Archive for the 'Regular Features' Category

[ 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 » ]

[ 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 » ]

[ Retro Scan ] My Sega Master System Adventure

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 1 - 1987Hudson’s Adventure Afro (Side 1)

As a kid that grew up with Atari and Nintendo consoles in the household, I was always curious about Sega.

I remember seeing the Master System in a glass case at Toys ‘R’ Us, and it seemed exotic and wonderful with its 3D glasses and futuristic angular design. It felt like the cooler, anti-Nintendo.

But I didn’t get a Master System until around 1995, when my dad bought one for me used at a local used game store called Buy-Rite Video Games. At that time, Buy-Rite was located inside an indoor flea market mall off Capital Blvd. in Raleigh. It was a seedy, run-down place, but my dad enjoyed hunting for good deals at flea markets, and we regularly did that together on the weekends.

Buy-Rite Video Games Business Card Scan 1990sA short time after I got my first used Master System at Buy-Rite, we bought another one. As I browsed Buy-Rite with my dad on another occasion, I just happened to be there when I overheard someone trying to sell a Sega Master System to the store. I looked over and saw a young black kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, by himself with a green backpack. The owner, a mid-40s white guy, was being rude and giving the kid a hard time about it, and he refused to buy it.

After that, my dad approached the kid in the store and said we’d buy it from him. As the kid was excitedly showing me what was in his backpack, the owner of Buy-Rite stepped out from behind the counter and began openly yelling at all of us — about “trying to steal his business” out of his own store, or some such nonsense. My dad exchanged a few mildly harsh words with him, and the owner demanded that we leave. We did.

On the curb outside of the Flea Market Mall, we cut a deal with the kid. I remember we gave him $40 cash, and I got a great set of Sega Master System, controllers, a light gun, and a handful of games in much better condition than the one we bought from Buy-Rite — and for much cheaper, too. The kid was very happy, and I never shopped at Buy-Rite again.

It turns out the owner of Buy-Rite was a serial asshole — he kept gipping people for years, and finally shut down the store in 2005. Good riddance. (Watch him show up in the comments.)

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 2- 1987“Now, there are no limits.” (Side 2)

I’ve played a lot of Master System games since then, but my favorite is still Enduro Racer played with a Sega Control Stick, which I got from that kid back in 1995. (I wrote a big post about Enduro Racer back in 2006.)

What you’re looking at here is a promotional Sega poster that came with a Sega Master System game — maybe one of those I received that day at the Flea Market Mall. I think the poster was originally folded up and placed inside a plastic SMS game case next to an instruction manual, although it is possible it originally came in the Sega Master System console box itself.

[ From Sega Master System Poster / Flyer, 1987 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite Sega Master System game?


See Also:

Lessons from the Master: The Zen of Enduro Racer (2006)
Nintendo vs. Sega: Christmas 1987 Shootout (Retro Scan, 2010)
Benj’s 1989 Christmas List (Retro Scan, 2013)

[ 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.

[ Retro Scan ] Game Boy, All Grown Up

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Nintendo Game Boy Political Campaign Speeches GQ 1992 Presidential Election advertisement scan - 1992“Have you had your fun today?”

So we’ve got this election coming right around the corner in the US. It hasn’t been fun. In fact, it’s been pretty nasty and stressful for everyone involved. But there’s a solution: video games.

In this October 1992 ad from GQ magazine, Nintendo offers its Game Boy handheld console as an antidote to our grownup troubles during a long, grueling campaign season. Among displays of men’s fashion, cologne ads, and strutting female models, you can find a rather remarkable sales pitch for this groundbreaking gadget aimed at adults.

In 1992, portable electronic entertainment pretty much meant one thing: Game Boy. There were no smartphones in everyone’s pockets to twiddle away the time with. And the alternative handhelds like the Sega Game Gear, NEC TurboExpress, and Atari Lynx had such horrible battery life that very few people actually took them on the go. Of course, one could tote along a Walkman or a portable TV, but they weren’t interactive.

The Game Boy was different. It was compact, light, durable, ran over ten hours on four AA batteries, and it had that killer app: Tetris.

I remember reading news reports, not long after the Game Boy’s launch, about how adults were playing Tetris (“the jigsaw puzzle that fights back,” the ad says) on long commutes. In retrospect, Tetris seems like the first video game for adults — especially since it had no cartoon protagonist, and its single-screen drama unfolded in four serious shades of gray (or green, technically). It was a thinking man’s game, and it was addictive.

Or thinking woman’s game, I should say, since we have this amazing 1993 photo of Hillary Clinton playing the Game Boy. While commuting, no less. So maybe the ad worked. Or maybe Tetris was just an essential, can’t-miss game that finally legitimized video games for an older audience.

[ From GQ, October 1992, p.150 ]

Discussion Topic: Did your parents ever play console video games when you were younger? What games did they like the most?

[ Retro Scan ] A TurboGrafx Halloween

Monday, October 31st, 2016

TTI TurboGrafx-16 Turbografx TurboExpress TurboDuo Dead Moon Ghost Manor advertisement scan - 1992Ghost Manor and Dead Moon on a Zombie Console

[ From VG&CE, November 1992, p.47 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the scariest 16-bit era game you’ve ever played?

[ 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.

[ Retro Scan ] Pitfall in LIFE

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Activision Pitfall! for Atari 2600 LIFE Magazine scan - 1982Watch out for that jungle crude oil pit

As a kid, we had an Atari 2600, and before the NES era, Pitfall! was very popular in our household. Unlike most Atari VCS games, it felt like a real adventure, and it was thrilling to directly control a tiny jumping human on the screen while avoiding crazy jungle hazards like alligators and, well, huge pits that led to nowhere.

By the way, this is the largest single-page Retro Scan I’ve ever scanned — it comes from a large format LIFE magazine ad. I found the magazine in my grandparents’ washhouse in Texas back in the 1990s and saved it because of this ad.

If you’re curious, here is the full scan jumbo size at 600 dpi (it’s a 5919 x 7761 pixel 38 MB JPEG, so watch out).

[ From LIFE magazine, November 1982, p.113 ]

Discussion Topic: Which is better: Pitfall! or Pitfall II: Lost Caverns?