The thing about boarding school is the lack of having your own private space (apart from a tuck box with, let’s say, a false bottom and number coded padlock..) For me the humble watch became a constant companion. From the early Butler Solar Powered watch that had been my Grandfather’s (worn and worn out by the time I was eight!) via this radio watch and a range of data bank Casios, they each lent a reassuring presence – and kept me one step ahead of when I was meant to be on the games pitches.
The Personal Alarm System was born!
I remember showing it to Dad and trying to summarise what a jumble of wires were inside the switch box.
(The switch box had been a joyous find nestled in the driver’s cab of a bus which had come to rest in a local scrapyard).
He must have winced when he saw the emergency ‘short’ feature – which literally short-circuited everything in case it wouldn’t stop!
Then I noticed the date when the fax was sent to Dad: 27 Jan 1992. It took me time to process that. I am so used to 1992 being the start of when Dad wasn’t there. Dad passed away on 13th Feb 1992 – seventeen days after that fax was sent to him. He was 47, in the final stages of kidney cancer, flat on his painful back on a bed in his beloved Study. His last mission which he had set himself was to learn to code.
I rushed home from boarding school, arriving on the night of 12th Feb 1992. I was 15. Dad mustered enough energy to wave to me when I stepped tremulously into his Study. Moments later he was unconscious. We could not speak again.
It was while sorting through his papers some years ago that I found this fax. It was a guide to commands that would be used to program the Apple II. Dad used it for keeping his company accounts mainly with letters and shipping manifests also patiently tapped in.
This would have marked a departure for Dad: a getting to grips with the system architecture, a look under the bonnet. A logical man with a great capacity for studied reasoning, he would have loved this untapped functionality of his marvellous toy.
Dad had form with tech – long a fan of the telex and latterly the fax, he carried a shoulder-worn analogue mobile (which he called “Yuppy”), sported a Sharp IQ organizer (pocketable qwerty, touch screen for removable app cards and a hefty 128kb memory) and had assembled a hotch-potch of venerable old technology stars. This ‘Teletran’ is now on display in the Swindon Computer Museum (they gamely accepted it despite a general air of unspoken confusion between us about how it had actually functioned).
It wasn’t just Yuppy who was given a name. His battery-powered golf cart (c1984) was Herbie; the heating boiler was Helga (assisted by the more modest stoves Pinky and Perky); and a Landrover with glass windows in the back was The Popemobile.
I felt mystified and fascinated in equal measure: it was so far in advance of where I was.