Archive for the 'Vintage Computing' Category

Paul G. Allen (1953-2018)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

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

[ Retro Scan ] Computers in Kids’ Bedrooms

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

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.

[ Retro Scan ] The Original OSI Challenger

Monday, February 19th, 2018

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?

[ Retro Scan ] Gateway to the Savage Frontier

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

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?

[ Retro Scan ] Benj’s 1992 Christmas List

Monday, December 11th, 2017

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.

History’s First Female Video Game Designer

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Joyce Weisbecker RCA Studio II Article on FastCompany

Ever heard of Joyce Weisbecker? If not, you’ll probably hear her name a lot in the future — at least in video game history.

FastCompany just published an article I wrote about Weisbecker, who was probably the world’s first female professional video game developer, predating the work of Carol Shaw by several years.

In 1976, Weisbecker created two games for the RCA Studio II console (released Jan 1977), which was based on her father’s home computer architecture. Her story is fascinating, and I had a lot of fun bringing it to light. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, if you enjoy seeing this kind of work from me, please consider supporting me on Patreon. At this point, Patreon support is absolutely essential to what I do.

There are many more stories like this out there, including some I know about already, but they will never be developed without financial support.

Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The world’s first video game tournament took place at Stanford on October 19, 1972, 45 years ago this week. The Living Computer Museum in Seattle is hosting an event on Thursday to commemorate this anniversary, and in conjunction, they commissioned me to write this article about the history of Spacewar and its influences.

It has been fifty-five years now since the first release of Spacewar!, a seminal computer game that began as a low-key tech demo among a group of friends but soon grew to rock Western culture like a tidal wave. When a group of Harvard employees and MIT students named Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, Alan Kotok, Martin Graetz, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson created the game, they had little idea that it would evolve into one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century.

In its most basic version, Spacewar pits two player-controlled rocket ships against each other in a game of orbital single combat. Each player uses a set of switches to guide their ship through a physics-based two-dimensional simulation of deep space. Momentum and inertia play their part just as they would with a real spaceship, and a large star in the middle of the screen acts as a huge gravity well that draws the ships into oblivion if they do not carefully thrust their way around its pull.

As the first interactive virtual world, in the sense of simulated physical space, Spacewar set conceptual precedents that are still reverberating in our society. The game also marked a new dawn for human storytelling, allowing interactive expressions of archetypal stories as old as civilization itself. Along the way, it also launched a massive industry.

All this starting in 1961 — the year men first went into space.

[ Continue reading Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake » ]

Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Carol Shaw with River Raid Box

Good News!

You may recall that I interviewed Carol Shaw for VC&G back in 2011. Shaw is best known for developing River Raid and for being Atari’s first female video game designer.

(At that time, I called Shaw “the world’s first female video game developer.” Since then, I have made a new discovery, so stay tuned.)

Through connections made between myself, Shaw, and my good friends at The National Museum of Play at The Strong in Rochester, NY, Shaw recently donated a cache of amazing historical materials, including printed source code for River Raid and an EPROM of her first game, Polo.

Carol Shaw's River Raid Atari 2600 Source Code Photo

When I first learned that Shaw still had large format printouts of the River Raid source code (back in 2011), I panicked, trying to figure out the best way to preserve it. I was thinking I might even have to fly over and photograph it myself — just to make sure it would not be lost.

But luckily, ICHEG at The Strong is a wonderful institution, and I have been doing my best to direct prototypes and other artifacts their way over the past few years. I am happy to do my own small part in preserving the history of video games, and it is wonderful that an important pioneer such as Shaw is getting the recognition she deserves.

‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization I for MS-DOS Screenshot

Ten years ago today — on July 18, 2007 — Gamasutra published my in-depth history of the creation of Sid Meier’s Civilization called The History of Civilization. (Here’s my original VC&G post on the topic.)

My article was originally intended to be part of a series of articles — conceived by Simon Carless, if I recall correctly — that would cover the histories of the then-recently announced “Game Cannon.” (I wanted to do a piece on Tetris next, but I could not figure out how to get an interview with Alexey Pajitnov.)

Treating video games as legitimate cultural artifacts worthy of preservation and study was a very novel idea at the time. My work, and that of others, over this past decade has made this idea far more mainstream, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

My Civilization article still gets a lot of attention. Gamasutra re-promotes it every once and a while, and it has been cited in books, other articles, and more. So imagine my embarrassment as I tell you, right now, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back when I wrote it. I was never formally trained as a journalist; I learned my craft and absorbed lessons as I went along.

The lesson I learned from the Civilization piece was to never make assumptions. The History of Civilization was only the second big history narrative piece I’d written in my career, and I remember being nervous about making a few assumptions about things that I did not firmly know to fill in gaps in the narrative.

I did not have the time or budget to interview more one person fully the article (Sid Meier, though I asked Bruce Shelley questions via email), so I wondered: How on earth do I fill in those knowledge gaps? I just went with what made the most sense, and I was lucky that it did not lead to any problems. Today, many journalists still do this, and it’s a terrible practice.

Since that time, I typically go way way way over budget with interviews and research so that I never, ever have to make any assumptions in the storytelling process. As we speak, I’m about three months late on a big feature because of this obsession of mine. It’s not an economical way to do business as a freelancer, but at least my editors know I can deliver an accurate product.

Does that make The History of Civilization a bad article? No. It’s still a good piece overall, although I would do things differently if I wrote it today.

…But there is this nagging issue, always in the back of my conscience, of a very long email that Bruce Shelley sent me about it just after it was published.

And that, my friends, will be the first of several updates related to this article that I collected have for you today, in three acts:

I. Bruce Shelley’s Notes on the Article
II. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in the Flesh
III. History of Civilization Translated into Chinese

[ Continue reading ‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later » ]

[ Retro Scan ] Bentley Bear’s Spelling Bee

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Atari Scholastic Series Spelling Bee a Bentley Bear At-Home Tutor Crystal Castles Educational Software Atari ST Atari Mega and ST box packaging scan - 1988“Follow me, KIDS! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I recently visited fellow NC computer collector Tom Copper (hopefully the subject of a future post), and Tom gave me this neat and rare piece of educational software for the Atari ST series. It’s called Spelling Bee, and it features Bentley Bear of Crystal Castles fame.

Apparently, Atari made a series of educational games starring Bentley Bear. Sadly, this particular game is not that great. It’s just a simple version of Hangman that, in my opinion, does not aid spelling skills at all. I have two kids — ages 7 and 4, and my eldest gets to play all the older educational software I can find. She gave this product a thumbs down. So do I. But it sure is a neat piece of computing history.

(P.S. If you’re interested in an overview of great educational games of the past, check out this slideshow I did for PCWorld back in 2015).

[ From Scholastic Series Spelling Bee by Atari, 1988, cover/back ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite educational PC game of all time?