Kamil Nieścioruk: Please tell us about the start of your IT adventure. What was your
first machine? What was your first experience in creating stuff for
I suppose that my IT journey began when I was at university studying for my
degree in electrical engineering in the mid-1960's. [Yes, I am that old!]
The first university computer was an IBM 1620 housed in the Engineering
School. On our first visit, we were almost reverentially ushered into the
room housing the hallowed machine. It was purely "look but don't touch".
This mighty machine had 60,000 digits of magnetic core storage, and could do
fixed-point additions and subtractions at the rate of 1780 per second,
multiplications at 200 per second, and divisions at 56 per second.
Floating-point operations were much slower. Today these speeds seem laughable
but, at the time, they were incredible. After all, the computer was replacing
the mechanical calculator; the electronic calculator had yet to be conceived.
Input and output was by way of punched card or Teletype. In the absence of
electronic calculators, our standard calculation tool was the slide-rule, and
you usually needed approval to use these in examinations.
As part of our maths syllabus we were taught the FORTRAN programming language and our first real problem using the computer was to calculate 'e' to some number of decimal places using arithmetic approximation. A simple enough task, but it tested many programming constructs such as "looping", input/output, etc. We coded up our FORTRAN solutions on coding forms, submitted the forms for punching and, on receiving our small decks of punched cards, submitted the jobs to be run on the computer. One thing that still impresses me is that we were able to compile significant FORTRAN problems on a computer with only 60K of memory. Today's compilers take up many megabytes in their own right, ignoring the overhead of any program or data.
Shortly afterwards a new computing centre was built and equipped with the much
bigger and faster IBM 360, and the old 1620 was relegated to a side room where
it was used to drive a graphical plotter, using output from the 360. Later
still, the 1620 was relieved of even this task and became a machine that
students could use, unsupervised, to run simple problems. I used it on a
number of occasions during my post-graduate time to test simple "hill
climbing" optimisation algorithms.
There is one amusing footnote relating to the 1620. If a transistor radio was
placed on top of the CPU, it would put out a noise whose perceived tone
related to how fast the CPU was processing instructions. Some enterprising
individual wrote a series of programs that, when run, would produce "music"
from the radio. Mostly used to amuse awe-inspired visitors seeing a computer
for the first time.
For my postgraduate project on "machine recognition of speech", I carried out
a lot of work on the department's recently acquired EAI 640 digital computer
(the digital part of the EAI 590 hybrid computer; an EAI 580 was the analogue
I didn't use the analogue side of the computer for my project, but the theory
and practice of using operational amplifiers stood me in good stead when
integrated circuit op. amps became standard components in an electronic
design "toolkit". The digital computer was a significant advance on the old
IBM 1620. Goodbye to punched cards and hello to punched paper tape, the
standard storage medium. The first 8" floppy disks weren't to be commercially
available for another year. Starting the computer was rather an involved
process. The first step was to manually key in the pre-bootstrap loader using
the octal encoded toggle switches on the computer console. When this short
program was executed, it would load a second, more substantive, bootstrap
loader from the paper tape reader. Executing this second program would put
the system into a state where it would accept commands from the Teletype, from
where you could move onto "real" programs, read from paper tape or the
Teletype. Around the middle of 1969 a Tektronix persistent-storage CRT
display was added to the machine, but this was used purely as a graphics
display device. Regular input and output was still via paper tape and the
Teletype; commercial video display terminals weren't readily available until
the following year.
After graduating from university, I began work as an electronics design
engineer with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned
It was here that I first started using integrated circuits, and then
microprocessors in electronic designs. These were stimulating times of rapid
technological development, and great fun!
In 1980 I purchased my first personal computer - an Apple ][ Europlus. The
basic 48K RAM computer, small black and white monitor with 24 lines x 40
character upper-case only display, and cassette tape I/O (no hardware
supplied) cost me $NZ2670. In 2010 dollars, that's approximately $NZ11,000!
Some time later I upgraded the computer with an 80 character wide display in
mixed-case, added a floppy disk drive, and expanded the RAM to a massive 128K.
It is hard to imagine, but the whole computer, disk drive and printer package
cost me more than $NZ22,000 in 2010 dollars! I belonged to the Wellington
Apple Users Club and got to meet our patron at the time, Steve Wozniak, the
principal designer of the Apple. He autographed the inside of the case lid of
my computer. I just wish I still had it - I gave it away to an old friend.
In 1986 I purchased an Amiga 1000 computer for $NZ4135 (about $NZ8300 in 2010
dollars). This computer was way ahead of its time, and was a brilliant
machine, and I upgraded to an Amiga 3000 in 1992 for $NZ4895 (about $NZ6400 in
2010 dollars). As can be seen, computers were gradually becoming more
Throughout my career and personal life I have programmed many applications,
but few have been publicly released.
KN: On the Amiga market, you're mainly "a father of one child" - genealogy programme
Scion (earlier known as Arjay). Have you written anything else?
RA: For the Amiga, the only other software I released publicly was a printer
driver. However, there have been many other programs (for the Amiga, the
early Apple and later PC computers) - mainly small utility programs for my
Most of the other software developed has been for other (often specialist)
platforms involved in my paying job. This has mostly been in the area of
broadcasting management systems, and studio design.
KN: So, why genealogy? Have you written Scion to suit your own needs? In my
opinion, it's the best way to create something - to work on a tool you need
RA: In the mid-1980's, a friend from work got me interested in genealogy, a
"disease" I suffer from today.
In the early days of research I managed most of the family data I was
collecting manually. This rapidly became unsustainable, and so I obtained
some genealogy software for my Amiga. It was such rubbish I can't even
remember its name, but it did get me interested in programming my own
genealogy software for the Amiga.
The very first primitive attempt was written in AmigaBasic (a BASIC
interpreter), but I very quickly replaced this by a version written in 'C',
learning the language in the process. About the same time as I was writing
this software I was also communicating with a "missing limb" from the Akins
family tree in Australia. The person I was talking to was Laurence Russell
Akins, a commercial printer. His printing business was known as "Elaray
Press" - the "Elaray" being from his initials L. R. A. This I thought was
rather clever, so I called my software "ArJay Genealogist" - the "ArJay" being
my own initials.
In early 1993 I publicly released ArJay v3.04 onto the world as freeware, but
then Mr Murphy struck! There was a property management company in Wellington
called "Arjay Developments" managing the block of flats opposite my home. I
was very unhappy with the appalling tenants they were letting into the block,
so I decided I didn't want my software bearing a similar name. From that
point on my software was known as "Scion Genealogist". As a footnote, the
block of flats was substantially upgraded and today's tenants are no problem
I continued to release updates of the software into the public domain, and
attracted a large number of users. Because the Amiga supported a scripting
language known as "ARexx", and I had added ARexx support to Scion, I also
attracted a number of other programmers who added some very useful
ARexx-implemented capabilities to Scion. One programmer in particular,
Freddie Aries from The Netherlands, added GEDCOM support to Scion and became a
good friend over the course of our collaborations. He visited New Zealand and
I had the pleasure of meeting him and showing him some of the sights.
Because the Amiga was so easy to program for multiple languages, with the help
of a number of my users we were able to run Scion in Dutch, French, German,
Italian, Russian, Turkish, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech and Polish.
Unfortunately Commodore never really supported the on-going development of the
Amiga and it sadly became obsolete. As an "Easter egg" in an early version of
the operating system said - "We made it - Commodore fucked it up". I couldn't
agree more. Even though the Amiga has now long gone, I still run Amiga
software (including Scion) on my IBM PC using software emulation. There's
still a few things that are much easier on the Amiga than on the PC.
When the Amiga computer became obsolete, I completely re-wrote Scion to run on
an IBM PC (or compatible) computer running Microsoft Windows.
KN: Scion was rated high in all reviews, users were (and are) more then happy with the
power of it, the programme is very complex (its guide is over 230KB) and all
this... for free. Scion does not need registration, "pay me" pop-ups turning
off etc. Why? (Of course I am not complaining.)
RA: When developing programs, I have always been well supported by the
open-source and the freeware communities. They are a huge "font of knowledge"
and, if you have a programming problem, there's almost always somebody out
there with a free, published solution.
Because of this assistance, I feel it is only fair to have released Scion (and
ScionPC) as freeware. Just a tiny "pay-back" for all the assistance in
learning and programming. Why no "registration, pay me pop-ups", etc.?
Simple - I hate companies who release "freeware" to later discover that it's
not free, but instead crippled "adware". I despise such dishonesty, and don't
want to be included with these people.
If my software is helpful to some users, that is enough "payment" for me!
P.S. If you think the "guide" was big, look at ScionPC's help file and
Reference Manual! I DO like good documentation :-)
KN: Defining Scion as a freeware, you have no full database of users. Can you
estimate the popularity and number of people looking for their roots with your
programme? I mean both Amiga and - now - PC version.
RA:In the Internet age it is difficult to measure the popularity of freeware.
My estimate of Amiga Scion usage would be thousands.
For the PC version, the number of users will still be small as the program
hasn't been freely available for very long. I like to adopt a "low profile"
for early releases so that I can get feedback from the early-adopters. As
ScionPC is maturing as a program, it is only now becoming more widely
"visible". As a consequence of this release strategy, the number of users
will still be in the order of hundreds. This year I hope to raise it's
"release profile", so hopefully the number of users will then increase.
It is very interesting to find that many of the early-adopters are ex-Amigans
looking for a replacement for the Amiga version of Scion. Google the words
"amiga" and "scion" and "ScionPC Genealogical Management System" should be
near the top of the results list!
KN: Genealogy in Poland was not a popular hobby when Amiga ruled here.
Do you know of any Polish users (not including me, who did Polish
translation ;)? I bet more people in my coutry use it now, when we're much
more "ancestor-aware", as genealogical researches bloomed here in very late of
XX and beginning of XXI century.
RA: I'm afraid that you are the only Polish user I have ever had any feedback from.
KN: I have already mentioned Scion is a PC programme now (known as ScionPC). The
last Amiga version was 5.x and PC starts with 7.x. What happened to 6.x?
RA: Version 6.x was an early PC-development version as I came to grips with
the new platform. It was never intended to be seen by anybody except a few
KN: The look of ScionPC is similar to Amiga version. The GUI is well-organized,
so there was no sense in making changes. What about the code? Have you
rewritten ScionPC from scratch? What was the programming language used for
creating Scion for Amiga?
RA: As I mentioned above, the Amiga version was written in 'C'.
Obviously for the PC, the whole "user interface" stuff was written from
scratch. I had originally intended to write the PC version in 'C', but I
quickly changed this to 'C++', and I use the excellent Borland C++ Builder
I used some of the more complex code from the Amiga largely "as-is", but most
of the program has been rewritten for the PC, taking advantage of the
object-oriented facilities in C++, and the powerful container objects in the
Standard Templates Library. Again building on those who "came before".
KN: What do you think of Amiga? You've told me you have no Amiga machine
now, but what kind of computer was it for you? What was the best feature of it
in your opinion? Do you revive your memories with UAE?
RA: When the first Amiga was released, it was way ahead of its time, and was
what attracted me to it. The PC was an ugly kludge, and hadn't really heard
of multi-tasking. The Apple III was a dog, and the Macintosh was new, cute,
overpriced and underpowered, and hadn't heard of proper multi-tasking either.
My first Amiga 1000 was great, and one of its major selling points (in my
mind) was the bootable OS (aka "Kickstart"). It was a new machine, and was
bound to have some bugs (what doesn't?), so what better way to upgrade the OS
than to simply publish a new Kickstart disk. No mucking around inside the
machine trying to change chips!
It also had graphics that were well ahead of the competition which made it a
favourite with graphics designers and gamers.
And real multi-tasking was fantastic. You could actually do something else
while the compiler was grinding away in the background on a full "re-build".
But perhaps it's greatest feature was its software "libraries" that could be
easily used to extend the functionality of the computer. And it was done
properly - no such thing as "dll hell" or "dll conflicts". This was closely
followed by ARexx which supplied a simple, easy-to-use scripting capability to
virtually any program. Try adding a scripting interface to a PC program to
learn how convoluted programming can become! One simple standard? You must
Sadly Commodore didn't support the Amiga the way it should, and it was rapidly
overtaken in capability by other computers.
After moving to a PC, I used UAE for some time but, as the capability of the
PC has improved, I now have almost no need for the emulator. In fact, it's
now only on my backup computer - I haven't had a need to install it on my
KN: Amiga was more then just a machine, as it was gathering people. Polish Amiga
community is still active (small, but active). What is the situation in New
Zealand? Are there any Amiga users there? What was it in "the good old
RA: When the Amiga was first released, there was a large, energetic group of
Amigans and active Amiga Users Groups in the main centres of New Zealand. The
groups were always busy and fun, and I made many friends through my local
I am still in contact with a couple of NZ ex-Amigans, and would say that there
would be only a handfull of active Amigans left in New Zealand. The User
Groups have certainly long gone.
KN: Are you aware of what is going on with Amiga now? Are you familiar with
AmigaOne, AmigaOS4, X1000, MorphOS or AROS names?
RA: No, I'm afraid. I infrequently use the Amiga Forever emulator, but that's where it ends
KN: Thank you very much for your time and replies. If you want to add something - go
RA: I sure you must be bored by now :-)