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Biography > Hills Electrical > Memories of Work
Olivetti P6060

When I started work in 1976 it was clearly understood that one of my first jobs would be to computerise the company. Indeed we had a lot of reps come knocking and my parenst had told them to wait for me.

So I immediately set off to talk to these reps and see the computers they had available. Computers were a serious purchase but with little power. I chose a Phillips machine which wasn’t much to my liking but it seemed the best available. The Olivetti rep phoned me and I told him that his machine was not to be chosen. He then told me about this new wonder machine called the Olivetti P6060. It was streets ahead of anything else – so much so that it was a no brainer. It was priced after the name of the computer at £6,060.00 (or £44K in todays money)

I attended a training course in Hazlemere. At the end of the course one lucky delegate picked up the demo machine and took it with him. We eventually got delivery of our machine on Christmas eve at 8.00pm.

David Pritchard and I invented an accounting system and wrote it over Christmas so that when people returned to work, I was able to announce that we were now computerised. The system did sales ledger, purchase ledger, petty cash, wages, nominal and job costing. It did all this with a total storage of 256K (K!) and a ram of 16K. The code was elegant and tight and written in 2 weeks! This was only possible because it’s capabilities were very limited and I knew what I wanted to achieve.

The machine had a single line display, a keyboard, twin floppy discs, and a built in thermal printer. We also bought a dedicated teletype machine which could print onto cards. The way it worked was that you input data in answer to a command from the display. For example it might say “Enter Account Code” and the operator would enter the account code. There was one program to enter purchases, one to enter sales, one to enter petty cash and one to enter wages and that was it. The programs were stored on one floppy disc and the data on the other.

Every week we’d put a card for each job in the card printer and update the job costs on that job. The computer remembered a running total for each job and when it had last updated it. The machine would also print out the wages book, wages slips and cash breakdown.Once a month the thermal printer would spit out the ledgers, daybooks and a trial balance. The beauty of this system was it’s simplicity. One machine, one program at a time and simple instructions.

GEC Computers 400- Series

As the 1980’s wore on the Olivetti became increasingly outdated and so I chose a new GEC series computer in 1985 with a much larger memory capacity and the ability to multi task. I then had to rewrite all of the programs to cope with multi tasking and use the increased storage.

The data was now input via a VDU, essentially a TV with a keyboard. We started with 4 Newbury Labs VDU’s. They were dumb terminals – they simply passed data to the central unit and displayed the responses. So the way it now worked was that the items, such as wages data, were keyed in answering questions in the old way but other data was entered using forms where the operator could key in data in any order.  I had to allow for multiple instances of a program to be running simultaneously by multiple people without corruption of data across the multiple files being written to. That is I had to write record locking by hand into the system.

We no longer printed the job costs on cards but stored all of the data within the machine. Howeevr the printer still had to churn out the end of month books and the wages slips.

File Servers 1993 Onward

By 1993 this model was beginning to be out dated and so I went out and bought some PC’s – which by then were pretty much as we know them today. A tower unit with a disk and a display with keyboard. We were going to have a file server based system.

Gone were the days when reps called and fought for the business – you were now very much on your own. So I looked at the computer mags which now existed and bought a program called Novell Netware to operate as the file server software. We tried a daisy chain configuration based on ethernet but that just didn’t work. So we bought a switch and put the PC’s in a star configuration.  We now needed a database program to make it all work together. We bought a suite of programs but it was just way too slow. Then I came across Foxpro – the 1st database system that was actually fast enough to do things in real time. It was painful by todays standards – you had to hard code the form handling and database relationships.

At this point we hired a programmer and began to set up a computing department and my days of hard coding were over for a decade or so. I simply told the programmer what was required and he did it. As the company expanded the computing needs expanded and we ended up with a system that dialled each branch each night and synchronised the data that they needed every day.

The one area that I had never tackled was the wage data entry. Working out how much many hours should be paid was a complex calculation and the programmer decided to use a truth table. It just didn’t work and it was a nightmare. Long hours were spent trying to get around the complexities, but eventually some sense was restored and we lived to fight another day. The programmer was so stressed by all of this that he left.

At some point the Novell Netware became out of date and like everyone else we started to use Microsoft’s server and this was still running in 2008 when SEC took over the company and closed our IT systems down.

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