I’ve Been Building Joysticks

November 26th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Benj's Joysticks in Mid-September 2018

Since August 1st of this year, I’ve been building and selling custom joysticks through Twitter. This small venture has been an unexpected success.

People love them, and that makes me very happy. I’ve sold about 140 so far, and I’ve built and shipped about 100 all around the world.

The past few months have been a wild ride, and I’d like to tell you some about it.

The Highest Quality Parts

Benj Edwards BX Foundry JoysticksThe basic concept behind every joystick I’ve made so far is simple: bring the best quality arcade parts to home consoles and computers.

I’ve been using Japanese arcade joysticks and buttons from Sanwa Denshi, a firm that makes some of the best arcade assemblies in the world.

The results have been incredible. Games I thought previously unplayable are suddenly rendered fun, like lifting some kind of fog.

Mushy, worn out control pads have come between me and gaming for too long, and I had no idea. When you push a button or move the lever on one of my sticks, something happens. Every time. There is no blaming the controller for gaming failures.

That extra level of accuracy brings new life to older games. Especially on platforms that didn’t have great controllers to begin with. Figuring this out has made me want to share these joysticks with everybody. But let’s take a step back and see how this all got started.

[ Continue reading I’ve Been Building Joysticks » ]

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Paul G. Allen (1953-2018)

October 16th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Paul G. AllenIn Memoriam: Paul G. Allen (1953-2018)
co-founder Microsoft, prominent philanthropist

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[ Retro Scan ] The Atari Trak-Ball

August 16th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Atari 5200 and Atari 2600 Trak-Ball advertisement scan - 1983A controller bigger than your head

The reports of Retro Scan’s death are greatly exaggerated.

I just emerged from the other side of a huge house move that taxed my body and soul. Moving my huge collection was very difficult, and now dealing with where to put it all keeps that stress going. I feel behind on lots of things, but it’s time to catch up. One of the best ways to do that is with a new Retro Scan. So here we go — let’s talk trackballs.

As far as I know, the first arcade video games to use a trackball were Midway’s Shuffleboard and Atari Football, both from 1978. As to which came first, I have no idea at the moment.

Atari really ran with the trackball (they called it a “Trak-Ball”) and produced several mega arcade hits that used the interface, including Missile Command and Centipede. It only makes sense that they would bring the tech home to their Atari 8-bit computer line — and the Atari 5200, as seen here — in the form of the Pro-Line Trak-Ball controller.

(An aside: Despite the ad saying the Trak-Ball controller works for the Atari 2600, I know of no vintage 2600 games that support trackball mode natively. There is a joystick mode switch on the bottom of the controller, however, that lets you use it with any game.)

Of course, the 5200 version of the Trak-Ball controller is legendarily huge. It’s almost as big as the (already big) console itself. But I’ve heard good things about it, despite never having used one. I do have the smaller CX22 Trak-Ball controller and I enjoy games of Missile Command on my Atari 800XL with it from time to time, although it is criminally under-supported (in Trak-Ball mode) by games on that platform.

So how about you guys: Have you ever used the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball? What did you think about it?

[ From Video Games Player, October-November 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever used a trackball with any game console? Tell us about it.

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Ted Dabney (1937-2018)

May 29th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Ted DabneyIn Memoriam: Samuel Frederick Dabney, Jr. (1937-2018),
co-founder of Syzygy and Atari

Samuel Frederick (“Ted”) Dabney, Jr., who co-founded Atari with Nolan Bushnell in 1972, died of esophageal cancer just three days ago. He was 81 years old.

I was not close with Ted, but I did interview him at length for articles about Computer Space and Pong back in 2011 and 2012. During our conversations, he was candid, detailed, kind, and very helpful. During my conversations with him, a lot of the details of early Atari history you can now read online were coming out of him for the first time, so he was a vital source of fresh information on that subject.

Ted did critical work as a partner of Nolan Bushnell in the early 1970s. He served as a creative sounding board for Nolan’s ambitious ideas and also as a key implementer of some of them.

Ted met Nolan around 1969 while working at Ampex, where they were office mates. They shared big dreams and secret sessions of the board game go while in the office, and in off-hours, they hung out and scouted locations for a new restaurant idea Bushnell had that involved talking barrels.

With Nolan at Syzygy Engineering, Dabney created the video control circuitry used in Computer Space, built the prototype cabinet for that game, designed its sound circuit, and more. On Pong, Dabney built the prototype cabinet and gave feedback to game designer Allan Alcorn. He also provided ideas for Atari’s third game, Space Race, before he left Atari in 1973.

There is some confusion about the reason Dabney left Atari. Dabney told me that Nolan forced him out. Bushnell commonly cites poor work performance as the reason Dabney left. Absent some documentary evidence, the real answer will always be one of those fuzzy historical points left to interpretation. What we do know for sure is that the two founders were no longer getting along.

(By the way, I have recently read some reports about Dabney that say he left Atari because he was angry that Nolan patented his motion control circuitry without including him on the patent. This is plainly false. Dabney did not even know that Nolan’s motion control patent existed until I informed him about it in a 2011 interview.)

A lot of the key info I gleaned from Dabney can be found in my 2011 piece on Computer Space, which is a primary source for some of the secondhand knowledge you’ll read about Dabney and Atari’s early days on the web. Some day I need to publish my full interview with Dabney on Pong, because it is very insightful.

It’s also worth noting that Dabney remained friends with Nolan throughout the 1970s despite the Atari business acrimony. They were never truly close like they were circa 1969-1972, but they still kept in touch, shared a hot tub or two, and Dabney created a trivia game for Nolan’s Pizza Time chain in the early 1980s.

I will miss talking to Ted. He was laid-back, easy going, and straightforward. He had so much skill and experience from his days before Atari, and I need to write about that some time. I had hoped to interview him again at some point, but life delayed those plans. May he rest in peace.

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[ Retro Scan ] Computers in Kids’ Bedrooms

May 2nd, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Apple IIc Apple //c Computer Kids Bedroom After School advertisement scan - 1985Simple beginnings

Since I first saw this in a magazine about 12 years ago, this Apple IIc (//c if you prefer) ad has probably been my favorite Apple ad of all time.

The reason is nostalgia — it portrays a kid’s bedroom in the 1980s, and it reminds me of being a kid back then.

I also like the details tucked in there, such as the Motley Crue poster, the Bazooka bubble gum, the ATV helmet (next to a tiny photo of a three-wheeled ATV), the hamster, and an Apple Modem 300/1200 sitting under the telephone. I also wonder what those circuit boards up on the shelf are supposed to be (and what they were actually from).

The Apple IIc was indeed a great machine for young students in the 1980s.

* * *

At 37, my circa-1985 bedroom was outfitted mostly with He-Man figures and stuffed animals, but my older brother’s bedroom looked more like the room in the ad.

Come to think of it, I actually have a photo of my older brother’s bedroom from December 1985, and part of it looked exactly like this:

Benj's Brother's Bedroom in December 1985 - Atari 800 Atari 400

You’ll notice the nice Atari 800 setup, which I have no doubt talked about many times before.

At that time, we did have an Apple IIc as well, but my dad kept it in his home office. It was the first computer I ever used a mouse with.

And what do you know, I have a photo of my dad’s office too — labeled July 1985:

Benj's Dad's Office in July 1985 - Apple IIc and Star Printer

You’ll notice the Star brand dot matrix printer on the floor beneath the desk. I still have many vivid memories of crawling around the floor and watching Print Shop banners and calendars emerge with an intense and persistent screech.

Good times.

In 2016, I did a whole slideshow about my family’s computers through the years for PCMag. If you enjoyed these family computer snapshots of mine, you’ll enjoy that as well.

[ From Popular Computing, February 1985 ]

Discussion Topic: Did you have a computer in your bedroom as a kid? Tell us about it.

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[ Retro Scan ] The Original OSI Challenger

February 19th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

Ohio Scientific Instruments OSI Challenger 6502 Vintage PC personal computer Byte Magazine advertisement scan - 1977Simple beginnings

This ancient personal computer ad comes to us from February 1977 in Byte Magazine — before the launch of the Apple II.

Like the Apple II, Ohio Scientific Industries’ Challenger PC used a MOS 6502 CPU.

I don’t know too much about OSI, since I have never owned a machine they made, but I know that they were very important in the early PC industry. I found a really neat website about OSI boards if you want to learn more. You can also learn more about their complete systems, including those with Apple II-like built-in keyboards at this website.

[ From Byte Magazine, February 1977, p.65 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the oldest computer you’ve ever used?

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[ Retro Scan ] Gateway to the Savage Frontier

February 7th, 2018 by Benj Edwards

SSI AD&D Forgotten Realms Gold Box Gateway to the Savage Frontier RPG sexy sorceress legs advertisement scan - 1991BEGIN A FANTASTIC NEW QUEST! !!!

For some reason, my brother and I never owned any SSI Gold Box AD&D games when I was growing up. I have played many of them briefly since then — and there definitely are a lot of them.

So I’m particularly interested to know what you guys think about the Gold Box games — which ones you’ve played, which are the best, etc.

[ From Video Games and Computer Entertainment, August 1991, p.13 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite SSI Gold Box game?

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[ Retro Scan ] Benj’s 1992 Christmas List

December 11th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Scan of Benj Edwards 1992 Christmas Xmas List 1992Seems like I wanted a computer

My father passed away in 2013, and since then, I have been slowly going through his possessions, including his papers, to take stock of what’s there and put things in order.

Last year, in the back of a tall metal file cabinet, I found a manila folder labelled “Christmas Lists.” Amazingly, it contained many of my handwritten childhood Christmas lists, addressed to both Santa and my parents. It was very touching to find. I had no idea my father had saved them.

Among these papers, I found this gem from 1992 (I pinpointed the date easily because I remember which year I wanted to get a Prodigy client set). I was 11 years old. That was also the first year I started my BBS.

Unlike my richly illustrated Christmas list from 1989, this one is all text. Among items like ‘G.I. Joe guy,’ a giant Hulk figure, and a snare drum, we find gems such as ‘Nintendo Game Genie,’ the aforementioned ‘Prodogy’ (sic), and “#1 gift! A COMPUTER!!!”

(I’m pretty sure the $15 was a joke.)

At the time, I was using a dreadfully slow monochrome IBM PS/2 Model 25 (with an 8086 CPU) to run my new BBS (that my dad had bought new around 1987), so I’m pretty sure that was the main reason I wanted a computer.

I didn’t get a new computer that Christmas. I think my dad bought me my first non-hand-me-down PC around 1994. But I did get a Prodigy connection kit, and you can read more about that in this classic post. And of course, best of all, I was surrounded by my loving, supportive family in a stable home. It was a great Christmas.

I was a lucky kid, and I am very grateful that my family encouraged me to explore what I loved. I plan to do that for my kids as well.

I hope all of you out there have a very Merry Christmas.

[ From Benj’s Christmas List (Vol. 2, Chapter I), 1992 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever received a computer for Christmas? Tell us about the first one.

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The VC&G Christmas Collection (2017 Edition)

December 11th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It’s that time of year again: the Yuletide. Over the past few years, I’ve been posting an annual collection of all the Christmas-related tech material I’ve written (both for this site and for others) into one place for easy reading. Below, you’ll find list of off-site Christmas slideshows, other features, and of course, plenty of Retro Scans of the Week.

I have a soft spot for Christmas, having been raised with the tradition, so this list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. After going through these things again, it’s amazing to see how much Christmas stuff I’ve posted over the years. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Continue reading The VC&G Christmas Collection (2017 Edition) » ]

The Culture of Tech Podcast – Episode 1: Steve Wozniak and Television

November 30th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Steve Wozniak - The Culture of Tech Interview

Steve Wozniak is known for many things, but did you know that in addition to co-founding Apple, he also invented the universal remote control?* In this podcast interview, I dig into that story and more as we talk about Woz’s personal history with Television.

Since October, I’ve been working on a new podcast called The Culture of Tech. It’s an interview show where I talk about the intersection of culture and technology — and the past, present, and future of tech — while intertwining my own original music into the mix.

My first show is here. The guest is Steve Wozniak talking about Television. I thought it would be fun to pick a unifying topic and discuss it throughout his career.

In this case, Woz’s love and knowledge of television both allowed him to design Apple’s first two signature products (the Apple I and Apple II), but also to later create a company called CL9 that pioneered universal remote controls with the CORE remote.

Coming up on episode 2 will be Richard Garriott (of Ultima fame) talking about the Virtues.

I’m still working on logos, artwork, etc, and the official Culture of Tech website. I also set up an official Culture of Tech Twitter feed.

Hope you enjoy the show. Please let me know what you think — your feedback is essential. And if you like what you hear, please consider supporting my work on Patreon.

*Engineers at GE also invented a universal remote control around the same time, and Woz’s product, which was much more powerful, hit the market two years later.

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