Archive for the 'Vintage Computing' Category

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

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

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 » ]

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

Friday, February 17th, 2017

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.

[ Retro Scan ] Lanier Model 103 Word Processor

Monday, January 30th, 2017

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.

Classic Prodigy Game Recreation MadMaze-II Updated to Support Chrome and Firefox

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

MadMaze-II Title ImageSince 2013, I’ve been hosting a web-based recreation of the classic Prodigy online service game called “MadMaze” on the VC&G webserver.

(You can read the backstory about that here.)

The only problem with this “modern” version of the game, called MadMaze-II by its late author, Russell Brown, is that it only worked in Internet Explorer. This re-creation was developed in 2001 at a time when Internet Explorer was the browser of choice for many.

Well, thanks to the help of a web developer named Brandt Horrocks, the game now works in Chrome and Firefox. In Chrome, it seems to work nearly perfectly, although it does not support the sound effects Brown originally implemented in the game (yet). In Firefox, the game is playable, but the introduction renders slightly differently.

The game is still at its original VC&G address, http://www.vintagecomputing.com/madmaze/, so give it a shot and see what you think. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments here, and I will show them to Brandt, who may be able to do more bug fixes in the future.


See Also:

Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead: The Prodigy Restoration Project (2014)
MadMaze-II Now Hosted on Vintagecomputing.com (2013)
Prodigy Lives! Play MadMaze On the Web (2006)

The VC&G Christmas Collection (2016 Edition)

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

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 (2016 Edition) » ]

The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

Monday, November 7th, 2016

The Cave BBS Logoff ANSI by Nukemaster

Last Friday, The Atlantic published an article I wrote in which I explore modern-day dial-up BBSes.

Some of you may remember that I’ve visited this topic before — on this very blog — way back in 2006. In my recent virtual travels, I found it very interesting to see how things in the dial-up BBS space had changed over ten years, and I allude to that in my Atlantic article.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, I ran a dial-up BBS called “The Cave BBS” between 1992 and 1998. Since 2005, I have also run a telnet version of The Cave.

To read more about my BBS adventures, check out the “BBS History” category on VC&G.

David H. Bunnell (1947-2016)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

David H. BunnellIn Memoriam: David H. Bunnell (1947-2016),
tech media pioneer, founder of PC World, PC Magazine, and Macworld

[ Retro Scan ] Voice It VT-40 Digital Recorder

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Voice It VT-40 Flash Memory Digital Voice Recorder Discover Magazine advertisement scan - 1995A 40-second safe deposit box, mind you

In 1994 and 1995, several manufacturers released the first batch of solid state digital voice recorders. All of them used newly available flash memory chips to record audio notes digitally without the need for magnetic tape.

This VT-40 recorder from Voice It was among the first, launching around May 1995 in the US. It could record 40 seconds of audio in 10 audio clips — all that for a mere $69.99 MSRP. Unlike some competing units, the audio clips recorded by the VT-40 were stuck on the recording device and could not be digitally transferred to another medium or a computer. Around the same time, Voice It also launched a higher-capacity unit, the VT-75, which could record 75 seconds of audio.

Despite the convenience of having a small, thin audio recorder with no moving parts, the low capacity of these first generation flash recorders made them more of a novelty than anything else. I remember around 1996 when my dad brought home a keychain digital audio recorder that could record about 30 seconds of audio. It was fun to play with — and a marvel of technology at the time — but it didn’t have enough capacity for useful note taking.

Of course, today we have endless solid state audio recording capacity through removable flash cards, etc., and digital note recorders are the mainstream (and have been for at least a decade). But it’s neat to look back on how it all started.

[ From Discover Magazine, May 1995, p.91 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you used a solid-state or digital audio recorder? Tell us about it.

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer’s first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF’s playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.

[ Retro Scan ] HP 95LX

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Hewlett-Packard HP 95LX HP-95LX Handheld Computer Pocket Computer Palmtop PC User's Guide Cover scan - 1991HP-95LX: Like a computer-shaped cookie that you can’t eat

In case you didn’t know, the HP 95LX is a small, portable IBM PC compatible machine running a full version of MS-DOS that ran off of two AA batteries. It marked the beginning of HP’s palmtop computer line, which I wrote about recently in a slideshow for PCMag.com.

The HP 95LX is special to me in particular because I’ve had one for over 20 years now. My dad bought the machine slightly-used from a friend not long after it came out. After fiddling around with it for a while, he gave it to me, and by 1993, I had it in my collection.

Using an RS-232 serial cable my dad built for me, I managed to transfer some MS-DOS programs to it (a few text-mode games mostly, and a few HP 95LX apps I downloaded from CompuServe), that I remember taking to school and using once or twice just for kicks. I also used that serial cable to hook the 95LX to a modem so I could call BBSes with it.

The worst thing about the 95LX — aside from its 1/4 CGA screen that doesn’t let you run many MS-DOS apps — is that if you don’t have a plug-in memory card, you lose all your saved data on the RAM disk if it runs out of batteries. Sure, it has a backup coin cell battery (or maybe two), but if that runs out, you’re out of luck. The PC Card-like memory cards cost a lot of money back in the 1990s, so I never had one until recently.

Still, it’s an amazing little machine. Very capable — if you have the patience to use it. A few years later, HP got everything right with the 200LX, which is still a popular portable MS-DOS machine among certain diehards today.

[ From HP 95LX Users’s Guide, 1991, cover ]

Discussion Topic: Did you own a palmtop PC in the 1990s? Tell us about it.