Re-creating Mrs Snowball's
1984 Shopping Machine
In September 2008, Michael Aldrich agreed to donate his archive of personal and company papers to the University of Brighton and to digitise much of the material. In May 2009 to recognise the 25th Anniversary of Mrs Snowball’s achievement, the Mayor of Gateshead made a presentation to the Snowball family. In December 2009 the Michael Aldrich Archive went online and was opened to the public.
In 2009, Richard Hibbs, a ROCC software engineer, heard of the Archive and agreed to donate his collection of vintage hardware, software and associated materials to the Archive.
In September 2010, while examining the inventory of the Richard Hibbs Collection of hardware, software and documentation in detail for the first time, a wild thought materialised. Would it be possible to re-create Mrs Snowball’s 1984 shopping system using original vintage hardware and software?
Richard had accumulated his Collection over the years primarily by dumpster-diving as old equipment was discarded from ROCC offices. His motivation was his interest in old technology. His colleagues thought he was eccentric. Until he revealed it, no-one had any notion of the scale of his Collection. It is a treasure trove of now extinct equipment. Richard’s fascination with the old technology had led him to research the Technology History of ROCC Computers, a continuing work in progress, and write a piece for the Archive. Richard’s donation of his Collection to the Archive, his tireless work on getting the old equipment working and his enthusiasm for the e-Fenix Project have been invaluable.
The immediate challenge of re-creating Mrs Snowball’s system was in trying to scope the project. It was a bottomless pit of unknowns where we might not know whether or not we could be successful until we had actually been successful. We had a list of sundry bits of kit and associated paraphernalia but we could not ascertain whether it was relevant, useful or usable. Our first plan was therefore to build a team of people who could carry out a feasibility study. We knew the kind of skills that we would probably need and that meant that many of the potential team members were probably retired or that they had experience of this kind of technology very early in their careers. We needed help.
Luke Aldrich, CEO of ROCC said the project was mad but worth a try and he would do everything he could to help. Alan Gould, long time ROCC manager, volunteered to be project manager. Richard Hibbs and Peter Luck, the Archive webmaster and another senior ROCC manager, volunteered immediately. Then we set about finding and recruiting the other members of this team of volunteers. We needed hardware, software, applications, telecoms and maintenance engineers for a start.
It took 6 months to assemble a team. Every form of personal contact, social media, ROCC pensioner lists, web searches, University of Brighton appeals was used. And we were successful! Offers of help started to appear. John Phelan, who had designed not only Mrs Snowball’s application but also the Bradford Centrepoint/Wm Morrison system and had invented the online shopping basket[ later re-named the online shopping trolley] offered to help specify the re-created application. Dave Bunting, a retired senior ROCC manager with years of experience on similar systems volunteered to work with John Phelan and write the application. Dave is one of the few people who can still program this old system. Peter Champion and Johnny Walsh volunteered to help. Maintenance engineers Tommy Bowden, Andy Gale and Ron Ditchfield joined the group. Via the University came Ralph Wood a retired design engineer and Robert Schrifeen, still at the University, who had worked on viewdata systems in the 1980s. The team met for the first time on March 17th 2011. Although the project was located in Brighton the team was widely dispersed throughout the UK so meetings tended to be virtual.
In the meantime we started to gather equipment, software and paraphernalia at ROCC’s Brighton office. It looked like a pile of junk and it was clear that some of the items hadn’t worked for 20 years or more. It was also obvious that we were missing some critically important items not least of which was a television and remote . No television meant no project. Enter Stephen Perry, then a senior ROCC telecoms engineer. Stephen said ‘ Find me a 1970s Rediffusion television and I will hook it up on-line.’ Ralph Wood said he would make a TV remote to match the one Mrs Snowball used.
We were beginning to construct a list of ‘unknowns’ and ‘don’t haves.’ It would have been nice to have wiring diagrams, manuals, diagnostics, epromware and spares. In the equipment inventory we had found a Teleputer. The Teleputer is important because it was used in most of the Business-to-Business online shopping systems. Teleputers can be seen clearly in the NISSAN video. This Teleputer may be the only one in existence. It was not in good condition. After cleaning it was clear that it had no video cable. Stephen Perry volunteered to make one.
Once complete, it was decided to switch-on the Teleputer. All reasonable precautions had been taken. There was an almighty bang, the room filled with acrid smoke and building evacuation was triggered. The team were howling with laughter! Fortunately power supplies can be repaired. Old equipment has to be treated with great respect. The main R2835 computer switched on without any dramatics but there was a problem with the Cipher tape streamer. System software was loaded by tape. The streamer and another we had found were sent to specialists for repair and reconditioning.
The biggest concern was the television. We knew it would be a big problem. Most of the televisions that Rediffusion had manufactured were cable-tv models unsuited to our purposes. All of the viewdata televisions had belonged to ROCC. Shame to say that during one of our frequent equipment disposals we had sold all these televisions to staff and even worse I had bought 4 for myself.
And to my everlasting shame, I put all of mine on a dump around 2000! Sadly the staff who had also bought them had eventually junked them too. The television we wanted didn’t exist anymore. Alan Gould then went on a UK wide scouring operation to find a Rediffusion Mark 3 television, an antenna model, which we hoped Stephen Perry could convert. After many blind alleys he eventually made contact with Gerald Clode who runs the Rediffusion site for old television company employees. Gerald agreed to help and to run an advertisement for Alan and in August 2011 a working Mark 3 TV was found in Rye, East Sussex. We had the television!
Concurrently to all these other actions a huge sorting and organising activity was under way as we tried to gather paraphernalia together. We found magnetic tapes for the R2835 and floppy disks for the Teleputer. It seemed we might have some system software but the media was old and potentially damaged .We needed to get it transferred on to something more secure.
In September 2011 Dave Bunting reported that he had a prototype of the application system running. He had used C-Check II to prototype on a PC. Once checked out the software could be moved relatively easily to the R2835.In the meantime, Tony Purser, former ROCC manufacturing engineer who had helped to build the original system, offered to make replacement 15 core cables with connectors, without wiring diagrams of course.
We had started to get a little complacent. That was before the software became the main issue. We had managed to get the Teleputer hardware working in spite of Richard Hibbs’ observation –‘There is a strange smell coming from the monitor. I am not sure whether it is the dust heating up or something altogether more interesting….’ But the 5.25” floppy disks were proving problematical. We had what we thought were system software disks. We needed to copy them onto new floppies for safety and Stephen Perry thought he could do this on an ancient BBC micro. After much smoke and the rebuild of his BBC micro this proved to be impossible. So the decision was taken to clean the read heads on the Teleputer’s 29 year old floppy disk drives [ not used for at least 20 years] and load our master floppy. After much coffee drinking, debate and procrastination it was loaded…… and seemed to run correctly! Relief all round! Richard Hibbs and Stepen Perry then devised a new strategy to make copies of the original floppies we had found.
In the meantime what can only be described as a mad nationwide Egg Hunt was underway. Studies, cupboards, closets, garages, garden sheds, lofts, attics –grandfathers were crawling into roof voids- were being scoured to find anything useful to the project. It sounded as though some homes were being de-constructed. Dave Bunting had produced the prototype of the Mrs Snowball software and John Phelan was agonising over whether or not they had got every detail correct. He was desperate to find documentation. Dave’s prototype software was on a modern PC . It had to be moved on to a 1980s minicomputer. Enter Richard O’Neill Roe- the younger generation comes to the rescue. He just saw it as a challenge!
December 13th 2011 was a red letter day. Richard Hibbs loaded the system software on to the R 2835 aka the ‘Classic’. Perfect! Then Richard and Stephen Perry copied all the floppy systems disks on the Teleputer. The Teleputer was now fully functional. There was palpable tension in the air. We had no spares and no documentation and no-one knew how long these systems would run. The next task was to connect the Teleputer to the Classic. The Teleputer has a big spike-type telephone jack socket that went into a brown wall plug. It used a five core cable rather than the three core cable of later jack sockets. This was the standard Post Office viewdata jack socket never seen before or since. Alan Gould was perusing every jack socket the Post Office had ever made and still couldn’t find a match. Stephen Perry armed with an assortment of tools and artefacts but, alas, no documentation, stripped the Teleputer and went looking for the comms sub-system. Spying the five wires he embarked upon a conversion attempt to make it work on three. The first discovery was that the auto-dialler was pulse mode. The second was that no matter how the wires were re-configured he still couldn’t get a dial tone. The only solution appears to be to find a viewdata plug and rig a conversion off the back of it. It is rather like trying to find hen’s teeth.
Meanwhile Richard Hibbs was trying to transfer the Snowball application software from a PC to the Classic. E-mails were flying between Richard in Brighton and Dave Bunting in Manchester as Dave struggled to remember the operating instructions he had used so many years before. This would all be so easy with documentation. We have a working Classic, a working Teleputer, the Snowball application software, a television yet to be converted and communications problems yet to be solved. It is hard to believe that we have come so far. We were stunned to see the 28 year old Teleputer working again.
By late January 2012, after a visit by Dave Bunting who journeyed from Manchester to Brighton, we had the Classic fully operational and had loaded the Snowball application system . The telecoms for the television and the Teleputer were still problematical however and Stephen Perry had moved the hardware to Egham for easier access. Everyone was trying to remember long forgotten viewdata telecom trivia. Alan Gould was trawling the internet for obscure telecom enthusiast chat rooms to search for ancient widgets or information thereof. We needed some luck.
On the 7th February 2012 we had some luck. Stephen Perry re-wired the Teleputer to a modern BT jack, connected a modem and a modem simulator for 1200/75 bps [the original viewdata specification] and had the Teleputer talking to a lap-top. This was a mixture of intuition, improvisation, technical brilliance and lots of luck. Alan Gould had found the modem kit. The next step was to connect the Teleputer to the Classic. Then the last and greatest hurdle had to be overcome – converting and connecting the 1970s Rediffusion television online to the Classic. Here we probably needed a miracle as well as luck and all the other things.
History was made on the 27th March 2012 when Stephen Perry, Richard Hibbs and Alan Gould linked the Teleputer to the Classic and ran the Gateshead SIS/Tesco home shopping software over the link. Stephen Perry ordered cola and 101 apples- he meant to order 10 apples! The system worked perfectly. We had re-created Mrs Snowball’s system! The final stage was now to connect a 1970s analogue TV online and repeat the transaction from the television. The team identified two potential strategies. We definitely need a miracle. Stephen Perry has been given the soubriquet ‘Snowball.’
On the 28th of June 2012 at the Brighton office of ROCC Stephen Perry connected an analogue 1970s Rediffusion TV to a 1980s BBC Micro and the system worked perfectly! The next step is to connect the BBC Micro to the R2835 compute. Stephen has found some Prestel software to be burned into an EPROM to insert in the BBC Micro. He has a serial cable -5Pin Domino DIN to 25-way DIN- but of course we have no documentation on line speed, parity, stop bits, data bits etc to ensure compatibility between the BBC Micro and the R2835.
We also need to construct an infra-red interface board to receive commands from the handsets.
Again we don’t know the codes for the handsets but once we have found them Ralph Wood will program the codes into the handset he has made to be a look-alike of the original remote. When we have completed these tasks we can then test the entire system – TV-Modem – R2835 and Teleputer- Modem – R2835. These are not trivial tasks. We now need luck! We have come so far we are now into the last lap.
It wasn’t easy and it took a year but our luck finally arrived on Wednesday 5th June 2013 when a full system test was run at Brighton of the entire system including TV handset and Teleputer. We had a fully operational, useable system. The Team had achieved a magnificent and barely believable success. The world’s first online shopping system was running again with the software used by Mrs Snowball. Our next task is to find a museum to house this wonderful piece of history.
© Michael Aldrich 2011