The Hewson Express
(Sinclair User, October 1985)
The unstoppable Hewson Consultants has been steaming ahead for half a decade. Chris Bourne talks to the man on the footplate.
FIVE YEARS is a long, long time in this business. Five years ago, the ZX-80 was hailed as a breakthrough at under £100. Five years ago, people were building Nascom computers from kits, and computer magazines, such as there were, printed listings of Othello for the UK101 or Acorn Atom. The prince of machines was the Commodore PET. There were no Amstrads. No Orics. No VIC 20s, BBCs, MSXs, C64s, Spectrums or QLs. And there were no games. Computers were not supposed to be about playing games, bought off the shelf. They were about writing your own, because it was an interesting way of learning how to program. It was all very earnest, the obsessive hobby of a tiny minority. And one of the few, the very few, software companies to have started back then, and still going today is Hewson Consultants, now celebrating its fifth birthday.
Andrew Hewson is well known to readers of Sinclair User through his Helpline column, which has been informing, and occasionally baffling, folks with revelations about machine code ever since the magazine began. But he's also the founder, and managing director, of Hewson Consultants, set up on a shoestring in 1980, and now an expanding business infiltrating the charts with programs such as Dragontorc and Southern Belle.
Andrew's a chemical physicist by education - he did a degree at Sussex University. In 1972 he started working at the British Museum assessing the age of objects by radiocarbon dating.
"In 1973 the Museum got a computer," says Andrew. "It was a big step forward. Businesses used computers for things like insurance, and doing gas bills and so on. But in the last ten years or so it's made an enormous difference to science." The museum was one of the first organisations outside the big universities to acquire a computer for research work, rather than as a filing or accounting system.
Since nobody at the Museum could program it, an expert was brought in to run it, and Andrew learned how to program from him. "I learned good habits," says Andrew. "You have to take it slowly when you program. It was a 16-bit Hewlett Packard with a 64K memory. The memory was a set of ferrite rings which lived in a drawer. We had a couple of tape drives, a disc drive and a printer, and the operating system had to work frantically to keep it all going."
After seven years at the Brit, Andrew joined NERC, one of those much-derided quangoes. He moved to Oxfordshire and is still there.
"I'd been up to Manchester with my boss, and on the way home we stopped off at the Wimpy in Stratford-upon-Avon for a cuppa. He started talking about the ZX-80 and how wonderful it was." Andrew was not impressed. "I said, "you must be joking!" and started listing all the reasons why the machine was awful. He said, "look at the price". And the penny dropped."
Andrew leans back, puts his hands behind his head, and explains how, if you wanted a system with any equipment - printers, discs or whatever - you needed about £2,000. "So I bought a ZX-80 and played around with it. You only get one life."
Right from the start it was business. Andrew was interested in making money, not acquiring a hobby. "I had a wife and two kids and a mortgage." He taps his head. "If I'm as clever as I think I am - no, that's not right. If you think "I can do this", then there's an easy way to prove it."
What also made Andrew keen to set up his own business was an increasing dislike of the sort of organisation he was working for. "I learned that in fixed institutions, the job was never going to be more than it already was. Those places don't care if you spend ten years on some obscure project if it produces 'knowledge'. I got fed up with it."
Andrew's one of those people who are concerned to analyse carefully what they do. "What isn't apparent to the public is the effect of government cutbacks and what it generates in the civil service. Look at the teachers - they're desperately anxious about the future of their profession. It was the same in government science departments. "It's always difficult to look back on your own motives" he adds, cautiously.
So, Andrew hummed and hawed a bit and then got down to uncovering the innards of the ZX-80. "It was a breath of fresh air, the first computer I'd ever worked with where you could get at all of it. Usually you are given the ground rules - operating system, language and so on." What he means is the way you can inspect the ROM of Sinclair machines easily, and write directly in machine code.
Andrew's first move was logical. All his moves are logical. Having discovered the ROM he wrote a book, Hints and Tips for the ZX-80. "People were interested in books. That book was why I'm now doing the Sinclair User column. It's about things like clearing a part of the display, or how variables are stored."
Hewson Consultants was thus formed on a mere £500 of capital. The consultant part was because Andrew also did some consultancy work. Logical, remember. The book was a success, and became Hints and Tips for the ZX-81 when that computer was released. By November of 1981, Andrew was working incredibly long hours, splitting his time between NERC and the new business, with help from his wife, Janet. It was then that his brother Gordon joined the business as Sales Director to take some of the administrative load off Andrew's shoulders.
Utilities were the thing in those days. The home computer market was supposed to be stuffed with would-be programmers - a real hobbyist's market. Andrew brought out Programmer's Toolkit for the ZX-81.
Virtually all companies receive bundles of unsolicited games from programmers, and that's how Mike Male got involved. He was an air traffic controller at Heathrow, and sent in a flight simulation called Pilot. It was very slow. John Hardman sent in Puckman "in just the same way. It sold quite nicely, thank you." All the games were sold mail order and duplicated the hard way. On a cassette deck, by hand.
Nineteen eighty-two began as the year of the RAM pack and Andrew bought in a load of them to sell. It ended as the year of the Spectrum. By then Hewson Consultants had a proper office, a scruffy little place in Wallingford. Andrew, true to form, decided he was going to write a book about the Spectrum.
"People then were avid to know how things worked. Books can no longer carry them forward - but when people ask, "what can I do with my computer?" they still go down to WH Smith."
Andrew worked night and day, he says, to complete 20 Best Programs for the Sinclair Spectrum. "You know what listings are like," says Andrew, sympathising with our own problems at Sinclair User in trying to help people type them in correctly. "We still get people phoning up about Index File."
Mike Male was now working on Nightflite and Heathrow Air Traffic Control, still beavering away at simulating flight one way or the other. The system at Hewson involves giving programmers their head. If the first game is successful, a new one is immediately discussed. According to Andrew, being good to your authors is one of the most important aspects of maintaining a sound business base.
"It's very easy to find people who'll write software. It's very difficult to find someone who can write good software. We've grown and prospered by keeping faith with our authors." That means if Mike wants to write simulations, Andrew won't try and force him to do arcade games.
At about the same time, Kim Topley was writing Quest, a text adventure with pictures. Quest is surely one of the most underrated of adventures - a role-playing game with spells, weapons, and extremely difficult problems. It's main failing is that it's slow - you have to wait for minutes to build up your energy if you get wounded, and there is no way of restarting a lost game. Kim followed up Quest with Fantasia Diamond, a wacky number with plenty of humour which probably went down better.
With such a wide range of products already out, most companies might have regarded themselves as home and dry. Ready for the Porsche, and the long summer break in the Bahamas? Not Andrew.
"It wasn't until 1983 that we seriously believed this hula-hoop craze was strong enough to build an entire business around. We decided to take it seriously. I left NERC in mid-83 and by the end of that year we were bursting out of Wallingford. Shipping out tapes for Christmas was exciting but also murder."
So the company moved to bigger premises on a Didcot industrial estate, and installed a duplicating plant which had been bought earlier. "We did it because we couldn't get guaranteed supplies of our software. I'd say it was the right decision for the future. " Hewson is one of the very few software houses who do this - most use commercial duplicating firms.
"From my experience in laboratories, I knew equipment was not a doddle. It never is. Our father is another chemist, and although he knew it wouldn't be easy, he was prepared to take it on. It works because of a combination of money, the right reason, and the key person to do it."
The plant starts with an ordinary, battered, cheap cassette deck. The program is loaded into the Spectrum from that, and then SAVEd to a reel-to-reel ReVox tape deck. That master tape sends the program to the Binmaster machine, which sends cassette tape flying through a series of heads and rollers at high speed, duplicating the program. That tape settles in bins, and a "wodge" is put on the tape to mark the end of each program. Another machine delivers blank cassettes containing nothing but transparent head tape, which it cuts, splices in the program tape, cuts at the "wodge", splices again, and drops into a box. The final stage is to stick on the labels with a solvent and pack them up.
In August of 1983 Steve Turner arrived. He's the man behind Avalon and Dragontorc, and the masterly graphics system which leads Andrew to talk about computer movies with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Usually he makes quietly deprecating comments such as "we did all right with that" or "it's a nice little program."
Steve, by pure coincidence, went to the same school as Andrew. One feature of all Hewson's authors is their comparatively high age. "Whiz kids may be all the fashion," says Andrew, "but Mike, Kim and Steve are all in their thirties. they don't give up until a program is 105 per cent complete. That's experience showing through."
Steve produced a series of 3D space games first - Seiddab Attack, Space Wars and Lunattack. Andrew admits now that as games, they were not overly successful or particularly good, but the programming was rather more sophisticated than met the eye. "Steve's series built a base, and a strategy, to carry him forward. Avalon and Dragontorc came out of the wireframe graphics system on the Space Wars series."
The entire history of Hewson Consultants, though without any of the spectacular failures of many companies, is like a microcosm of the software industry generally. Every product has been precisely the sort of program, or book, which fitted the market as it existed. Avalon and Dragontorc are Hewson's response to the demand for arcade-adventure hybrids, still high and apparently unabated. But keeping up with the times is not the whole story. Andrew and Gordon both insist on the need for quality and atmosphere in games.
"What happens in a book?" asks Andrew, getting all philosophical after his lunch. "You know it's good because of an image that stays in your mind. We can't produce Hollywood special effects, but the same things apply in different moods to other styles. And the authors are very important - we always promote them as themselves. The Hewson name is simply a guarantee of standard."
Southern Belle, the train simulation, had been at the back of Mike Male's mind for some time, and after he finished a new version of Heathrow ATC he teamed up with a friend of his - a railway buff. While nothing has yet been decided, it seems likely that Southern Belle will spawn other, railway-related simulations in the future. Andrew's been pleasantly surprised by the response so far. He claims he's had a phone call from one customer who said he'd bought a Spectrum simply in order to play it.
That brings the lengthy saga up the present. Hewson now employs a team of four in-house programmers, working on conversions and such products as an assembler, Zapp, for the Amstrad. The main authors remain freelance. Programming is always done on the machine the game is for.
In future we can expect to see another Steve Turner game, Astroclone, "sort of Maroc in the 23rd Century." The idea is to take the graphics and game ideas of the Avalon series into a science fiction setting. There's also Sphinx [released as Pyracurse], about which Andrew is more reticent. He says it's going to be a "scrolling multi-character adventure with a recognisably different graphics system." That's being written by a new face at Hewson's, Mark Goodall.
There's a tremendous diversity in products at Hewson's, hut the key is surely in the simple, unassuming professionalism of the entire outfit. "It's a rather boring story," says Andrew, "I'm not sure if it's really what your readers want to hear."
The story may not be full of spectacular successes and close squeaks with disaster, but the achievement of producing, slowly but surely, what Andrew describes as "the complete software publishers" from £500 and a ZX-80 is reassuring in such a volatile industry. See you for your tenth birthday, Andrew - and keep the Helplines coming.
In 1991 Hewson Consultants was wound up and replaced by 21st Century Entertainment Ltd, which is still trading! So far they have produced: