Biography

February 14, 2008

james-best2.jpgDr. James Allan was born in Scotland in 1945. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of St. Andrews and a Master’s degree in Electronics from the University of Edinburgh.

In the late 1960’s, James worked for the British Aircraft Corporation and was part of the Concorde development team. He developed a strain gauge bridge for measuring the strain/stress on the Concorde’s wings during high turbulence. He also helped computerize the Instrument Landing System for the Anglo/French Jaguar aircraft. Then James worked with Elliott Space and Weapons, developing the Nimrod Simulator. He moved on to Burroughs Corporation, where he developed and patented the reel–to-reel tape cassette recorder.

James was part of the team that developed the first ATM machines.

He immigrated to the US in 1981, where he helped Memorex develop thin film heads for their 3380 disk drive. Next, he worked as a computer engineer with Seagate Technology. His first project with Seagate was developing and patenting a high density, thin film disk platter. Seagate used this disk in more then 5 products. He then was promoted to Thailand and became Vice President of Engineering, helping to build 2 high volume disk drive plants in Bangkok, producing 15,000 disk drives per day!

James became an American citizen in 1989. He completed his PhD in Artificial Intelligence in 1995 at Washington National University. James retired in 1991. He now resides in Deer Harbor, Washington, USA.

Advertisements

INTRODUCTION

January 31, 1963

This collection of stories is taken from James’ long experience in the world of hard disk drives. It includes the time he was employed with the Burroughs Corporation and his subsequent time with Seagate Technology. To protect the privacy of individuals, mostly first names are used. Please note: timestamps are not in real time; they are set only to present these stories in chronological order.

1965 With the Loch Ness Monster

January 31, 1963

 

During the summer recess at the University of St. Andrews some of the engineering students visited Loch Ness and constructed a simulation of the monster. The body consisted of three huge tractor inner tubes suitably weighted to show half of the tubes sticking vertically out of the water.

The head of the monster was fabricated from a blow-up giraffe’s head, and the tail was constructed from the tail of a children’s crocodile toy.

The “whole monster” was dragged about 200 yards offshore and anchored via a heavy boulder. This was performed at night, and the next morning revealed a realistic monster looming ominously through the mist of the dawn over the Loch.

Photographs were taken and submitted to the local and National papers. The reaction was explosive: by the time newspaper journalists arrived on the scene, the “monster” had vanished in the mist.

1967 The Storming of Edinburg Castle

January 30, 1963

 

 

     As part of the parade of students up the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to the Castle, the engineering students had a prominent contingent situated in the middle of the procession. As the parade neared the end of the mile and most of the students turned sharply left before entering the castle parade ground and disbanded. But the engineers crossed the parade ground and halfway across they broke into a charge towards the gates. A lone sentry guarded the gates with his rifle by his side. On seeing this melee charging towards him he “fixed bayonets” to try to stop them. The wild charge swarmed passed him and continued through the castle gates. The students were to be found clambering on top of the huge cannons, whooping their songs and waving their flags. 

     The sentry was heavily reprimanded for his war-like action and the Scotsman National Newspaper printed headlines the next morning that said something like, “Students Storm Castle” and the attached article discussed this storming as the first time Edinburgh castle had been taken in 500 years!

James’ First Computer

January 29, 1963

ferranti-argus-room-med.jpg

 

     James had his first encounter with a computer in the applied mathematics department of the University of St. Andrews. There the students in James’s class used a computer program called “Algol”. The computer used was a Ferranti Argus. It was programmed using 80 column cards. The students would submit their programs on cards to an office and a technician would load them into the Argus computer. This computer was so massive that it took up a whole room. This computer consisted of electronic logic circuits built with tubes. It was kept running 100% of the time, because if it was ever turned off and left to cool down, then when it was turned on again, the start up process would blow several tubes. Then, the maintenance technicians would take days to figure out which tubes had blown. They had to look at all the tubes and determine if they were glowing. This took a horrendous amount of time.

Digital Equipment PDP-8

January 27, 1963

 pdp-8l-med.jpg

     In 1967, at the University of Edinburgh electronics lab, James encountered a computer built by Digital Equipment called the PDP 8E. This was much smaller in size than any previous computer he had ever seen and took up the space of a fairly large desk. To fire it up, the operator had to bootstrap load it by entering the bootstrap program via a set of keys that were located in the front of this console. These keys were in sets of 3, enabling the operator to load up the bootstrap program in Octal, a 3-bit binary code. There were 24 keys in all, 8 sets of 3, and James had to know all the combinations in order to load this bootstrap program which then enabled access to the operating system. Very cumbersome, but in those days, it was state-of-the-art.

     At the British Aircraft Corporation laboratories, James came across the Digital Equipment PDP 11. This computer was about the size of a large refrigerator. The PDP 11 was the next size up and was quite a bit faster than the PDP 8E.

Elliot 4130 Computer

January 26, 1963

elliot-4130-cap.jpg

Working at Marconi Space and Weapons, James learned to program an Elliott 4130 computer. Although the technology had advanced from tubes to transistors, this computer was still very large, and with its input / output interfaces, it took up a whole room. James‘s job was to debug the interface between this computer and a flight simulator. The flight simulator was set up like the Nimrod aircraft navigation station and used an analog-to-digital interface to connect the various switch panels, joysticks and displays of the navigation station to the 4130 computer.

The Concorde

January 25, 1963

concorde-sm.jpgJames’ first job after he left the University of Edinburgh was with British Aircraft Corp. There, he was given his first project to design a strain gauge bridge to be used for measuring the strain/stress of the wings on the Concorde when subjected to high turbulence. Many years later, James was privileged to be able to fly on the Concorde from London, England to Washington D.C. He was in seat 1A, right behind the front bulkhead where the height and speed was displayed. These displays came on after take off at 20,000 ft, and mach 1.0. By the end of the flight the displays showed that we were at 60,000 ft, mach 2.2. At that height the sky looked very dark blue, almost black and the curvature of the earth could be clearly seen. Flying at this speed, James noticed that the noise of the plane was left behind and so it was very quiet in the cabin. However, space was an issue in the cabin and especially in the bathrooms. The interior of the plane was laid out rather like a Boeing 707 He was surprised to see that immediately behind him was Whoopi Goldberg. The food was first class, as was the cost of the trip. Best of all, there was virtually no jetlag. The flight took about 3 hours.

1968 Wharton Aerodome, Lancashire, England

January 24, 1963

When James was at his first job with British Aircraft Corp., he lived only about a mile from work and so he used to go home for lunch every day. One of the engineers was called George, and James didn’t like him very much. He used to make fun of James because his name was Allan. What one needs to know is the screws the Allen wrench fits into, in England, were called Grubb screws. So this is a joke, a pun on the word “Grubb”. When James was going home for lunch, the other engineer would say, “There goes Jim Allan, with his Allen wrench, going home for his Grubb screw!“

That was quite funny the first time, but after a while, the joke soon became wearing. James was determined to get back at George. In the electronics lab there was an oven, which was like a microwave oven in size. It was used to check the electronic circuits. It would work at high temperatures and low temperatures. So there was a switch on the front panel. Switched up, the oven achieved temperatures of up to 85 degrees centigrade, and if pushed down, the oven would cool down to minus 40 degrees centigrade, as it had a CO2 bottle attached to the oven. So, James noticed that George would bring a pork pie to eat for his lunch and he would heat it up up in this oven. He would put the switch up to heat and then go out for a walk until his pie was ready. One day James stayed on a little longer. He noticed George going out for his walk. He had already put his pie in the oven and switched it up to heat. James went to the oven and clicked the switch down to cold and left. James heard what had happened afterwards. George came back, opened the oven to get his nice hot pie, but, instead, he was greeted with his pie having about an inch of frost on it. The CO2 had created this cold, cold pie!

working-at-bac-cap.jpg

1968 Lytham-St. Annes, Lancashire, England

January 23, 1963

After James had graduated from the University of Edinburgh, he and his wife rented an apartment near Blackpool, England. It was the downstairs of a house and it had a living room, bathroom, kitchen, etc. Upstairs, there was an apartment where two of their friends lived. James noticed that next to the entrance there was a little cupboard with an electricity meter inside. It was one of these old-fashioned meters, where an aluminum disk spun around at a speed relative to the electricity consumed in the apartment. James figured out that if he put a very strong magnet against the glass of the electricity meter, he could slow down the disk so that it would appear that they were using much less electricity. The magnet he used slowed the disk down to about half speed. So they were getting electricity for about half price for months. One morning, a Saturday morning, James got a call from upstairs. One of the boys said, “hey Jim, here comes the landlord to read the meter.” James, as quick as he could, went to the cupboard and took away the magnet from the glass. The landlord came in, read the meter and as James “coincidentally” came out he said, “Hey Jim,” “You guys are not using very much electricity.””No,” Jim replied. “We’re quite frugal here. We make sure the lights are all out when we go out. Everything is fairly carefully turned on and off.””You’re not using very much electricity,” he repeated. “At all.” “That’s because we’re Scottish.” The landlord went away satisfied with that remark. They managed to get away with this ruse for months on end. The landlord never found out!