Lazy Sunday afternoon

Charles twit

Now that’s man-spreading. Even royalty does it.

Browsing the web, on the AutoDesk site (software company, makers of the famous AutoCAD, you may have heard of it), in the job openings section, they have a vacancy for a Backend Engineer. I wonder how much thought they gave to that title?

By the way, in just the engineers section of the job vacancies, out of about 20 categories, there are 139 vacancies worldwide! This is a massive US company. It dwarfs Australian companies.

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I can say I was one of the first users of AutoCAD, with version 1 way back in the late 1980s at Channel 7. Up to then we had done all our drawings, and there were hundreds, on tracing paper using Rotring Indian ink pens. If you used them you might remember how they dried out all the time, how they leaked, how easy it was to make mistakes and how difficult it was to correct them. Fibreglass brush erasers that rubbed a hole in the paper. Black ink stains on fingers and clothes. No way to use colour or layers. And it was so slow. It was awful.

So when we got the chance to try this new CAD thing (Computer Aided Design/Drawing) we jumped at it. The first product, AutoCAD, cost $4,000 in about 1989 and was supplied by an AutoDesk approved local company already installed and set up on what was called a “blue-print system”. That was a PC (IBM PC or approved compatible) that had been tested and approved by AutoDesk as capable of handling the demands of this software.

These were the days of 80286 CPUs, maths co-processors, 1MB of RAM, Centronics printer ports, RS232 serial ports for the mouse and graphics tablet and running the MS-DOS operating system. The computer struggled sometimes (“redraw” and wait) and all the tricks of autoexec.bat and config.sys had to be used to ensure things got loaded properly so as to use that tiny amount of RAM. You think computers these days are hard? They were infinitely harder back then. This was well before Windows came along. Programs ran under DOS control, with 5¼” floppy disks and 40MB hard drives.

Anyway, I well remember I was on the night shift and about 5pm the chief engineer came and handed me the manual for AutoCAD v1, or may be v2, and said, “How would you like to have a look at this?” Oh, yes please.

Our system was supplied as a loan demo test system on an Olivetti PC with a big heavy 12″ square tablet using a pen with a single level of pressure as a select switch, like a left mouse button. The tablet had embedded wires that sensed the position of the pen and pressing down made a dot that started or finished a line on the screen, or a curve, and so on. The screen was colour, but only 14″ in size and the palette was limited to about 16 colours. You get the idea? This was primitive!

Anyway, I spent several hours that night working out how to use it and next day said I thought it was good. I was understating it. It turned out to be brilliant! The amount of time it saved us and the ability to use layers, coloured lines, predrawn symbols, to modify drawings as things were changed, electronic filing of drawings… it soon became necessary to almost book time to use it.

Although I say it saved us time, the system was really very slow. Drawing circuit and system diagrams took a long time and plotting them out on paper added as much as 30 mins when you’d finished a drawing. Then you discovered your mistakes and had to correct them and do the plotting again. It was common to go to lunch while a plot was being drawn.

AutoDesk grew the software fast in the next few years and we were soon on to version 3, 4, 5, up to 7 and so on. Each upgrade involved a cost of at least $1,000, not to mention new PCs required to handle the increased speed and memory requirements. Naturally, old versions became available for free, if strictly unofficial use and I soon had version 2 up and running on my 80286 with maths co-processor at home. I think I had 640KB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive. It seems crazy now.

Anyway, I used to do drawings at home using just the mouse instead of a pen, and doing test printouts on an NEC dot matrix printer. Crazy, but I would take my drawings to work on floppy and transfer them into our system, correct them and plot ’em out. There was no USB and virtually no viruses in those days.

Then Windows came along. I remember first seeing it when Windows v1.0 came supplied in the box, on about 8 3.5in floppies, with a program called Asymetrix Toolbook, which was designed to run on Windows. This must have been about 1989 too. It was very primitive, blocky and jaggy and easily crashable. I’ve got screen shots of each version…

windows1

Windows 1.0

Win 2.0

Windows 2

Win 3.11 1993

Windows 3  1993

Win 95 1995

Windows 95   1995

Win 98 1998

Windows 98  1998

Win ME 2000

Windows ME 2000

Win XP 2001

Windows XP  2001

Win 7 2009

Windows 7  2009

Windows-8

Windows 8 2005

windows-10

Windows 10

The next memory is being in Hong Kong in October 1992 on my return from Japan, and trying to buy “bootleg” software. AutoCAD was the holy grail and I went from my hotel on the island, by the ferry to the mainland and a train to a northern suburb (it might have been Mong Kok) shopping centre I’d been told about. Yes, it was everywhere in the shops, and Windows too, so I bought both. It was all floppies in those days, and it took a lot of disks. In my naïvety I questioned the shop seller about whether I could be sure I was actually getting the software on the disks. I got a lip curl and a snort. “Well, I can’t bring it back if it doesn’t work” I said. He just laughed and turned away. I was very naïve.

12Jan91-37

My computer den, Jan 1991. MS-DOS 286 PC, 13″ b/w monitor, NEC dot matrix printer.

So back home and at work, AutoCAD progressed to 17″ monitors (wow), Windows (I’m not sure we ever went that far at work?), and a new tablet with much better sensitivity and resolution.

But one guy in Engineering took a strong interest in the system and kind of took charge, with the tacit approval of the chief engineer. He spent nearly all his time at it, went on training courses and handled all the upgrades as if they were church rites and he was the bishop. It didn’t hinder me much because I used to do a lot of my drawings, not that there were many, at home or in other drawing programs on my office PC but it was a bit irritating. I got frowns and dubious looks and scrutiny of the drawings, with a few tut-tuts, but it was generally OK.

By then ink jet printers had progressed far beyond the capability of plotters, and printing A3 (the biggest we needed) was easy at home, so I did. Drawings printed in about 1/20th of the time a plotter took, without all the rigmarole of making sure the coloured pens were in the right holes of the plotter and not dried out and so on.

AutoCAD was and still is a mind-blowingly complex program and not easy to use. It’s still the pre-eminent CAD program even now, 30 years later. It costs about US$4,000 per year to use now. You don’t own it, you rent it. I remember thinking that if one was to make oneself an expert, one would never be short of a job, so I had this idea that by buying computer books, I would become that expert. I spent many hundreds of dollars on books 6″ thick or more. Did it make me an expert? Naaah. If I’d really put the work in, maybe, but I had a life to live as well.

I spent thousands of $$$ on computer hardware, software, books and magazines in the late 80s and 90s. It did work – I became Supervisor, Broadcast Digital Systems for the last five or six years and I managed to persuade the company to give me a $4,000pa computer allowance and buy me a $7,000 piece of software called Authorware. This went nowhere near what I’d spent before, but there ya go.

I foresaw a future career in Authorware, by the way, another complex program with 6″ thick books written about it, but what I didn’t foresee was that html and the web became a much easier way to deliver training courses. The Authorware company (Macromedia) was bought by Adobe who maintained the program for a few years, then abruptly shut it down, throwing many guys who had become training specialists using it on the scrapheap. Despite protests, Adobe refused to sell the source code to any other company. So that was it. I have a $7,000 piece of software, now worthless.

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