Archive for the 'Vintage Computing' Category

[ 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?

[ Retro Scan ] The Hayden Sargon Hamburger

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Hayden Book Company Computer Program Tapes Software Sargon Game Playing with BASIC How to Build a Computer-Controlled Robot The First Book of KIM General Math Complex and Matrix Math Introductory Engineering Math advertisement scan - 1979Starving for Software? Eat a tapeburger

For some reason, I find few things less appetizing than a black and white hamburger. (Maybe one with a computer tape on top of it.)

But we’re not here to eat this advertisement for Hayden Book Company’s 1979 computer tape offerings. We’re here to look at it.

I know very little about Hayden itself other than that it originated as a New Jersey-based book publisher and later transitioned into selling software on disk and tape as well (as “Hayden Software”). That stands in contrast to what I think was the firm’s first approach to publishing software — in paper books full of source code.

It’s worth noting that this might be the first-ever advertisement for what was originally called “Sargon: A Computer Chess Program“, a pioneering chess game and engine for personal computers that debuted at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire. I recall my brother playing Sargon II for the Atari 800 and Sargon III on the IBM PC, and I had a copy of Sargon II for the Apple II. It was a stalwart, well-respected chess series for many years.

[ From BYTE Magazine, February 1979, p.143 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the best computer chess game you’ve ever played?

[ Retro Scan ] Milton-Bradley MBX for TI-99/4A

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 2Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 2

The Milton-Bradley MBX, launched around 1983 for the TI-99/4A home computer, is a strange product: it combines a pistol-grip joystick with a rotating knob and analog control, a 64-position touch pad with overlays, and voice-recognition headset into one package that is supposed to enhance gameplay on specially-designed TI-99/4A games.

This neat TI-99/4A site has a history page about it, so I think I’ll just snatch a portion that explains the MBX’s origins:

Now that you have an idea as to what the MBX System is, below is a little history provided by Mike Langieri (the creator of the device). According to Mike, the MBX actually started out as a stand-alone game console in 1982 and was to be Milton Bradley’s answer to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. MB’s plan was to provide the game player with voice recognition, speech synthesis, and an action-input keypad which in turn would give them an advantage over the systems already on the market.

Now how come MB did not go ahead with their own system in 1982? Once the Colecovision came out, Jim Shea (then president of Milton Bradley) thought that the market was not big enough to support 4 game systems from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley and therefore killed the project. However, so much development went into creating MB’s own video game unit that Mike was then assigned to finding a use for all the technology they developed.

Eventually it was decided to transform Milton Bradley’s gaming system to an add-on for the TI-99/4A, most likely due to the fact that MB had earlier developed the Gamevision line of video games for the 99/4A and also created the graphics chip used inside of the TI system. Thus, “the MBX was the phoenix that rose from the ashes” as Mike wonderfully put it.

It’s amazing to think “What if” and wonder what a Milton-Bradley game console might have been like. I believe that Milton Bradley also originally tried to sell this idea to Atari, but they declined, and it ended up as a TI-99/4A peripheral. A non-rotating, non-analog variation on this joystick did end up as Atari’s Space Age joystick, though.

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 1Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 1

I have a complete MBX system in the box (which may be where I got this flyer), but for some reason I have never used it. I think that’s because I don’t have any of the games that support it — or I didn’t 17 years ago when I first bought my MBX on eBay. Right now I don’t even know what box my MBX is stored in, so it would be hard to rectify that.

[ From Milton Bradley MBX Promotional Flyer, ca. 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you ever used voice commands with a computer?

Hear Benj on the Retronauts Podcast

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Retronauts Episode 98 Mac Games

Since February, I’ve been appearing on episodes of Retronauts, a long-running retro gaming podcast traditionally hosted by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey. Retronauts traces its origins to the now defunct 1UP.com, but it has moved along with Jeremy wherever he goes.

And that includes a move across the country: About five years ago, Jeremy relocated to sunny Raleigh, NC from San Francisco. After resigning from his editor-in-chief position at USGamer.net late last year, Jeremy decided to rely on Patreon to fund Retronauts as a full-time project.

Retronauts East Apple II Games ArtworkThere’s only one problem: Bob Mackey is still located on the west coast, and Jeremy can’t afford to fly out there every time he wants to record a show. So while Bob still creates episodes on the west coast, Jeremy started up a “Retronauts East” wing of the show featuring a local crew of regulars.

Fortunately, I am a Raleigh native, and I still live here. So the Retronauts East roster includes both myself and Ben Elgin, a Hillsborough, NC software engineer and a veteran of Jeremy’s Gamespite forums.

Since then I’ve been on five episodes (with another micro episode on the way), and it’s been a blast. Jeremy is a gin aficionado, and we typically drink a gin and tonic before or during the show, which is why you may hear high-resolution ice clinking in the background.

Here’s a run-down of the episodes I’ve appeared on so far:

Episode 87: Apple II Games
Episode 91: Early Sega Arcade Games
Episode 95: Early Batman Games
Micro 59: Atari Swordquest
Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the 1980s

There’s more to come. So stay tuned and enjoy.

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

Monday, April 24th, 2017

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 » ]

Huge Gallery of Prodigy MadMaze Screenshots Now on Flickr

Friday, April 7th, 2017

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.

[ Retro Scan ] WorldsAway Mousepad

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

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?

“Retro Scan” Enshrined at the Computer History Museum

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

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 » ]

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.