King of Excellent (according to Scaryduck)

Monday, August 6

A chip off the old block?

I'd like you to meet Dinah. Dinah was born in November 1993, and I am a proud father to her. Let me explain.

I wanted a proper job. Trained and qualified at college for computer electronics and design and implementation, I was fed up of odd jobbing around southern Essex. I saw an advert in the local rag, the Southend Evening Post (yes, I know it's shocking to find out the residents can read), advertising for someone with knowledge of computer automation and electronics experience. I was the first to admit, that at only 22, I wasn't overly experienced and I didn't have any practical experience, but hey ho, let's go for it anyway. I got an interview mid October '93, and all suited and booted, headed into the huge industrial estate next to "Southend International Airport" aka big noisy field.

The interview was interesting. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman called Gerald, who promptly pointed me towards my interviewer, John. John was a typical engineer. Beard, glasses, lumberjack shirt with jumper over the top, corduroy trousers. Also there was the inventor of the project, another John. This guy was posh beyond compare. Between them they showed me what they wanted the machine to do. Pulling string here, flicking on switches there, they explained they wanted a computer to do the job. They explained that there was also a fourth person in the company, the money man. A millionaire called Steve, who would appear from time to time to see how things were going. I was quite excited about the job, although I did feel I was getting thrown in at the deep end. John asked me if I could do it, and I must admit I wasn't doubtful at all. My college tutor (the guy who coined the phrase Rikaitch) would have been proud. I got the job.

I got the phonecall on Guy Fawkes Night. Starting the following Monday morning, I walked to work, ensuring I was there early. My first brief was to come up with a basic input output system, and I chose a board I'd heard about called a UE31. This was a ready built board, with the source code, for a reasonable £100, and did exactly what it said on the tin. 64 inputs, 64 outputs, 32k of battery backed ram, all in all a nifty bit of kit. I managed to persuade the others I could do with a nice language that'll make it easier to use, and after researching the market, found a company called MPE, who made a version of Forth for the board. I started to make the machine do what was needed, and by mid December the machine could pull food into the oven, open and close it, turn on the high voltage (4000 volt!) power supply, and enable and use the magnetrons (2 x 1050w). The basics were in place.

February 1994, and things took a strange twist. The first week of the month, and HFV (what we called her back then. Short for Hot Food Vender) was going to Paris to appear in all her glory at the forecourt show. We crammed all the parts into the machine the night before, for the first time. We then powered her up, for her first complete cycle, and the computer crashed. The second time, the oven stuck. The third time, the relays didn't work on the power supply. We realised it was because of two things. I wasn't waiting long enough for commands to complete, and the oven was leaking. Leaking Microwaves are not good. They play havoc with electronics, scrambling RAM and general use. Anyhow, we put a simple checking system in, and finally got her to do her first complete run just after 4am. She left at 6am.

They came back from the show a little dazed. They'd gone out, predicting interest of about 40 orders. They came home with over 4,000. Steve, the rich money man from Colchester, said "I'm not paying for that many!" and did a runner. Suddenly we had a saleable machine, and no money to make it. I remember that day well, because later that same day, I had one of my wisdom teeth taken out and my jaw broken. All in all, not a good day. Anyway, I digress.

We floundered for a few months. We got a well known car dealer who was now a business investor interested instead, called David. He paid a few bills, gave me my wages (something I'd been lacking) but wasn't really interested in the machine. We later moved over to a company based in Monte Carlo, and a guy called Willy. The machine, meanwhile, was going from strength to strength. The ovens had stopped leaking, the computer was now checking itself and the hardware, and even repairing or adjusting itself where it could.

The new found finance allowed us to push forward, and first thing on my agenda was to make the machine even more intelligent. I put some eyes into the oven, so I could double check there was a product there. I also designed a system that meant I could 'read' what product was in the oven, and so it knew how long to cook it, something I still hold the patent to today. I added a change giver, so now customers could put money in and get change! This system was a new invention by Coke, that meant the change giver was modular, and independent of the rest of the system. It would talk to the main computer via a strange 9 bit baud serial link, but I eventually got this all working. I took the initiative, and started converting the different parts around the machine also to 'multidrop bus' (the serial based system) and now added checking and repair status to each and every part of the system. Parts were now 'hot-pluggable' and easily updateable. Finally, I added a new system that had a mobile phone modem in it. This would dial a number specified by the user, and transmit from the site the stock lists etc. The PC that answered the call would create a driver's route, delivery status, and even delivery time, and transmit some of this back to the machine. The operator could then ask his machine "what time's the delivery going to be?" and it would tell him.

As the machine went forward, my work became less and less. Johnaitch was a baby, and life was becoming difficult without full time work, so I started looking for another job. I kind of hoped it would be temporary, but it wasn't. Meanwhile, the machine went on to be sold to a manufacturer. Gerald unfortunately passed away a few years later, but as far as I can gather both Johns still work together. I, meanwhile, still refer to Dinah as my baby.

Chips, anyone?