INTERVIEW OF BOB KITCH BY JASON OAKLEY SEPTEMBER 2020
These replies perhaps present a history of computing since 1966 that sets the DSE VZ microcomputer into that perspective. The important role of User Groups and technical support is discussed too. The VZ introduced a lot of people to the capabilities of computers.
Do you work in the computer field?
I definitely do not consider myself as an IT person for reasons that will become clear! My chosen profession is Applied Science, Technology and Engineering within the Earth Sciences or Geology. Add a pretty large dose of Economics too, relating to “how you make a quid out rocks” – the main aim for an individual within a community – continuity in supply of resources. Over my 50-odd year career, computer management of geographically located observations has dramatically increased in importance. Any Earth Science observation is in fact a 4D point observation of the Galaxy made in 3D space and geological time – all five billion years of it.
As a Scientist, effectively communicating ideas and outcomes is paramount to increase learning and knowledge. Documentation of outcomes should be progressive to ensure that relevance towards goal is maintained. Encouraging others to build upon your research is how knowledge progresses and broadens. An outward looking attitude is essential to achieving professional satisfaction. Defensive ownership of ideas should be avoided at all times. A computer is an essential tool to enable Science to progress, demonstrate and communicate.
So yes, I am well out into the field of computing. It has been vital to my financial and professional well being during my career.
How long have you been interested in computers?
A long time! I was certainly not the oldest person interested in the VZ but my formal computing experience may go back the furthest to 1966? Harry Huggins in Melbourne was perhaps the oldest VZ enthusiast I met.
How did you become involved in VZ Computing?
There are quite a few twists and turns herein that continue to this day.
I provide a full description of my introduction Computer Science aka Information Technology as it is somewhat incomprehensible to younger VZ Users some 20 years on – and even now some 50 years on.
In 1966 aged 17, I undertook lectures in FORTRAN IV programming as an undergrad at the Bendigo School of Mines. The attendees were a mixture of Applied Science and Engineering students. The lecturer proposed programming projects that were intended to predict stresses and strains in steel structural beams under varying load conditions. (Very useful for a Geologist). In reality, the activity was to fill in lines of 80 column input sheets that were passed through a tiny window for typists to transfer onto punched cards. These were returned for checking then re-submitted though the same tiny window where an Operator attempted to read and compile the intended code. This often took around ten attempts (and two weeks of elapsed time) due to typos and language/syntax errors. After about three weeks(!) the program would eventually compile and be run for logic flow. The stack of punch cards wrapped in 132 column line printer output would be returned. Usually the program would have crashed during execution or the logical flow gave an incorrect result. Diagnostics were presented as cryptic Error Codes. This was computing by remote control. Note this long-winded process pre-supposes that you already knew the likely result! I never actually saw the Burroughs computer that was locked in a high security room with huge air conditioning. It was a Second Generation machine using discrete electronic components and magnetic memory. Only Operators were allowed in that room to load the card reader and tear the output off the printer. This remote introduction to early computing prohibits me from ever regarding myself as an “IT” person! This was figuratively my first window into computing.
After graduation in 1970, I went bush to become a field geologist. I collected many geochemical, geophysical and subsurface drilling observation in the ore search. Quite large data sets, usually on regularised grids, were obtained at huge investment. The simple exercise of contouring results was either done by hand or sent off to Bureaus for digititising, plotting with receipt of results up to three months after data collection. Some of the algorithms used for interpolating contours were pretty wild.
A bit of head scratching was needed to recollect the reasons behind the survey due to the delay in viewing results.
In pre GPS days, aerial photos were pricked through to mark location and annotated on the rear side.
Many parts of Australia are featureless or repetitious. Often it was not possible to be sure of your location within 200m. Under the jungle canopy of the New Guinea highlands you were never quite sure which creek gorge you were in. Surely located data was hit-and-miss until GPS location arrived.
In 1977, I joined Newmont Mining in Melbourne that had an old IBM 1130 (of similar vintage, configuration and capability to the Burroughs in Bendigo) and a new Prime 150 mini computer or was it a super mini? Here commenced the era of hands-on-terminals, multi-tasking operating systems PrimOS, with access to line printers, XY plotters, digitising table, large available disk space for personal work areas, but not a mouse in sight. Screens were ASCII text only with no useful graphical capability. Back up of the system and security control was the domain of a Systems Person who was totally unapproachable! Knowledge of Program Control Language was needed to get in the queue to run a job.
Most of my programming was in FORTRAN and it was possible to write, compile, verify and run a job in a few hours. What a leap in capability and data visualisation but it was a hands-off system approach!
I recall that during lunch breaks I learnt to program in some PrimOS dialect of BASIC. The program was about 60 lines of code called Lunar Lander – as everyone did. It was a text based simulator that juggled landing site, fuel burn rate and descent rate under low gravity! This bit of Physics-based nonsense perhaps influenced my reticence to become interested in games on a computer.
In 1979, I joined Honeywell Industrial Process Control Division in Adelaide as a mining industry specialist to guide their marketing push into the Australian Mining Industry. This was a deliberate career swerve as I wanted to improve my digital skills beyond Applied Science. Honeywell was a large hardware and research developer in the US (that rivalled IBM) and had bleeding edge digital contracts with military and aerospace industries. These contracts largely determined and paid for the development of new digital technology before it became broadly available to industry and the public with recovered development costs. HIPCD largest global customers were nuclear power plants and very large and dispersed petroleum refineries in the Middle East. In Australia it was mines, metallurgical plants, smelters and breweries – pretty small industrial candidates. For these large, secure and mission critical industries, a control system called Total Distributed Control 2000 used a centralised business super mini computer (with purpose written software) in a secure location, added Ethernet coaxial communication capability running out to stand-alone eight-channel microprocessor “smart” controllers dotted throughout the installation to be monitored and controlled. Process control loops were individually regulated and controlled from within these field-mounted controllers. The central computer was a supervisor that was largely run as a data logger sucking in data and monitoring the field controllers.
Should the supervisory computer go down or the comms coax be cut (not uncommon in industrial sites) then the eight-channel controller could safely hold up the process until comms were restored. If a single controller went down then only a small portion of the was process was affected. Planned redundancy could be inbuilt to handle mission critical control, monitoring loops and comms as required in nuclear plants. Diagnostics allowed control centre operators to identify exactly which board had gone rogue in aparticular controller for rapid replacement by a technician.
The microprocessors used were early 4-bit 4004 but by 1979 8-bit 8008 were used by Honeywell. The 8008 chip was followed by the 8080 and then the Z80 of the VZ. For interest, the IBM Personal Computer used the 8-bit 8088 then 16-bit 8086/8087 then 32-bit 386/387 chips. A familiar programming model was used through all of these chips but with huge increases in computing capability, instruction sets and memory address space. With Honeywell I learnt a lot about the nuts and bolts of 8008, ethernet comms and early main frames.
During my two years with Honeywell my knowledge, understanding and experience with new digital technology was greatly enhanced in quite a fun and stimulating environment without losing contact with the resource business.
In 1981 we moved to Brisbane as I had rejoined Utah Development Company, my first employer. They had a state-of-the-art Prime 850 super-mini that could handle 128 terminals in the head office and remote mine sites in central Queensland. My recollection of the 850’s capabilities is that my current office workstation (MSI WT60 worth around $6,000) exceeds in all respects this UDC colossus in every respect except for the ability to hang 128 terminals of it – and that is not a personal computers reason for existence. Tektronix b+w graphic screens were available but they were kludgy as their programming model resembled a plotter needing vectorial pen up and pen down commands to draw on the screen. I programmed in FORTRAN a very comprehensive multivariate statistical package for analysing multielement geochemical data sets that interfaced into graphical output for interpretation by the geologist responsible for the survey. I still use this code sometimes on some projects.
Arrival of the VZ
I was well aware of the electronic and programmable logic of microprocessors (as stored program devices) such as the 8008/8088/Z80 and 6502 before I touched a VZ. Our (late) son Bruce, then 13yo, was much more aware of the myriad of microcomputers that were available in the Oz market. In September 1985 he entered a competition in Electronics Australia magazine and won a VZ300 from Dick Smith Electronics. He was over-joyed but quickly realised that he needed to return to DSE to add a cassette I/O if anything useful and lasting was to be done. Cunning ploy by DSE to extend their market reach!
A VZ computer had entered the Kitch household. Interestingly, Bruce’s older sister Tara saw it and simply said, “Oh yeah” and that was it! At this time both Bruce and Tara had access to Apple II at their schools and were programming in Basic. Tara never touched the VZ whereas Bruce became extremely absorbed with hardware, software, graphics, animation and potential applications. He was a Star Wars kid.
As an aside and over the years, I attended many VZ User Group meetings around Australia and New Zealand and corresponded with many users providing VZ information sheets. As I now recall, I don’t remember any girls or women attending or writing. VZ micros must have been a very blokesie thing!
Why? Were they seen as “experimental electronic kits” rather than finished, useful technological, commonplace, futuristic items?
What kind of setup did you have for your VZ?
The system that Bruce had won turned into a full-hand of VZ peripherals.
• DSE VZ300 won October 1985
• Data cassette recorder
• 64K and 16K memory expansions – the 64K memory was put to good use for animation
• Printer I/F
• Light pen – a precursor to touch screens
• Two disk drives and I/F – this allowed quite rapid production of programs and backing R/W
storage for large data sets
• Epson GP-100 dot matrix printer
• Kodak Diconix 150 ink jet dot matrix printer – a very compact printer
• PP40 plotter DSE – Bruce did a lot of graphics on this surprisingly good plotter
How did you become involved in writing articles for all the VZ newsletters?
When I initially looked over Bruce’s shoulder on the VZ, I was both impressed with this tiny plastic machines’ capability, but appalled at the lack of support from DSE – particularly when a lot of young (and not so young) were picking up important skills from their VZ experience. My first contact with another VZ user was John D’Alton who lived nearby in Brisbane. John had set up an early VZ User Group LeVZ and produced a regular newsletter. User Groups willingly maintained and satisfied the thirst for knowledge from VZ users long after DSE had abandoned support.
I easily resolved that:
- I would offer every assistance to Bruce who was most enthusiastic on the programming and graphics
- I would identify and assemble all support documentation for the VZ/Z80 (plus the earlier but quite similar TRS80 micro with the Level II ROM)
- I would offer support to any magazine publishers, User Groups or remotely located users scattered across Australia – I was well aware of the stifling isolation across our large and vast country that I experienced as a young field geologist.
I was very fortunate in progressing these objectives as my job involved travelling to many “out there” places around Australia and New Zealand wherein I sought out and met VZ users for a chin-wag (a red and a steak sometimes) and supply follow up information to their queries. Encourage, encourage, encourage.
I wrote quite a number of VZ articles and programs for User Group Newsletters and also published in a couple of Australian computer magazines. I maintained lists of VZ articles, User Group Newsletters and compiled a short history of VZ User Groups in Australia and New Zealand. I also sent out an enormous number of sheets of VZ information to assist in working through user’s written (snail mail) queries.
Receiving and answering these letters was a very rewarding part of my involvement with the VZ. I made contact with lots of VZ enthusiasts.
Looking back through my contributions, the thread of continuity is education and learning about computing in general but specifically the VZ with respect to hardware, firmware (ROM) and software in BASIC and Assembler.
• The graphics and animation capabilities of the VZ were detailed and the 6847 graphics chip examined in depth. Bruce wrote and sold his graphics Art Gallery- Poster Shop-Font Generator package.
• I designed and built a buffered 24-bit I/O interface (i8255 PPI) to allow hardware projects to safely access the VZ without letting any smoke out of the box.
• I encouraged writing clear, commented and concise code, integrating machine code and Assembler into time-critical programs such as a relocatable Real Time Clock; the Interrupt driven screen Writes to prevent on-screen hash; and sound effects.
• A number of programs allowed the visualisation of the internal workings of the VZ and Z80 chip to aid understanding of hardware and encourage low level programming that gets closer to the hardware.
• A comprehensive suite of programs were written for the 64K memory pack that simulated frame switching animation using memory bank switching to quickly upload video memory. Assembler screen transitions were demonstrated particularly allowing left to right sweeps of the screen where four pixels were packed into a single byte.
What languages do you program in and which do you prefer?
Sadly I concede that my first learned language, FORTRAN, remains my “go to” preference! It is computationally based for scientific and engineering algorithmic work; has evolved enormously since FORTRAN IV of 1966, taken on text and graphics commands and has been modernised. Huge welltested support libraries exist too and are largely machine independent. Compilers and run time code is highly optimised for blistering performance on modern hardware and I/O. The enormous memory addressing model available in an Intel i7 based 64-bit Windows machine allows staggering amounts of data to be held in memory with direct addressing for very fast processing of large matrices for example.
Some of my number crunching routines may take six hours to run. Must get a multi-core i9 soon?
The Level II ROM Basic in the VZ underwent little change to become MicroSoft’s GWBasic/QBasic that remain as a “quick and dirty” standby to achieve most mundane tasks. The free QB32 and 64 compilers are near code-compatible with these older languages. Compiled code on modern hardware is fast even though the Basic code is converted to C++ for compilation. SSD assist in file handling I/O too.
I also use C and C++ but rarely these days. The ability to program registers in these languages means that low level Assembler coding for the Z80 was familiar and easy to achieve on the VZ.
Which is your favourite Retro-Computer? And Why? Do you still have any Retro-Computers?
I see retro computing as merely one of many building block within the evolution of IT and hardware development. Retro-computing is exactly that; and I don’t really devote much time or nostalgia to it. I am cognisant of the digital world that has been built upon these transitional modest microprocessor beginnings.
Being a pragmatist, I regard a computer as an essential everyday tool to carry out computational, visualisation and modelling tasks plus storage of digital information for ready access. As a field geologist, portability and comms allow mobility and real time data acquisition anywhere in the World.
As a consequence of these requirements my hardware tends to be fairly bleeding edge and I upgrade systems about every five years. Since about 1985 I have had a succession of Intel-based Microsoft DOS and Windows desktops and more recently, portable Workstations running external screens and keyboards.
I have rarely ventured in to the Apple world since the Apple II+ days. Whilst I own iPhones and iPads that are great for viewing content but are a populist compromise lacking real grunt. Their lack of widespread software support is a negative. The hardware seems overly expensive too. Apple is for digital zealots rather than work horses.
The VZ is the only 8-bit micro that I have used and was owned by Bruce.
I no longer have any VZ hardware, software or documentation having given these to Andrew Laird and Leslie Milburn in 2011-12. I had hoped that the near complete collection of Newsletters would be scanned and readily available. This has not happened and I regard this as an undelivered requirement of completely documenting the VZ.
What is your favourite Retro-Game?
I play games with packs of cards, dice, bats and balls with an opponent sitting opposite! Relax and chill are my important emotions from games. I am not competitive and adverse to raising a sweat! The closest I recall to playing a game was MS Flight Simulator on an early desktop AT 486 running Windows 3.1.
Good Job Video Tech!