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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.
August of 1983 Steve Turner (right) 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.