Christmas came early for me this weekend, when I heard that journalists Iain Thomson and Shaun Nicholls had compiled their list of “Top 10 Great Britons in IT history”.
It’s a great read – celebrating the enormous achievements of the likes of Alan Turing, Clive Sinclair and Tim Berners-Lee.
One of my first ever jobs (working during the summer holidays) was for an arm of Sinclair Research, performing quality control tests on the Sinclair QL computer.
I don’t think it will upset Sir Clive (or surprise anyone who remembers) if I reveal that they were diabolical machines with a shoddy reputation for flaking out. Fortunately I was long gone before the Sinclair C5 electro-trike emerged on the scene.
I had been into writing computer games since my first experiments with computers on my 1K ZX81. When I boosted its storage with a 16K RAM Pack I felt sure I would create epic adventures in near limitless storage – just so long as it didn’t wobble too much and I had the volume on my cassette player set just right.
Sigh.. kids today, they just have no idea..
Subsequently I traded-up from my Sinclair ZX81 and Memotech MTX512 home computers and ultimately purchased an Amstrad PC 1512 from the hands of a wheeler-dealer called Alan Sugar. It had a monochrome CGA screen, two 5.25″ floppy drives (360K each) and no hard drive.
Alan Sugar gets an honourable mention in Thomson and Nicholls’ list of the IT greats for bringing his PCW word processor (I never used one of those) to the British people.
Anyroad, naturally I was going to write some games for the PC too. With a trusty copy of Borland’s Turbo Pascal in hand I set about porting an adventure game I had written for the PRIME Minicomputer at college to run on a PC.
The game’s name was “Jacaranda Jim” and proved reasonably popular on the UK shareware circuit, and made me a little bit of cash. “Marvellous!” I thought, “I’ll write another one – but it will be better, more sophisticated, funnier..”
And so I wrote another text adventure game called “Humbug”. And it was a lot better than Jacaranda Jim – more locations, more objects, a better text parser, the concept of objects being inside or on top of other objects, a more realistic game world. Terrific!
(If any of these tales of my early days of games programming are interesting to you, you might be want to read an interview I did way back in 1992).
The only drawback was that it had taken something like a year to write – pretty much solidly, – and I should really have been studying more if I was going to pass my exams. The answer, I felt sure, was to write some arcade games which would be quick to knock out (much less plot and characters than an interactive adventure game, after all) and see if they could make me some pennies.
I remembered a game I had seen a friend play, involving blocks falling down the screen. I had only seen it once, but it looked both addictive and – importantly – a doddle to write.
I stayed up all night and wrote a shameless rip-off of “Tetris”, which although it proved popular at the polytechnic I was studying at, never made as much money as the adventure games. (You can imagine my thrill though when, earlier this year, I discovered that my “Blox” game was being exhibited at the museum of Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing and other World War II codebreakers managed to break the ciphers used by the German Engima machines.)
Okay, one more go. I’ll write my first computer game with real graphics. Yes, CGA and four colours here we come. If I make it something a bit like Pacman, then it will be easy to add more and more levels at next to no effort – surely that will be fun? Even it’s name, “Wibbling Wilf”, was an homage to notable computing journalist Wilf Hey (sadly now deceased), how could I go wrong?
Well, “Wibbling Wilf” never set the world on fire. But it and “Jacaranda Jim” did capture the attention of two young girls, who happened to be the daughters of Britain’s leading anti-virus expert, Dr Alan Solomon.
One day, coming home from a ghastly temp job, I found a large parcel on my front door step – inside it were drawings of some of my games’ characters like Alan the Gribbley, Wibbling Wilf and his arch enemy Frank the Boiled Sweet. Alongside the pictures and a cheque for 20 quid (more than I was expecting for the games) was a packet of cheesie biscuits, a copy of Dr Solomon’s Anti-Virus Toolkit and a letter saying that if I wanted a job I should get in touch.
A job! Of course I wanted a programming job! And how exciting to work in the fairly new anti-virus business (which I had been following from afar via mailing lists like VIRUS-L).
A month or two later I started working for Alan Solomon as his chief Windows programmer. That sounds grand, but I was actually the only Windows programmer. Together with a guy called Neil (who wrote the DOS version, Alan himself concentrated on the OS/2 version, the virus-finding engine and the malware disassemblies) we created Dr Solomon’s Anti-Virus Toolkit (AVTK) version 6.
Writing an anti-virus program for Windows was, at the time, quite innovative.. and not completely without controversy, as you can see from this editorial from the archives of Virus Bulletin magazine:
Don’t worry – I made friends with them later, and am still amused that they compared a program I wrote to inflatable bananas and a pair of plastic breasts.
They were fun times, and it was great fun working for Alan. He was not only a great boss, very smart and extraordinarily funny, but I also owe much of my subsequent career in computer security to him.
I am delighted to see that he made it to number five in the list of “Top 10 Great Britons in IT history”. I believe that Alan set the template for some of the great working practices that the computer security industry still follows to this day – and without him it could have been a much murkier place.
I’m also touched beyond words to get an honourary mention (alongside Alan Sugar, now Lord Sugar) in the list myself. I obviously don’t deserve it, as I didn’t help crack the Nazi’s Engima code or invent the World Wide Web – indeed, all I really do is talk about computer security issues – but it is immensely flattering.