Category Archives: History

Sixty years, eh?

Today, 7 September 2013, is apparently Cassette Store Day. Six decades ago, Philips revealed the Compact Cassette to the world at the Berlin Radio Show. Folk who really ought to know better (and some weren’t even born when I was playing with compact cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s!) think we should be celebrating this fact, and have persuaded numerous musicians and bands to release their music on this supposedly defunct medium.

It took a while for the format to become mainstream. Early cassette tapes were of mediocre quality, but as the technology improved so did the sound quality. As a youngster, I fell in love with recording tape—my parents owned an ancient reel-to-reel recorder that I played with for hours, even learning to edit tape with sharp things and sticky tape. My sister and I would make rude noises, create silly sound effects and play about with the speed controls. It was a hoot, and I still fondly remember such antics. As I began to earn a disposable income, I began to buy records, and eventually I acquired a reasonable quality cassette recorder so I could still listen to them in my car.

Amazing stuff.

I always wanted to be a radio DJ when I was younger. I’d still jump at the chance if it came my way today, if I’m honest. While I waited, as a callow and spotty teen, for my big break into wireless, I created my own radio show which I lent out to friends. I bought a second-hand Akai 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel recorder (YouTube link to a young fan demonstrating his 40-year-old machine), and a second stereo cassette recorder. I learned to  multitrack using the “bounce” technique, where you played back one tape and recorded it on a second machine with a second soundtrack. It was all very basic and limited, but I had a ton of fun. Eventually it spawned the Ticky Radio Show.


The Ticky Radio Show was a three-hour über mix tape, consisting of home-made jingles, favourite tracks from my collection, interspersed with snatches of comedy recordings. It was very much a shallow copy of my hero, the sadly missed Kenny Everett. The show was lovingly crafted, with musical selections to educate and entertain—many tracks were “flip sides” of hit singles, if I recall—and presented in two 90-minute cassettes with custom inserts designed by yours truly. Also included was a comprehensive track listing, carefully outlining the artistes, record label, recording number and so on.

Originally, the TRS was in mono only, a legacy of the technology available to me. Then came a breakthrough: I could produce everything and record the show throughout in stereo! Sadly, this high-tech marvel was the last show I ever made, dating from 1985. I do still have those final recorded tapes (and one of the much-chopped-about seven-inch reels somewhere) of the last two shows I made. Having recovered them from their dusty storage to take their photo for Cassette Store Day, they will be rewound to the start of side A, returned carefully tape side down to the plastic case, and put back in the drawer once more. I do not wish to listen to them, as my rose-tinted memories of the hours spent in my home-made studio making the things will be much better than the real thing.

Oddly, I didn’t buy much music on cassette. I preferred the LP until quite late in the 1980s. Eventually I bought a CD player, and began to buy new copies of my existing record collection, as well as add new material. I still made copies on cassette, simply because my car had a cassette player. I was one of those people who invested in the MiniDisc, too, and it was quite a while before I was persuaded that an MP3 player was a worthy replacement. Making mix-discs from CD to MD was a fun exercise, especially with a proper stereo mixer and a pair of CD players, but I digress.

I still buy the occasional CD, but most purchases nowadays are a click away on the internet. The pleasure of selecting music, carefully timing everything to fit into the 46 minutes available, and then painstakingly writing out the playlist on the insert, is something I will fondly remember for many years. The utterly linear process would be completely alien to many today. Having to sit through a track as it’s recorded, and repeating that process to fill a whole tape, must seem such a strange thing to do. Everything is so instant these days, the concept of having to wait while something is recorded in real time seems so very old-fashioned.

I wouldn’t want to go back there, though. I’ve been there, still got my record collection, and some mix tapes to prove it. I just wish I could have had the technology I have today back when I was a teenager lovingly making those “radio shows” in my bedroom.

My love of audio recording is still there. I am currently considering acquiring a digital audio recorder to match with the DSLR for location sound. While I could use my MiniDisc recorder for such a purpose, I have grown to dislike having to replay the sound back in real time to get it into another digital form. If my 17-year-old self could hear me now!

The British Landscape Club

The British Landscape Club was dreamed up to promote the exotic origins and fabulous history of the British countryside. Anyone can join, there are no membership fees and all we need is an email address so we can send you occasional updates about the site and tidbits of information.

There’s also a book – a bit of a club manual – about Britain’s landscape: The Lie of the Land – an under-the-field guide to the British landscape.

This site needs an occasional plug. I have a copy of the book, and I pop over to the web site for the occasional update and new item. If you are in any way interested in the landscapes, history and story of the British Isles, bookmark the BLC now.

As the inestimable Ian Vince has reminded me, there is a section of the site which sees regular updates, too.

BBC News – WWII Dornier bomber raised from English Channel

A German World War II bomber has been raised from the bottom of the English Channel.

The Dornier Do-17 aircraft was shot down off the Kent coast more than 70 years ago during the Battle of Britain.

via BBC News – WWII Dornier bomber raised from English Channel.

Now the long haul up to Cosford, and the long haul of preservation begins.

For other blog posts here about this story, search for “Dornier”.

Incidentally, it’s been mildly annoying hearing all the female news presenters pronounce Dornier like their favourite cosmetics company.

Late Spitfire pilot helps save Battle of Britain control tower

As a Battle of Britain nut, this is good news.

(Of course, the pedant in me must insist this isn’t a “control tower”. Such creatures didn’t exist in the RAF at the time, so this building is more correctly described as a Type 518/40 ‘Watch Office with Meteorological Section’. Happily, the linked story does mention this eventually. My inner pedant would also like to point out the building may not actually have existed in 1940, but was extant at the time the film was made in 1942.)

A unique wartime control tower where classic film The First of the Few was filmed has been saved from ruin thanks to the legacy of a Spitfire pilot.

More than 70 years after the movie starring David Niven and Leslie Howard was recorded at RAF Ibsley the dilapidated concrete building is to be restored to its former glory after wartime pilot Des Smith left thousands dedicated to the cause in his will.

via Late Spitfire pilot helps save Battle of Britain control tower where wartime classic The First of The Few was filmed by leaving thousands of pounds in his will. | Forces-War-Records.

A Trip on the River

The end of October into the start of November 2012 sees a celebration of Kent’s coastal heritage. Sponsored by Kent County Council, numerous events are happening, ranging from exploring nature reserves to gaining access to things often not open to the public.

One of the events was a trip on a preserved tugboat, the MT Kent. The South Eastern Tug Society owns, maintains and operates the Kent to promote festivals around the south east and near continental ports.

MT Kent was built in 1948 by Richards Ironworks in Lowestoft for JP Knight Ltd of Rochester. She worked on the Medway, and was deployed as far afield as Scotland and Ireland under contract. She retired in 1988, and was eventually acquired by the SETS, who then spent four years restoring the vessel to working order.

Since she is not a passenger ship, trips aboard the Kent are quite rare. There is no accommodation, apart from a small galley and the wheelhouse, so if the weather is inclement any “pleasure” trip may be called off. Luckily, though slight rain was forecast, today we set sail from the Chatham Marina on St Mary’s Island, and headed out for Rochester. We turned at Bridge Reach, in sight of Rochester Castle and Cathedral. We headed back towards Hoo Marina, before turning once more and heading back to Chatham Marina.

I mainly shot video of the trip, though I did find time to fire off a few shots with my compact camera. The edited video will take a while to prepare, but be assured it will be mentioned in due course.

We were cold, windswept, smothered in diesel fumes, but we all enjoyed every minute of the trip. The volunteers and crew of the MT Kent made us all very welcome, and were very happy to explain any aspect of the vessel’s history. I have lived around the Medway Towns since the late 1980s, and while I have spent a good deal of my spare time by the River Medway taking photographs, this is the first time I have travelled on the river itself. I hope it won’t be the last.

Click here to visit the MT Kent web site.

Why we’re building Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer

But Babbage’s machine has something that no others have: its sheer scale. It is about the size of a small steam locomotive, which means that people will be able to appreciate the architecture and internal workings of a computer by watching it in operation. The analytical engine has a central processor (today’s “chip”) and expandable memory, is programmed with punched cards, and even has a printer. And Babbage hadn’t forgotten the human operator: a bell is included to summon help in case of a problem.

Once complete, the machine should be able to run some of the programs that have been waiting almost two centuries for the computer they were designed for to be finished. Babbage prepared punched cards containing programs (perhaps containing programs worked on with collaborator Ada Lovelace), that have to this day been carefully preserved.

via Why we’re building Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer | John Graham-Cumming | Comment is free |

I wish them luck. I’ve seen the Difference Engine that was built a few years ago, and to see a full-scale working Analytical Engine will be just awesome.

BBC News – Flossie restored: Early computer back to life in Kent

One of the world’s oldest commercial computers has been brought back to life by two enthusiasts in a barn in Kent.

The ICT1301 computer, known as Flossie, was restored to working order on its 50th anniversary by engineers Roger Holmes and Rod Brown in Bethersden.

The 20ft (6m) by 22ft machine was built to replace rows of clerks doing office work and featured in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun.

Bought for £200 in 2003, it has 100 times less power than a smartphone.

via BBC News – Flossie restored: Early computer back to life in Kent.

I love the history of computing. It’s a fascinating story, even without the geekery and nerdism.