One of the great enthusiasms of my life has been the advent of the computer. I have had what might almost be called a love affair with computers, a love affair full of love and hate – hate when the computer just won’t work – and there have been long spells of hatred and then the wonderful ecstasy when finally it does work and the days of labouring finally pay off, and you can see magic happening before your very eyes.
We began producing Current Archaeology in the traditional way. Copy was sent to the printers where it was typeset in little slugs (lines of type) cast from hot lead, and type setters were always big burley men who could lug around trays of heavy lead type; and photos were made from copper blocks on which the images were etched in reverse. We were then sent copies and we pasted up the pages with scissors and paste: I was always rushing down to the head post office at midnight to catch the last post with the paste-ups, or sometimes to the railway station to put them by hand on the mail train.
When the personal computer came along, I was enthralled by the whole idea. I am by nature an editor rather than a writer. My first drafts are often all over the place, and I hone my text by constant alterations and editing. Thus the idea of a machine where you can make changes to text on a screen was like manna from heaven. I ordered a BBC computer when they first came out, but there was a dreadful delay as they could not produce them fast enough. After I had waited six months or more, I went along to a computer show and there on a stand was a rival computer – the NewBrain. I bought it on the spot and it was marvellous. I used an old black and white television as a screen and I recorded both programmes and data on a tape recorder. The only programme that came with the machine was in Basic so I wrote my first word processing programme by myself, in Basic. It was fabulous.
Then, great extravagance, we saved up all our money and bought a proper computer, – an IBM PC with a green screen and two floppy disc drives. I began doing proper word processing with a programme called PC Word – you saved your programme by doing F1 + F2 which I still sometimes do by instinct instead of control S.
Then there was the question of subscriptions. Clearly computers would be marvellous to do subscriptions, but would we dare to entrust what was in effect our whole life to the mysteries of a computer?
When we launched Current Archaeology I had invested in the latest technology – an Elliot Addressograph where the addresses were kept on cardboard cards with a stencil window on which you typed the addresses, then you inked them and stored them alphabetically in boxes; and when you wanted to run off the envelopes you had to put each envelope by hand through the address machine and turn the handle, 5,000 times for 5,000 envelopes. It would take us a day and half to address the envelopes. It was clunky and was tedious, and when subscribers changed their address, it was a nightmare: but it worked and was safe. Would we dare entrust it to a computer?
I waded into the mysteries of the database and wrote an address programme in dBase2, which was a terrifying programme with its infamous dot prompt: when you first turned it on you were faced with a single dot on the screen, you had to go from there. We began by putting all the new subscribers and changes of address onto the computer. After about a year we had nearly a third of our subscribers on the computer, and so we took the big plunge and put the rest on too. Every day before we started work Wendy and I and our part-time secretary had to transcribe a hundred names and addresses, until eventually all 5,000 were on the computer.
There was a further advantage. If you sort your addresses by postcode, you can obtain a substantial discount from the Post Office. However, first catch your postcode. Post codes had only just been introduced, and many people did not include them, so I had to look them up. You only needed the first two letters to get the discount and I soon learnt more about postcodes than I ever wished to know: give me your address and I can still give you the first two letters of your post code. Sometimes when people ask me what I have done in my life, I do not say that I was a magazine Editor, I say that I worked in direct mail. It sounds more like a proper job.
Then came the struggles over credit cards and direct debits. It took forever to get authorisation to accept credit cards – we were a small business and small businesses were too much trouble for the big banks. Direct debits were even worse and it took me nearly two years to crack the mysteries of direct debits. But crack it I did, and I remember taking floppy disks late at night up to Burnt Oak in the north west suburbs of London where BACS, the processing office was sited, where every night they transferred 2 million items from one bank to another. But it was very satisfying that eventually nearly half our subscribers went over to direct debit, which in effect gave me permission to take money out of their bank accounts for which I was very grateful. At last we had a certain amount of financial security.
Finally there was the great magic of Desktop publishing – doing the page layout on screen. I began tinkering with an early programme called Ventura, then to PageMaker, then to Quark, which I used to lay out many magazines in the 1990s. Now we have our wonderful designers who use InDesign, and everything is then sent over the net to the printers. Today printers do not touch the contents — they simply print what they are sent. It’s magic
And then there was the Internet. I was one of the first archaeologists to realise that the web was going to be something interesting, so I got in first and registered the domain name archaeology.co.uk. The big boys – English Heritage and the British Museum were asleep – I got there first and registered the basic domain name – I am therefore ‘Mr Archaeology’ – Andrew@archaeology.co.uk. When I first got onto the web, I put my first webpages up in 48 hours, crafting them all by hand in pure HTML. Now I cheat by using WordPress and the office runs the archaeology.co.uk website, but I still use WordPress for my own hidden website – www.civilization.org.uk where in my retirement I am putting the history of the world to rights.
Computers have changed my life, they have changed all our lives. But for me they have been a love affair, often conducted late at night because you cannot drag yourself away and go to bed until you have made the programme work. But then there is the sheer magic, the thrill and the ecstasy when finally everything clicks. That is something that I shall never forget.
7th February 2017