ICT - Know computers inside out
Building your own brings insight and opportunity, says a student
I have just completed Year 11 at Prince Henry's High School, Evesham, where I studied GCSE electronics and control. For my coursework, I chose to build a 1970s-style 8-bit computer.
I bought a FIGnition palm-sized computer kit, but it did not have a case so I decided to design and make my own. At first all went well, and after numerous hours of soldering in school, I thought most of the hard work was done.
My case design meant moving the keyboard from the circuit board on to the surface of the case. I decided to use clear acrylic sheets, which had to be laser cut, but when I came to solder the leads attaching the keys to the circuit board, things went wrong. The case rapidly became a maze of wires, which kept snapping.
Having done my best with this I decided to test it; after months of effort, would it work? First, I had to find an old cathode ray tube television to use as a monitor. I switched it on, then cautiously connected the FIGnition. To my dismay, nothing appeared on screen and the error light was illuminated.
For the rest of the day I acquainted myself with a cathode-ray oscilloscope, logic probe and voltmeter in a vain attempt to find the problem. With the coursework's final deadline now two weeks away, I contacted Julian Skidmore, the computer's designer.
For several days Skidmore and I exchanged emails on how to troubleshoot problems; after running tests I concluded that the keyboard was short-circuiting. Following a complete overhaul of the case and keyboard, I wired the computer up and turned everything on. The bright white FIGnition logo appeared for a second followed by the blinking white cursor. Finally, everything was working and my coursework was complete.
During my experience I learned the importance of careful work and constantly checking for errors, as well as gaining a good understanding of the component parts and making sure that designs are practical. I received considerable support from my teachers and external help from Skidmore and other experts. It is important to know who to ask, and to seek help when you need it.
I think it is very important for people of my generation to understand how computers work. They are now an intrinsic part of our lives. Understanding them will lead to an ability to innovate new products, programs and applications, which will help to generate new jobs and industries.
Next, as part of my A-level computing course, I intend to learn how to program my computer.
Jon Rabbette is an A-level student in Worcestershire
Find out more about using the FIGnition educational computer and help students to build their own 8-bit computer with a guide shared by Alan O Donohoe.
Help students to make a start on computer programming using Ben G's guide to Visual Basic.