[ Retro Scan ] The Promise and Peril of Computer-Cars

April 24th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra Computer Control fuel efficiency advertisement scan - 1984Our 1984 model: Only 3,000 superfluous wheel spokes to clean

Microprocessor technology hit the automotive world in a big way in the 1970s and 80s — car manufacturers began integrating microcontrollers into their products, and that move paid off with features like increased fuel efficiency, better cruise control, and more accurate climate control.

Some computer-related advantages in the automotive industry predated the invention of the microprocessor, however. In 1964, GM began using CAD software on IBM mainframes to help design the cars themselves. These computer design systems were some of the earliest to allow the manipulation of 3D models and the use of light pens for designer input. Their invention pushed forward the state of the art and practically invented the concept of CAD itself.

By the 1980s, manufacturers were touting products replete with computer-related perks, as this 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ad shows very well. Olds even provided an option for an integrated push-button digital calculator that could "help balance your checkbook."

I've transcribed the ad copy below so you can read it more easily.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan ] The Promise and Peril of Computer-Cars » ]

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Huge Gallery of Prodigy MadMaze Screenshots Now on Flickr

April 7th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

MadMaze Screenshot

Just a few minutes ago, I released the first group of images from the Prodigy Preservation Project on Flickr. They're screenshots from MadMaze, a vintage online game that ran on Prodigy Classic between 1989 and 1999.

Specifically, they're all the graphics from the Place of Power instances in the game. I believe most, if not all, of the artwork was done by Al Sirois, a Prodigy staff artist. Al Sirois did some of the artwork, but Sirois says that most of it was created by other artists (see comments below). They originated as NAPLPS vector graphics (scalable to any size) and were captured into a raster format for display on the web.

MadMaze Screenshot

Of course, you can play a re-creation of MadMaze yourself on this very server right here. And you can read more about that re-creation (and report bugs you may encounter) here.

If you'd like to support the Prodigy Preservation Project and all of my history work, please consider submitting a pledge on Patreon. Any money I get from Patreon helps a ton toward giving me the extra time to work on history projects like the PPP.

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[ Retro Scan ] WorldsAway Mousepad

March 9th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

CompuServe Fujitsu Cultural Technologies WorldsAway mousepad scan - 1995Echoes of Ancient Technicolor Greece

Back in 1995, CompuServe and Fujitsu launched a graphical online chat world called WorldsAway. I used it from the very start (at least within a month of the launch, I think), and quickly became enveloped in the beautifully illustrated world and the sense of community it fostered.

I've written in-depth about WorldsAway before — both on VC&G in a previous Retro Scan (for its first print ad) and in a "This Old Tech" column on PCWorld back in 2015.

Not long after the WA launch in 1995, Fujitsu held a contest on CompuServe that was simple to enter — you had to send an email or answer a short survey (forgot what it was exactly). Lucky for me, I won the contest, and I received a really cool package of WorldsAway-branded swag. I'll try to remember everything: a sweatshirt, a pen, a clear acrylic coffee mug, a keychain flashlight, and the mousepad you see here.

The coolest thing about this mousepad is that it shows an illustrated overhead map of the Dreamscape/Kymer/whatever it was called as Fujitsu staff originally designed it. It stayed within its Greco-Roman-inspired theme. When WorldAway launched, only a handful of these locales were accessible — I think it wasn't until 2000 or so that all of them were actually completed and opened to WA users (although I don't really remember the Theatre opening up, but I quit in 2001).

Speaking of mousepads, while they were essential in the days of rolling-ball mice (some nice mouse history I wrote here), they are technically optional with today's optical mice. But I still use one on my desk to provide a uniform surface for my Microsoft optical mouse.

[ From Fujitsu Cultural Technologies WorldsAway Mousepad, 1995 ]

Discussion Topic: Let's talk about mousepads. When was the last time you used one?

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"Retro Scan" Enshrined at the Computer History Museum

March 8th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Retro Scan of the Week at the Computer History MuseumLast week I was in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, and I had a blast. I need to write more about that soon.

On Friday, I took a day trip down to Mountain View to visit the Computer History Museum, which I had not been to since 2006.

Aside from not having visited since they opened their first major exhibit, I am friends with the senior curator, Dag Spicer, and it was great to finally meet him face to face. I also met up with Allan Alcorn (creator of Pong) there, and we wandered around enjoying the exhibits together. That too is a story for another day.

Benj Edwards and Dag Spicer at the Computer History MuseumThe CHM is a wonderful place, and the exhibits are top-notch. Just brilliant. No where else can you see the first mouse, the Pong prototype, the Atari 2600 prototype, the Community Memory machine, and so many more legendary artifacts.

I also love it because there are bits and pieces of my work scattered throughout the place.

[ Continue reading "Retro Scan" Enshrined at the Computer History Museum » ]

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VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

February 22nd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn't a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

[ Continue reading VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer » ]

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The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell's Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

February 17th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

The Story of Nolan Bushnell

Up now on FastCompany.com is my latest piece in a series of deep-dives into little-known tech history. (I wrote this last year - it's been simmering on the backburner for quite some time.)

My article is about Nolan Bushnell's Catalyst Technologies, a pioneering high-tech incubator in the 1980s:

In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell's name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972—laying the groundwork for the entire video game industry—and starting Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell's bio that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.

In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture-capital partnership designed to bring the future to life by turning his ideas into companies. In the era of the TRS-80, Betamax, and CB radio, startups funded by Catalyst pursued an array of visionary concepts—from interactive TV to online shopping to door-to-door navigation—that created entire industries decades later. "I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there," Bushnell explains.

In researching the history of Catalyst, I found that it was far more successful than most people think, and that Bushnell's post-Atari track record, despite several high-profile failures, is not as bad as one might assume from the negative media coverage he once garnered. It's time to reconsider his post-Atari legacy, in my opinion, and this article is the first stop in doing so. Hope you enjoy it.

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[ Retro Scan ] My Sega Master System Adventure

February 8th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 1 - 1987Hudson's Adventure Afro (Side 1)

As a kid that grew up with Atari and Nintendo consoles in the household, I was always curious about Sega.

I remember seeing the Master System in a glass case at Toys 'R' Us, and it seemed exotic and wonderful with its 3D glasses and futuristic angular design. It felt like the cooler, anti-Nintendo.

But I didn't get a Master System until around 1995, when my dad bought one for me used at a local used game store called Buy-Rite Video Games. At that time, Buy-Rite was located inside an indoor flea market mall off Capital Blvd. in Raleigh. It was a seedy, run-down place, but my dad enjoyed hunting for good deals at flea markets, and we regularly did that together on the weekends.

Buy-Rite Video Games Business Card Scan 1990sA short time after I got my first used Master System at Buy-Rite, we bought another one. As I browsed Buy-Rite with my dad on another occasion, I just happened to be there when I overheard someone trying to sell a Sega Master System to the store. I looked over and saw a young black kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, by himself with a green backpack. The owner, a mid-40s white guy, was being rude and giving the kid a hard time about it, and he refused to buy it.

After that, my dad approached the kid in the store and said we'd buy it from him. As the kid was excitedly showing me what was in his backpack, the owner of Buy-Rite stepped out from behind the counter and began openly yelling at all of us — about "trying to steal his business" out of his own store, or some such nonsense. My dad exchanged a few mildly harsh words with him, and the owner demanded that we leave. We did.

On the curb outside of the Flea Market Mall, we cut a deal with the kid. I remember we gave him $40 cash, and I got a great set of Sega Master System, controllers, a light gun, and a handful of games in much better condition than the one we bought from Buy-Rite — and for much cheaper, too. The kid was very happy, and I never shopped at Buy-Rite again.

It turns out the owner of Buy-Rite was a serial asshole — he kept gipping people for years, and finally shut down the store in 2005. Good riddance. (Watch him show up in the comments.)

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 2- 1987"Now, there are no limits." (Side 2)

I've played a lot of Master System games since then, but my favorite is still Enduro Racer played with a Sega Control Stick, which I got from that kid back in 1995. (I wrote a big post about Enduro Racer back in 2006.)

What you're looking at here is a promotional Sega poster that came with a Sega Master System game — maybe one of those I received that day at the Flea Market Mall. I think the poster was originally folded up and placed inside a plastic SMS game case next to an instruction manual, although it is possible it originally came in the Sega Master System console box itself.

[ From Sega Master System Poster / Flyer, 1987 ]

Discussion Topic: What's your favorite Sega Master System game?


See Also:

Lessons from the Master: The Zen of Enduro Racer (2006)
Nintendo vs. Sega: Christmas 1987 Shootout (Retro Scan, 2010)
Benj's 1989 Christmas List (Retro Scan, 2013)

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Ms. Pac-Man Turns 35

February 3rd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Ms. Pac-Man Arcade Flier Flyer

35 years ago today, Ms. Pac-Man made its worldwide public debut during a press conference held by Namco at Castle Park Entertainment Center in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Pac-Man launched on February 3, 1982.

In 2011, I interviewed three of Ms. Pac-Man's creators in depth for a planned feature I was going to write about the game's 30th anniversary. That project fell through, and although many journalists have written about Ms. Pac-Man since then (and its creators began giving public talks years ago), I found that my old interviews still contained fascinating nuggets of information on the game that had not yet come to light.

So I turned all of my source material on Ms. Pac-Man into an oral history, which FastCompany.com just published. It's likely that just about everything you'd ever want to know about Ms. Pac-Man's creation is covered there.

On VC&G, I would like to talk specifically about how I discovered the release date for Ms. Pac-Man, since I'd like people to correct the information that's out there. (Prior to the publication of my article, sites stated the launch date of Ms. Pac-Man anywhere between late 1981 and January 1982. Wikipedia still says "January 13, 1982″ as the launch date — I've asked Ms. Pac-Man's creators, and none of us can figure out where it came from.)

While I found evidence in a single newspaper arcade advertisement that Ms. Pac-Man was anticipated as early as January 31, 1982 (possibly from a test location), Bally Midway formally announced Ms. Pac-Man to the world during a press conference on Wednesday, February 3rd, 1982. A key newspaper report confirms this:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

That's an article from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, February 4th, 1982. It mentions the press conference happening on Wednesday of that week — hence, Feb 3, 1982.

Here's another article Ms. Pac-Man announcement article newspapers reprinted verbatim widely across the US. It is based on the article above and sent out as a wire report for syndication:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

Anyway — what a game, what a story. I hope you enjoy reading about how a band of plucky New England upstarts created the most popular arcade game in U.S. history.

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[ Retro Scan ] Lanier Model 103 Word Processor

January 30th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

AES Montreal Lanier Model 103 NoProblem No Problem Records Manager flyer scan - 1970sLarge and in charge

Well over a decade ago, I picked up a Lanier Model 103 No Problem word processor system (ca. 1978) and a matching daisy wheel printer for free from a local hamfest. I was lucky enough to get disks for it too, so I could boot it up and play around with it some.

This No Problem system was a dedicated-purpose computer running an 8080 CPU and custom word processing or database software. It was aimed at small businesses and publications such as newspapers, and it cost accordingly — somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on the configuration. You can see what it looked like in the scan above — this scan comes from some literature that I received with the system.

My Model 103 came equipped with two single-sided, hard-sectored full-height 5.25″ floppy drives, a green screen CRT, and a full-sized keyboard build into a huge fiberglass shell with a heavy cast-aluminum base. It must have weighed at least 60 pounds. It took up an entire shelf in my garage, and there it sat unused for half a decade.

I meant to write about it on VC&G, but never got around to it. I even spoke to a Lanier veteran about it via email. But it got put on the back burner, and eventually my garage ran out of space for my collection, so something had to go. I picked the Lanier Model 103, took it apart for educational purposes (likely saved some parts), then recycled the rest.

I still kinda regret getting rid of it, but man it took up a lot of space and something had to go. I did save the disks, though, if anyone needs them.

[ From Lanier NoProblem Records Manager Flyer, ca. 1978 ]

Discussion Topic: Did you ever use a dedicated word processor machine? Tell us about it.

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[ Retro Scan ] Can You Take the Terror?

January 23rd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Arena Entertainment Alien 3 for Sega Genesis and Game Gear advertisement scan - 1992A very good existential question for these times

I seem to recall Alien 3 being a fairly well-received game for the Super NES. But I'm not sure I've ever played the Genesis version. In fact, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever even seen the Alien 3 film, despite being a fan of the first two films in the Alien series.

So what do I know about this game? Nothing!

But I like the art in this advertisement. Its headline question very clearly conjures up how I feel these days about uncertainties in life, the economy, and politics.

Speaking of the economy, I recently started a Patreon campaign to fund my work on this site. In fact, everyone donating $10 or more a month on Patreon is getting access to a 600 DPI version of this scan (along with access to full research interviews used in future articles). At some point I hope to make available high-res versions of all the previous Retro Scans available to select patrons as well.

[ From Video Games & Computer Entertainment, November 1992, p.23 ]

Discussion Topic: What's the scariest classic video game you've ever played (let's say pre-1997)?

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