Archive for the ‘computer magazines’ Category

David Deutsch’s quantum computing

March 14, 2017

David Deutsch and David Johnson-Davies wrote the Spider curve-plotter for the October 1986 Acorn User (Computing History Museum) 

A discussion of quantum computing is not what many people expect from a blog about magazines, but then they forget that magazines have a habit of going anywhere and discussing anything.

Back in 1986, I commissioned an article for Acorn User magazine, which was later dubbed ‘Spider Power’, from David Johnson-Davies and David Deutsch. The blurb on the contents page read: ‘The Davids present their Spider curve-plotting program to plot almost any equation.’

The Spider was an incredible BASIC program that really did do what it said it would. It was my favourite program – even over the breakthrough fractal routines and Mandelbrot listings we ran. You could type in an equation – even a mix of cartesian – x and y – and radial – r and θ – and still it would print the equation. Raise x to the power of θ, y to the power of r, whatever you typed in, the Spider plotter went away and did it.

One example it plotted was a a set of circles arranged at regular intervals. Don’t ask me to remember the equation. But get hold of a copy of Acorn User from October 1986, issue 51, on eBay and you can see it all there. Type the listing into a BBC Micro emulator and you can run it too.


It was worth buying a £400 BBC Micro just to run this program. There was nothing like it on a £3000 Apple Mac. You’d have had to go to a minicomputer. The only problem was the time it would take – days, weeks even. I gave up on several plots. Even with a second processor attached (which probably tripled the processing speed).

David Deutsch quantum computing

David Deutsch – ‘father’ of quantum computing

But what about the quantum computing? Well, the Davids behind the program were the MD of Acornsoft and a researcher at Oxford University.  David Deutsch, the latter David, was tricky to get hold of because he never got up till 3pm (typical student I remember thinking!). When you did get hold of him, you learnt of his theoretical world of computing using the states of atoms for computation and data storage. Given the billions of atoms in a grain of sand, the possibilities are incredible (as seen in the 2020 Alex Garland series, Devs, on BBC TV).

Deutsch had recently published his landmark paper on the topic –  ‘Quantum theory, the Church-Turing principle and the universal quantum computer’ – and today he’s regarded as the father of quantum computing. The only problem with such machines, I’m sure someone told me at the time, was that they might disappear because they had moved into another dimension (unlikely, but theoretically possible).

All this has been sparked by The Economist‘s quantum computing  technology quarterly (QC in TQ). The TQ is entitled ‘Here, there and everywhere’ and I read it on a plane from from Sydney to Hong Kong. The theme of the articles is that the technology is at the stage where it is about to be commercially exploited.

But keep hold of that 1986 Acorn User magazine because it gives an insight into the thinking of one of the greatest minds of this century. When Dr Deutsch wins a Nobel is probably the time to sell it.

Spider power: some curves plotted in 163 lines of BBC Basic

Bedford Square, the curse of the DIN plug and £12m

March 27, 2015

Once the office of Acorn User magazine – now the living room at 53 Bedford Square

Once the office of Acorn User magazine – now the living room at 53 Bedford Square

In the early 1980s, this room at 53 Bedford Square was the office from which I ran the computer magazine Acorn User. At one time, this part of Bloomsbury would have been crawling with publishers, but by 1982 most had gone, though my employers, the US group Addison-Wesley, and the Publishers Association, were still there. Both upped sticks within a couple of years. Though the Architectural Association has hung on at No 36.

So it was incredible to see this Grade 1 listed building turned back into what it once was – a house. But when I look at the room so much has changed – the marble fireplace has gone and it looks as even even the coving around the ceiling has changed.

53 Bedford Square in London's Bloomsbury. This Georgian building is up for sale at £12 million

53 Bedford Square in London’s Bloomsbury. This Georgian building is up for sale at £12 million

The coving  used to depict the skulls of cattle and was picked out in a Wedgewood blue.  The skulls were a rebus, referring to the fact that the Adams-brothers-style property developers had to battle to develop the land against farmers who used to fatten their cattle there before driving them on to market at Smithfields. Because of the loss of the pasture, they then had to graze them out by Marble Arch and bring them along Oxford Street (you can imagine the carriage-jams) At least that’s what I remember being told.

Acorn User magazine cover from December 1982. This issue would have been edited from the Bedford Square offices

Acorn User magazine cover from December 1982. This issue would have been edited from the Bedford Square offices

We had to be very circumspect in what we did in the main rooms – we couldn’t change the chandeliers, or the colours on the walls. And filing cabinets had to be kept to the edges of the rooms (they might have been too heavy for the floor beams in the middle). The floors were carpeted. The cellars, which stretched out under the road in front of the office, inspired the Acorn User Dungeon puzzles of two writers – MUD pioneer and Henry Root publisher Simon Dally and educational computing expert Joe Telford. They also led to the nickname ‘Mad Alex’ for Alex van Someren, one of the technical editors (he was some kind of belligerent gnome who skulked in the dungeon ‘with a glint in his earring’). Prolific computer book author Bruce Smith was technical editor and Mike Milne  – who would later found the computer graphics arm of Framestore – used to knock up filler programs for me and did the March 1983 Acorn User cover.

This room was the scene of one of the earlier embarrassing episodes of my career. The head honcho of Addison Wesley, Warren Stone, had come over from the US and my MD, Stanley Malcolm (a former IBM salesman who still shaved twice a day), had arranged for me to demonstrate the early email system I used. This was 1982, pre-internet, and the system was Dialcom and my address was ACN014 (Dialcom was later bought by BT to become Telecom Gold and the basis for The Times Network for Schools). I came in early to put the room – and the computer system – back together, because it had been used for a party the night before. Just as I finished, in they came. So, I booted up the BBC Micro and loaded the software from the 100K, single-sided 5.25in floppy disc. Then, I picked up the phone and dialled the Dialcom computer. I heard the computer screech and plugged the handset into the red, metal-clad, 300baud acoustic coupler. But the computer did not respond. No error messages. It just sat there, the white cursor blinking away on the black screen. Waiting. ‘Must be a bad line,’ I murmured. So I tried again. No response. And again. Still nothing. So Warren and Malcolm smiled and left.

I probably went out for an early lunch, cursing the BT Buzby bird that was the company’s ad mascot then and everything to do with email and computers. When I came back, I unplugged the acoustic coupler, put the DIN plug back in the other way up – and it worked fine! Never mind.

I did manage to work the telex machine a couple of times though.

The Acorn User office 53 Bedford Square as it looked in 1969 – no fireplace or chandeliers

The Acorn User office at 53 Bedford Square as it looked in 1969 – no fireplace or chandeliers

However, today’s beautiful room has not always been so grand, as this 1969 photograph shows. The Georgian developers would be turning in their graves. No marble fireplace in the Swinging Sixties, a false ceiling and no chandeliers either. It looks very cheap and functional postwar, the sort of institutional, ministry-furnished room frequented by the 1960s spooks of a Len Deighton book such as the Ipcress File.

The main part of the house was not that big, but there are three floors, an attic and basement, and the mews behind has been developed and linked to the main house. Asking price today for the 6 bathrooms, 8 bedrooms 4 receptions and 10,732 sq ft is just shy of £12 million. Oh, and there’s a gym and a lift too. But no telex machine any more and Addison Wesley is now just an imprint of Pearson (like most things in the book publishing world). Acorn User was bought up by the BBC and sold on, finally closing in 2005. Alex escaped from the dungeon a long time ago and is now a managing partner at Amadeus Capital (but does still have that glint in his earring).

In the end, 53 Bedford Square sold for £10.2m.