A Story About Rob’s Dad

My dad died two years ago today. To mark the anniversary, here’s a story. The story features several of my favourite things, including: mathematical analysis, football pools, Butlins holidays, retro geekery, repair, and of course my dad.

The System

If Caroline’s dad and mine are anything to go by, having a clever uncle was a powerful factor in working-class boys escaping pre-war poverty. Peter had his Uncle Reg, who taught him to play chess. My dad had Uncle Arthur. Arthur was a veteran of the Great War, invalided out I think. For a while, our family had his hand-written war diaries, until they were snatched back by another family member, something that upset my dad greatly.

Arthur had introduced my very young dad to The System. For Arthur I think it was horse racing. The two of them would pore over The Sporting Life, analysing the horses’ form, scratching out some calculations to eventually come up with a mathematical assessment of the odds offered. I don’t know how good Arthur’s system was, but it clearly had a profound effect on my dad. As I grew up, he had a System for analysing everything. Sometimes it was the horses, eventually, when he had a little cash to invest, it was the stock market. He even applied it to his work, assessing kids’ reading ability. But in the early 1970s it was the football pools.

The Football Pools

Old football pools couponFor the uninitiated, football pools were a hugely popular form of betting in mid-20th century England. The art was to predict which of the 46 Football League matches on any given Saturday would be score draws. Eight correct guesses would win you a First Dividend, and a share of the pool. It was so popular that armies of agents would walk door-to-door on a Thursday evening, collecting the completed coupons and stakes, and pocketing a 12.5% fee for their trouble. It strikes me that the agents probably had the best of this. But my dad reckoned he had an edge. The System, as I first remember it, involved an array of index cards, with years of match scores written on each card. Rothman’s Football Yearbook was an essential part of The System, as it detailed all the relevant results from previous seasons. Each week, referencing the data on the cards, Dad would come up with an estimate of the likelihood that each match would be a score draw, and put his crosses on the coupon accordingly. “Come up with an estimate” rather glosses over the detail, which involved a great deal of calculation. Surprisingly, Dad had no higher mathematical education at all, but he was self-taught in some pretty chunky statistical techniques.

Marchant XL mechanical calculatorCalculating The System by hand was intensely time-consuming and error-prone, so he bought a hand-cranked, mechanical calculator. Realise, in the days before electronic calculators, it was a choice between a slide rule (slow and giving only approximate answers) and one of these amazing contraptions. It required a kind of physical long multiplication, with each digit being processed by an appropriate number of rotations of the handle. [I’ve only just learned that it was a Marchant XL, made between 1923 and 1936, see it on video here.] He must have developed a strong right arm! I don’t remember how long the mechanical calculator was in service, but with the advent of desktop electronic adding machines, it was eventually replaced with a very basic electronic model.

On a foggy Saturday night in November 1973, the very first week that the electronic adding machine had been used, we went to the fair on Hearsall Common. It was a typical family outing. I was 10 and my sister Helen was five. Probably, a goldfish was won, to be put in a demijohn, and nurtured for a few months until the inevitable demise occurred and it was flushed down the toilet. We bought a copy of ‘The Pink’, the Saturday evening sports edition of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, and my dad checked the results. Score draws: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…. 8! A first dividend!! As we walked home, I think Dad was carrying Helen on his shoulders, but was so distracted that he walked under a road sign gantry, clonking her on the head. She wasn’t that badly hurt, at least, not so badly as the time I hurled her out of a push-chair, landing flat on her face on a pavement. I digress…

So, a first dividend! We were in the money! How much money though would depend on how many other punters had first dividends, the pot being divided among all the first dividend winners. Some weeks, there would be only one, and the winnings would be truly life-changing. It took several days for the results to be tabulated and the prizes announced. Around Tuesday of the next week, we found out that there was another winner who had picked nine score draws and therefore won nine shares of the pot. It left my dad with a prize of £1,800; about a year’s salary, a major cause for celebration. We booked a holiday at Butlins, Skegness, for the next summer, which was one of the happiest holidays of my life! There was money for presents for the family, and some to be invested; bring on The Stock Market System!

Then my dad did what any sensible person would do in the circumstances. He discarded the cheap adding machine that had earned its cost many times over in a single week, and immediate bought himself the best electronic calculator known to mankind.

The Calculator

HP 9100A

HP 9100A image by bobo11, licensed under Creative Commons.

Stanford graduates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had started out in the 1930s, in a garage in Palo Alto, California. Silicon Valley as we would now know it, but at that time mostly orchards. Through the 40s, 50s, and 60s, they built up the most prestigious engineering company in the world, designing and manufacturing precision test equipment for laboratories and engineering companies. In 1968, they came up with a new line, the Hewlett Packard 9100A, a scientific calculating machine the size of a large typewriter, and costing $5,000. It might well have been described as the first personal computer, but Hewlett said “If we had called it a computer, it would have been rejected by our customers’ computer gurus because it didn’t look like an IBM.” Instead they called it a calculator.

With the new machine launched, Bill Hewlett turned to the engineers responsible for the 9100A, Tom Osborne and Dave Cochrane. Rather than praise, they got a new challenge: “I want it to be a tenth of the volume, ten times as fast and cost a tenth as much.” He wanted a scientific calculator that could fit in an engineer’s shirt pocket, instead of filling up most of the engineer’s desk.

Needless to say, the engineering challenges were enormous, but over a couple of years, Osborne and Cochrane worked away at HP’s Cupertino campus – later taken over by Steve Jobs as Apple’s resplendent headquarters – and came up with a design. The snag was the project cost; over a million dollars. “That’s when a million dollars was really a million dollars”, said one engineer. HP had poor financial results in 1970, and the outlook for massive, high-risk launches was not good. Ignoring advice from the Stanford Research Institute to cancel the project, Hewlett gave the go-ahead on February 2nd, 1971. The fascinating story of that product development is too long to expand here, but to cut a long story short, the HP-35, the world’s first scientific pocket calculator, was launched in January 1972 at a price of $395.

There’s a tale from shortly after the launch that gives a clue to why HP was such an admired company. Two of the calculator’s functions are ln (log natural) and ex. Each is the inverse of the other, so, if you take a number, press ln and then press ex, you should get back the number you first entered. In the course of exhaustive testing, an extremely obscure bug was found. 2.02 ln ex gave the answer 2. Dave Packard called a meeting and asked the team what they were going to do about the 25,000 units already in the field. Someone in the crowd said “Don’t tell?” At this Packard snapped his pencil and said: “Who said that? We’re going to tell everyone and offer them a replacement. It would be better to never make a dime of profit than to have a product out there with a problem”. Every one of the calculator’s 768 words of program memory had been filled, so the fix involved not only resolving the incorrect calculation, but finding a way to reduce the space occupied by other functions. Nonetheless, a fix was devised and offered to every owner. Less than a quarter took up the offer, many keeping the recall letter as a memento.

The HP-35 was a spectacular success. Needing to sell 10,000 to break even, HP sold 100,000 calculators in the first year alone, and 350,000 in the product’s three-year lifetime. Despite ramping up manufacturing, it took 18-months to clear the order backlog. The calculator division became the most important part of HP’s business, delivering more than half of its profits. I was disappointed to find that the HP-35 didn’t make any moon landings, but it did travel with astronauts on Apollo flights to Skylab in 1973 and 1974. James Burke used to wear one on his belt as he presented the BBC coverage of those space missions.

And my dad bought one for his football pools system.

The Repair

I inherited my dad's HP-35. It was badly damaged by a leaking battery pack somewhere along the line, and failed to come to life. Over the past few years I've developed a habit of taking electronics things to bits, and - just occasionally - making them work again afterwards. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the HP-35. I felt it was time to lift the lid at last.

The first thing to observe is just how much gold is in this machine! HP's lab equipment was built to last, and designed to be repaired, and it's obvious they brought the same philosophy to the early calculators. By the 1980s, HP's calculators, while still high-quality, were definitely not repairable.

I've been puzzling over the fault for several weeks. The internal power supply is designed to generate three voltages: 6V, 8V and -12V. The first two were present but not the -12V. Some speculative replacement of parts made no improvement. Bear in mind that the componentry is 1970s vintage, but some of the obsolete parts can still be found by diligent search. Eventually, this week I turned my attention to a tiny transformer. You can see it encased in a cylinder of white goop at the top of that circuit board. I desoldered it, and as I pulled it out, it became obvious that one of the leads was broken, probably corroded by leaked battery contents. Resoldering that joint brought the calculator to life for the first time in 40 years or so.

There are still problems: the power switch doesn't work properly, and some keys don't register, so I've got more work to do. But it was a good feeling to see those tiny LEDs light up again.

Ironically, I bought another HP-35 on ebay, advertised as 'not working, for spares only' thinking it would be a good donor for parts. I simply made a makeshift battery pack for it and it worked immediately. It has the '2.02 bug'!

This project has thoroughly obsessed me for a couple of months. I watched a YouTube presentation by a man who has built his own HP-35 from first principles. He said something which sums up my autumn 2022.

I discovered a whole world of classic HP calculator enthusiasts on the web. First I thought they were lunatics, but I couldn't look away. Eventually I quietly became one of them.

The System, revisited

There was one more small pools win, more like a month's salary, than a year's, but then the government put up tax on football pools. My dad was smart enough to know that the small edge he enjoyed on the pools would be eaten up by this reduction in the pot, so he stopped playing. I think he went back to the horses for a while, then the lottery; you may think that is pure chance but dad had other ideas!

We had a second holiday at Butlins in the drought summer of 1976 and I remember the clouds bursting as we came home by coach in late August, the first rain for two months.

There were more calculators. After the HP-35, there was the Novus, then a Texas Instruments programmable SR-56, on which I did my first programming, a golf game as I recall, then the TI-58, with plug-in ROM modules and magnetic program cards. By this time home computers had arrived and dad brought home the Exidy Sorcerer, a machine with a massive 32kB of memory. "How could we ever fill it?" we said to ourselves. (I renovated that a couple of years ago.) On it went for the next thirty years or so.

He never kicked the habit. In total I inherited more than a dozen calculators including a couple more classic HP's. They are delightful things, and a lovely reminder of my dad, and his System.

BerWin: The Wrap-up

Map of BerJog-BerWin-LeWinWe’ve been back home a while and busy with other things, but now a quick wrap-up of the snappily named BerJog-BerWin-LeWin multi-tour, and specifically its BerWin leg. I’ve updated our map of all cycle tours and doodled a map just for BerJog-BerWin-LeWin because I’m incapable of leaving things to your imagination! Caroline The Stats has added some facts and figures for your amusement.

I said I’d comment on our experiences touring in the UK versus Europe.

Firstly, the weather! I’m hesitant to generalise from a small sample, but both our UK tours have had prolonged rainy spells. In Europe we’ve had severe weather but it tends to be one bad day and not prolonged. I guess the difference between a maritime and continental climate.

Most of our European tours have followed major rivers, and consequently our stops have been rich with cultural cities. Lots of things to see and do, lots of places to eat and drink. British tourism seems to emphasise landscape over culture; maybe because we have so many beautiful places, maybe because London sucks the life out of our regional centres, or we don’t cherish the culture in other cities (sad to see Liverpool ousted from UNESCO world heritage status).

I can’t ignore the state of cycle infrastructure. In one sense we are fortunate: there is a wealth of very low-traffic lanes in Britain. Other, more recently-developed countries might have just one way to go city-to-city, and it can be monstrous (Romania, ugh!) But we sorely lack the visionary, high quality cycleways of Germany, Netherlands and Denmark. Even France has invested heavily in tourist-attracting routes on the Eurovelo network.

Don’t want to end on a sad note though! We have happy memories of the wild and remote places, the exceedingly steep hills and extreme weather of the Pennine Cycleway 🙂

Meet us at Land’s End in September.

BerWin: Sheffield – Ashbourne

Descending to HathersageWhat a difference good weather makes! Today was a game of two halves (and no extra time). Tough climbing for 40km, but in lovely sunshine it was a pleasure to spin up from Sheffield, where we’d enjoyed lovely dinner bed and breakfast with Clara, to Stanage Edge. Fabulous descent from there to Hathersage. The long backroad climb from Ashford in the Water towards Monyash was a delight. After climbing again out of Monyash, we were treated to the Tissington Trail, 30km of steady descent into Ashbourne.

Yesterday’s ride got short shrift because a certain football match kept me busy in the evening, but it was another rainy one, beautiful in its way, plunging repeatedly into West Yorkshire mill towns, before spiralling back up to the Moors. For TV afficionados, apparently we started in Happy Valley and passed through Last of the Summer Wine.

BerWin: Dent to Heptonstall

Climbing out of ColneMentioning no names, one of us has a battery to help on the hills, of which there are plenty on this trip. The e-bike offers five rockets. 1/5 rockets compensates for the extra weight of hauling a heavy battery around; 2/5 roughly equalises with the (ahem) human-powered partner (who still fails on the 25% sections); 3/5 will get you up nearly everything; 4/5 will get you up the mad climbs around here, and 5/5 for all we know will launch you into orbit (never been tried). There was a little scare, range-anxiety I think they call it, when the remaining battery-life fell to 21km on a 90km ride with mostly 3/5 rockets engaged. So the battery-assisted partner has to ration her (oops, giveaway) rockets. Since yesterday’s deluge, an added complication is that the control unit has taken in water, and the ‘reduce rockets’ button won’t work!. No joke: you have to turn it off and turn it on again, to revert to no rockets. Well, on today’s quite challenging (understatement) 100km / 1800m climb ride, the battery-powered partner survived mostly on 1/5 with an occasional blast to mount the 25%ers. Kudos.

Though the bar is now quite low, the weather today was fine, often drizzly, occasionally rainy, sometimes sunny. We scaled the col out of Dent, and several more categorised climbs, before eventually plunging into Heptonstall, where we are staying tonight. At lunchtime we even met and ate outside in Settle with Cathy and Richard. All is good!

BerWin: Alston to Dent

Hartside Summit
Weather report for July 5th. Today will be drizzly, followed by rain, heavy over Hartside Summit, lashing and freezing on the descent, brightening later, followed by rain, sun, rain, sun, rain and finally hot sun. You will wear light rain gear, heavy rain gear, every layer you’ve got, long trousers (not before time), raingear, no raingear, raingear, no raingear, raingear, shorts, suncream (not before time). Sheep spilling messily across the road, electricals misbehaving, crackling fresh tarmac, diverting to train later.

BerWin: Horsley to Alston

Lambley Viaduct lies on the South Tyne Trail, a splendid converted railway line, with gentle gradient and mostly good surfaces. It provides an excellent facility for walkers and cyclists, except in the region of the viaduct, where a property owner, whom Caroline dubbed The Selfish Gardener, prohibits cyclists from using a short section of the trail. Hence a big climb to the fell above. The compensation is a great view of the viaduct which walkers will not see, and for us, a sighting of a pair of curlews.

A very soggy day at times. Just after Once Brewed, we were caught by a thunderous downpour with lip-smacking rain pellets, and flash floods. As we emerged, sodden, we followed a sign to Hardriding.

The offroad trails around Wark and Kielder forests were leg-sapping and deserted. Northumberland’s epic emptiness has been its striking feature. I’m reminded of my Brummie grandmother who, on being taken for a holiday in the Highlands of Scotland, was unimpressed. “Just a whole lot of nothing” was her verdict. I think that’s rather the point.

BerWin: Norham to Horsley

Otterburn ranges

I have a phobia about bridges, so when we crossed a narrow one, open railings at each side and just wide enough to walk side-by-side with the bike, my heart was in my mouth. We dropped down the other side and looked back up at the crossing, just as 15 road bikers in team kit of the Early Morning Crew thundered across at full tilt. What a good job I wasn’t still teetering across when they arrived.

In other news, I can report that a sweaty man, grinding slowly up a hill in Northumbria in July attracts a gazillion flies. Luckily they don’t seem to bite. The longest climb of the day was up to the Otterburn ranges, and it was something of a classic. 4km of climbing including 2.5km over 5%, on a smooth military road across wild moorland I recalled my cycling mentor, Mike Spencer telling me once, 180km into a 200km Audax, that the next hill was ‘best attacked’. This one – at least at current fitness levels – was best defended; lowest gear, lowest cadence that will keep the pedals turning, don’t speed up when the slope abates and use the time to recover.

BerWin: On The Road Again

On The Road Again 🎶 No matter how I try to be sophisticated, the shuffle algorithm in my head picks the cheesiest music. Willie Nelson has been playing as Caroline, Rob, Eunice and Evgeny hit the road again. You’ve heard of LeJog; JogLe too if you’re fancy. We’re embarking on leg two of BerJog-BerWin-LeWin. Caught the train from Kings Cross to Berwick. Last time we were here we headed north to Orkney by way of John O’Groats, this time south and homeward bound. It’s been two years since we’ve toured and there has been a lot of idleness in between. So wish us luck taking on the Pennine Cycleway on weak legs. A short warm-up ride this evening, crossing the Tweed a couple of times to reach our B&B in Norham.

Transcontinental Race 2016: Durmitor

I wrote this little piece as a comment on a TCR Facebook group. Re-posting it here to preserve the memory.
On the CP4 parcour, Durmitor, Montenegro

Croatia had been hard on me. A small crash at the border left me a little concussed, and with a slightly bent disc rotor that was dragging me down, perhaps more mentally than physically. Then the heat of Rijeka and the bora wind of the coast nearly beat me to a pulp and I thought my attempt on TCR was all over. Passing through Sinj, things started looking up. I met Rory Bear Kemper in a bus shelter; we shared a few words, the first company I’d had in days. Then a roadside bike workshop appeared like an oasis in the desert, and they straightened my disc in moments. I was rolling again. Bosnia seemed to go by in a flash, and I spent a cheap night in a doss house in Capljina.

Up before dawn, I started on the deserted road through Republika Srpska to the ‘secret’ border with Montenegro, the beginning of maybe the most perfect day’s cycling of my life. Herdsmen led their sheep flocks down the road, but not a soul otherwise. I tweeted there might be radio silence because I had no data allowance in Montenegro, and Kevin, who’d been enjoying my gastrotour, said he *needed* to know what I was eating. I reported it was Nutella straight from the jar, as I rested in a shady grove next to a rough gravel path. The final 5km ascent to the frontier – the unmanned secret border crossing from which some riders had been sent back – was pure rock, a steep hike-a-bike for me (though I later saw photos of Carlos Mazon riding it I think). For all I knew it could have carried on like that all day, or I could have been sent back down for an 80km detour to one of the official crossings. But no! At the border, entering Montenegro and Durmitor National Park, the gravel turned to silky tarmac (https://flic.kr/p/2aA71xJ) for a gorgeous descent to Pluzine. The cool and funky (but very slow) cafe marked the start of the parcours. It was late afternoon by now and I dawdled – my weakness – using the slow service as excuse for a longer rest. Riders passed through. Mark Booker, with his legs all scraped from a bad fall. Vinicius looking fit and organised. And Hilde, bright and cheerful despite a very painful knee. Eventually I dragged myself back onto the bike leaving Hilde finishing her food. As Mikko describes, the road climbs up from the lake via tunnels dug from the rock. But afterwards it’s bucolic. In the warm, dusky evening, farm workers rested beside the medieval-looking haystacks they’d gathered that day, swigging well-earned beers. The sun set, the air grew cooler and eventually I climbed to the double peak of Prevoj Sedlo in darkness. A pair of motor-bikers passed me and stopped to talk. They told me they’d met Hilde behind and she planned to sleep part way up the climb; I think a family had offered her a barn. Descending was tricky in the darkness. A few days earlier I’d descended the San Pellegrino pass in darkness to reach CP3, and that had been scary enough, even with the benefit of road markings and chevrons at the bends. This descent to Žabljak had no such help. But eventually Žabljak was reached and as I rolled past a restaurant with TCR riders, super-helpful CP volunteer (and future TCR5 finisher) Martin called out to me. The Highlander hostel was full, but Martin arranged a place in an overspill room. I was too tired for food, but elated to have reached CP4. With ‘only’ 1000km to go, and the major climbs all done, I had flipped into the ‘you can do this’ mindset that had deserted me in Croatia.

Next morning I woke up with the ever cheerful Giorsio, who told me that my loud snoring overnight wasn’t a problem at all, as he had noise-cancelling earplugs for *exactly* that purpose. It was the first of a few encounters over the next several days that would see us getting into various scrapes. The weather had turned cold and rainy overnight; I hadn’t expected that. Hilde had rolled in early that morning. The Highlander hostel promised breakfast, and Hilde and I waited, keeping warm under that same blanket Mikko is wrapped in. Martin had contacted a doctor to check out Hilde’s knee, and, after breakfast she sadly climbed into a car. We all thought it was the end of her race. Happily it turned out not to be so, and after a day’s rest she was declared fit and rolled into Çanakkale a day or so after I did.