A software business is born: SuperBeam 1

By the autumn of 1988 I had been working for myself for four years and designed 100+ loft conversions, producing the calculations on my BBC computers. My business partner and I demerged our business to form two companies. I named mine Survey Design Associates as the work I was doing consisted of building design and some surveying and the name 'Survey Design Limited' was already taken. The associates? - everyone who has offered moral support along the way! This change left me free to spend my time how I chose, and if I wasn't earning money, no one except me complained!

By then it was obvious that the IBM PC and its clones were becoming the defacto standard, In addition, a new phenomenon, shareware, had begun to take root. The principle was simple: you could get a copy of a computer program for a few pounds at most, test it out, and if it did what you wanted you then sent the full price to the author. For anyone who wanted to enter the software business, this offered an entry route with next to no cost or risk. Perhaps, I wondered, other people might like my beam design program?

During the winter of 1988-9 the program was ported from the BBC to PC, being rewritten in Turbo Basic. My first PC, a Dell 286 cost £2,500, including a colour screen; the copy of Turbo Basic, £50. If you wanted to start from scratch now, a copy of Delphi which we produce all our programs with, would cost you more than a nice computer to run it on!

As the program had been used extensively in connection with real jobs, not much work was necessary other than allowing users to be able to customise the page headings and configure the program to suit their own printer. The real work was writing the documentation.

In early 1989 I sent out copies to a number of disk vendors: these firms compiled catalogues of shareware programs and advertised them. You paid them anything from 99p to £7.99 for a trial disk, and then sent the author of the program the requested fee if you wanted to keep using the program. I didn't know what response to expect: in a conversation with my bank manager at the time I said that I expected this project to make £2-3000p.a. - a useful little sideline to my main business, nothing more. Little did I know.

On April 5th 1989 the first £30 cheque arrived and I was in the software business! By the end of the year 130 people had bought SuperBeam. Some came from my first attempt at direct mail, the names and addresses copied out by hand from the Yellow Pages in the library! In June 1989 East Hampshire District Council became the first of several hundred Building Control departments to purchase our software

For all the work that had gone into it, SuperBeam 1.0 was pretty crude by today's standards. It was quickly replaced by version 1.1 with timber calculations to BS5268 instead of CP112.

The following screenshots come from the later version 1.4. When the program started, the eight boxes around the edge flashed in rotation like something out of a funfair. This and the program's menu system made use of Rick Fothergill's public domain TBWINDOW utilities which shipped with Turbo Basic. Hopefully no users were prone to epilepsy!

SuperBeam 1 opening screen

Load entry was split between UDLs (including part UDLs) and point loads. In SuperBeam 1 you only ever worked on one beam at a time. When you were satisfied with your design, you printed it out and started the next one.

SuperBeam 1 load entry

If you knew your way round the program, pressing the right key would jump straight to the next option. Otherwise a menu would pop up in the bottom right of the screen. We provided a utility to let technically minded users rearrange the menus to suit their own way of working. I doubt whether anyone ever did!

SuperBeam 1 menu

The steel design parameter screen was much simpler than now. The 'minimum depth' option did not arrive until SuperBeam 2 so the design was always by minimum weight. You could also check a section - the standard library contained 22 sections and users could add a further 28. The steel data file supplied with SuperBeam 7 and ProSteel 7 contains 923 sections!

SuperBeam 1 steel calculation

For timber design, the questions asked are not so different to now, but fewer in number:

SuperBeam 1 timber design

Until we moved into the Windows era, printing could be a major source of problems. Most printers used the same control codes as the four majors - Epson LQ, HP LaserJet, IBM ProPrinter or Qume/Diablo daisywheel - for which we supplied drivers, but there more than a few that had quirks of their own. The following screen lets users define the code sequences to turn various styles on or off, and the font codes are calculated by summing these: for example Beam Name 24 = 16 (near letter quality) + 8 (bold).

SuperBeam 1 printer setup

This screen shows the configuration options. Headings could contain two lines of text, optionally in a box if the printer could do this.

SB1 configuration

And the output .... not that different to what we produce now

SuperBeam 1 calculation

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