The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell's Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

February 17th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

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.

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Ms. Pac-Man Turns 35

February 3rd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Ms. Pac-Man Arcade Flier Flyer

35 years ago today, Ms. Pac-Man made its worldwide public debut during a press conference held by Namco at Castle Park Entertainment Center in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Pac-Man launched on February 3, 1982.

In 2011, I interviewed three of Ms. Pac-Man's creators in depth for a planned feature I was going to write about the game's 30th anniversary. That project fell through, and although many journalists have written about Ms. Pac-Man since then (and its creators began giving public talks years ago), I found that my old interviews still contained fascinating nuggets of information on the game that had not yet come to light.

So I turned all of my source material on Ms. Pac-Man into an oral history, which FastCompany.com just published. It's likely that just about everything you'd ever want to know about Ms. Pac-Man's creation is covered there.

On VC&G, I would like to talk specifically about how I discovered the release date for Ms. Pac-Man, since I'd like people to correct the information that's out there. (Prior to the publication of my article, sites stated the launch date of Ms. Pac-Man anywhere between late 1981 and January 1982. Wikipedia still says "January 13, 1982″ as the launch date — I've asked Ms. Pac-Man's creators, and none of us can figure out where it came from.)

While I found evidence in a single newspaper arcade advertisement that Ms. Pac-Man was anticipated as early as January 31, 1982 (possibly from a test location), Bally Midway formally announced Ms. Pac-Man to the world during a press conference on Wednesday, February 3rd, 1982. A key newspaper report confirms this:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

That's an article from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, February 4th, 1982. It mentions the press conference happening on Wednesday of that week — hence, Feb 3, 1982.

Here's another article Ms. Pac-Man announcement article newspapers reprinted verbatim widely across the US. It is based on the article above and sent out as a wire report for syndication:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

Anyway — what a game, what a story. I hope you enjoy reading about how a band of plucky New England upstarts created the most popular arcade game in U.S. history.

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VC&G Patreon Launches Today

January 8th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Today's the big day. I just launched a Patreon Campaign with the aim of supporting my history work.

Click here to become a Patron of Benj Edwards and VC&G.

Also, I am doing a livestream Q&A at 1:30 Eastern today.

Here's some of the info from the Patreon page repeated below for future reference.

[ Continue reading VC&G Patreon Launches Today » ]

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Need Feedback on a Potential Patreon Campaign

January 3rd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Benj Edwards Patreon Header Draft

[ Update - 01/09/2016: I just launched my Patreon campaign this morning. You can see it here. ]

The Problem

Here I am. It's 2017. I've been writing professionally for over a decade now, and I'm not going to lie: I don't make much money. I support a family of four, health insurance keeps going up every year no matter what I make, and freelance budgets at publications are trending down. Competition is fierce.

What I'm trying to say is that my professional focus, as it stands now, is not sustainable in the long run. I can see the writing on the wall.

So I'm considering various options. One is a career change. But that is a hard trick to pull off. Maybe I could be a professional graphic designer, as I once was many years ago. I don't have a degree, so getting a full-time job is tricky. Maybe I could run off and join the circus. Maybe I could run off and join Burger King.

[ Continue reading Need Feedback on a Potential Patreon Campaign » ]

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The VC&G Christmas Collection (2016 Edition)

December 8th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It's that time of year again: the Yuletide. Over the past few years, I've been posting an annual collection of all the Christmas-related tech material I've written (both for this site and for others) into one place for easy reading. Below, you'll find list of off-site Christmas slideshows, other features, and of course, plenty of Retro Scans of the Week.

I have a soft spot for Christmas, having been raised with the tradition, so this list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. After going through these things again, it's amazing to see how much Christmas stuff I've posted over the years. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Continue reading The VC&G Christmas Collection (2016 Edition) » ]

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The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

November 7th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

The Cave BBS Logoff ANSI by Nukemaster

Last Friday, The Atlantic published an article I wrote in which I explore modern-day dial-up BBSes.

Some of you may remember that I've visited this topic before — on this very blog — way back in 2006. In my recent virtual travels, I found it very interesting to see how things in the dial-up BBS space had changed over ten years, and I allude to that in my Atlantic article.

I've mentioned this many times before, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, I ran a dial-up BBS called "The Cave BBS" between 1992 and 1998. Since 2005, I have also run a telnet version of The Cave.

To read more about my BBS adventures, check out the "BBS History" category on VC&G.

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Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

September 2nd, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer's first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF's playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.

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The IBM PC Turns 35

August 12th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Benj's IBM PC 5150

35 years ago today, IBM launched the IBM Personal Computer — the first-ever IBM PC. While it was simply called the "IBM Personal Computer" back then, we now know it more commonly by its model number, 5150.

PCWorld recently asked me to do something to celebrate this anniversary, so just a few days ago, I took apart my personal IBM PC 5150 and documented the process on my workbench. And back in 2011, I wrote some other articles about the IBM PC on the occasion of the machine's 30th anniversary.

In fact, I've done a lot of coverage of the IBM PC over the years, so I thought you guys might enjoy seeing a collection of all of them in one place. Here we go.

Features

IBM PC Retro Scans of the Week

IBM PC-Related VC&G Posts

There may be more lurking out there, but that's quite a bit of reading if you're interested in the IBM PC.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] NandO.net - My First ISP

January 18th, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Raleigh News and Observer Nando Nando.net Newspaper Advertisement ISP Internet - 1994The only time I have ever read the term "MUSH" in print.

You are looking at a scan of the actual newspaper ad that got me on the Internet with a commercial ISP for the first time. (Prior to that, I got online through a free dial-up university dataswitch.) It's an ad for NandO.net, a 1990s-era Raleigh, NC-based ISP originally owned and operated by our flagship newspaper, The News and Observer.

As you can see by the handwritten notes on the ad, my dad used this actual piece of paper to sign us up for an account on the service (I modified the credit card number digitally, in case anyone is wondering). I found this rare artifact in my old computer papers recently while researching my early web history for a FastCompany piece I wrote last year. In that article, I explored what it was like to build a website in 1995. Here's what I wrote about NandO:

As the Internet became more than just a way to access MUDs or look up the occasional novelty on text-based Gophers or web browsers, both of us sought a more robust way of accessing it. One of the first ISPs in our city was called NandO.net. Our local newspaper, the News and Observer, ran it as an extension of its efforts to pioneer online newsmaking processes.

On some day in late 1994, my father signed my family up for NandO.net. What we got in exchange for about $20 a month was an account on an Internet-enabled BBS, which had its own local message board and games, but would allow us to use text-only Internet email, web browsing, FTP, and Gopher. My dad paid extra for a "shell account" so I could log in and get a Unix command prompt. From there I could upload and download files from a terminal program, telnet to other servers, and push stuff from my shell account to remote machines via FTP.

What heady days those were. Incredible to think that I was just dipping my toes into what would eventually become a life-changing deluge — not just for me, but for all of humanity itself.

[ From The News and Observer, December 13, 1994, p.9A ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What was the name of your first ISP? What year did you first use it?

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] WorldsAway

December 14th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

Fujitsu Cultural Technologies WorldAway Graphical Multiuser Online Chat World on CompuServe First Advertisement - 1996"There's More to Life On-Line"

Just a few months ago, the 20th anniversary of the launch of WorldsAway, a pioneering graphical online world, came and went without any major notice (it launched in September 1995). But I remembered the milestone, and I wrote a recent This Old Tech column over on PCWorld.com about my memories of the service, which I stuck with in some form or another until 2001.

WorldsAway was simply magical when it launched. It promised to put you, as a user, into a graphical world that you could share with other online users (the term "Avatar" as an online representation of your physical self came from the creators of this lineage of online worlds). It delivered on that goal with a charming atmosphere — where you could change between whimsical heads with ease — and a vibrant community that I still look back on fondly to this day.

Honestly, I miss being part of that WorldsAway community. My involvement there came at a time when I was fairly lonely and isolated with my hobbies — my high school years — during a time when few "average" people used any online service whatsoever. Don't get me wrong; I did fairly well at school, and I wasn't a freak with no friends — but the real-life friends I did have did not share my love for the online world. Online, of course, I could find others like me, and on WorldsAway, we all celebrated that commonality together in a vibrant, playful world.

Did anybody else use WorldsAway in the 1990s? I'd love to hear from you.

P.S. I was an avid reader and subscriber of CompuServe Magazine in the 1990s, which is where I found and drooled over this ad back in the day.

[ From CompuServe Magazine, March 1996, p.4 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you use any graphical online chat worlds in the 1990s? Tell us about it.

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