Research Machines’ corporate website is light on details of their history, despite the fact that they are now celebrating 30 years in education.
The company was founded in 1973 by Mike Fischer, a physics graduate from Oxford, and Michael O’Regan, who graduated in Economics from Cambridge and then worked for two years as a teacher. In the early 1980s, Local Education Authorities had a choice between machines from Research Machines and Acorn as part of a government programme to place computers in secondary schools. I went to school in Woodstock so it wasn’t surprising that, when our computers arrived in 1981, they were provided by the Mill Street company.
At first, computers were provided so that ‘O’ Level Computer Studies could be taught, with maths teachers taking the classes. There is a stereotype that computer programmers (cough, I mean software engineers) must be good at maths, so either maths teachers were chosen because the reverse stereotype applies, or they volunteered. (I bet the answer is “neither”.) At any rate, the pupils who gathered round our two 380Zs at lunchtimes and taught themselves the ins and outs of CP/M and Z80 assembler learned much faster than the teachers, who were stuck with a syllabus consisting of details of punch cards, core memory and a computer language called CESIL.
The Computer Education in Schools Instructional Language was created in the 1970s by ICL’s Computer Education in Schools Project to show pupils what assembly languages looked like. The interpreter we used was written in BASIC, so it didn’t enable us to see how fast assembly language would run, and the single accumulator and few instructions certainly didn’t match the capabilities of the Z80 assembler I was learning at lunchtimes. If you wanted to convince a child that computers couldn’t do anything useful, and that programming was deadly dull, you’d teach them CESIL. Fortunately, we only suffered CESIL for a few weeks before progressing to BASIC.
Andrew Jacobs is keeping the memory of CESIL alive with Visual CESIL. I’m shaking my head as I write this.
RM’s website doesn’t explain what the two Mikes were doing between 1973 and 1977, when they launched their first microcomputer. It doesn’t even tell us the name of their first machine. Was it called the 180Z? I’ve certainly never heard of a 180Z, but there was a 280Z. The first machine to arrive at our school was a big black 380Z, equipped with dual floppy disks. The very earliest of these machines only had a cassette interface, but I don’t remember using a cassette with ours. A couple of years later we received some 480Zs, also in black metal cases.
By the time the 480Zs arrived, home computing was starting to take off. The big debate in the computer room at lunchtimes was whether to ask your parents for a BBC or a ZX Spectrum. (The price decided it for my parents; at £175, the 48K ZX Spectrum was over a hundred pounds cheaper than the 16K BBC Model A.) At school, I had started investigating whether I could write games for the 480Z in the same way as I was doing at home with my Spectrum. One of the most impressive aspects of the 380Zs and 480Zs was the amount of technical information available. My Spectrum hadn’t come with schematics or details of the ROM routines, but the 480Z Information File contained both, and I started writing my own sprite routines. The video memory wasn’t memory-mapped and could only be accessed by I/O commands, so the timing constraints were tricky to meet. I didn’t get very far down the road of writing a version of Frak! for the 480Z, but the experience was worthwhile. There would have been no career as a 480Z games programmer when I left school but, as a software engineer working on real-time systems, I now spend my working life considering timing issues!
Research Machines plc still concentrates on computing in education. Mike Fischer is non-executive President, and Mike O’Regan is a non-executive director.
The National Educational Computing Archive has a lot of software, manuals and books in its collection. Unfortunately, the catalogue is still not available on the Web; it has been coming “soon” since 1999.