[ VC&G Anthology ] Origins of the ASCII Smiley Character: An Email Exchange With Dr. David Bradley (2011)

November 6th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

IBM Smiley Characters

The famous IBM PC 5150 turned 30 in 2011, and I spent quite some time preparing for that important anniversary. During my brainstorming process, I thought it would be fun to celebrate the 30th anniversary of another famous cultural icon — the "smiley" ASCII character, which originated with that seminal IBM machine.

To me, the the smiley character (seen above in its original and inverse forms) is best known as the protagonist of pseudo-graphical text-based games like ZZT.

VC&G Anthology BadgeTo find out the origins of this whimsical denizen of Code Page 437, I sent an email to Dr. David J. Bradley, one of the creators of the IBM PC, whom I had corresponded with before. In fact, Dr. Bradley is best known as the inventor of "CTRL-ALT-DELETE" keyboard combination that once reset almost every IBM PC-compatible computer.

I never did get around to writing that Smiley celebration as I planned, but I just ran across my conversation with Dr. Bradley recently, and I still find it interesting. With Dr. Bradley's permission, I am reproducing a transcript of our email conversation below, which I hope will aid future IBM Smiley researchers in their quest for information.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] IBM PS/1 Imagination System

September 14th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

IBM PS/1 Imagination System Box Scan Photo - 1994IBM and Disney go together like peanut butter and petroleum jelly

Just before my brother left for college in the fall of 1994, my whole family went shopping for a new PC to send off to school with him. We made our way to an IBM PC factory outlet near Durham, NC. Upon walking in to the store, I remember being amazed by rows of 20-foot tall warehouse-style shelves, each one stacked with large boxes for IBM PC systems. A salesman met us at the door and apparently steered my father toward this: the IBM PS/1 Imagination system. I guess it was a good deal.

The machine itself came equipped with a 25 MHz 486-SX CPU, 4 MB of RAM, a 2400 BPS modem, and a Disney Sound Source (a sort of primitive SoundBlaster that plugged into the parallel port). Unlike earlier PS/1 models, this one shipped with MS-DOS 6 and Windows 3.1. It also came with a suite of pre-installed Disney software that my brother promptly deleted.

My dad also bought an unusual IBM-brand external ISA CD-ROM drive that required its own peripheral card. There wasn't enough room in the PS/1 case for a CD-ROM drive and a 5.25″ floppy.

After college, my brother took this machine to work with him as a programmer, and he used it there until it was long outdated — probably until 1999 or so. It now rests safely in my collection, although the hard drive is now shot, and I think the power supply is fried too. Almost a decade ago, its rubber feet chemically decomposed into the most abysmally black and sticky tar that you can imagine. I need to restore the machine.

Just recently, I found the rather large shipping box for this computer sitting in my mom's attic. Today, it holds miscellaneous housewares. This "scan" is actually a perspective-corrected photo of the side of that box (here is the original photo).

[ From IBM PS/1 Imagination System Box, ca. 1993]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What computer did you take with you to college?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] IBM's Bizarro Alt-Reality PC

June 29th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

IBM Instruments Computer System advertisement - 1983The IBM Instruments Computer System

What a strange machine. The IBM Instruments Comptuer System was a completely modular 68000-based PC with its own custom OS (CSOS, according to Wikipedia, which stood for "Computer System Operating System" — ???). It also utilized Motorola's rarely-seen Versabus bus architecture. The ICS was aimed at scientific and engineering use, and it launched in 1982 — the year following the launch of the IBM PC 5150.

Has anyone used or seen one of these? This is an oddity of oddities. Thank goodness the IBM PC didn't end up like this.

[ From BYTE Magazine, February 1983, p.116-117]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What was the first IBM brand computer you ever owned (even when collecting)?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Sierra Battle Bugs

June 15th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

Sierra Battle Bugs advertisement Wired - November 1994"This is it, boys. Over the anthill."

[ From Wired, November 1994, p.33]

Discussion Topic of the Week: How many insect-themed computer or video games can you name off the top of your head?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Datachem Sexu-Cation

April 27th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

Datachem Sexu-Cation Sex education software - 1987Outsource your sex educations needs to Datachem

"Mommy, where do babies come from?"

"Well, after a wild night of CTRL-ALT-DELETE, your father hit my CTRL-C then pressed CTRL-V, and nine months later, you came out from LPT1."

[ From Family and Home Office Computing, November 1987, p.92]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever played any sex-related computer games? (Or heck, even educational software.)

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Family Quizagon Night

November 24th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

Quizagon family Apple II IBM PC Commodore 64 VIC-20 computer game advertisement - 1983“Whoa…what’s in these brownies, Grandma?”

Thanksgiving is almost upon us again, so it's time to gather around your home PC for a game of…Quizagon?

Yes, Quizagon. A game I've never played, nor will I for the foreseeable future. It looks like a hexagon-themed family trivia game, which is not my bag, man. But what a great photo.

Instead, I'm going to host a The Seven Cities of Gold marathon on an Atari 800XL with my brother. We plan on exploring a completely new continent while interacting vigorously with the natives. Meanwhile, my brothers- and sisters-in-law will be playing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed on my dedicated gaming PC that is hooked to the flat-screen living room TV. It's a great kart game to play on Steam with four Xbox 360 controllers that's easy to set up and jump into. Fun times shall be had by all.

By the way, I first used this amusing scan in a 2009 Thanksgiving-related slideshow I did for Technologizer (hoping I'm not repeating it on VC&G). If you're in the mood, here's some other Thanksgiving-related material from the VC&G archives.

[ From Compute! - November 1983, p.15]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Do you have any family video gaming planned for this Thanksgiving? If so, what are you going to play?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Micron Millennia

August 11th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

Micron Electronics Micron Millennia P120 PC clone advertisement - 1995Ah, the beige box era.

What could $6,410.55 buy you 19 years ago? (That's $4099 adjusted for inflation.) Well, if you picked a Micron Millennia, you could get a 120 MHz Pentium CPU, 32 MB of RAM, a 1.6 GB hard drive, a 17-inch monitor, a 4X CD-ROM Drive, a SoundBlaster 16 sound card, 2MB 2D graphics card, a minitower or desktop case, a Microsoft mouse and keyboard, Microsoft Office, and Windows 95.

That's a lot of stuff. And yet most people's smartphones today pack far, far more power and functionality than that in a pocket form factor with a 10 hour battery life. It's all about integration, baby. More functions in fewer, smaller chips. I love it.

[ From ComputerLife - October 1995, rear cover]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Tell us about one of your beige box PCs from the 1990s. Who made it, and what did it have inside?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Eye of the Beholder

May 5th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

Eye of the Beholder magazine advertisement 1991How does he see… WITHOUT EYES. More like eye of the not-beholder, am I right?

Eye of the Beholder (1991) took the formula of Dungeon Master formula and ran with it, resulting in one of the best the first-person real-time RPGs of the pre-3D era. It's definitely one of the best early VGA games for the IBM PC as well.

As far as games of this category go, I'm quite partial to Lands of Lore myself.

[ From Video Games & Computer Entertainment - January 1991, p.175]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite first-person RPG game of the 1990s?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] IBM Smart Desk

April 28th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

IBM 3270 PC Smart Desk 1985Multitasking in the early days.

Ah, the IBM 3270 PC. What a strange beast. It was essentially an IBM PC that could also emulate an IBM 3270 terminal, which allowed it to link up to IBM mainframes. In a sense, this was IBM's version of the AppleLine protocol adapter (featured in a Retro Scan a few weeks ago), albeit one built into an IBM PC.

By the way, look at the keyboard on this machine. Function keys galore. I've always wanted one of those.

[ From TIME, May 6 1985, p.B14-B15]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used an IBM mainframe computer?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] AppleLine: One of Apple's Two Rarest Products

April 14th, 2014 by Benj Edwards

AppleLine Service Sheet (Apple P/N 661-75203), rev. March 1991 (7.2.1) - circa 1991One of the only photos of this device on the Internet at present.

Almost thirty years after its introduction, the AppleLine Protocol Converter (1985) remains one of the rarest pieces of commercial hardware Apple has ever produced. It allowed a single Lisa, Mac, or Apple II to communicate with IBM mainframes using the IBM 3270 terminal protocol.

As far as I can tell, this is only the second photo of the AppleLine ever posted on the Internet (the first was in a slideshow from last year — see below). I bought this particular Apple service sheet just to share a photo of this elusive beast with you.

In 1983, Apple released a similar (and similarly rare) product, the Apple Cluster Controller, which I wrote about in this Macworld slideshow from last year. One model of the Cluster Controller allowed up to seven Apple Lisas to connect to an IBM mainframe (again, via IBM 3270), which required an intelligent protocol conversion process. As such, the Cluster Controller contained its own CPU and was a miniature computer unto itself, but technical specifications of either device are hard to track down.

If you or anyone you know owns an Apple Cluster Controller or AppleLine protocol converter, I'd love to hear from you. They are so rare I'm not sure if they even exist anymore. (Perhaps Apple only leased them out and recalled all the units when they phased them out, keeping them largely out of private hands. But this is pure speculation on my part.)

[ From AppleLine Service Sheet (Apple P/N 661-75203), rev. March 1991 (7.2.1) ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What's the rarest Apple product you own?

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