Archive for May, 2007

BASIC for Kids: The VTech PreComputer 1000

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

VTech PreComputer 1000I found myself up in Boone, NC last week at a recently opened Goodwill store. Upon arriving, I quickly made my way back to the electronics section. The place was packed with an unusual surplus of wireless 802.11g network routers — something I'd never seen before in a thrift shop. Most of the items were overpriced, though.

Among the dozen TVs and broken stereos on the sagging back shelves, I found a few gems. In the end, I walked away with a new, in-box controller for the forgettable HyperScan video game system ($2), a shrinkwrapped copy of Microsoft's Return of Arcade ($4), and my most interesting find, a VTech PreComputer 1000 ($4). Believe it or not, but I've actually wanted a VTech Precomputer for some time. A handful of different toy and electronics companies produced a whole class of "educational" or kids' computers in the 1980s that I'd like to collect. Most of the more sophisticated models have some version of BASIC built in, and the VTech PC1000 is no exception.

Computer LiteracyBack in the day, the BASIC programming language (or even Logo — remember the turtle?) was considered the best way to teach kids how to use a computer. They called the push to teach ordinary people how to use these machines "computer literacy" like we do today, but the methods of obtaining that literacy were different. For a time in the late 1970s and early 80s, educators, politicians, technologists, and pundits in major publications around the U.S. worried that every citizen would have to know how to program a computer or they'd be left out of the computer revolution, and thus, the future. After all, if you want to tell a computer to do something, you have to program it, right? How else are you going to get it to do what you want? It seems strange to us now that they didn't realize that we'd all be running other people's programs instead (Microsoft did, of course). That popular perception began to shift after the release of the Macintosh in 1984, but the change didn't fully get here until the mid-1990s. Now we teach people how to use Microsoft Word. By golly, if someone doesn't know how to program complex and obtuse Word macros, how will they ever be able to create a competitive résumé? In a way, not much has changed.

VTech PreComputer 1000 ButtonsAnyway, back to the PreComputer. I disassembled the unit today to see what makes it tick. As I suspected, the unit's CPU is a Z-80 clone, the Toshiba TMPZ84C00AP. I also spotted the prominently marked Video Technology (VTech) ROM on the motherboard which contains built-in trivia games in subjects like history, geography, and science, calculator functionality, Hangman, and a typing course. One of the rubber-button options on the PC1000 is "Computer Drill," which lets you look at nine built-in sample BASIC programs or program in "Pre-Basic 1.0″ yourself. Although the PC1000′s twenty-character, one line LCD display is quite limiting, it's still a compelling feature that's fun to play with. And heck, the thing has an impressive full-stroke QWERTY keyboard with insert and delete keys. It's almost as if the PreComputer's designers were begging for their creation to be used for more than meets the eye.

I don't have the manual for the PreComputer, so I have no idea if it can save your programs temporarily in memory, or the extent to which its interpreter supports traditional BASIC commands. I'd particularly like to know how to print to the LCD screen without the automatic pause after each line, if that's possible. If anyone has a copy of the manual for this and can scan it or type it up for me (especially the section on BASIC), I would be much obliged. Did anyone out there have one of these as a kid? I'd love to hear from you in the comments section.

[ Update: 07/30/2007 - Many generous thanks to Chris Ball for obtaining, scanning, and providing the BASIC section of the PreComputer 1000 instruction manual. You can download all the pages in high resolution JPEG format here (25 MB). Be warned, though: the file is big. Thanks again, Chris! ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Ouch

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Brain Slicer DiskI find it hard to interpret this image as a good thing.

[ From Tech PC Journal, December 1984 ]

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Dubious Joystick Enhancements

Monday, May 21st, 2007
Joystick Add-Ons from The Fun Group
Straight from "The Fun Group" comes these wonderful 1983 joystick add-ons. The FYRE-BALL is a bulbous knob that fits to the top of your Atari 2600 controller — genuinely useless, unless it gives you a psychological thrill to pretend you're using an arcade joystick instead of a handheld controller.

Another add-on, the EASI-GRIP, turns your Colecovision controller into a flight-stick style joystick. You know, for all those incredible Colecovision flight simulators out there. They were almost there with that one, but they had to put the obnoxious finger grooves on it.

The third add-on is not as useless as the first two — glue a giant "Sorry" game piece to top of the abysmal Intellivision controller, and you've got something way better than the original. But pictured next to it is the QUIK-FIRE, a flaky-looking button attachment for the same controller which probably broke in the first hour of play time. I find it hard to believe that adding any more pieces of plastic to a controller can allow you to press the buttons faster.

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Video Games Turn Forty — Article at 1UP.com

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Video Games Turn Forty

It's true: in 1967, Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison created the world's first television video game hardware. And forty years ago today (May 15th, 1967), the first television video game took place. Who won? Mosey on over to 1UP.com and check out the full feature I wrote about it. You'll find out that answer and a lot more.

Also check out the interviews I've conducted with the two participants in the monumental contest, Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison. I just published the Bill Harrison one today.

As an extra treat, here's a video of Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison demonstrating their Ping-Pong game on the "brown box" prototype at Sanders in 1969. Ping-Pong would later form the basis for Atari's famous Pong.


I would like to extend a special thank-you to Ralph Baer, Bill Harrison, and the family of Bill Rusch for their generous and invaluable help with this story. I could not have written it without them.

Happy birthday, video games.

VC&G Interview: Bill Harrison, The First Video Game Hardware Guru

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

William L. HarrisonForty years ago today, the world's first television video game contest took place in a small lab in Nashua, NH. The place was Sanders Associates, a large defense contractor, and the contestants were Ralph Baer and his technician, Bill Harrison. The inventions of these two men and a third, Bill Rusch, would later appear commercially as the Magnavox Odyssey console in 1972.

History has heard quite a bit from Baer recently, including an interview I conducted with him back in January. But most often overlooked is perspective of the second player in that monumental game, Bill Harrison, who built all of the original Sanders video game hardware by hand. Now 73 years old and retired, William L. Harrison finally gives his side of the story in his first ever interview, and it's exclusive to Vintage Computing and Gaming.

[ For more information on this important anniversary, read my feature, "Video Games Turn Forty," at 1UP.com. ]

[ Continue reading VC&G Interview: Bill Harrison, The First Video Game Hardware Guru » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Humble Beginnings

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Humble BeginningsFrom the instruction manual of the first video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey.

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Be Friends With VC&G on MySpace

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Vintage Computing and Gaming LogoFor those of you intrepid VC&G readers into the dreadfully sluggish and badly designed social networking scene, I've recently created an official Vintage Computing and Gaming MySpace page. Show your friendshiphood statusness by becoming lifelong virtual buddies with VC&G on MySpace. We'll swap old war stories and trade recipes for capacitor bombs. Tell all your friends and bring them along too. It will be fun.

Retro Scan of the Week: Vintage Computer T-Shirts

Monday, May 7th, 2007
Byte my Bits - Vintage Computer T-Shirts
What — you think cheeky nerd T-shirts are a recent invention? They've been here from the start, my friends.

Early personal computer magazines typically carried at least one ad for computer-themed T-shirts somewhere in each issue, usually in the back. These particular examples from 1983 tout apparel plastered with phrases such as "Byte my Bits," "User Friendly," "PC Compatible," and the perennial classic, "Have You Hugged Your Programmer Today?"

Vintage Computer T-Shirts

Hey look — it's Linda! Alternatives to the shirts pictured above include "Software" and "Hard Disk Driven." Early computer enthusiasts were a desperate, sad lot indeed.

If you use these images on your site, please support "Retro Scan of the Week" by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.

ASKING ULAF #1

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Asking Ulaf Logo[ Ulaf Silchov is an expert in video games and computers. He also writes for "Svadlost Weekly" and "The Aquarian Underworld Circular" ]

GREETINGS MY THE VIDEO GAME FRIENDS. THIS WORDS MARK THE STARTING OF A NEW WRITINGS BY ULAF WHERE YOUR MINDS ASK THE QUESTIONS OF YOUR MINDS TO ULAF AND MY MINDS ANSWERS THE QUESTIONS OF YOUR MINDS. LET US START THE FUN MACHINE AND TRAVEL.

[ Continue reading ASKING ULAF #1 » ]

Benj’s Steve Wozniak Interview on Gamasutra

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Steve Wozniak Interview on GamasutraBack in February, I conducted a nice interview with Steve Wozniak ("Woz"), co-founder of Apple Computer, that mostly focused on video and computer games. The piece is now on Gamasutra for all to read. Woz talks about how the Apple II design was inspired by video games, his love of Tetris, Steve Jobs as a gamer, and more.

You might remember that I previously did a Ralph Baer interview for Gamasutra. This Woz interview is only the latest in a series. There are more to come, so stay tuned.