the life & times of 06-ALA01-0006180
If you're anything like me, as a youngster you'd have been drooling over all the add-ons for your Elk in the pages of Electron User and the like! Chances are, it would have been in one of the big, beautiful double-page adverts by ACP/PRES.
In this interview, AET catches up with none other than Dave Hitchins (Baildon Electronics/PRES) who is still developing hardware for one of his great passions (the Electron) today!
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Dave! Could I begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about your history with the beautiful machine that is the Acorn Electron and how you first came to use it?
OK, where did it all start? I attended Highfield Road school, in Bradford, and was lucky enough to have switched-on Geography and Woodworking teachers. I remember being sort-of interested in electronics, in year 3 (probably 13 or 14). My Woodworking teacher (Mr. Schofield) was building an instant-heat soldering iron by stripping off the secondary winding from an old transformer and rewinding with approximately 5mm x 2.5mm copper strip. Then adding a wooden handle and trigger switch. I remember being volunteered to make the wooden handle. As there was just enough copper strip to make a second . . . I became the proud owner of a home built instant heat soldering iron. Now it seems Mr. Schofield and Mr. Farra (Geography) were mates, so it didn’t take long before I was called in to Mr. Farra’s classroom, during one morning break time. There, it was explained to me exactly how a thermionic valve worked . . . I was hooked. Along with Marvel Comics, building electronic gizmos became an all consuming hobby. Much the consternation of my Mother, who became fed up of me pulling thing to bits to see how they worked – I was banned from touching the TV, though! All this took place in the early 60s. I wanted to expand my knowledge so I applied to join the Army (REME) early in 1964. Seemingly, Electronics relies on being able to spell correctly - darn! So I was side lined into the royal Signals instead . . .
Moving on to computers: My first computer was the ELF. An RCA1802 driven board with a HEX keypad, 2 digit HEX display and 256 bytes of memory. Had a great time building it – worked first time and really was great to play with. I tried to get hold of the BASIC ROM and memory expansion card that was being advertised in some of the American magazines, but to no avail. So I decided to build my own memory card. I built it using Pseudo Static DRAM (at the time, recently introduced) but I can’t remember how much memory it gave me. I still have the ELF and additional RAM board, so I guess that’s something to get going in the future! Next came the COMEX 35, which, it turned out, was grown from the ELF and the American BASIC ROM. It was made in Hong Kong and sold through a dealer down south. I had a part time business, at the time (building add-ons for the illegal CB market – another story!) So I was keen to do something for the COMEX. I contacted the manufacturers in Hong Kong and tried to find out as much technical information as I could. Didn’t get too far, as being naïve in the ways of big business I didn’t realise that it was designed in America and just being made in Hong Kong. Anyway, to cut a long story . . . I learnt lot . . . Wrote a disassembler for it, saving to tape (long lost now – maybe?) and eventually found out that it was being supported a lot better in Holland. So I ended up buying an expansion box, printer and disc interface from there. However, by this time the BBC Micro was on the market and I’d had chance to do a comparison – Hmmm! Needless to say I now wanted a BBC. The stumbling block was the cost. Then came the Electron :o) My little part time business (Baildon Electronics) could just afford one. It was purchased from a computer shop in Ivegate, Bradford – gone now, of course! Next came the Plus 1, from the same shop. The Plus 1 had Cartridge slots :o) :o) – Oh! What could I do with those? I read all about Sideways ROM and the Cartridge slots. Had the idea of a Sideways RAM Bank with a write protection switch. The ASR (Advance Sideways RAM) was born. This consisted of 16K RAM that could be switched into 2 x 8K banks or 1 x 16K bank, both with switched write protection. I was working as a Technician at Filtronic Components, at the time, and was involved with a Radar Warning Receiver for Ferranti. The design had a few PLDs, so I became familiar with them. Hence the later ABR was designed incorporating a 16L8 PLD. I’m not to sure if the ABR wasn’t the first Acorn accessory to contain a PLD? It must have been one of the very early ones, at least!
Tell us a little bit about P.R.E.S. as a company; I always remember looking in awe at the double-page ads in Electron User… amazed that the Elk could be expanded in so many different ways!
I became aware of P.R.E.S. through their magazine adverts in, probably, Electron User. It was being run by John Huddleston and his wife Jane, down in Lightwater, Surry. I first contacted him, regarding my new RAM cartridge, hoping he could sell it for me. A verbal agreement was made and John came up with the name ASR. I agreed to make 50 units to see how they sold. I already had a working unit (Filtronic had facilities to manufacture PCBs, which helped a great deal!). And I, at the time, was their PCB layout guy :o) so all I had to do was to find the source of the Cartridge case, cheap16L8 PLDs and 16K RAM chips. Fortunately Acorn were pushing the Electron hard, at the time, so were very helpful with the Cartridge Case – I already had lots of contact with Suppliers, through my job at Filtronic, so the RAM and 16L8s were also easy to find. All the parts were ordered, however, here’s where one of those life lessons was learnt! I’d been using 25ns 16L8s. But, being a tight Yorkshire man, I purchased slower parts, because they were so much cheaper! Built one unit, luckily not the whole batch, and it didn’t work! Luck was on my side, as the supplier agreed to take the 49 back and supply the 25ns parts :o) Just cost me the difference and a little postage. The ASR label was designed by John and sent to me. I used a local label printer for this, who ended up supplying all my labels from then on. 50 units made, tested and working. Next job was to put the Utilities e.g. the loading software, onto tape. I can’t remember if I wrote the utility or whether it came from P.R.E.S.? However, it was another local company that copied 50 tapes for me (and another story!) . . . and then we were ready.
John had booked a stand at a London show (Can’t remember which one!) and invited me down to launch the ASR. Trepidation! I couldn’t afford the cost of a London hotel, so chose to take our caravan down to a caravan park situated on the London outer ring road (yet another story!). Each day I would commute into London on the train. We had lots of interest, in the ASR but sadly not one sale. I was devastated, to say the least! John, however, had given away 2 or 3 ASRs to magazines, for review. Well, it didn’t do too bad :o) – had favourable reviews which resulted in excellent sales. It wasn’t long before I was making a second batch, of a 100 this time.
I was always on the ‘phone to John about this and that - we became good friends. He, like myself, was working from home. He, again like me, called in help from friends and relatives, as he was selling much more Acorn gear than just my ASR. I remember John’s sister who seemed to answer the ‘phone as many times as Jane did, sadly, can’t remember her name. It wasn’t long before he’d outgrown their house. Even though the house was large, it just didn’t have the room for all that was going on. The early and mid 80’s were a bonanza for Acorn Sales and we were all revealing in the fact that you could just about sell anything if it mentioned Acorn! John overcame his lack of house space by having a huge Swiss style shed (small house, really!) delivered. I was visiting that weekend (I have relatives in Portsmouth, so it was on my way) and remember the giant crane that was hired to lift his building into the back garden, over the top of his house! Everybody had their fingers crossed! It was during one of these many visits that I met Rob Northern. He wrote all the software that was released under the ACP banner. Another good friend.
However, all good things come to an end (yet another story!). It was a business decision, a hard one, at that. Perhaps I’ll tell the story, from my point of view, one day. We, Peter Garrett (one of four partners in Baildon electronics) and myself, attended a meeting, with John and Jane, at Leicester Forrest East service station (John had hired a meeting room). There we discussed some business decisions that resulted in us parting ways. I think (guessing from recent communications) that John took it hard. I’ve been trying to find out what became of P.R.E.S., John and his wife Jane, unfortunately without success. I’ve recently found out that John had my AP3/4 copied!! – which was a surprise as we’d agreed to continue supplying all current products!
It wasn’t long after the Leicester meeting that I was approached by Ian Copestake (ICS). He wanted to sell our Archimedes products and make lots more . . . Another fruitful liaison.
What drove the hardware release choices? Did you look at the machine and think, “What should people be able to do, that they can’t at the moment”?
Before I start, here, please note that I may/probably have the time line, for product release, all wrong!
My second product to be sold through P.R.E.S. was the ABR. I had the idea for this through being fed up with the mechanical switch on the ASR. Chatting with Rob Northern about my idea, he agreed, with John, that it could be done. We hadn’t sold many ASRs before the ABR (Advance Battery-Backed RAM) was launched. It sold very well indeed. Especially as it worked with the Master (yet another story!). Even better was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about tape based utilities. I just loaded them into the Battery Backed RAM. There were a few mishaps, mainly with users not reading the User Guide and loosing their memory based utilities. Rob had written an extra utility that was called with *ABR and saved the main utilities to Tape or Disc (ADFS or DFS) as the user required. I’m still using the same (modified slightly) utility in the MGC to save its utilities.
I can’t remember if the ARA (Advanced ROM Adapter) came before or after the ABR, however, is seemed like a logical product to make! I already had the Cartridge cases so it was a relatively easy and quick product. Again, it worked with the Master. Myself, John and Rob had many discussions on what-to-make-next. John was always a bit fanciful and wanted some huge project. I remember one being a desktop! This would have a monitor, face-up, built into a desk. The software would produce things like a filing cabinet, note pad etc. you get the picture. Way too early, in terms of technology and way too big a project for us at the time. Another, and remember this would have been mid 80’s, was a FAX Modem. So you could write a letter and send it straight from your word processor! I think it was the early 90’s when I first used one of those, on a PC! Ah! Missed opportunities!
Then the Acorn Plus 3 arrived! I purchased one within days of it being available from my local shop in Ivegate. It didn’t take me long to reverse engineer it and produce the AP4 (I think that came first?) with DFS at E00. You’ve probably noticed the bodged-on-link, on the IC under the 28pin IC sockets? This was added to enable the DFS E00 ROM socket to become a ‘standard’ socket, instead of having the overlaid RAM. A last minute production feature.
“What should people be able to do, that they can’t at the moment” pretty well sums it up! Of course, we didn’t have the Tube, 1MHz Bus or User Port. So, before or while the AP5 was being designed we produced the individual Cartridges. The 1MHz Bus cartridge was specifically designed to support the Music 500. We had lots of assistance from Hybrid Technology, especially Chris Jordan. However, it was designed without the 1MHz clock being synchronised (it didn’t need it for the Music 500!) so it sort of backfired when the DataCentre finally arrived, years later, of course! Then there was the User Port cartridge. Specifically designed for the AMX mouse and their drawing package, AMX Art. Once more, no 1MHz clock but this wasn’t a big drawback, at the time?
On one particular visit to Acorn, I was given an Acorn designed Tube Interface board, which now resides in the Centre for Computing History. It was similar in shape to my AP4. I shrunk the design down to fit a standard cartridge and so became another product to be sold through P.R.E.S. Ltd. Finally, the AP5 arrived bosting all three of the above interfaces, 1MHz Bus, User Port and Tube. And, in this design, we had a synchronised 1MHz clock – so it does work with DataCentre :o)
What was left, missing, was just further ROM expansion. So along came the AP6 giving the user, if using ABR and ARA, access to the full compliment of Sideway ROMs available on the Electron.
Some where, along the time-line above, the AQR came along. I was determined to match what some of the BBC Micro suppliers were doing. The actual design was provided by a good friend (work college – Rank Hi-Fi): Peter Wallis. I just had the job of fitting it into the standard Acorn Cartridge. It was a tight squeeze! No room for standard decoupling capacitors, so I had to use rather expensive under-the-IC type.
It was not long after that we found out, directly from Acorn, that they had dropped any further development for the Electron and, worse, were stopping production of the Plus 1.
Another trip to Acorn, my car was becoming familiar with the route, by then! I’m not sure if we asked or Acorn offered us the licence to continue the Plus 1s production – John was heavily involved, however, Baildon Electronics was granted the licence for the production. I think we paid a peppercorn royalty to Acorn. We were given access to all production suppliers, BoMs, schematics, test software and test jigs. The last two items were of dubious use as they were completely worn out! I ended up developing a fairly simple procedure to test the full functionality e.g. A printer, joystick and a cartridge in both slots. I used an ABR to hold the test software – easy! One modification we made was to fit IC sockets, in two positions, to enable the solder-less fitting of the AP6. Retrospectively, my one wish would have been to have a stock of Plus 1 cases . . .
The ABE (Advanced BASIC Editor) was a different product, for us. As it included software. Ours, meaning we licenced it from Altra. As Baildon Electronics was based in Bradford, around 9 miles from Leeds, we knew a lot of the people from the various software houses there, mostly from meeting at exhibitions. We contacted Altra with a view to licencing their BASIC Editor and Utilities ROM Probe 6), for the Electron. Their Probe 6 was advertised as: The Ultimate BASIC and Disc Editor ROM for BBC, B, B+, Tube, Turbo and Master”. We did a deal and managed to persuade Chris Gibson to put the two products together in a PLD switched ROM. I feel guilty that the payment for all Chris’ work was on royalties, as we didn’t sell enough to fully pay for the work involved.
The idea, for the PLD switched ROM, used in the ABE, came from Computer Concepts Inter series of products that had introduced the concept. Much copied by many: Myself and Watford to name a few! We produced the ABE for the Electron and BBC, in ROM-on –carrier and Cartridge format. Naughty, as we didn’t have a licence for the BBC version! However, as Altra had stopped selling the product, they didn’t mind. Especially as it had a different name. I still use the ABE today, running it within BeebEm on my MacBook – Master Mode. In fact the Menu for the MGC was written using it. I used Mode 0 and Shadow Mode to gain as much space as I could. It would have been a real pain without it! Another story!
ad-spread example from EU (scans from AEW archive)
Was there an add-on or product that you worked on/released for the Electron back then that you would consider to be your favourite?
It has to be the ABR. I was always rather proud of this product. It allows the user to load ROM images, as needed, from disc or tape, and write protect them. The write protection was essential, as some ROMs had been protected against operation in sideways RAM. The protection worked by the ROM code writing to itself. If it was running in RAM you ended up with a corrupted ROM image!
The ABR sold very well and was probably a ‘best seller’. It did even better, as a local company, AMS (Amusement Machine Services) in Heckmondwike, were making a Juke Box that used a Master main board as a controller (I’ve got one now :o). So my ABR fit the bill perfectly. We were eventually commissioned to design the electronics for their new Juke Box, which was sold under the Fender Logo. Of course, we designed-in a cartridge system . . . In the end we sold them the right to manufacture the ABR themselves. When I came to StarDot, it was one of the first of my products to be re-made, after the ARA. I’ve also incorporated the ‘locking’ feature into all other re-made products except the ARA, of course!
Thinking generally, not just ACP/PRES, was there a product that you feel should have been released for the Elk back then, but never came about?
I don’t think there was any one particular product, however, I did have a ‘list’ of products I’d like to have made. Things that were on-the-list for the electron: Serial cartridge, EPROM programmer and many more. The main thing that stopped us was 1) not enough time or resources 2) the arrival of the Archimedes.
The only competition I have ever won was in Electron User… I can’t remember what I had to do to enter but I remember receiving the full set of ADFS Micro/Program Power 3.5” game discs from P.R.E.S. in the post and being absolutely chuffed to bits. (I sadly lost them at some point over the years, somehow, but was reunited with some ‘backups’ not too long ago from an exceptionally generous Elk-pal!)
Can you tell us how those discs came about – what was the relationship between Micro/Program Power and ACP/PRES?
As mentioned, above, we already knew a lot of the games houses but it was John Huddleston that drove this particular partnership. I had the dubious job of adding protection and providing the final discs to P.R.E.S. The protection was relatively simple, consisting of un-formatting a track and modifying the BOOT program to look for it. I used ADT for the un-formatting – It was just time consuming, as I have to make the discs one at a time.
Are you still in contact with anyone from the Electron heyday?
Not many! Ian Robinson (partner/brother – Baildon Electronics), Dave Prosser (partner – Baildon Electronics), Chris Evans (CJE/4D), Steve Picton (IFEL) . . . I recently had contact with Rob Northern (ACP) – but it seems he’s a busy man now, which is a shame. I’ll keep trying, though, as he ‘may’ have lots of archived software in his loft. I’ve been trying to contact John and Jane Huddleston for quite a while now. I have corresponded with Jamie Huddleston, one of John’s sons and a member on StarDot – Long story here! Although not imparted, directly, I do fear the worst for John!
I’m sure there are lots more out there that I’ve just not run into, including my other partner in Baildon Electronics Peter Garrett. Would be good to meet other people.
Fast-Forwarding all these years, you’re still producing stuff for the Electron right now! What’s your motivation for sticking with the Acorn Electron?
My plan here is to recreate as many of my former products as I can! Because I can - and it gives me something to do in retirement (also keeps me off the street corners :o) And, I still thoroughly enjoy it. I have always had to rely on others for the software side of things and still do. Fortunately there are lots of people, on StarDot, to whom I’m so grateful to for their assistance and contributions.
Note, however, that the product range includes the BBC, Master, B+, Compact and many of the Archimedes range as well as the Electron, which is still my favourite!
Do you still use an Acorn Electron yourself, and, if so, what for?
I don’t think I ever actually used the Electron for anything other than a Bed for developing and testing products! It wasn’t until the Master came along that I started developing a working platform for general office functions. The master was put aside very quickly, once the Archimedes popped it’s head up. It soon became clear that if I wanted to use a decent PCB layout package I needed to have a PC :o( My first, from Elonex, was an XT. It lasted 1 week after which it was returned to Elonex for an upgrade to an AT. I eventually became a reseller of Elonex computers, who were based in Bradford. It kept the bank balance topped up! Of course, once I had a PC there were other benefits of the wider adoption and commercial software e.g. Word Processors and FAX Modems. The Archimedes, however, was still being used for product control e.g. Database functions and stock management.
There’s a bit of friendly rivalry between folks that have Elks and those that have Beebs, but despite the Beeb being more powerful you have remained faithful to the Elk. Why do you feel that people choose to stay in the Electron camp today, when Beebs are so easily available?
Easy . . . Like me, it was probably their first computer.
You’ve redone some old add-ons from back in the day (for example, your AP5 that is now (re) released, with improvements). Do you feel add-ons like the AP5 are just as valid for today’s use in their original form? How do you feel that people’s uses of the machines has changed?
Absolutely no idea how to answer this one! I understand the Games side but I’m always surprised that people still play with things like the ABR and AP5 – and very pleased, of course.
If there was anything at all that could be developed for the Electron, what would you most like to see added to the list of peripherals?
Well another easy one. I’ve always wanted the Electron to have a filing system that has mass storage and still allows the use of Floppy Drives. The AP5 has now been released (September 2017) and what comes along . . . The BeebSCSI that works a treat through the AP5’s 1MHz Bus interface. Magic!
Tell us a bit about how you saw the Electron Scene back then and how it compares the one we have now? Where do you see the Elk in 10 years? What are your hopes?
Back in the ‘80s the Electron provided me with a good income. All you have to do is look back on the number of people who attended the many shows, usually in London. OK, most of the crowd were BBC fans . . . but the P.R.E.S. stand was never empty.
The Electron in 10 years from now (2027!! I’ll be 78!!!) – Who knows – hopefully still being used and enjoyed. Let’s wait and see . . .
Do you have any new projects in the pipeline? Where is the best place for people to keep an eye on what is available?
New products. But of course – let’s see:
A new model of the MGC – with double the memory, Master compatible and, hopefully, a method of saving Game state.
New ABE (Advance BASIC Editor). I think this is a valuable tool. I’m trying to persuade JGH to do some upgrades on this to make it even better. I used the ABE, under emulation (BeebEM3), when I wrote the MGC menu – Had to spend a year (intermittently!) learning BASIC again . . .
New AP3/4 that will support High Density floppy discs, courtesy of Martin Barr.
New AQR (Quarter Meg RAM). This will be different in that it will have two banks of 256K RAM and should work well as a RAM drive with ACPs ADFS (it supported the original AQR).
New AP7 for the BBC – even though there is lots of competition here. But the competition doesn’t have the Locking feature . . .
ideA-In (version 6) the IDE interface for the Archimedes.
The A3000 IDE interface.
Plus many, many more.
Thank you so much to Dave Hitchins for taking the time to answer these questions and give us an insight into those halycon days of the Electron!
To order items or with enquiries, you can also email directly at:
retro hardware AT dave ej hitchins DOT plus DOT com
the PRES AP5 (redesign) recently released by RH! Now in my collection