High-Res Scan of the World’s First Digital Computer Art

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Lawrence Tipton 1959 SAGE Photo of Computer Pin-up Art - World's first figurative digital computer art

Back in January, I wrote an article about the world’s earliest known figurative computer art for The Atlantic. It it is also likely the world’s first digital computer artwork as well.

(Check out this timeline of computer art history to get an idea where this piece fits in.)

The only known physical record of this circa 1956-58 pin-up diagnostic, which ran on SAGE computer systems, comes from a Polaroid photograph snapped by U.S. airman Lawrence A. Tipton in early 1959. Tipton retains the original print, although it will likely go to a museum soon (more on that when it happens).

Lawrence A. Tipton, circa 2000sThe digital image of the photo used in my Atlantic article was provided by Tipton to a SAGE historian over a decade ago. It was previously the highest-quality version of the photo I had access to, and that posed a few problems. Someone (likely Tipton himself) had hastily retouched the image, removing various scratches, and it was not presented in a high enough resolution to examine in detail.

To remedy that, Tipton was kind enough to make a high resolution scan of the original print and mail it to me on CD-ROM back in February. With his permission, I am providing the high-resolution scan of the pin-up console photo unretouched and unmodified below so that (a) others may learn from it and (b) to ensure that our only record of this important achievement in art is not lost.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] MacCharlie’s FrankenMac

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Dayna Communications MacCharlie IBM PC accessory for Macintosh ad - 1985I’d like to have heard Steve Jobs’ reaction when he first saw this.

Long before Boot Camp and Parallels, if you wanted to run IBM PC compatible software on your Mac, you had to strap on this unholy contraption — the Dayna Communications MacCharlie.

If I recall correctly, the MacCharlie was essentially an IBM PC clone in a beige box that hooked to the Mac’s serial port. As a result, the Mac merely served as a serial terminal for the MacCharlie via custom terminal software running on the Mac. That’s not a particularly efficient setup, but the lack of expansion ports on the original Macintosh meant that there was no other reasonable point of entry.

Since it worked through the serial port, the MacCharlie could only run text-based MS-DOS applications. Conveniently, the MacCharlie shipped with a keyboard extender that added the IBM PC’s special function keys and a numeric keypad to the Macintosh keyboard.

[ From Byte Magazine, April 1985, p.71-73 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a hardware system adapter (something that lets you use software from one platform on another through hardware, not software emulation) for any computer system?

IBM PS/2 25th Anniversary

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

IBM PS/2 25th Anniversary on PCWorld.com

25 years ago, IBM introduced the Personal System/2 (PS/2), a computer series that brought VGA, PS/2 ports, 3.5″ floppy drives, and more to the world of PC compatibles.

In honor of this anniversary, I wrote an article about the first set of PS/2 computers (released April 1987) for PCWorld.com.

One of my first PCs was an IBM PS/2 Model 25 — the famous all-in-one IBM PC that found its way into many homes and schools due to its relatively low price. The Model 25 is not mentioned in the article, however, because it was not a member of the original April 1987 lineup (I believe it launched later that year).

I hope you enjoy the piece.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Official IBM PC Desk

Monday, July 9th, 2012

IBM Synergetix Personal Computer PC Work Station Ad -  1983The IBM PC Workstation: Almost as small as a refrigerator.

Once upon a time, IBM made furniture.

Specifically, they created a custom folding desk for its IBM Personal Computer called the “IBM Synergetix PC Work Station,” which we see in the 1983 ad above.

IBM registered the trademark “Synergetix” in 1981 to cover its line of IBM PC-related furniture, which even included an official IBM PC Table and IBM PC chair. Big Blue let the trademark expire in 1989, which shows you how successful that idea was.

I’ve been trying to think of modern analogies to the IBM PC Work Station, and the closest I can come up with is Apple making a special cover for its iPad — although Apple’s Smart Cover has been popular and well-received. The Smart Cover also doesn’t cost $850 like the IBM PC Work Station did (that’s about $1,961 today).

[ From Personal Computing, November 1983, p.249 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a desk specifically designed for use with a computer?

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of shareware games. Specifically, I love shareware from the “golden age of PC shareware,” an era I just made up that roughly spanned 1988-1996.

And by “PC shareware,” in this case, I mean IBM PC compatible. I was not involved in shareware or BBS scenes for non-IBM computers, so I am not nearly as familiar with them.

With that in mind, take a gander at this new slideshow over at PC World in which I attempt to pick the The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time. Whether I have succeeded or failed is not exactly the point, because as I always say, you can never objectively rank greatness. But even if you don’t agree with my picks, it should provide a fun journey down memory lane.

When you’re done reading it, I’d love to hear from you guys — what are your favorite shareware games of all time? Feel free to bring other platforms into it if you want.

If you love shareware games, check out my 2009 interviews with the twin titans of PC shareware, Scott Miller of Apogee and Tim Sweeney of Epic MegaGames.

IBM PC 30th Anniversary Extravaganza

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Can You Do Real Work With The 30-Year-Old IBM PC 5150? at PCWorld.com

If you haven’t heard by now, the IBM PC platforms turned 30 years old today. On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its new PC, the 5150, at a press conference in New York. It was a big deal then, and it’s an even bigger deal now. For the last 30 years, most of us have been using computers descended from a standard set in motion 30 years ago.

To celebrate this momentous anniversary, I’ve put together a few articles for PC World and Technologizer. The first is titled, “Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?” A few weeks ago, I locked myself in a room with a vintage IBM PC 5150 to see if I could use it for real, modern computing work. That article spells out the results.

The second is something more predictable: IBM PC Oddities over at Technologizer. It’s the latest in my Oddities series of interesting and bizarre trivia slideshows for that site. If you’ve ever used a PC, you should enjoy it.

Then there’s the stuff at VC&G. I just posted a few thoughts on the IBM PC’s anniversary and an essay on history’s treatment of the IBM PC, and on Monday I posted a new Retro Scan of the Week that features a 1982 IBM PC ad. In turn, that Retro Scan post lists previous Retro Scan entries that deal with the PC.

Happy Birthday, IBM PC!

The Beleaguered IBM PC in History

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC 5150

From the 1990s until very recently, the press has been generally unkind to the achievements of the first IBM PC. Due to the PC platform’s utter dominance of the personal computer market, popular accounts of personal computer history commonly paint IBM as the slow, lumbering, clueless enemy while cheering on spunky underdogs like Apple. I’m not even going to cite specific examples: Google “computer history.” Read. You will see it.

But that perspective is not fair at all. IBM truly pulled off something smart, savvy, and remarkable in designing the IBM PC 5150 (and the machines that followed it, into the PS/2 era). With the 5150, a team of 12 people took the machine from concept to shipping product in less than a year. And yet many focus on how IBM supposedly lost its way.

IBM PC KidMuch ballyhoo has been made, for example, about how IBM lost its grip on the PC’s direction as clones flooded the market. From a different perspective, that runaway-freight-train-of-a-platform is a success story for IBM.

While Big Blue lost market share to clone manufacturers, you have to keep in mind that IBM’s percentage shrank as the market size exploded. IBM fostered a rich PC standard that it kept reaping until it sold its PC division to Lenovo in 2004. IBM may not have kept steering the ship, but they sure made a lot of money in the cargo hold.

And if you think IBM’s influence on the PC standard ended in the early 1980s, think again. Real history is not so cut-and-dry. The PS/2 era (which dawned in 1987) gave us stalwarts like the PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports and, ah yes, that minor display technology called VGA. You can also thank the 1990s ThinkPad line for its part in streamlining the modern laptop.

Apple vs. IBM

The popular narrative of IBM vs. Apple in the 1980s, with its strong contrasts of Good vs. Evil and Hero vs. Villain was largely a creation of Apple’s marketing department. The image of Apple’s David verses IBM’s Goliath got repeated so many times that the press started using the supposed rivalry as the basis of dramatic stories. Humans need narratives to make sense of history, and writers have forced the PC market story into that archetypal mold.

Sure, IBM and Apple competed for dollars — and they may have even done it vigorously — but business is business. It’s not swashbuckling. The first thing you learn when actually studying computer history (i.e. interviewing folks) is that just about no one involved in creating these products thinks they were doing something so incredibly amazing that it should be turned into a movie. They were just doing their jobs, developing good products, and trying to make money like everyone else. When the project was over, they moved on to other things. That story is incredibly boring if you don’t dramatize it.

By using the IBM PC for a week for a recent article, I learned firsthand that the original PC really was an amazing machine for its time. It wasn’t just a generic box that happened to have an IBM logo on it, as some people argue. Sure, it didn’t have flashy graphics or a GUI, but it was solid, reliable, well-designed, and it was definitely the most qualified personal computer for getting work done in 1981. There is a reason it became a standard, after all — everyone imitated it, and they imitated it because it was amazing.

A Few Thoughts on the IBM PC’s Birthday

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC Turns 30

When the IBM PC turned 20 back in 2001, I said to myself, “Really? It’s that old already?” I was honestly surprised. Now that the PC platform is 30 (as it just turned today), that age seems obvious. (“Thirty, you say? Sounds about right.”)

Computer technology has come a long way since 1981, and the last 10 years in PC land have been just as eventful as the first 20. We’ve seen the Internet’s social explosion, juice-sipping Intel Atom processors, netbooks, powerful sub-$500 desktop PCs, the iPhone, the rise of the consumer tablet computer, and — oh yeah — Macs are more like IBM PCs than ever, living their lives in an x86 world. PCs aren’t necessarily beige metal desktop boxes anymore (as they still were in 2001) — in fact, folks are more likely to buy a thin laptop computer in 2011.

My point, I guess, is that I’m glad the IBM PC is 30. It is probably time to move away from the paradigm set in motion by the Wintel duopoly in the 1980s, although we may never fully escape it on the desktop. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s time to try some new ideas in personal computing. And we are. With non-x86, non-Windows tablets and smartphones as influential as they are now, the winds of computing seem to be blowing 180 degrees away from the Intel-Microsoft PC platform. It’s exciting to think where those winds will take us in the future.

What Computer Nerds Should Be Thankful For

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Things That Nerds Should Be Thankful ForTomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, which means we cook a lot, eat a lot, sleep a lot, feel uncomfortable around somewhat estranged relatives a lot, prepare to spend a lot, officially start Christmas a lot, and generally take it all for granted, despite the title of the holiday. In order to break with American tradition, I thought I’d offer a personal list of things that I think we — vintage computer and video game enthusiasts — should be thankful for. After all, these things let us enjoy our hobbies. Without them, we’d be collecting dirt and not even know what it’s called. Pay attention, my friends, as we start off serious-ish and degrade into something resembling silliness — but it’s all in the name of holiday fun.

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