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Wrekin College

DR GRIFFITHS TAKES A STEP BACK IN TIME

'Soon after I arrived at Wrekin College in 1976, I contacted the Walker Technical College in Wellington (now Telford College of Arts and Technology) and it generously allowed me to take groups of students there to use its DEC PDP11 micro computer on a Tuesday evening for free. I plucked up courage and in 1979 approached Geoffrey Hadden, the Headmaster, and the governors to buy the school's own PDP machine at a cost of some thousands of pounds (equivalent to tens of thousands these days). Soon after I presented my proposal, Commodore launched its PET range and I modified my request to two of these machines (for considerably less money - about £600 each) and the governors agreed.  These early machines required programmes to be loaded, from cassette tape machines, each time and so were quite tedious at start up. Within a year a 5¼ iinch floppy disc drive was released and this speeded matters considerably.

'I think the governors were partially influenced to buy the computers as the school was just about to open the new Centenary Theatre and a room on the top floor, which now houses technical equipment for the theatre, was designated the Computer Room and, to visiting prospective parents, displayed the school was at the forefront of educational innovation.

'When it was realised that the space was really needed for its original purpose, the theatre equipment, the computers were moved to room 3 in the New School where they stayed until fairly recently when G13 (as was) became a second Computer Science suite (CS1) in the Gordon School.

'There was very little software for these machines, no databases, spreadsheets or word-processors. Indeed the first task I undertook, which sounds trivial these days, was to computerise the printing of the 3000 or so addresses for the Old Wrekinian Association which hitherto had been handwritten by the printers, Redverse in Shrewsbury, every time a magazine was posted out.  Given there was no software, each field (for example, name or line of address) in each record (each OW) had to written to a specific location on a floppy disc. A task which previously took days was completed in hours (processing and printing were still very slow by modern comparisons). The OW Secretary at the time and Head of History, Edmund Potts, would adopt his common stance of smacking his forehead with his right palm and saying "I'll be blowed." at what could be achieved by modern technology.

'There was little interest from the staff in the computers, not surprising perhaps since most mundane tasks took a long time to set up but one who was gripped by the new technology was Tony Back, Housemaster of York House, who seemed to collect almost every new device that was produced at the time by Clive Sinclair - the ZX81 followed by the ZX Spectrum - and I suspect many others besides.

'The Commodore PETs gave way to the Acorn BBC machines in the early 1980s - these still cost over £400 each - again a huge amount in comparison to modern machines. Having bought the computers the cost of monitors (not really available in mass production) was outside the budget so John Weight, the Bursar, and I travelled to a sale in Wolverhampton and picked up twenty old colour TVs at a knock down price, cannabalised them to get twelve which worked tolerably well and we were up-and-running with enough computers to be able to introduce computer lessons into the curriculum for the Third Form and Computer Science O level in the Sixth Form.

'By the time the next range of computers - the BBC B arrived on the market - there were also reasonably priced monitors and the picture depicts a Third Form computer lesson with a rather, relatively young and, dare I say it, dashing teacher from 1986-7, if I recognise my pupil correctly as Sarah Bowdler (now Mrs Charnley, C86-91). This machine had a socket into which a ROM (Read only memory) chip could be plugged and it became possible to install a word processing package for the first time.

'Soon after this I took on the role of Director of Studies and relinquished my self-made role as Head of Computing to Sue Lock, wife of Anthony (initially Head of Mathematics, later Housemaster of Windsor and Second Master and now a governor of the school). Since then Computing, becoming ICT and now back round to Computer Science has developed in leaps and bounds.

'John Weight bought a computer for the Bursary (an Apricot) and I undertook tasks to computerise the office. Again there were no accounting packages, or least not at an affordable amount, and so we wrote our own routines. Writing out the end of term extras bills for the 400+ pupils took the three ladies in the Bursary a week at the end of each term. Computerisation reduced that to an hour for the lot.

'As packages such as Microsoft Word appeared, so did the requirement for comparatively huge memories. The early BBC B machines had a memory of 32 Kilobytes, which could be increased with a plugin RAM (random access memory) to 64K.  Often an upgrade of a piece of software meant the new version would not fit onto the old machine. My current iPhone 6 has a memory of 16Gb (considered hardly big enough), but 1Gb is 1 million times bigger than a 1Kb.  A modern iPhone with all of its functions, cameras, sound and size now costs about £600 - the same as those original microcomputers (the PETs and BBCs) did back in the 1980s. 

'When examination results were released electronically for the first time, we could download them direct from the examination boards using a modem attached to the telephone lines (no Internet yet), and the staff would hold a post-midnight 'Modem party' at my house so that we could get a sneak preview of the results before they were delivered by the Royal Mail later in the morning.  Now data transfer is so easy, we don't think twice.

'The pace of change is definitely not slowing down. I arrived from Nottingham University with programmes and data stored on boxes of punched cards and reels of paper tape having spent 3 years computing vast amounts of data for my PhD which I suspect I could, perhaps, have completed within a few days today.'

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