Archive for the 'Computer History' Category

The Warning Signs of Computer Dad Syndrome

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Computer Dad SyndromeDuring the 1980s, a debilitating disease broke out among white middle-class nuclear families across the United States. Fathers everywhere were seen awkwardly encouraging their children during regular activities — often while playing video games or using personal computers.

Thirty years later, doctors have finally identified this malady as Computer Dad Syndrome (or "CDS" for short), which manifests itself in spontaneous episodes of uncomfortably becoming someone's dad for the duration of a photography shoot.

Diagnosis of this condition is contingent upon the appearance of three or more of the following symptoms.

Clutching of the upper arm

Clutching of the upper arm

[ Continue reading The Warning Signs of Computer Dad Syndrome » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] iMac G4 Memories

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Apple iMac G4 debut advertisement - 2002White on white. Amazing that it shows up.

On the eve of a potentially large and impactful reveal of new Apple products, I thought it an opportune time to take a look back at this now-12-year-old debut advertisement for the iMac G4. And to wax nostalgic about Apple product events.

The ad itself is clean, white, minimalistic, and so modern-feeling that I think it would work very well, unchanged, as a print advertisement today.

As for Apple product launches, I've been closely following them since the debut of the original iMac in 1998. (As an aside, I remember telling my dad to buy Apple's stock when it was $14 a share in late 1997 — not long after Steve Jobs had returned to the company — and he scoffed at me.)

For the next five years after that first iMac launch, the excitement of unexpected new Apple products seemed to build relentlessly, each one seemingly trumping the last. There was the Power Mac G3 (blue and white), the iBook, the Power Mac G4 Cube, then, of course, the iPod (although nobody really knew what a big deal the iPod was at the time).

Then came the iMac G4, and I had to have one. Prior to that, I had last used a new Mac in 1987-88 with the Macintosh SE, but our family had been Windows-centric since then (today I use OS X, Windows, and Linux almost equally). After much pestering, I convinced my dad to loan me the cash to buy the high-end iMac G4 model with the 800 MHz CPU and the DVD-burning SuperDrive.

Unlike any machine before or since, it felt like I was buying a complete computing experience. Coupled with a newly revised version of OS X (10.1, I believe), it felt like a new era of computing was upon us. Keep in mind I was coming from the "must reinstall every year, crashes every 10 minutes" world of Windows 98.

The iMac G4 design turned heads; its release was truly a watershed event in Mac history that brought a lot of "switchers" from the Windows world. I showed that thing off to everyone, taking it into my dad's office to demonstrate it to folks there, and I even invited my mailman (a confessed Mac fan, as I had learned from prior conversations) to come inside one day while he was dropping off a package to try it out.

I used that iMac daily for email, iChat, photo management, and web browsing until around 2006 when the already overtaxed machine couldn't keep up with modern websites. Today, it sits proudly on a desk in my office, ready to be called to duty for whatever PowerPC-era Mac task I might throw at it.

By the way, if you're interested in learning more about the iMac G4, I wrote an article about the machine — one of my personal favorites — for Macworld back in 2012.

[ From Esquire - June 2002, rear cover]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What new Apple product were you most excited about when you first heard of it?

Andrew Kay (1919-2014)

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Andrew Kay, founder of KayProIn Memoriam: Andrew Kay (1919-2014), founder of KayPro
and inventor of the digital voltmeter

The Kaypro II (1982), sold by Andrew Kay's company, was one of the earliest vintage computers I added to my collection (and my first CP/M machine) way back in the early 1990s. Its high-quality components, including its sturdy metal case, its integrated serial and parallel ports, its full-sized keyboard, and its sharp 9-inch green-screen monitor made it a joy to use. And man, it had an 80-column display, which made it a competent word processing machine even in 1994.

With everything integrated, the Kaypro II was a truly plug-and-play machine at a time when other systems required hooking up chains of various peripherals to get things done. With the KayPro II, you folded down the keyboard, plugged it into an outlet, inserted a disk, and flipped it on. It was an island oasis in a sea of endless computer cords.

Andrew Kay's achievements were great (among his other works, he invented the digital voltmeter in 1952). He will be missed.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Space Bucks

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Sierra Space Bucks advertisement - 1995So now we've entered the 3D font era.

I've never played Sierra's Space Bucks, but it looks like a fascinating strategy game. I was a big fan of SunDog: Frozen Legacy on the Atari ST, so I'm a sucker for any game that shows the inside of your spaceship from a top-down view (even if only in a non-functional splash screen). Has anyone out there played it?

(As an aside, when I started this blog in 2005, I could just say "I've never played this game, does anyone out there know anything about it?" And get away with it. That's because very little game info was out there; Wikipedia had very few video and computer game entries — especially obscure ones — and MobyGames was incomplete. Now I have no excuse for not looking it up myself. And what do you know: here's a Wikipedia entry on Space Bucks, first created in 2012.)

I have this feeling that most Windows games from the 1995 era slipped through the cracks and were mostly forgotten. It's my impression that not many people played early games created for Windows 95 and late-period games made for Windows 3.11. Maybe it's because the IBM PC world was in the middle of a big transition from MS-DOS / Win 3.11 to Windows 95. I remember still buying MS-DOS games well into 1997, for example.

[ From Computer Gaming World - September 1995, p.55]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What was the earliest game you bought that ran exclusively on Windows 95/98?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Aplus 3000 Apple II Clone

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Aplus 3000 Apple II clone advertisement - 1985Everything looks cheaper in black and white print.

The IBM PC wasn't the only American microcomputer that got cloned in the 1980s. The Apple II also inspired its fair share of software-compatible copycats, such as the Aplus 3000 system seen here.

This appears to be a grey market VTech Laser 3000 computer with the name plate removed — possibly to avoid any trade import bans on Apple II clones that may have existed at the time.

Clones like this were popular in certain underground circles, and for good reason. Take a look at the price list in the ad. The Aplus 3000 retailed for US $499 (about $1,104 today when adjusted for inflation) verses $1745 for a bona fide Apple IIe (about $3,863 today). And on top of that, the Aplus 3000 contained integrated peripheral cards that would cost thousands of extra dollars if purchased separately for use in a real Apple IIe.

As I've mentioned before, peripheral integration was a great way to undercut official products. It happened quite a bit in the IBM PC universe.

[ From Compute! - November 1985, p.85]

Discussion Topic of the Week: If you could buy an unauthorized clone of an iPad or iPhone that ran iOS and had better specs for less price, would you do it?


See Also: Orange+Two Apple II Clone (RSOTW, 2010)
See Also: Apple II Box for C64 (RSOTW, 2013
See Also: How I Got My First Computer, and How I Got My First Computer Back

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Micron Millennia

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Micron Electronics Micron Millennia P120 PC clone advertisement - 1995Ah, the beige box era.

What could $6,410.55 buy you 19 years ago? (That's $4099 adjusted for inflation.) Well, if you picked a Micron Millennia, you could get a 120 MHz Pentium CPU, 32 MB of RAM, a 1.6 GB hard drive, a 17-inch monitor, a 4X CD-ROM Drive, a SoundBlaster 16 sound card, 2MB 2D graphics card, a minitower or desktop case, a Microsoft mouse and keyboard, Microsoft Office, and Windows 95.

That's a lot of stuff. And yet most people's smartphones today pack far, far more power and functionality than that in a pocket form factor with a 10 hour battery life. It's all about integration, baby. More functions in fewer, smaller chips. I love it.

[ From ComputerLife - October 1995, rear cover]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Tell us about one of your beige box PCs from the 1990s. Who made it, and what did it have inside?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Apple Gets Biblical

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Apple Adam Genesis Forbidden Fruit Apple II Advertisement - 1979Where's Eve? Oh wait.

This ad is actually for an Apple II-themed creative writing contest, but you'd never know it. That's because the gobs of tiny, hard-to-read text are completely overshadowed by the nude man in a jungle holding an Apple II over his crotch.

And that man happens to be Adam from Genesis.

Oh boy.

So there you have it, folks. The Apple II was responsible for the fall of man. You know — that time Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, casting all of humanity into sin. Here's a tasty quote from Wikipedia:

For many Christian denominations the doctrine of the fall is closely related to that of original sin. They believe that the fall brought sin into the world, corrupting the entire natural world, including human nature, causing all humans to be born into original sin, a state from which they cannot attain eternal life without the grace of God.

You probably won't see me discussing theology on this blog ever again, but I find this ad quite funny because, despite its tongue-in-cheek cuteness, the biblical interpretations stemming from it are myriad and potentially wildly unexpected, making this a complete failure of marketing. But that failure was likely overlooked. This was 1979 — early in the life of Apple — and it was also before the Great Masses of the Offended had a strong enough voice (i.e. The Internet) with which to share and froth over everything that displeased them.

[ From BYTE - November 1979, p.33]

Discussion Topic of the Week: How do you think people would react if Apple published an ad like this today?

Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Prodigy Online Service Logo

Since last year, I have been working with Jim Carpenter, a freelance programmer by trade, on hunting down old Prodigy data so that we may preserve it, display it again, and perhaps even one day use it to recreate Prodigy itself.

We're calling it the Prodigy Restoration Project.

By now you may have seen my latest piece for The Atlantic entitled Where Online Services Go When They Die: Rebuilding Prodigy, One Page at a Time. That article describes the genesis of the project while also diving into the technical back story of the Prodigy service.

The reason we have any hope of doing something like this is because Carpenter discovered that Prodigy screen data can still be found in the STAGE.DAT and CACHE.DAT files located in used Prodigy client directories.

Those two files were used as cache files to speed up load times when using the service. When connecting to Prodigy, the client would download page data into the files. Whenever the client last connected to Prodigy, that data got frozen in time. If a vintage Prodigy client install still exists, we can get at the "frozen" data today.

Here are some screens that Carpenter pulled from a STAGE.DAT I had in my personal archives (these are from a STAGE.DAT file dated October 6, 1996):

Prodigy Login Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Rebel Space Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Encyclopedia Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Golf Tour Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

Prodigy Greeting Cards Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Email Template Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Phone Directory Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Problem Error Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

We can extract these screens using a series of Python programs written by Carpenter. They read through a previously used STAGE.DAT file, generate a list of pointers to the pages or object data contained within, then direct the Prodigy Reception System client to display them one at a time so we can take screenshots.

Jim's code is not ready for release yet, but he hopes to polish it up enough to put up on GitHub soon. It has a long way to go before becoming a turnkey solution to extracting and displaying the data found in STAGE.DAT files. We're working on it.

With that in mind, I've written the rest of this post in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions.

[ Continue reading Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] AnthroCart

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Anthro Anthrocart Computer Desk Advertisement - 1993I may not be an expert on desks, but this looks a little dangerous.

[ From Scientific American - February 1993, p.29]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever bought a desk specifically to hold a computer?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] My CompuServe Password

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Benj's CompuServe Password - 1993I still love my dad's handwriting.

Here it is, folks: My CompuServe Information Service password that I used from 1993 until the late 1990s: "Needy-Sacred".

Feel free to log in as me the next time you get a chance. (I kid.)

"Needy-Sacred" is an almost magical combination of words for me — probably because it bounced around my mind so often in the 1990s. It has a tension to it; a phrase at odds with itself.

I didn't make it up, though. CompuServe assigned random combinations of two words (with a dash in the middle) as user passwords, and this is the hand I was dealt.

Well, "we were dealt" would be more accurate. This is the original note paper my dad used on February 21st, 1993 to write down the password to our new CompuServe account, which he set up for use with his business.

Heavily into BBSes at the time, I became the primary user of the account (surprise surprise). Soon his company often asked me — even as a young teenager — to relay international emails to and from Germany for them since I knew how to use it. Ah, those were the days.

The Encounters Forum was my favorite place to hang out. That, and the Atari Forum. GO ATARI.

[ From Personal note from Benj Edwards' collection dated 2/21/1993]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Tell us your best CompuServe stories.