Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Poly 1 Educational Computer

The full text of this story Promising Polycorp pipped can be found in PRODESIGN 86, Dec 2006 /Jan 2007, p.86.

The Poly1 Computer, discovered at Motat,
attracted immediate attention because of its physical presence and well resolved form. The story behind it exemplifies the fate of state-supported Kiwi leadership at a time of economic revolution.

What we know:

In 1980 a niche market in the education sector was recognised by Neil Scott and Paul Bryant of the Wellington Polytechnic School of Physics, Electronics, Telecommunications and Electrical Engineering. They successfully pitched a concept to the Minister of Education, Merv Wellington.

Scott was assigned to the project full-time and worked with a development team of about six engineers and technicians. 50 working prototypes were built in eight months using the leading-edge technology of the time. The Poly1 began with 64 kilobytes of memory (four times the maximum available on an Apple II) and a video card so that video was overlaid with graphics on a Philips 14” colour television monitor.

The government’s Development Finance Corporation partnered with Perce Harpham’s Lower Hutt company, Progeni Computers, to form Polycorp which took over the design of the operating system and post-prototype production. Progeni’s customised version of the Motorola OS9 microchip had 32 bit addressing (Intel were offering only 8bit addressing). The software become a world-leading product in its own right.

At the Education Department Kevin Hearle managed the production of computer-friendly course material for which Polycorp became the agents. Sixty teachers worked through the 1980-81 summer holiday to write course content into ‘shells’ created in the software. Polycorp presented their product as a reliable, robust, networked, teacher and student-friendly closed system specifically designed to deliver computer assisted learning across curricula as well as computer awareness, computer studies and support for school administration.

The Design School at Wellington Polytechnic was brought into the project to encase and express the qualities of this unique product. Tutors Mark Pennington, Gerry Luhman and others addressed performance criteria including resilience, reliability, accessibility and simplicity. The optimum slope of the keyboard was extended to float the box off the desk while providing carry handles. Placing the parting line on this slope allowed for a rolled edge at the top of the screen without creating a complex moulding. The GRP casings were to be made in a range of six colours (easily achieved with different gel coats) so that each student would relate to ‘their’ unit. The internal assembly facilitated easy repair and upgrading. It had functionality and ‘X factor’.

The Poly1 was superseded by the Poly2 which used a boring, beige off-the-shelf box to house what was still a differentiated evolving system.

The Poly computer was at least eighteen months ahead of the Acorn BBC Micro computer that eventually dominated the education sector in the UK and elsewhere (having been developed and promoted with the involvement of government institutions). What went wrong?

Kiwi can-do cooperation is matched only by our cruel capacity for clobbering. The fledgling micro-computer industry set about building its market base for imported PCs by bad-mouthing bureaucrats and boffins for denying it rightful access to the state education sector. A low blow was landed when someone claimed that an early working title, ‘Polywog’ (as in tadpole), was racist.

By late 1981 when the market-ready Poly1 had completed field trials, the National government had scraped back with a one-seat majority. Behind the scenes right-wing interests were beginning to decree that government participation in the business world was not politically correct. The Government succumbed to lobbying and reneged on its purchase agreement for 1000 Polys per year for five years. Cabinet minister Warren Cooper told Perce Harpham that he and his colleagues "could see no reason why Government should spend money so that teachers could do even less work." A story soon surfaced concerning one US computer company’s New Zealand operation being headed by someone who had been a senior National minister’s campaign manager and that another ex-minister, then representing New Zealand abroad, was a major stakeholder.

Several thousand Poly1 units were sold, but the base New Zealand market evaporated when each school was given a free Apple II computer and offered more at 25% retail price. Progeni picked itself up and pressed on. They won a contract, against 42 contenders, to supply the Australian Army. The long process of establishing a market in China began with Progeni achieving another ‘world-first’ by developing a separate graphics processor for Chinese characters. Initial success was interrupted by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The DFC was declared insolvent and stopped trading in late 1989 so Progeni was on its own. About a year later, just as the Vice President of the Agricultural Bank of China (1.4 million employees and 40,000 branches) signed a letter of understanding to use Poly2s exclusively for their educational needs, the Bank of New Zealand placed Progeni in receivership. Like many businesses unable to meet demands for immediate cash to bail out the BNZ at its time of crisis, Progeni was liquidated.

What we would like to know:

Anything that expands on this story.

The whereabouts of any Poly1 Computers now.


Blogger manuka said...

A good account(although perhaps emotive & subject to ones political viewpoints from the era!), but you neglected to mention the early 80s rise of the IBM PC (& clones)was the REAL cruncher.

Although initially costly,these PCs of course soon became THE industry standard,& slaughtered all manner of late 70s-early 80s computer offerings, both in NZ schools & globally. TRS-80, Apple 2, Dragons, etc also went to the graveyard along with Polys. By the late 80s really only PCs & Macs were available...

I have to say the design was not universally praised as well, It may have looked sexy, but the units did NOT break down into easily handled modules. They needed 2 people to carry them even between benches & a single teacher setting up could NOT usually move one even between classrooms. (I speak from experience having put my back out with a 100m lug to a car park).

I've tabs on one here in Wellington, having hauled it out recently for a photo shoot & "DomPost" article when Neil Scott was back in town ~April 2006. That MOTAT picture may even be the unit,as it has since been on tour with a museum crowd. Contact me via => Stan

April 19, 2007 11:52 AM  
Blogger Michael Smythe said...

Thanks for filling the yawning gap I left and adding your first-hand experience Manuka. The suggestion that the Poly would have inevitably been rendered obsolete by IBM compatible PCs is valid. That's why the focus shifted to developing software for use in 'off-the-shelf' boxes.
I am happy to own up to a political bias, but if I had fully quoted those who were directly involved I would have seemed much more anti-Nat and risked being sued for libel!

November 05, 2007 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just read this article some time after I had asked for info on the POLY.
My original comments, below, on the POLY could help explain why nobody seemed to want it.

I wonder if anybody remembers a particular NZ designed computer. This was introduced to our school in the 1980s and was apparently some sort of co-operation with the government and others!
It was all in one - a hideous plastic housing with the monitor in its usual position and if my memory serves me right two arms thrusting forward to hold the keyboard - but where the computer components were defeats me now.
It was clumsy and had that sort of "It's the last thing I would want to own" look about it.
The quoted price was way above the Apples we were using and nobody seemed interested. I suppose it died a well deserved death.
But I would love a photo of the thing and more details if anybody can produce them.

November 13, 2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger manuka said...

Chuckle- design tastes change over the decades! Remember haircuts & disco clothing from that era? In 2007 the Poly1 may indeed be viewed as encased in "a hideous plastic housing",but in 1982 it was considered sexy chic!

February 21, 2008 10:52 AM  
Blogger Michael Smythe said...

I strongly disagree with Tom. The Poly 1 was a very well designed box that integrated all the functional elements into a simple elegant form. Manuka and Tom - if you send me your email addresses I will send the full text of my ProDesign article - it will provide a better base for our debate.

February 21, 2008 11:11 AM  
Blogger manuka said...

Sigh- I'm not really into design debates 28 years down the
line. It's akin to perhaps pondering art deco... The bulky electronic technologies of that computing era rather forced the packaging envelope anyway.

As an educator who used the Poly1 heavily (often putting my back out shifting sets to classrooms & off site locations),I however often reflected they were TOO WIDE for many doorways and corridors,& may well have been better designed NARROWER with end (rather than side) handles. Those side "wings" made tight desk layouts difficult as well.

February 21, 2008 11:33 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Wasn't the Poly used by TVNZ to do their first computer graphics? I had a friend in Tech (Carrington) that did his 2 week work experience generating graphics on the Poly. He was impressed by the ease at which simple scoreboard type graphics could be done.

November 07, 2008 3:31 PM  
Blogger manuka said...

TVNZ may well have looked at the approach,even though Poly1 graphics were chunky "teletext style". Teletext itself in fact didn't satrt until 1984 in NZ, so even chunky graphics were then unfamiliar to most Kiwi viewers in 1981 & looked pretty swish!

November 07, 2008 3:53 PM  
Blogger Alec said...

In answer to Jeremy, Yes TVNZ did use the Poly for graphics used in the Heylen Polls presented by Larni Hunter in 1982-4 in Auckland. He usually brought the poll results to me in the morning (if I was lucky) and I had to program them in Basic and have them ready for recording at 3pm. I had to work rapidly.
I had defined Poly Basic during development, overseen the implementation and written the Manual, so I knew how to get the best out of it. The graphics had some interesting and powerful features, especially those that allowed you to save areas of the screen in a string, and the ability to define an irregular area in a string, and to "print" strings elsewhere on the screen. Any string could hold up to 32k not a measly 256 bytes.
There were problems however, especially the inability to address single pixels, only 8 pixels lines, and the limited 8 colours. The purity of the primary colours often gave me problems with bleeding on TV.

February 23, 2009 10:11 PM  
Blogger manuka said...

Since this POLY1 reflection began (some yaers back !), I've had quite an involvement with the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child)"XO" laptop. It's rise,evangelical hype (& now apparent fall) during 2006-9 era has been vey similar to the POLY1's 1981-1984 heyday. In spite of neither machines succeeding as such, both of course were/are responsible for new tech. trends educationally - in the OLPC's case the netbook explosion. Stan

February 23, 2009 10:33 PM  
Blogger Michael Smythe said...

Good to hear from you Alec and Stan.
Stan - can you point me to any stories about the 'apparent fall' of the OLPC project? Among the relentless PR I can only find a 2006 story on which suggests that none will be made until millions are ordered, but more recent stories suggest the are being supplied. What's the inside story?

February 24, 2009 9:10 AM  
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February 09, 2010 1:51 PM  

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