Laser-Scan History

This document presents a personal history of Laser-Scan, as remembered by Paul Hardy (former Chief Programmer, then Product Manager and Principal Consultant) who joined the company as a programmer in 1975, and stayed until the company collapsed in 2003. It includes material from Peter Woodsford (former Managing Director and Chairman) who also joined in 1975. The descriptive section is followed by a list of milestones.

LSL Logo 2

Descriptive History

Foundation and first product

Laser-Scan was founded in 1969 by three academics from the Cavendish Laboratories (the Physics department of the University of Cambridge). The senior of the three was Professor Otto Robert Frisch, FRCS, a very eminent physicist. Among his claims to fame was that he coined the names 'chain reaction', and 'nuclear fission' in a paper which laid down the fundamental theory that led to the atom bomb and to nuclear reactors for power generation.

The 'Prof' (as he was always known) was an Austrian Jew who had moved to Denmark ahead of the German invasion of Austria, and then again to England, where he took on British nationality. He was a true polymath. As well as being one of the foremost theoretical physicists of his generation, he was a very practical engineer. He could have made his living as a concert pianist. He spoke six languages fluently (German, Yiddish, Danish, English, French and Russian) and cound read several more, including Spanish and Arabic. He was a witty conversationalist and after-dinner speaker and overall was a kind and helpful man. I feel that it was a privilege to have known him.

The other two academics were John Rushbrooke (who remained at the Cavendish, running their research group on subatomic particles) and Graham Street (who became the first Managing Director of Laser-Scan).

The academics had built in the laboratory a prototype of a machine called Sweepnik that used a laser beam, moved around by mirrors, to follow lines on photographs. These photos were of bubble chamber experiments to identify the elementary particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) which are the building blocks of matter.

People from other research institutes saw the prototype Sweepnik at the Cavendish, and wanted to buy one. Eventually the academics raised financial backing and started the firm of Laser-Scan in 1969 to produce Sweepniks.

The first Sweepnik shipped to Helsinki in 1972, and was followed by sales to many other countries including France, America, Belgium, India, Japan, Greece, Egypt, etc.

HRD-1 Display/Plotter

Having successfully shipped the first few Sweepniks, the academics saw an opportunity to build other devices using similar laser-beams and mirrors. The first of these was the HRD-1, which instead of reading images from film, was able to write images onto film. The film could either be postcard-sized diazo for permanent hardcopy, or be a photochromic film projected onto a screen to give a large display (a metre across).

The HRD-1 lived up to its name as High Resolution Display number 1. Even today, a modern workstation screen is doing well to reach 1000 addressable lines of pixels. The HRD-1 had 140,000 by 100,000 addressable points. Even allowing for the fact that the light spot was 10 times bigger than the addressability, this was still 10,000 lines resolution. The HRD-1 remains to this day one of the very few computer displays in the world on which a complete map can be drawn at scale and remain able to see the detail without zooming in and out.

The HRD-1 was exhibited at graphics shows, and two market areas expressed an interest. One was Digital Mapping, then in its infancy. The other was the security printing industry, including the design and printing of bank notes and bonds. Of the two, the security printing industry wanted to write its own software, and just bought Laser-Scan hardware. It has been said that around a third of the banknotes in the world have been designed using Laser-Scan hardware, including the British notes.

The first digital mapping customer was 'ECU', the Experimental Cartographic Unit, which was housed in the Royal College of Art in Kensington, just across the road from the Natural History Museum. The founder and boss of ECU was David Bickmore, who was years ahead of his time. I remember a talk he gave to the Auto-Carto conference in London in 1976 on 'the scale-free database' - an ideal that we are now just managing to achieve with Gothic software and 1999 computer technology!

The HRD-1 used a powerful argon ion laser cooled by running water, and pulling 30 amps on three phase electricity to produce about 300 milliwatts of beautiful turquoise light, focused into a spot about 10 microns across. This spot could either draw on photochromic film to produce the image for the screen, or by swinging a mirror out of the way, could draw on diazo film to produce postcard-sized hardcopy.

The HRD-1 at ECU was serial number 103, but actually the third one built. It was driven by a DEC PDP-9 minicomputer. This was not very mini, as it filled two bays each about 4 metres long by two metres high. The PDP-9 had 16K words of core memory (real magnetic cores - no chips yet) with an 18-bit word length, able to store three 6-bit characters per word. This is in the days before the 8-bit byte had been invented.

Laser-Scan provided no applications software with the HRD-1. The main software that was provided was an interface library called LDLIB which had been written by a researcher at Cambridge University called Peter Woodsford. He had been a member of Cambridge University's CAD Group, where he developed the pioneering GINO graphics package (which is still in widespread use world-wide). Since joining Laser-Scan in 1975, Peter held a series of technical, managerial and directorial positions before becoming Deputy Chairman of the company in 1990.

Laser-Scan at the time operated from very primitive premises behind the CAD Centre on Madingley Road, Cambridge. The pre-delivery trials and training were held there with a party of three researchers from ECU headed by Dr. Les Thorpe, nowadays an independent consultant working at UKHO. His son Martin has worked in his vacations for us in recent years. One of the researchers was a bright young man called David Rhind, which explains an incident many years later when a party of Birbeck students visiting Laser-Scan were very late in arriving and the somewhat harassed Professor of Geography rang in to say the bus was going round and round the Madingley Road site and couldn't find Laser-Scan! They got him better organised when he later became Director-General of the Ordnance Survey.

The HRD-1 cost about £130,000, which in today's money would be well over a million pounds. That was without the computer which would have cost about half as much again. It says something for Laser-Scan engineering, that we were still selling HRD-1s into the 1990s, and there are still some operating in various parts of the world.

The ECU HRD-1 acted as a reference site for Laser-Scan, and within two years we had sold another HRD-1 for digital mapping - this time to RWS (the Rijk Waater Staadt) in Holland. They asked us to write map editor software to drive the HRD-1, and that started Laser-Scan on the path to what it is now - a spatial software company. Over time Mapping has become the dominant market for Laser-Scan, and LAMPS software has been used by many of the major national mapping agencies around the world.

FASTRAK, Lasertrak, and VTRAK

In 1975, a major military agency in Britain, having seen the Sweepnik following lines and the HRD-1 drawing maps, asked if Laser-Scan could produce a line-following digitiser for maps. Out of this came a product originally called the HRD-1 Digitising Option, then called FASTRAK, then called Lasertrak. The task of writing the software for map data capture was much harder than envisaged. It is a problem in pattern recognition, which is a task at which humans are very good, and at which computers are notoriously bad!

However, after several false starts, acceptable software was developed, which used very different algorithms to any other automatic digitising systems since. These line following algorithms have way outlived the original expectations of the developers, and are still in use in Laser-Scan's VTRAK products shipping today.

In 1983 the console of FASTRAK was re-engineered for better ergonomics and appearance, and the software had major new facilities added for Junction Recognition. The resultant new automatic digitising system was launched in the ACSM show in the USA as the Lasertrak.

The transition from Lasertrak to VTRAK occurred in around 1987, when the costs of raster scanners and computer workstations fell to a level where it was more cost effective to implement the line-following software on commodity hardware than to produce and maintain the expensive and delicate Laser-Scan Lasertrak hardware.

Laserplot and MLP-1

Building on the same laser deflection technology used in the HRD-1 and Lasertrak, Laser-Scan built other kinds of computer output device. The Laserplot in 1985 was a precision plotter drawing on film of nearly A3 size. This could then be photographically enlarged to produce A0 films. The MLP-1 was a similar machine, but drew on 35mm microfilm, and sold particularly to engineering CAD installations.


The first production map editor for the HRD-1 had been written in 1975, and was called SOLADI. It also ran on the FASTRAK and Lasertrak machines, as these were a superset of an HRD-1. Various customers liked it, but wanted to use their Lasertraks just for digitising, so Laser-Scan was asked to make its map editing software available on commodity hardware. Computer workstations had not yet been invented, but Tektronix had recently produced the Tek4014 storage tube display. So, SOLADI was made available on a workstation based round the Tek display, in a product called IGES (Interactive Graphical Editing System).

In 1979 the Laser-Scan mapping software was moved from the PDP-11 computers to the new DEC VAX range under the VMS operating system. This allowed us to enhance the functionality and the new suite became known as LAMPS (Laser-Scan Automated Map Processing System), with the main editing component called LITES (Laser-Scan InTeractive Editing System).

In 1985, another military contract allowed us to do a major re-implementation of LITES and the plotting and representation components of LAMPS. The new editor was called LITES2, and is still in use at many sites worldwide.

Terrain, TVES and TERAS

As the LAMPS suite grew in facilities, major additions were introduced to handle raster data, terrain modelling, and visualisation. Once again, military contracts were major contributors of funding, particular during and just after the Falklands war, and again around the time of the Gulf War.

Major contracts involved the TVES (Terrain Validation and Exploitation System) software, the 'Al Yamamah' supply of a ground support system to the Saudi Arabian government as part of the sale of Tornado aircraft, and a pilot TERAS (TERrain AnalysiS) system for the British army in Germany.

Horizon, Metropolis and GIS

While the majority of Laser-Scan mapping sales had been to map producing organisations, there was a realisation that for every map producer there were a much larger number of map users. To address this and the growing GIS analysis marketplace, a layer was developed which added GIS functionality to the underlying LAMPS software. In particular it added access to attribute data in relational databases, management of continuous (sheet-free) mapping, and a point and click GUI (Graphical User Interface).

The project to develop this was called XGIS (X-windows GIS), and the products were Horizon (targeted at the environmental market) and Metropolis (targeted at property information). Over time, Horizon also became useful in providing continuous mapping support to mapping and charting customers, such as the AA.

Gothic and Open Systems

In the late 1980s, Laser-Scan evaluated the pros and cons of porting its LAMPS software to Unix. However, the core of LAMPS had been under continuous development for 15 years, and was getting increasingly difficult to enhance to meet the requirements of the 1990s. A brave decision was therefore taken not to port, but to implement from scratch a new software platform to carry Laser-Scan software forward to the year 2000 and beyond.

This project was called Gothic, and led to the development of an object-oriented spatial database and toolkit called the Gothic Developer ADE (Application Development Environment). On top of this platform a series of products was developed, sharing a common database and look and feel. These include:

Of these products, LAMPS2 has grown since its launch in 1995 to contain most of the capabilities of the other products, and is still in use by major mapping production agencies world-wide.

Gothic Integrator and the Web

In 1996, the rise of the PC and Microsoft Windows as the de-facto standard led to the development of a Windows environment and set of components called Gothic Integrator. These made the power of the Gothic spatial database and toolkit available to Windows developers, writing in Visual C++.

In 1999, the Gothic Integrator technology was extended with the introduction of a ‘Java Edition’ to provide access to Gothic data from Internet web browsers. One key system using Gothic Web Mapper was the DIGIMAP service of EDINA that provided the UK academic community with up-to-date Ordnance Survey mapping. Another was the NLIS (National Land Information System) channel called TransactionOnline, providing detailed web mapping for the whole country to speed up buying and selling of property.

Laser-Scan is also actively involved in international standards for inter-operability and web mapping, particularly through its membership of the OGC (OpenGIS Consortium).

The Yeoman Era

In May 2000, Laser-Scan was taken over by Yeoman plc for £13m. Yeoman was a small company that had convinced the City that it was a leader in electronic positioning technologies, including Global Positioning System (GPS), at the time of the dotcom bubble and the hype over 3G mobile phone capabilities, causing its share price to rocket. Yeoman had previously bought B & G (Brookes & Gatehouse), who made electronic navigation equipment for yachts, including the big ocean racers like the America's Cup boats.

The purchase of Laser-Scan was primarily to help Yeoman get a foothold in the new market of personal navigation, arising from the anticipated convergence of electronic positioning and mobile telephony. A group from the Laser-Scan development team were transferred to a new company 'Yeoman Navigation', and built the first commercial service providing car navigation instructions direct to the mobile phone. Intially known as VoxNav, this was later called TravelM8.

The Yeoman takeover instigated a new management team, and a new focus, but initially continued to support the traditional Laser-Scan customer base of National Mapping Agencies.

Another obvious effect of the Yeoman influence was a project to take some of the 'smarts' from Gothic, and make them available in a standard relational database - Oracle. The first such product was Radius Topology, which took the proven topology engine from Gothic, and could both clean existing spatial data, but also speed up some spatial queries a hundredfold.

Generalisation and JADE

Laser-Scan was a principal contributor to the AGENT project - an EU-funded project including an NMA (IGN France) and three universities, to advance the frontiers of knowledge on map generalisation. This is the discipline of deriving less detailed (more general) maps and spatial datasets, starting with a detailed set of mapping. It is a hard task, which has historically been difficult to automate.

Building on the prototype from the AGENT project, Laser-Scan sold generalisation capabilities to several NMAs, and developed a new generalisation product, called Clarity. This is based on the Gothic database and toolkit, but unlike previous Laser-Scan products, it uses a Java language interface.

At the Millennium

The legacy LAMPS software was upgraded to avoid any year 2000 millennium problems, and is still in major use beyond its silver jubilee in 2001! The Laser-Scan unique technology in the Gothic Object-Oriented suite provides powerful and versatile server, toolkit and application products built on the Gothic platform, available on Unix/Linux and on the Windows NT operating system to take advantage of PC hardware. Radius takes the unique Gothic capabilities into new markets, maintaining Laser-Scan’s reputation for leading-edge technology for enterprise solutions.

Collapse and Rebirth

The Yeoman group ran into financial difficulties, mainly due to delays in the availability of 3rd generation mobile phones with embedded location capabilities, that it needed for its personal navigation strategy. Also, the large purpose-built building that Laser-Scan had occupied on the Science Park had been a millstone with high rents and unsuitable structure for what had become a software company.

On 7th July 2003, Yeoman placed Laser-Scan into administration as insolvent. Nearly half the staff (including me) were told that their contracts had been terminated the previous day, that the company had no money for any redundancy or notice pay, and that they should clear their desks and be out of the building by lunchtime. This was not a good end to what had been 28 years of loyalty to what had been a good company to work for, at least for for 25 years.

The administrators had 90 days to find a buyer, but had no external offers, so accepted a buy-out by the management who had been put in by Yeoman. The remains of the company then moved to smaller premises across the road on the Cambridge Business Park. Led by Mike Sanderson, the remnant company changed to focus on spatial data quality tools for Oracle database. In 2007, the company changed its name to 1Spatial to reflect this focus. The name Laser-Scan does continue, however, for the service subsidiary (Laser-Scan Engineering Ltd) that has continued the original roots of the company in high-precision engineering.

Brief Summary of Milestones

[Paul Hardy - Former Chief Programmer, Product Manager and Principal Consultant at Laser-Scan, 1975-2003