Hein (fub) wrote,

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How I paid my education

When I started my university education in 1991, I had made a deal with my parents. They would pay the college money and books -- I would pay for the rest myself. Mind you, this was a time when you could actually live off a students' allowance, and I had a very low rent -- so that was quite feasible.
However, at the end of the first year, it was clear that I had simply done too little work to get passing grades for about half of my classes. My parents (understandably) then decided to stop paying for my education -- so I was on my own.

Well... maybe not. You see, my dad had set up his own business, and he had contacts with some engineering divisions of Philips. These guys were churning out products for 'the office of tomorrow' -- prototypes of computer systems and networks that would incorporate video and voice recognition. Old hat nowadays (my mom uses Skype and a webcam), but at that time it was quite new.
One of the products they had created was a video digitiser, which they had (jokingly) called the Speye006. It was an ISA card, and had three composite video connectors on the card. Video information was passed to the CPU, which digitised the images into 64-greyscale images. A 386 was enough to do full-motion video -- and this was not an overlay card!
Sadly enough, the engineering people couldn't convince their management to market this product, and my dad saw something in it... He only needed someone to program applications around the digitiser card. And that's where I came in.

From 1992 upto 1997, I wrote applications to use the digitiser card for various applications. For 10 guilders per hour, I worked for my dad as a software engineer.
Our big break came when the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst (a public relations office run by the government to provide all sorts of information to the public) needed a solution to preserve a collection of 29.000 glass negatives from the 1930s, shot by Willem van der Poll. There was a budget for preserving this collection, but it wasn't clear how it should be done. The cost of creating positives of all of the glass negatives was prohibitively high -- only specialised labs can handle negatives like that. And letting the public handle the negatives would kill the collection within a year because the acid of fingerprints would destroy the silver-emulsion on the glass plates.
People were discussing using scanners that were good enough to reproduce the photo -- but those machines were very expensive back then -- and slow. Storage would cost lots and lots of money (this was when the first CD-burners were just appearing!), and you couldn't give the raw data to the public. The photo archives existed of the fees they charged people who wanted a photo to reproduce, and too high quality digital photos would kill that revenue stream.

Enter the Speye006. Fast, enough quality to judge whether this is the photo you want/need (or to fax or print it), but not good enough for glossy publication. The application thus should allow for the typists at the Centrale Archief Selectiedienst to quickly snap a 'photo' of the negative (which would be lighted from underneath), turn it into a positive, and describe the contents of the photo. This all would be fed into a database. We did make our own database, though -- which allowed us to write software for searching and presenting the photos on-screen as well.
It was great to work on something that had meaning out in the bigger world, to create something that people used all day as part of their jobs.
After the Van der Poll-collection, the CAS also did a collection of 'magic lantern'-slides from the Heidemij with the system, and the ANEFO collection.

So, I did get money from my dad -- but I worked for it. This meant that I was able to pay for my education all by myself. I had no student loans to pay off when I was finished.

However, that was it -- apart from a few small customers who used the system and the standard software to create manuals and documentation, we didn't get any other customers. When my dad moved to a smaller office a few years back, he got rid of all of the remaining stock of Speye006 cards. I got 8 cards, thinking that maybe I could do something with them, and for nostalgic purposes.
Today, when I was cleaning out the closet, I found those cartons again. There's a set reserved for kees_s (he still has equipment that could do something remotely useful with the card), and I retain one card for nostalgic purposes. I'll get rid of the rest as well -- it's a technology whose time has come and gone, a casualty of technological progress that is to be discarded by the side of the road on our highway-ride to the future.

The collections that were done with it are now part of the National Archive. The images you see on the site haven't been made with the Speye006 -- the site reports that they were made in 1997, after the RVD picture archive was merged with the National Archive. We got to deal with the 'not invented here'-syndrome, and that was the end of it all.


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