Electron User


Author: Rog Frost
Publisher: Wight Scientific
Machine: Acorn Electron

Published in Electron User 7.03

Teacher Rog Frost introduces a new program to his primary school pupils


Software writers have become adept at squeezing gallons out of a pint pot these days. The capability of 8-bit 32K micros can at times be truly amazing and the Signwriter program from Wight Scientific allows very professional banners, signs and posters to be produced from the humble Electron computer.

Some additional hardware is required. Firstly, a standard Epson compatible, nine pin dot matrix printer needs to be attached. This includes the very popular Panasonics and Taxans - I have used both and others will do the job just as well.

Also required is a disc filing system. I use the normal DFS, but assured by Wight that its system works even better with ADFS. DFS users will need access to more than one 80 track disc surface.

The original program comes on two sides of a disc so you might think that access to a double-sided drive would be essential. It is, however, possible to configure the system for any disc drive arrangement. This involves converting a font into a useable form from data on drive 0.

Boot up and select the Process Font option from the main menu. It takes a long time, but requires no user input once the process as started. Wight Scientific recommends that a back-up disc is made and the original kept as a master copy.

Once Signwriter is configured to your liking, it is time to boot up your back-up copy and enter your first sign. After a whirr from the disc drive, you are asked a series of questions.

The first decision required is whether the sign should be horizontal or vertical. Then there are border sizes, whether the sign should be in a box, its width and so on.

All questions requiring a numerical response have sensible default values, so when learning the system it is possible to press Return and let the program make decisions.

Text is entered a line at a time with a sensible word processor style editor. It is possible to alter the size of the characters for a whole line. All sizes are given in millimetres. Further alterations are available when you become more confident.

The positioning of a whole line of text can be specified. This feature can allow different-sized characters to be used on one line. The horizontal position can be altered - set left, right, centred or indented. Text can be underlined and the spacing between individual characters set by the user or left in default proportional mode.

Normal keyboard characters can be directly typed but there is also a technique for allowing other characters with Ascii codes outside the normal range to be entered.

When the sign is complete it is saved to disc as a text file and can be edited within a normal word processor. The well-written manual gives help on the file's structure.

Printing is a straightforward process. Select the Print Sign option and then select any required features. It is also possible to send the output to a disc file so that it can be printed later. A draft quality option may be selected and the sign can be scaled down. An interesting option is the mirror image printout, included so that messages can be ironed on to T-shirts. The manual gives phone numbers for T-shirt suppliers and the required ribbons. It is just possible to use a normal ribbon if the T-shirt has white spirit on it, but the final print quality is rather pale.

Printing is slow and the more complex the sign, the slower it becomes, with an average A4 sign taking at least fifteen minutes. If a line of text is too complex, the computer cannot hold it in memory and the program fails. These signs can often be printed if done vertically rather than horizontally.

It is possible to create your own fonts or modify existing ones, the design program being entered via the Alter Font option. Characters are entered as lines and arcs based on a large grid. The manual suggests that most characters should be kept to a grid size of 160 x 160.

I found this utility slow and awkward, but it is possible to produce a huge variety of characters. Fortunately for those of us who want to create signs and not the fonts, Wight Scientific have a large range of them which can be bought for less than £10.

Many are standard English fonts, but there are also Arabic, Greek and Hebrew as well as others devoted to chess pieces, Christmas and zoo animals. Even the standard fonts may have characters such as arrows or faces associated with characters 1 to 31.

Wight Scientific is at pains to point out that the program was originally written for the 16-bit IBM machines and tends to apologise or its limitations on the Electron. On a standard machine, the screen display is muddled during printing. Otherwise, it all works fine. I think this is a very good product, ideally suted for those who require top quality lettering.

Rog Frost

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