15 May 2019






school photos







           All original writing



2014, 2015, 2016,

2017, 2018, 2019

Ian McLauchlin


Early PCs had a DOS-based operating system. You had to learn DOS (Disc Operating System) commands and these had to be typed one by one and line by line. It was tedious and inefficient and also required users to learn obscure commands. That meant that you couldn't use these machines until you'd become familiar with the language of the operating system and so use was limited to 'experts'.

"Wouldn't it be much better if there was a simple graphical operating system?" thought some enterprising researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre in California? And they were right. They developed the first Graphical User Interface (GUI), the precursor to the Windows operating system of today. One of the first adopters was Apple computing for their innovative Macintosh computer.

Such an interface needed an easy way of inputting instructions on the screen rather than keying in DOS commands.

The mouse was born (7) .

Then in 1979 the first version of the Spreadsheet was introduced - Visicalc. This took the place of programming for simple applications. You could enter data into an array of cells on the screen and enter formulae into other cells to operate on that data and finally place the results into 'output' cells. This was revolutionary, avoided the need for programming in the conventional sense and gave rise to Lotus 1-2-3 and today's Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet programs and derivatives.

While all this was going on Amstrad produced their own, cheaper, version of the IBM PC and also their affordable PCW (Personal Computer Wordprocessor) integrated with monochrome CRT monitor, disc drives (6) , keyboard and dot matrix printer (8) . The PCW package came with an operating system (CP/M), inbuilt wordprocessing software and, for those interested, a BASIC programming language/interpreter. The PCW was extremely popular because it was cheap, got the 'technophobes' using computers, required little specialist knowledge and hence was bought in large numbers by schools.

My wife, who was a teacher at the local Comprehensive School, once came home with a worried expression. "We have to compile Skills Profiles for each pupil and the format is unworkably rigid!" Drawing on the programming skills I'd taught myself over the years, I said "Hang on a minute, you can computerise that."

I wrote a program in BASIC for the Amstrad PCW which produced Pupil Attainment Profiles in the correct format and printed these perfectly on Official Headed paper. The programming was tricky as the standard PCW had limited memory and the program was too large. This was partly the result of the large amount of error trapping I incorporated, according to best programming practice. I had to build the program in two halves and carry over appropriate variables from the first half to the second while the program was running.

And that's how BTEC/City and Guilds came to invite me to give a presentation in Cambridge on Computerisation of their Skills Profiles. Other programmers attended too. But BTEC formatting requirements were definitely not designed to ease computerisation and everyone else couldn't solve the problems and so ignored some of the more difficult formatting stipulations. I didn't ignore them and managed to write a computer program that stuck rigidly to their formatting rules. They bought my program and schools throughout the country bought it from them. It was heartening to have feedback from teachers saying things like "Thanks, you've saved my life etc." I should probably have charged more . . . .

Developments then came very quickly and successive versions of Microsoft Windows (9) appeared, along with commercial programs for Office tasks, accounting and many many other applications.

And the rest, as they say, is History . . . and the Future.

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