The Flax Cottage Educational Archive came into being in late 2012 when it was noticed that almost every game ever produced for the BBC microcomputers was available somewhere on the internet but very few educational titles. This was felt to be strange since thousands of educational titles were produced by hundreds of software houses and countless, unsung amateurs. A look through popular online auction sites for retro computing equipment showed that this state of affairs was reflected there too and when educational items did appear they often commanded ridiculously high prices and, of course, did not sell.
A decision was taken to collect as much as possible of this educational software before it went the way of the Dodo.
Almost all of the educational software publishers have ceased to exist or have been taken over by larger concerns. Of those who were contacted all were sympathetic and interested but were very sorry to report that they no longer had any interest in the BBC software they used to sell. They also had neglected to keep archives of the software.
The next port of call was to contact some of the many Local Education Authorities which had been active in producing and distributing educational software. Without exception they reported that they too had ceased to be active in that area and that they had no archives of BBC titles since that was over 30 years ago. This was an entirely unexpected admission; public bodies not holding archives of material 30 years old is really quite worrying!
A number of educational titles were collected from various web sites on the internet, in particular 8BS, Stairway to Hell and the StarDot Forum. Another problem now appeared. The software collected was mostly without the accompanying documentation; many titles were unusable without this documentation. There also did not seem to be any coherent method of organising this software so that it could easily be viewed and/or searched.
Out of this confusion the Flax Cottage Educational Archive was born.
The archive currently holds copies of well over a 1000 titles of educational software and many hundreds of disks containing software waiting to be archived.
COLLECTING EDUCATIONAL SOFTWARE
Flax Cottage Educational Archive, unfortunately, operates on a shoestring budget and cannot afford to buy every missing title that appears for sale.
The Archive relies heavily on donations or loans of software and, in this area, is especially grateful to StarDot members, The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and the Computer History Museum in Cambridge.
Occasionally word of mouth brings donations from retiring teachers who, when clearing out their lofts, discover a treasure trove of BBC equipment and software.
Another source of software has been from job-lot auctions, especially from ex-teachers. Here the software can often be picked up in bulk and quite cheaply, the cost of the auction being offset by selling on the hardware. Sometimes one has to go very far a field indeed; one purchase of two large boxes of software and documentation came from New Zealand!
Charity stalls at computer shows are another good source of material and the Wakefield RISCOS Computer Club show in April each year is an especially fertile hunting ground.
One of the major problems with collecting software for the BBC micro is the fragility of the tape and disk media used over 30 years ago. Most tapes and floppy disks, if kept in a warm and dry place, are still useable today. However, it is being increasingly found that the magnetic surface degrades rendering the media useless. Thus a collection of original titles will over time become useless.
Documentation surprisingly degrades over time as well. The ink used in the 80s and 90s becomes plastic and sticks to the opposite page, stripping the ink from the page if the manuals are opened. Manuals held in plastic covers also suffer this degradation with ink sticking to the plastic of the wallet.
Converting these titles to digitally stored copies will preserve them far beyond the lifespan of the media on which they were sold and this is the purpose of the Archive.
This website has been written in a retro style and using old fashioned techniques to reflect the content of the site. For example the maximum width is 800 pixels, which will suit older VGA monitors.
The site is best viewed using a monitor having a 4:3 or thereabouts screen resolution ratio. On a tablet or smartphone, viewing is more comfortable in portrait orientation.
Of all the browsers used to test the website, interestingly only Internet Explorer presented problems and special fixes had to be introduced for the website to display correctly on this browser. The website has been tested using Android smartphones and tablets, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari.
All the software in the archive has been tested to ensure it works correctly. A number of items were found not to work during this process and these are awaiting discovery from a second source. The educational software are stored as packages. A package comprises ideally both the digital copy of the disc/tape and associated documentation. Some packages contain a single program others are compilations. Packages are grouped by publisher. Programs may occur in more than one package.
The software is stored as SSD, DSD, ADL or UEF files. A SSD file is a direct copy of the disc which matches the normal track and sector layout of a 40T or 80T disc. A DSD file is similar but holds both sides of a double-sided disc. SSD and DSD files cannot be made of protected discs so, before archiving these, the protection must be removed.
ADL files are for ADFS discs. Later titles are found on ADFS discs for use in the BBC Master, Master Compact and Archimedes computers. 5.25" ADFS titles are rare. 3.5" titles are much more common. When used on Archimedes computers these titles generally run under the !65Host BBC emulator.
CSW and UEF files replicate the software from a cassette tape and can be used in BBC micro emulators on modern computers.
Documentation in the form of booklets or manuals is generally stored in PDF files. These can be read by most modern computers. Single leaflets, keystrips, letters, etc. are stored as JPG graphic files. Further information about archiving documentation can be found here.
Titles in the archive may be browsed alphabetically, by genre, by publisher or by programmer. Currently a search option has not been implemented. The vast majority of the titles are available for download. Publishers who still enforce their copyright are featured in the archive but their software cannot be downloaded.
The bulk of the archiving of the educational software is done on a Master 128 microcomputer attached to dual 40/80 track 5¼ inch floppy drives. The master has fitted internally a Raspberry Pi co-processor module manufactured by Retroclinic, an Econet Interface and a Retroclinic Datacentre with a dual Compact Flash card hard drive emulator, partitioned into four 500Mb drives. Cartridges are fitted to the cartridge slots, one containing ANFS and Exmon 2 and the other an IFEL switchable Sideways RAM module which gives a choice of 4 different ROM sets, the default being Advanced Disk Toolkit 2 (ADT2) and the BASIC Editor. Floppy discs are analysed using Advanced Disk Investigator 2 (ADI2), which is loaded into sideways RAM.
This Master computer has an Epson RX80 printer attached for dumping disassembled machine code and listing BASIC programs. It is connected to the Econet and is station 235 (the network printer server).
Titles which are on 3½ inch disks are archived on a secondary Master 128, which has dual 3½ inch/5¼ inch floppy drives. These drives are connected to the Master via a disc drive doubler connector, which allows two single drives to be connected to behave like a dual drive. This master is also connected to the Econet and is station 100.
Internally this has a 65C02 second processor unit, a Retroclinic Datacentre and single Compact Flash card partitioned into two 500Mb drives. Partition 0 is part formatted to host a Level 3 Econet file system and station 100 can act as a Level 3 file server on the Econet. (The main file server is an Archimedes A3020 with a 500Mb SD card hard drive emulator running Acorn Level 4 software.)
Both Masters are fitted with dual OS3.20/OS3.50 switchable ROMs also by Retroclinic.
In addition BBC model B microcomputers with either 8271 or 1770 DFS interfaces fitted are used for those titles which will only work on a BBC model B or on a model B with a 8271 DFS. One of the BBC model Bs has an Econet interface and is station 33. An external Datacentre can be fitted to any of these model Bs.
ADFS packages are archived from 3½ inch disks using OmniFlop on a Windows PC running Windows XP. 5¼ inch titles are transferred to 3½ inch disks beforehand using the secondary Master computer.
Manuals, etc. are scanned at 300 dpi on a Canoscan LIDE 200 USB scanner attached to a laptop running Windows Vista. Scans are loaded into MS Word to re-compile the manuals and then converted to pdf format for the web site. Sometimes manuals are scanned direct to jpeg files and stored for later conversion to pdfs. This is a faster method of archiving the documents and is used when the archiving is done off-site.
The Archive also holds a number of peripheral devices which can be used to enable software which requires them to be tested. These devices include concept keyboards, mice, trackerballs, plotters, joysticks, barcode readers, light pens and EPROM programmers.
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