was a card to run the printer and one to run the display plus a serial card for external communication. The A/D converter was on its own harness and connected directly to the CPU via a wide ribbon cable. Other than the photocell system this was an all digital machine, the end of analog computers at Hunter Associates Lab and the eventual move to spectral data.

Make sure you read my post of meeting and working for Mr. Hunter. Two Color Pioneers and a Kid from Toronto

The Story of a Book and then some…

A recent online discussion of other people’s art reminded me of a book I helped to produce in my studio in the late 90’s. I operated a studio named Digital Media Production which grew out of another company and was a supplier of digital know how to the advertising agencies and PR firms that were located in the area. At one time we had up to two art directors, five production artists and a couple of interns, our normal work was to take the clients ideas and direction and bring it to a stage that would allow it to be reproduced in a professional system.

If that sounds vague it’s because things changed fast in those days. This day we happened to be book designers when a client came in asking for us to design and produce a book for her client a large food manufacturer. She came to us with her chef and we discussed their ideas, she wanted a beautiful glossy coffee table book produced in full color with large photos on one page and the recipe on the other. After some initial proposals her client came up with the deposit checks for all those involved and we were off.

Hardcover binding and heavy glossy paper meant meetings with book binders and paper suppliers. We already had a photographer in mind and the same for food stylists and set decorator so more meetings and scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. Mockups were approved, studios rented and principle shooting started which went amazingly well, we were averaging seven photos a day which is really good for food photography.

Since the client was looking for beautiful full sized photos we shot everything on large format cameras and were preparing for Hi-Fi 6 color printing with a special color for the clients logo and spot gloss and flood varnishes, this thing was going to pop off the pages. A few weeks after shooting we were ready to deliver our artwork to the printer.

This is when things got fuzzy as our client the agency had gotten into a fight with her client the food company and nothing happened for a long time. I put my copies of the project into storage and went on with life which was beginning to get hectic as my wife had discovered she no longer wanted part of me and since she was a partner in my company it triggered a confrontation with our third partner who now wanted and was within his rights to ask that we close the company. This left me really scrambling with no time to worry about a shelved project.

Some time later and I don’t remember how long but the money part of the project found my former partner and wanted to restart the project, a deal was made and I released the files which meant I handed a CD to Phil when he asked for it. I don’t know what the deal was as I had no involvement and my company was long gone.

Well life goes on if you’re lucky and I think over ten years did. In the meantime I did many other things only remembering about this project recently thanks to a discussion on facebook. My initial searches turned up nothing because when the book was finally released they changed the name and they changed authors making it harder to find. Well Goodwill in Texas had a copy for ninety-nine cents on ebay so last week I bought my first copy of a book I created over fifteen years ago but never seen. It arrived four days later in a flimsy plastic envelope, way too small and light for the book I worked on. That was the first change, instead of the big beautiful coffee table book what arrived was a 7″ x 10″ softcover.

That’s not all, opening the first page the light hit the paper at just the right angle to reflect off the ink exposing that the piece was printed on a digital press which is more like a photocopier than the 6 color + specials offset press we prepared our work for. Also with the pages a lot smaller they had to shrink the margins and now the copy is awkwardly near the edges and dips way too far into the gutter. The serif typeface being printed with a less quality method and shrunk down slightly had become too fine making the edges look jagged and tattered.

The final thing I notice is my credit has been left off, I guess I’d rather not be named when the results are like this so it’s really no loss just another point in a long list of disappointments. Since I still have the original files I have no problem proving it’s my work I just wish they had executed it better. Well at least now I have a copy and I can put this chapter to rest.

Oh I almost forgot, my used copy which was listed as good condition had been marked up by a previous owner making the condition much worse but I won’t hold Goodwill responsible. It seems some person had taken a blue ball point pen and converted all the recipes into some Chinese characters. I actually like this as it shows this book was actually useful to someone. All this brings back memories of tasting these dishes from when we made the photos, I hope they enjoyed them too.

Leading the digital pack in 1995

Of the most interesting jobs I’ve had my favorites were always those where I worked with people who were smarter, more skilled or just plane leaders it their field. One of these occasion was in 1995 when I was called to run the digital prepress operations for the Canadian introduction of the first digital offset printing press at the largest printing trade show in Canada.

Dr. Fischer was from head office in Germany, and the leader of the digital research department was in charge of making sure the machine arrived and was installed and run to the highest standards, it was his baby. I expected a stern ship’s captain but was pleasantly surprised when he introduced himself in a cheerful happy voice and a big smile. His assistance, of course he called the shots but it seemed like he was helping us and his funny jokes made the long hours setting up the show pass quickly. We completed our tasks on time with everything moving along smoothly.

As the last day of setup was coming to a close it was noticed that the huge show booth did not have enough light so the show services department were summoned and extra lights were quickly hoisted up to the rafters. It was as the last of the extra lights were being adjusted that the large scissor lift truck lurched backward and its steel frame clipped sharply into the delivery unit of our secret weapon press breaking and bending precious bits of aluminum and steel with a loud crunch.

The booth was filled with shock and horror, would Dr. Fischer freak out, would he hit the extra high ceiling in a screaming panic? Nope, in much more coolness than I’m sure anyone else there could muster he calmly walked over and started to explain to the press technicians which parts were from which other model machines and off they went back to the shop to collect them. I believe it was his control of the situation that allowed the work to progress unhindered by panic and drama. It took until late in the night but all was repaired and the show went on like nothing happened.

Our big deal was that we could print directly from a normal computer and at that time it was a Macintosh laptop to an offset press, no film making, no traditional printing plates and no waiting, push print and a few minutes later beautiful four colour sheets were flying off the press at up to 10,000 an hour.

We produced a newsletter specially for the show on a glossy tabloid sized sheet, one side was printed in the morning with news of that day and the other side was printed during the demo using photos and info from the group that was being given the demo. After the demo the room was filled with the smell of ink and the guests were handed the fresh sheets that contained photos of themselves with the warning that the ink was still wet. Amazing!

We also produced a more challenging demo that was printed in the evening. I combined many of the features of the machine that were difficult to achieve on normal small format presses like very tight registration, very long gradients, very small type, highly saturated colours and it was printed on the maximum size sheet the press would handle. This allowed an interested customer to compare our sheet to the other high speed machines at the show. Since at this time the competition were merely colour photocopiers their sheet was dull and smaller and the print was fuzzy and the ink sat up on the paper like drops of paint from a paint brush, they were no competition. Dr. Fischer also allowed me to print my name on the sheet as creator which made it the centerpiece of my portfolio for years.

After donning a shirt and tie for a week the show was over and the wrap party was held at a nearby steakhouse where the company paid for a huge keg of beer and fabulous dinners for everyone. It was here that I found out that our special press was the hit of the show and the expected target of 15 orders was exceeded by over 70 orders! Ahhh my job was secure.

Now with the show over I was back to developing the first digital demo center for the Canadian headquarters near Toronto. The company already had a very large traditional demo center with many printing presses large and small and all the equipment to support those machines like film processors, plate makers, light tables, cutters, punching machines, etc. enough to mostly fill a 10,000 square foot room. We were given about 500 square feet to start with and permission to get what I thought we needed.

Up until this point my duties were as technical consultant to the sales specialist for the new and up until now secret and unannounced digital printing products. The person I was assisting was trained on traditional offset presses and had some Macintosh graphic arts familiarity but not enough to complete the demo center. After the success of the show he was required to hit the road supporting the new customers and I was left mostly on my own to complete the task in anticipation of our demo press arrival.

As I spent day after day in the new demo center digital room, at first assembling and starting up the equipment and then proofing and preparing customer demo jobs staff members started to pop in and see what I was up to. This interaction with other staff members lead to other jobs including working with the marketing department on preparation of the monthly ad buys. I assembled all the ads for spots that ran in many nationally distributed trade magazines and delivered them in digital format. By the time of the next trade show I was producing signage to be displayed on everything up to multi-million dollar presses and a whole range of graphic needs.

1995 was also the dawn of the internet in business and being a unix networking person I was called to teach the company president how to access the internet with an ISDN connection we had installed in his office. Later I registered their first domain name and created and maintained their first web site.

Other interesting jobs were when the president would assign special top secret projects. These were usually tests to see how good the equipment really was, how close could we come to a competitor’s claim of being the best at something, how close can new equipment duplicate old methods, what changes would new processes have on quality? Many questions were answered and I swore to not talk about the results.

Since fifteen years have gone by I think I’m free to talk about them if anyone cares to hear. The real point is when you get millions of dollars of equipment and a room full of professionals in different disciplines you can do some amazing stuff. I feel some of the trade show jobs we created were totally unfair to customers as we had a large team and virtually unlimited budget that allowed us to produce a job until we got it perfect and then some. I remember modifying huge bitmaps to allow the ink keys to appear more uniform, which is kind of unnecessary but I’m sure allowed some kind of bragging rights for the show manager.


Getting my photo taken during the show, GraphicTrade1995, Toronto, Canada.

Designing a game with PLCs

I’ve been working with mini PLCs for over ten years now and I’d like to describe how I used them to control a sports training/amusement device I designed a few years ago and is still in production. The mini PLCs are a relatively new class of devices that unlike traditional PLCs everything you need in one tiny rail mounted box instead of a large cabinet that used to be required with traditional PLCs.

I was first introduced to the Moeller Easy line of mini PLCs by our electrical supplier who sent us an invitation for a seminar and workshop. By the end of the workshop I had my head full of ways to use this amazing new product, from energy savings to modernizing old equipment to reducing complexity and product count in new products or even to add new features that would have been unthinkable before.

A PLC is an industrial controller that has at its heart a computer, it interacts with the outside world through a series of electrical contacts and various inputs. They can operate as simply as a switch remotely operates a relay or can perform advanced mathematical functions to allow you to precisely control sophisticated processes and mechanisms. Traditionally these devices were developed for factories and required many different components to function. The power supply, input modules, output modules, display units, communication units, etc were each one device or more. MiniPLCs contain all the modules in a simplified form

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early ...

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early television remote control. The Space Commander 600 was available for color TV only. This particular design was offered between the years 1965 through 1972. Deutsch: Zenith Space Commander 600, eine frühe Fernsehfernbedienung. Die Space Commander 600 war ausschließlich für Farbfernseher erhältlich. Dieses spezifische Design wurde von 1965 bis 1972 angeboten. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in one small box that could fit on the palm of your hand.

The first Easy controls I ordered were used as simple timers to replace a couple of delay relays and some switch logic. I not only cut down on the number of parts and made more room inside of the electrical box but I saved money over the old parts and was able to offer some new features without increasing costs. That was a hit with the boss and I was hooked. Another advantage was I could now draw out my switch logic on the computer and try out new designs without cutting a single wire!  Another good reason is my back hurts when standing on concrete shop floors for hours so this armchair design worked for me.

During the 1970s the company I was working for had custom made a pair of machines that were used as a skills challenge during a nationally televised pro sports program. The machines were very bulky and weighed as much as a large motorcycle and each had a control box filled with timers and relays that synchronized and automated their functions. The system was never made commercially available but many people fondly remembered them as being on TV with their favorite star. I used to see a large photo of the event almost every day at the office so it was always somewhere on my mind but one day the idea of putting the functionality of the old system in a new machine with the tiny control came to me and I decided the time might be right to bring back the old TV star.

Designing starts with an idea but quickly moves to the notebook and sketch pad. For a product like this one which also plays a game while attempting to train a skill some fluency with heuristic theory is also helpful. There is also an aspect of  kinesiology when using the device, athletes will be expected to perform a series of repetitive motions so a study of how it affects human movement should also be considered. The company already had years of experience of training athletes and I based my game off a well proven model so we’re now off to the drawing board.

I start with a list of simple design objectives then proceed to sketch out the functionality with a flow chart. A simple schematic is hand drawn to help plan for complexity and to have a rough guide of the parts count and thus cost. I now present the company with my findings and ask for some kind of commitment and a budget. When this all starts to make sense some prototype assemblies were built and tested, I’m trying to add the new functionality to a standard model machine to keep costs down. The prototype parts are operated and a simulation of the machine is performed with a series of toggle switches operated manually, the test is recorded on video, this is done because video can be easily analyzed and timing information can be measured that will later be programmed back into the PLC.

Now that I know that the mechanical functions can be achieved I start to program my PLC. Basically the game is just a large number of nested relays, one function must be completed before the next can proceed and some functions require complete routines like the machine must reset itself between players, the machine must wait a certain amount of time to allow the player to attempt to complete the task, the machine must incorporate some sense of randomness to keep the players from guessing the sequence and timing, scoring must be acknowledged, etc. This became a rather long list and the final program was almost 200 lines long.

Whenever you design automated machines safety must be considered, machines are powerful and you don’t want a person injured by careless design so a certain amount of forethought and testing are required. I designed my circuits so that in case of failure the machine would default to the safest position, this means that if something like a wire is cut or a relay fails the machine goes off and not continues operating. I also used very large red reset/stop button on the machine and on the remote control and they were wired to directly cut the power and to open any pinch hazards. There are some special PLCs made that are dedicated to safety functions, for a machine of this small size this was not necessary.

Testing is not normally considered part of design but for devices that will be used by the public it is important to allow people not involved with the design operate the equipment, you can’t proof your own work so you never know what this will produce and the earlier you get some “real world” testing the easier it will be to correct these problems.I like to call it “user blindness”, its the ability of designers and engineers to overlook what a normal user would do.

Another nice feature of the Moeller Easy and other mini PLCs is the ability to update the program just by transferring it from a memory chip. After the first few machine were in use for a short while customers were providing valuable feedback and modifications were made to the program. These changes could then be given to the customer by just mailing them an inexpensive chip and having it uploaded with no costly trips back to the factory. People found the slow too slow and the fast not fast enough and this was corrected in software, tested on a factory machine and shipped to the customer.

From concept to delivery, mini PLCs might make sense to you too.

Why don’t we label energy usage like we label ingredients?

John Brower got me thinking with his post about saving the planet, well actually he was commenting about his son’s assignment to watch this film and he added about his efforts to save energy…   I agree that turning off an unused light bulb is a good thing but its a rather small thing when you compare it to industrial and military usage and those groups are actively working on making sure we never know the details of their operations. 


Part of the problem is much of the data of energy usage is shielded from our view for various reasons like;


-We’re only the public and why do we deserve to know the private business of huge corporations?

-We’re only the tax payers and why do we need to know how the military uses our resources?

-We’re only the consumers and why do we think we have a right to know what goes into what we buy?


Here’s one simple idea that could be implemented and its very similar to the laws that govern how ingredients are listed on products. How about if we had a “total energy cost” printed on the label? I don’t mean that label they put on refrigerators to show you how much it costs to run, you can (and should) buy a simple energy cost meter at the hardware store to find what all your appliances are costing you.


I’m talking about a label to display the amount of energy used to manufacture and deliver THAT product you are holding in your hand. How green are your vegetables when they require oil for chemicals, oil for farm equipment and oil for transportation to be sent half way around the world to market?


Right now there is no easy way you can compare the energy cost of locally made vs. imported products, I believe having it at a glance would change peoples habits and that might be why we won’t see it and I’m thinking of Monsanto’s efforts to fight GMO labels.