Datalogging – a history

Datalogging - a historyThe history of datalogging parallels the history of using computers in schools. It also charts the technological changes which have happened over the last 30 years.

The timeline looks like this:

1980 The first computers for use by amateurs – Sinclair Z80,

Early 80’s

BBC Computer for schools programme

(BBC Computers had various ports that gadgets could be connected to: Printer Port, User Port and Analogue Port – teachers were the first to take advantage of the opportunity to build electronic devices to measure changes and to control lights and motors.)

1982 Data Harvest/Educational Electronics registered by 1 Maths Advisory teacher and 1 Physics teacher

Mid 80’s

Launch of Acorn RISC OS computer for schools

Apple Mac computers

PC DOS computers

(Acorn computers had the same ports as the BBC computer originally for educational devices.)

Mac and PC computers had serial ports to which devices could be connected for signals to go to and from the computer via an interface.

Early 90’s

Launch of Windows OS – updated every 2 – 3 years (Windows 95, 98)

Introduction of smaller computers (laptops and PDAs)


Yet more versions of Windows ( Me, XP, Vista, now Windows 7)

And Windows CE for PDAs, later Windows Mobile for Smartphones

No more serial ports.

USB port and wireless communication via Bluetooth


Many teachers were enthusiastic amateurs when computers were first introduced, and soon found that they could program their machines to process numbers, and design electronic boards that could be connected to the various ports to enable sensor values to be captured, calibrated and displayed in an appropriate graph – using the computer’s processing power to automate what is normally a mechanical exercise: measuring manually, writing down the number, then drawing a graph. Alot of these teachers were Maths and Science teachers who recognised the value of having all of this processing power in the classroom. They could see that watching a graph develop during a science experiment meant that children could concentrate on the analysis of the data, rather than on manual graph drawing skills. Children would be encouraged to act like scientists, asking what if… questions and investigating various variables to reinforce a hypothesis.

Two things hampered progress in the 80’s: lack of computers, and the inability to show the whole class what was happening on one screen.

As for Data Harvest, in 1982 the company was formed and a range of what we now call interfaces was developed. In 1983 VELA (virtual Laboratory), a joint venture with Leeds University was launched, and the Department of Industry supported it with a 50% grant to schools. VELA was a completely independent measuring instrument that could collect vast amounts of data for Physicists. The resulting numbers could be scrolled through, and real enthusiasts downloaded data to a BBC computer where VELA software plotted these numbers into a graph. Without the supplied crib sheet, or attendance at a workshop, VELA was virtually impenetrable to non-physicists but was well used by many Physics Departments right into the ‘90’s for voltage, current and time measurements.

Datalogging - a historyIn the late 80’s the Sense & Control datalogger was introduced. This was a unit that could collect one set of data automatically from a range of sensors such as temperature, light, pH as well as voltage and current. The resulting data was downloaded into Practical Science software which looked the same whether on a BBC, Mac, PC or Acorn. My memory of this software is that it used the space bar and tab and enter keys, rather than a mouse. The real value of Sense & Control was that it could be used as a real-time interface when connected to a computer. It could collect and plot data in a graph simultaneously, therefore allowing children to see changes in a science experiment as they happened.

Sense & Control was designed to connect to a computer via a serial port and had a set of other ports to which BBC style control devices could be connected. It therefore acted as an adapter for control interfaces, although as these devices resided in CDT departments and Sense & Control resided in Science departments not many schools took advantage of this powerful combination. To be able to control a fan according to a change in temperature or turn on a light when the light level dropped to a measured level was at the forefront of computer control in the early 90’s.

During the late 80’s the predominant computer in schools was the Acorn. Data Harvest development at this time was almost totally concentrated on software writing – PriSM for primary science . The preferred software for secondary science was Insight, a generic software programme developed by Laurence Rogers of University of Leicester.

In the early 90’s Microsoft launched their Windows operating system, and educational software writers found themselves busy again writing for this new platform. At this time, Data Harvest offered their Practical Science DOS style software for BBC, Acorn and PC, as well as Insight for Acorn and RM Investigate for Windows PCs. We also introduced computer control into the range.

In 2000 Data Harvest launched their own Sensing Science software, along with a new generation of EasySense dataloggers. The revelation was in the new design of the sensors. SmartQ sensors hold both their identification and calibration within each sensor so that they are recognised by any EasySense logger. Therefore schools no longer had to upgrade software because they had bought a new sensor. (Previously it was the software that held calibration and identification detail which meant a wait for generic software to be updated before customers could use a new sensor).

Within a year, secondary science departments in specialist science schools and colleges were investing in class sets of datalogging equipment, instead of just one set for teacher demos. Datalogging was coming of age. But was there room for experiments amongst the 15 PCs? Following in quick succession was the introduction of laptops for teachers, the digital projector, enabling teachers to present whatever appeared on the computer screen to the whole class, the interactive whiteboard, and laptops for student use.

The coming of laptops meant more development for Data Harvest as these did not have a serial port for the dataloggers to connect to. In 2004 we launched EasySense QAdvanced with a USB connection to the computer and EasySense software, an improvement on Sensing Science, with built-in worksheets and an easy to use front end. There are now 5 USB devices in the EasySense range: QAdvanced, Q3+ (with 3 built-in sensors), Q5+ (with 5 built-in sensors), 3Link and 1Link with prices starting at a modest £34.00.

Alongside this EasySense range, Data Harvest recognised the need for a more portable datalogging solution and developed the Flash logger to connect to a hand-held PDA in 2005. The Graphical Logger Pack won 2 BETT Awards in 2006.

All through the 2000s Data Harvest’s engineers have been developing a greater range of sensors, to meet the curriculum demands from a number of different countries. There are now over 50 different sensors, ranging from the most popular temperature sensors to the relatively expensive carbon dioxide sensor and esoteric sensors such as the Rf Electrosmog and Accelerometer. Keeping this range going is our R&D and Production Department’s challenge as chips become obsolete and new regulations, such as ROHSS, forces a continual programme of re-engineering.

Whilst Data Harvest has concentrated on developing loggers to match the current trend in computers, and sensors to match, with software that is easy to use, have schools been developing their use of datalogging? Sadly the answer is no. Those teachers of the ‘80s who found time to write software and develop electronic gadgets are gone, although there are some who are producing digital material for IWBs. The teachers we meet today are dedicated to ensuring their students get the best grades possible but there is little time to develop their datalogging skills or try out new practicals. Data Harvest’s answer has been to develop support materials for teachers so that there is a library of over 500 experiments with automatic software set-ups to save time in lessons.

We also see changes to the way school IT networks are managed, which can result in long log-on times in some science departments, or disappearing USB drivers in others, making datalogging a fraught experience, rather than an essential tool for teaching and learning.

Datalogging - a historyIn 2010 Data Harvest launched Vision, a touch-screen datalogger that is totally self-contained, enabling science teachers and their students to gather data and see the results as a graph that can be analysed, without the need for a computer. Vision is a computer and datalogger combined with EasySense software built-in. Vision can be connected to a projector so that the graph can be shared with the whole class, or the data can be saved to a memory stick and taken to the teacher’s computer. This means that datalogging can be independent of the IT system in the science department, allowing students and teachers to use it anywhere. Vision has the set-ups for 500 experiments built-in, so is truly the concentrated essence of all Data Harvest’s expertise from the past 30 years. Vision won a BETT Award this year for the best digital device.

There really is no excuse for not using datalogging in science lessons now!

BJH 17-3-11

Post Script

Writing this Data Harvest history has made me realise just how many changes our hardware and software engineers have had to master even in the past 10 years. I have a huge respect for them. It is a joy to pick up a sensor that we supplied in 2000 and connect it to a new data logger and know that everything will work.

Author: Barbara Higginbotham, sales director of Data Harvest

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