ANT – the official videomaker of the QL world tells its story.

My passion for computers is directly related to my love for technology, more precisely for TV and video (these have born way before PCs). I came across the QL in 1986, thinking I could use it to produce video clips – pretty naive – and I wasn’t interested in it as a computer. The first half of the 80s was showing interesting technologies for home video roduction, but still immature with regards to non-linear (i.e. digital) video elaboration – this was still possible only with the help of a computer. Access to digital image manipulation for the common users would be available only from the later 90s.

Even if the QL couldn’t be very useful for video production, I started to grow an affection on it during the time spent nowing this machine and its features, while I was trying to use it for my purposes. Starting the 80s, I was working at the counter of a six-windows wide shop, which contained also a print office, where we sold many printed documents (both for accounting purposes or other), office documents and so on. In that shop I was also appointed the management for our suppliers.

The sales management

I then started thinking about using the QL to support me during my job – and the sales part was the most important omponent. The business owner didn’t think it was possible to manage real-time – e.g. in presence of a customer – elling stamps, custom-made plates and so on. I knew pretty well my job, though, and I was already gaining proficiency in SuperBASIC, so I decided to try and apply my knowledge to my job experience writign a management software. I was let free to try and the “management project” was the cause of my first QL hardware upgrade – this is the QL I brought to Modena in 2014.

The modification was needed because I couldn’t put on the counter a standard QL with all the cables connecting it to power supply, monitor, printer, external boards and floppy disk drivers – too much disorder.
After making a first prototype (the QL-BOX), which was thought to contain all the components connected to Paolo’s QL, I designed a deeper and more radical modification for mine. The idea was putting all the electronics and verything
which was connected to the computer in a single box, designed so that only the keyboard would stay free.

This required, though, solving a problem for which I didn’t know if a solution existed.
QL Expansion cards are connected to the 64 pin connector to the left of the mainboard, The QL is by itself pretty long,
and – in my case – the ThruConRam 512 kB and the SuperQBoard (only the floppy interface) made it way longer – this adding also the risk of the electronic flexing or bending. In those times, the only information available was coming
from magazines. The italian magazines absolutely didn’t talk about hardware, while the English language ones (like QL World) were almost unavailable here in Italy.

I decided to take a risk and tried making a flat cable (using two Amphenol connectors and soldering one by one all the 128 pins), some 10 cm wide, to connect the boards to the mainboard keeping them perpendicular to the mainboard itself. My friend Paolo and another electronic experts were against this idea, but the cable worked flawlessly since the first try!

So I extracted all the electronics from the QL box, as well as the ThruConRam and the SuperQBoard (In time, I would substitute both of them with the GoldCard) and built the case and the keyboard – this took place between 1985 and 1988.

The QL Work Station Case contained everything: QL Mainboard, power supply, expansion cards, floppy unit and xternal connectors. The first keyboard I connected to the QL was a flat capacitive keyboard took from an IBM PC Clone.
It worked, but the keys would bounce, so that a single pressure on a key would cause an unwanted flood of characters. This because th e8049 couldn’t handle that keyboard input. An older keyboard, took from a dismised terminal, worked
perfectly, so I extracted the mechanics of every single key from its original case and put them in my keyboard. Luckily, the new keys could host perfectly the QL original key caps, so I could mount them on my DIY keyboard.

Between the end of 1988 and the summer of 1990 I wrote part of the management software I was thinking about. I didn’t have a great programming experience, although I took a couple of classes near the end of the 70s (COBOL and assembler for mainframe systems), but I was able to create some modules to manage selling stamps, plates and accounting documents – everything in SuperBASIC, not compiled, so that it was possible to apply updates and corrections on-the-fly.

Those were the days when firstly appeared GUIs like GEM, to be used with a mouse. I was already addicted, and I lready played with ICE – the first WIMP GUI on QL, made by Eidersoft in 1985. It was a nice toy – attractive but really
limited and impractical to work with. In that same year, ABC Elektronic released GigaBasic, a really cool graphics expansion software directly useable into SuperBASIC programs. It was way more efficient and useable than ICE, so I
took it and studied its manual, while at the same time translating it into Italian.

The software I was planning to build should have to be visible to clients (and also easy for me to use), so I had to think about an interface allowing to browse the features easily and quickly. The QL was born with a command line interface, which was not the best interface for my program. I needed a graphical interface, which could use drop-down menus and icons. A similar interface still didn’t exist, so I had to create one by myself using tha GigaBasic I just learnt, working at the maximum graphical resolution. I also was able to create an icon set for my program.

The last part I missed was the ability to print the orders made by client at the counter. The problem in this case was hat pre-printed documents on which to print the remaining data already existed and were made to be completed by hand. In 1987, I bought a pretty expensive Mannesman Tally MT80, which was one of the best dot-matrix printers at the time. I had to argue with it a little, but eventually I was able to control it so I could write on the spaces left in the printed modules all the information took by the program while collecting order details.

As said before, my project was designed in a modular fashion. This because of the complexity and the different data eequired while selling stamps, plates, account document, letterhead, pre-printed modules and office items. Such a
complex entity must be divided into modules, in order to ease its maintenance.

The modules are simply SuperBASIC programs which call one another and refer a single “general index” program, called by any module at the end of its processing phase. The first module I wrote after writing the general program
was a stamps selling software, which I thought was the simplest to write (Well, it wasn’t.).

I completed the hardware and the software by the spring of 1990, and I was finally able to manage all the possible options – from data input til order printing – for stamps selling. I also was able to control the QL via QIMI mouse. I still didn’t have the GoldCard (which Miracle started selling in 1991), so using a non-compiled SuperBASIC software in graphic mode was really not that fast. That said, the system was useful and efficient enought to start working on it.

I also wrote, in July 1990, the first betas for plates (carved on plexiglass or on brass) and for fiscal documents (packing slips, invoices and receipts) selling.

The first public presentation was globally successful, but – as was easy to imagine – also showed a series or problems on which to work. A solution was possible for each of them, even if required some time. The owner liked the test version working on the QL, but didn’t want to rely on a non-standard computer (in the 90s Windows PCs were already the “standard”) which only one of his workers could program. For this reason, I had to bring back home my QL Work Station after the presentation.

I was already subscribed to QL World, which I received home. To that magazine I wrote a letter describing my QL makeover, together with some photos.
After the July test and my vacation period in August, which I spent in Scotland, coming back home I was treated to a package containing two copies (one free) of the september issue of QL World, in which my letter and to pictures of my QL appeared. It was indeed satisfying.

After three years spent on the management software, I was a little sad at the idea of letting it go. Since the experiment wasn’t stopped by hardware or software problems, I thought about this as a positive result, which could turn useful in the future.

QL Agent

Which was true indeed. When I started my new job as a selling agent, the QL and the SuperBASIC programming experience came useful. An important section of the Selling Manager I wrote was about creating and manipulating several data files which needed to be bound each other, to complete the description of an order. All these data were to be saved into a historical archive, for consultation purposes.

I had to write a database management system to create and maintain these files, and I kept using SuperBASIC with the help of ToolKit II. Tebby’s Toolkit II offers a complete series of commands to manage files. Surely I didn’t write FileMaker, but these SuperBASIC extensions allowed me building a program which was able to correctly maintain a tree-structured file hierarchy.
I put that database engine into a different GUI, and I used it for some years both to plan and check my trips to my customers. I can say the QL was really useful in bringing money home until 1996.

Meanwhile, history was changing. I was often a guest at Spem in Torino, owned by Guido Masoero, and I saw the Acorn computers he sold. I was captivated. I already had a second-hand Archimedes 310 in 1991 near my QL, changed with a new Risc PC in 1997. In 1996 I understood I had to keep a computer with me during work, also knowing I could not bring the QL with me. I wasn’t interested in the IBM PC world, so I bought my first Mac portable (PowerBoox 190 CS) and FileMaker.

How did it end

This little story covers all the years during which I effectively used my QL. The funny thing is that I wanted to use it to produce video clips, but the QL has actually become the subject of my clips, both directly and as a side-effect. Directly, because several works I made were recorded from my QL to Video tape (mostly demos, among them my management software) or captured via the Spem video digitizer; indirectly, because I started taping all the Italian QL users’ meetings.

On june 1989 I bought my first video camera – a full size VHS many people surely remembers. I could have videotaped the first Meeting in Gardone Riviera, but as I said before, Masoero forgot to let me know and I couldn’t attend. In 1990, on the second Meeting, I was there, and since then I never skipped an occasion to bring a video contribution to the QL world.

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