Mike Lake, Trusley resident and co-founder of Wordcraft International, covers his early days in computing.
- The Rolls Royce years
- Teaching, motorbikes and the PET
- Full time with Wordcraft
- Time moves on
- Wikipedia and dongles
- The truth about dongles
The Rolls Royce years
During the final year of a Psychology degree in 1968 I spotted "Teach Yourself Computers" in the University of Leicester bookshop. By 2.00am the following morning I had read it, completed all the exercises and realised "I can do this stuff!" - even though my "A" levels had been English, History and Geography!
During the University "Milk Round" of Easter 1968, when manufacturers were falling over themselves to recruit people, I was invited to visit several computer companies including Ferranti, English Electric, Elliott, IBM and ICL. However, I settled on a Computer Management Trainee position at the Rolls Royce Aero Engine division in Derby because it had more computers than anyone else - a goldfish bowl containing three IBM 360 65s linked under HASP.
I did everything from three-shift ops (ah, the joys of hitting the IPL button after the system crashed!) to programming. I ended my time there lecturing at the RR training centre in Mickleover (now a housing estate), covering operating systems, Job Control Language (JCL), PL/1 and System 360 Assembler.
During my last year at RR (one says "Royces" in Derby) I wrote a system (in PL/1) that simulated the 24/7 load on the 360s to enable the company to plan future computer requirements.
The photo below shows the machine room just before I started work there - the boxes were a sea of IBM blue! The system was so large IBM had a regional office in the building and all their machine manuals were kept inside one of the blue boxes!
Please click here for a scanned copy of a Computer Weekly article written in June 1967 about computing at RR. I worked for Len Griffiths and, later, John Allan.
The photo below shows the computer block on Moor Lane in the early 1980s.
The last photos of the goldfish bowl (shown below) were taken by Rick Nuth on January 28th, 2016 as the computer block was being demolished.
All gone. Still, 50 years of existence isn't bad!
Teaching, motorbikes and the PET
My wife was a teacher and she seemed to have a more interesting time than me so in 1973 I left Royces and did a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) at Bishop Lonsdale College in Derby before spending several very enjoyable years teaching at a Junior school in Alvaston.
Then the Commodore PET arrived in 1977. I have three of them at the moment (2021).
At the time I was driving a Honda 750 F1 motorbike to school and I couldn't afford a computer. So, the F1 got sold, I caught the bus to Nottingham and bought one of the first chicklet keyboard PET 2001s to arrive in the UK.
I wrote a couple of articles for a computer magazine and got together with a few other PET users to create the Independent PET Users Group (IPUG) - partly to apply pressure on Commodore to come up with the things we wanted - spare key stickers (the originals wore out very quickly!), printers, disk drives etc. At the first meeting I met Pete Dowson who was a manager with ICL (International Computers Limited) in Kidsgrove near Stoke On Trent. Pete and I had a pint together and chatted about what we could do with these new microcomputers - and we came up with the idea of a word processor which went on to be called Wordcraft.
I have been very fortunate in life to work with people far cleverer than me! A friend at school did my maths homework (he went on to advise the World Bank!), Pete Dowson was (and still is) an absolute genius and I have made it a policy to employ clever people. My task is to come up with the odd smart idea and to provide the facilities that allow clever people to bring them to fruition.
I left teaching and got a job with Sperry Univac in Birmingham lecturing in operating systems and assembler - only to find that Univac computers were almost identical to the IBM machines I had used at Rolls Royce. This meant I had a lot of time on my hands as I was supposed to be learning what I was to teach. I spent that time commuting from Derby to Birmingham during the days, from Derby to Stoke in the evenings to work with Pete, and lunchtimes getting Wordcraft manuals printed at the local copy shop! By the time I found myself filling the boot of my car with Wordcraft packages, driving down the M1 motorway to Leicester Forest East, unloading the software into the back of a car belonging to a London dealer and returning home, I realised this was becoming serious!
By then the Commodore PET had become a little more streamlined - design by Porsche! Note the "dongles" to the left of the keyboard - we invented and named those!
I was at Sperry for less than a year and during my last weeks, in my spare time at home, I knocked up a Commodore PET program that simulated the operator's console on the Univac 1100/80. I was really pleased with it and I thought it would be great for training purposes.
Aside: why are days so much longer when you are young? How can you fit so much in?
I put the PET in the back of the car, took it in to work and was busy demonstrating it to an enthusiastic group of my fellow lecturers when the Operations Manager turned up. It was a very short conversation:
"It's a Commodore PET."
"How much does it cost?"
"What's it doing?"
"It's simulating an 1100/80 console?"
"So we can use it for training rather than taking up valuable time in the machine room."
"Get that thing out of here - I never want to see it again!"
Of course, he had no job if there were no students in his machine room!
The Sperry Univac name vanished (after being bought out by Burroughs - it is now renamed "Unisys") - and he lost his job.
Full time with Wordcraft
Photo courtesy Richard Legendijk. Note the dongle centre, bottom.
I quit my job at Sperry and worked from home: testing, documenting and selling. Through sales of Wordcraft we met Paul Handover of Dataview in Colchester. Paul had been a very successful IBM salesman before setting up his own computer dealership and Pete and I agreed that he would do a much better job of selling Wordcraft than we could - and he did! Pete eventually quit his job at ICL to dedicate all his time to Wordcraft development.
A rant about "free" software
It never ceases to amaze me that some people think that software should be free because "it costs nothing to make copies".
Nothing is ever "free", there is always a cost. There is no such thing as a "free lunch" or "a five minute job". Those who think software should be "free" are the same ones who believe "free postage" really means "free postage" on ebay or AliExpress! Duhh!
One look at jobs available for programmers and others in the software or electronics business shows they don't come cheap! Good, well supported, software never comes free.
I was once asked to review a system called "The Last One" which claimed that "there will never be a need for programmers again". Laugh? I could have died! I hate the word "coders", it implies a task that could be handled by robots and is so far from the truth that it reveals unplumbed depths of ignorance.
Creative software development is very hard, very time consuming, very expensive and never finished. There is always the next feature and the next version - on top of the normal maintenance and support workload.
I have no objection to people giving their spare-time labour for free in the Open Source Community - as long as they don't do it during their employer's time. Anyone who wants to give their labour for free is welcome to come and work for me.
It becomes a different matter when you are developing professional software commercially and when your customers use that software for "mission critical" tasks. They expect you to take responsibility for that software, to maintain it, to support it, to train them in it and to add new functions as required. None of this is cheap - and we all have to make a living to keep a roof over our heads and a crust on the table!
DCPE: a Dongle and Cassette Port Emulator
In late December, 2022, a colleague and I decided to revisit the history of dongles and we developed a Dongle and Cassette Port Emulator. You can find details here.
Good software is expensive and in 1979 Wordcraft sold for £325 (£1943 in 2022!), almost 50% of the cost of a PET, and the arrival of disk drives made it easy to make copies. Paul Handover identified the need for some form of protection so Pete and I talked it over and visited another PET user, Graham Heggie, at his home in Coventry. Graham was an electronics engineer and between us we came up with the idea of a device we could plug into the back of a PET so the software would work only if that device was present.
Graham lashed up a 74LS165 8 bit shift register on a piece of Veroboard wired to a connector on the tape cassette port - the PET had two such ports. The logic was simple: the software would waggle a clock line to the shift register and shift the 8 bit data in on another line. The shift register lines were tied randomly to ground or 5V providing 255 possible values (excluding zero!) This was really simple stuff but we felt it was enough - especially if the whole thing could be potted in epoxy resin so no-one could see what was going on. By the time we left Graham's place the PET was on his kitchen table with the wires and Veroboard dangling out of the back - so we called it a "dongle".
"Dangle", "Dongle - not exactly rocket science - all those urban myths about the dongle being invented by "Don Gall" made me smile - in fact, I am Don Gall! (Well, Pete, Graham and I are Don Gall.) Maybe I should get a T shirt with "I am Don Gall" printed on it - that should impress no-one!
Looking back we should have patented the idea and registered the name - but we didn't - we just wanted to shift loads of Wordcrafts, which, thanks to Paul Handover and others, we dd.
The system worked very well, though one chap, a very clever software engineer working for Derbyshire County Council, in his spare time came up with a gadget containing 8 DIP switches so it could emulate the value in a dongle. We had a quiet word with him and it vanished forever.
Paul Handover was very successful in selling Wordcraft and over time we modified the software, and the dongles, to work on a variety of machines that appeared in the early 1980s: DEC Rainbow, ACT Apricot, Chuck Peddle's Sirius, NEC PC, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC, Amstrad PC1512, IBM PC and clones. Dongles now sprouted connectors for Centronics parallel ports, 25 way parallel ports, 25 way RS232C ports and 9 way IBM serial ports and they were being sold to other companies to protect their software.
When Wordcraft International Limited was registered, dongle production moved to Derbyshire and was handled by Brian Edmundson of Small Plastic Parts (SPP) in Draycot.
In 1981 I was contacted by a typesetting company almost next door to where I lived and asked if we could make a version of Wordcraft that could be linked to their Lintotron 202N typesetter - a device which produced formatted text "set" on a continuous roll of photographic paper. Brian did the electronics, Pete did the software, I "set" the manual using the software as it developed, and Typecraft was launched - also protected by dongles. Typecraft was adopted by a number of publishers, including Eddy Shah who used it on his regional newspapers and for the "Today" newspaper which he established in 1986. Typecraft led the digital revolution away from hot metal typesetting during the 1980s.
With the arrival of significant competition from Microsoft Word, Wordcraft International moved into the world of facsimile communications and into software for Multi Functional Peripherals - devices which can print, fax, copy, scan and make the tea. Wordcraft's customers included all the world's major office equipment manufacturers.
Thanks to my technical contacts in Japanese office equipment manufacturers I was invited to become a UK representative on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) based in Geneva. We held meetings all over the world (including one I hosted in Ashbourne) and over a couple of years our LaserFAX software was being used by most manufacturers with fax and multi-functional machines (MFPs) linked to computers for printing, copying, scanning and sending faxes.
In 2001 I "retired" from day-to-day management of Wordcraft International and went clay shooting. That led to the invention and development of the DryFire simulation system which is now used worldwide by club shooters and world champions. Wordcraft has now taken over the development, manufacture, marketing and sale of DryFire - and they make a much better job of it than I ever did!
The short video below shows DryFire displaying targets for Olympic Skeet, station 4, doubles. The red light is the laser projecting the target and alongside it is the aperture for the camera which detects a spot of invisible infrared laser light "fired" from the shotgun when the user presses the trigger.
Mike Harrison's YouTube channel is highly recommended for anyone interested in things electronic.
Over the years I have had everything from a Lambretta scooter, BSA bantam, 50cc Honda Cub on up to a Harley Davidson Low rider - with various Suzukis, BMWs, Kawasakis, Hondas and Triumphs in between.
I recently sold my last motorbike, a Beta Alp 200. It was light and flickable - ideal for country lanes and a bit of off-road.
Time moves on
Having "retired" for a second time I got involved in microcontrollers - single chips that can do an amazing number of things. This led to dabbling in electronics (with a lot of help from Brian Edmundson) and to a few new things such as SmartAngle. We (Brian and I) are still involved in the latest DryFire developments and, with a colleague at Wordcraft, we are dabbling in the world of accessories for wildlife cameras (trail cameras).
It is never too late to learn something new and it is never too late to try out the latest wizard wheeze!
Wikipedia and dongles
A quick Google search for "history of dongles" will provide hundreds of links and images relating to the early days of software protection and for many years Wikipedia has contained two articles: "dongles" and "software protection dongles", covering the history of dongles.
At the end of May 2019, a Wikipedia editor decided to take down all the material relating to Wordcraft's first use of dongles in the late 1970s! Wikipedia is created and maintained by volunteer "editors" - anyone can be an editor, no matter how much or little you know about a topic - so who knows what the motive was!
References and citations
Life is too short to argue with Wikipedia but here are some references to put the record straight
- 1978: a link to the history of ICPUG describing Pete Dowson talking about the development of Wordcraft in October, 1978.
- 1979: a link to page 10 of Printout, "The independent magazine for PET users", December 1979, showing Wordcraft on sale by Hipposoft of Derby, UK. (I was Hipposoft!)
- 1980: a link to the Official Showguide for "The World's first Commodore PET show" at the cafe Royal in London on 13-14 June, 1980 with Wordcraft on show by Dataview. (I was there!)
- 1980: a link to an original Commodore Applications Catalogue listing Wordcraft.
- 1981: a link to page 22 of Commodore Club News, September 1981 containing a review of Wordcraft and describing the use of the device "affectionately known as the dongle" .
- 1981: a link to an article in PrintWeek, 13th August, 2018 covering the highlights of printing and typesetting with Typecraft listed for 1980-81.
- 1982: a photograph of the Typecraft manual from 1982 showing the use of the word "dongle".
- 1983: a link to page 6 of The Transactor magazine, July 1983, showing Wordcraft receiving the ICP Million Dollar Award for 5 million dollars of sales.
- 1992: a link to page 133 of Byte magazine, August 1992, with an advertisement making the tongue-in-cheek claim that dongles were invented by the lonely software developer, "Don Gall". Laugh? We could have died!
- 2017: a link to the list of new words, including "dongle", added to the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2017
- A link to the definition of "dongle" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary which includes the statement: "first known use of dongle: 1981."
- A link to Paul Handover's web site (Paul now lives in Oregon, USA) describing the Dataview business and the need for something to protect software.
- A third party photograph of the "out of the box" components of Wordcraft - including the dongle.
- A third party photograph of the Wordcraft manual showing the use of the word "dongle" and the dongle.
- A photograph of dongles used to protect Wordcraft.
- A photograph of a PET with Wordcraft dongles.
The truth about dongles
You won't read this on Wikipedia!
In 1978 Pete Dowson (a manager at ICL) and Mike Lake (a teacher) met at the first meeting of what was to become the Independent Commodore PET User Group (ICPUG) and decided to produce a word processor. At the time dedicated CRT-based word processors, from people like Xerox, IBM, Wang and Philips, were very expensive and Mike's handwriting was, and is, rubbish, so it made for a really interesting and demanding project. Pete wrote the code (in 6502 Assembler then in BCPL) for what became Wordcraft, Mike did the testing, documentation, manufacture and initial sales. Mike was still teaching but, for a short time, sold software under the name of Hipposoft.
Credit for the logo goes to one of Mike's fellow primary school teachers in 1977.
In 1979 Pete and Mike met Paul Handover, a successful ex-IBM salesman who had set up Dataview in Colchester. one of the first Commodore dealerships in the country. Paul took over the business side of things leaving Pete and Mike to concentrate on development and technical support - though Mike still made sales as Hipposoft. Paul identified the need to protect the software against piracy.
Pete and Mike met with Graham Heggie in Coventry where Graham came up with the idea of using a 754LS165 parallel to serial shift register to produce a random number between 0 and 255. Each of eight parallel lines on the 74LS165 can be tied to ground to produce zero or 5V to produce one. Another line is used as a clock which, each time it is toggled, causes a bit to shift out on a data line. Two other lines are used for 5V and ground.
Graham lashed up a prototype on a piece of Veroboard and wired it to a 12 way female Teka connector suitable for fitting to the edge connector which functioned as the PET's second cassette port and which had all the lines necessary to interface with the 74LS165.
Pete wrote some code to test the prototype (which worked first time!), then the three of them had a cup of tea in Graham's kitchen and talked about what to call this new "thing". Since Graham's Veroboard was dangling out of the back of the PET the word "dongle" came up - it didn't require a huge stretch of the imagination to turn "dangle" into "dongle"!
Any form of protection is vulnerable to reverse engineering and the 6502 made it straightforward because it is a memory mapped processor - all connections to the outside world ("peripherals") appear as a memory location. Disassemble the code (there is plenty of software to do this), find places where the code accesses the memory locations (the ones associated with the cassette ports in this case) and work out what's going on. It is then fairly easy to patch the code to get round the protection. Pete made it more difficult by using self-modifying code which, at first glance, never accessed the cassette port memory locations but changed itself to do so when required - so the real code existed only for the millisecond or less that it took to read the dongle.
That's it, that's what happened. Graham went on to produce tens of thousands of dongles for Wordcraft and for other companies who wanted to protect their software. Later on dongle manufacture was transferred to Brian Edmundson of Small Plastic Parts in Derbyshire but dongles weren't patented (too expensive) or registering as a trademark - the aim was to shift boatloads of software without being ripped off. Thanks partly to dongles preventing piracy, Wordcraft went on to win the ICP Multi Million Dollar sales award in 1983.
We did have a couple of people who reverse engineered the dongle and produced devices that could be set up to generate the required code. However, they decided to cease their activity after a quiet chat. We also had one large multi-national company that decided to market Wordcraft under its own brand name without paying for it. Again, a visit and a short chat soon put that in order. We may have mentioned that the Wordcraft copyright enforcement office was based in Palermo.
Just goes to show, Wikipedia is a far from comprehensive guide to anything - anyone reading this is welcome to put the record straight.
The definitions for "dongle", in dictionaries and elsewhere, are all made up by someone and citing references to them doesn't make them correct or comprehensive. So, here is my crack at one - I have no doubt it could be improved and I welcome comments.
Definition of "dongle"
"Dongle is a generic term for small external devices designed to plug directly into a port on a computer, smart TV or other intelligent device, to provide additional functionality."
In the notes below "computer" is used to cover intelligent devices such as computers, smart TVs, etc. - anything to which the dongle adds additional functionality.
- "generic" covers a family of devices with certain attributes, not a specific device. There is no single thing called a "dongle" and anyone making a device meeting this definition is free to call their device a dongle if they wish.
- "small" is a relative term but rules out "large" and even "medium sized".
- "external" rules out things inside the computer such as the power supply, motherboard, graphics card, microphones, cameras etc.
- "plug" shows that it can be plugged in and removed, it is not a permanent part of the computer.
- "directly" rules out devices connected via a cable such as printers, external hard drives, external cameras etc.
- "port" can be a standard connection: serial, parallel, IEEE etc., or a proprietary one: user port, Thunderbolt etc.
- "added functionality" requires expansion by example - see below.
Examples of dongles:
- Wireless adapter for things such as wireless mice and keyboards.
- Wifi adapter to connect to a router or other wifi devices.
- Bluetooth adapter to connect to speakers or other Bluetooth compatible devices.
- Encryption key to be used by software or firmware when encrypting or decrypting files, messages, signals, etc.
- Token to provide an id to enable access to the computer, files, services, etc.
- Software protection device to prevent software piracy.
- Adapter for streaming audio or video.
- Storage device such as a "USB stick" - though these are rarely referred to as dongles.