Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 2

December 17th, 2021 by Phillip Heller

Prodigy Online Service Logo

[ Phillip Heller is a member of the Prodigy Preservation Project. Here, he writes about his progress since Part 1 in January. –Benj ]

Reverse engineering Prodigy is not without challenges. Though the patent describes the communications protocol and the TBOL language well, it lacks detail of the application protocols – that is, the communications between the Reception System and the server-side applications like Logon, Enrollment, Messaging, and so on.

The progress made last time was to implement the communications protocols and to get the reception system to think it was connecting to the server. Now, we need to move beyond that.

After several months on other projects, I’ve freed up some time, made some significant progress, including successful Reception System login, which I’ll detail below.

[ Continue reading Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 2 » ]

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[ Retro Scan ] The Tandy Sensation!

December 17th, 2021 by Benj Edwards

Radio Shack Tandy Sensation PC WinMate Advertisement Flier Flyer scan - 1993“Now computing can be fun and easy for the entire family.”

The Tandy Sensation was an early attempt at a specialized Multimedia PC. In this case, Tandy came up with a 25 MHz 486SX computer with a 107 MB hard drive, built-in CD-ROM drive, stereo sound card, a voice/fax modem, SVGA color graphics, and more.

All this for $2,199 US with a SVGA monitor included (that’s about $4,232 today). You could also get the MMS-10 Stereo Speaker/Amplifier for $79.95. It seemed so futuristic at the time.

The Sensation also shipped with the interesting WinMate interface, a successor to DeskMate that ran on top of Windows 3.1.

I miss the ebullient joy of Radio Shack computer bundles aimed at families. They always seemed so fun. I remember seeing the Sensation in a local Raleigh, NC Radio Shack store circa 1993 and wanting one.

By the way — Merry Christmas!

[ From a Radio Shack mail flyer, June 1993, p.15 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever owned a Tandy IBM compatible PC? Tell us about it.

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Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

September 16th, 2021 by Benj Edwards

Clive SinclairIn Memoriam: Clive Marles Sinclair (1940-2021)
British inventor, Founder of Sinclair Research, Creator of Sinclair computers


See Also:
RSOTW: Where’s the Bits? (2008)
RSOTW: Memotech ZX81 Modules (2014)

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HP 95LX Games From CompuServe in the 1990s

July 27th, 2021 by Benj Edwards

HP 95LX

In the mid-1990s, my dad gave me a Hewlett Packard HP 95LX he bought from a friend and never used. The HP 95LX (1991) is a really cool handheld PC that runs DOS from ROM.

While looking for 95LX software around 1997 (according to the file dates, although it’s very possible I grabbed them earlier), I went on CompuServe and downloaded a passel of shareware games, amusements, and utilities that were designed specifically for the HP 95LX. Many of them were programmed by David K. Goodman, and they mostly date from 1991 and 1992.

[ Continue reading HP 95LX Games From CompuServe in the 1990s » ]

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Wowzers! 46 More How-To Geek History Articles

July 22nd, 2021 by Benj Edwards

The Commodore VIC-20

I joined How-To Geek in February 2020, and I’ve been regularly writing tech history-related features in addition to my usual how-to pieces. At the moment, they’re usually published every Monday or on special anniversaries.

Since my first post and second post detailing my history-related How-To Geek articles, I’ve written 46 more pieces that may be of interest to VC&G readers (bringing the total to 66, I think). Man, I’ve been busy! This is the kind of writing I always wanted to do for Vintage Computing and Gaming if my Patreon had ever been fully funded. Luckily, I’ve got a great thing going at How-To Geek.

I realize this list is almost incomprehensibly long, so I’ll try to break it into categories. I also wanted to have a record of all of them in one place, which will help when referring to them in the future.

[ Continue reading Wowzers! 46 More How-To Geek History Articles » ]

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[ Retro Scan ] The 1989 Game Boy Box

February 10th, 2021 by Benj Edwards

Nintendo Game Boy 1989 North American retail box scan front - 1989Now you’re playing with…glowing robot hands?!

Nintendo Game Boy 1989 North American retail box scan back - 1989Brother and sister are finally getting along with “Multiple Player Action.”

A friend recently noticed I haven’t posted a new Retro Scan since 2019 (by the way—wasn’t 2020 hell?), so I thought I’d dig through the archives and look for something fun. My scanner isn’t even hooked up at the moment. That’s how long it’s been!

Here’s a nice high-resolution scan of the Nintendo Game Boy box art, front and back, that I scanned a few years ago for an article. One of the most fascinating things about it for me is how the text on the back refers to the Game Boy’s D-pad as a “cross key joystick.” As far as I know, this is the first and only time I’ve seen it described that way. So maybe that’s the official Nintendo term for the D-pad?

I know I’ve let this site wither on the vine for too long, but I’m glad some people are still out there reading it. Hope you enjoy the scan.

[ From Nintendo Game Boy North American Box, 1989, Front and Rear ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite Game Boy game?

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Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 1

January 15th, 2021 by Phillip Heller

Prodigy Online Service Logo

[ Please welcome Phillip Heller, VC&G’s newest contributor, who is a member of the Prodigy Preservation Project. Phillip will post more updates on his progress here in the future. –Benj ]

Beginning in the mid 1980s, there were a number of online “walled gardens”. Among them were CompuServe, Genie, Delphi, Quantum Link (later PC-Link, AOL, etc), and Prodigy. The latter two were interesting in that they relied on specific client software to access the service.

Quantum Link was certainly novel for the fact that it furnished a graphical online experience for the Commodore 64, and Prodigy was novel for its use of the NAPLPS graphics standard, client-side P-Code virtual-machine, and hierarchical caching. In the early 2000s, some folks nostalgic for Q-Link set out to reverse engineer it, which was a success with Q-Link Reloaded launching sometime in 2005.

It’d be interesting to do a similar thing with Prodigy: To reverse engineer the client and rebuild a mock server with enough functionality to enable those interested to relive another one of the experiences of the early commercial online world. This is the first in a many part series about doing just that.

[ Continue reading Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 1 » ]

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Vintage Computing and Gaming Turns 15

November 2nd, 2020 by Benj Edwards

Vintage Computing and Gaming LogoGreetings, fellow retro tech fans. 15 years ago today, I launched Vintage Computing and Gaming. The origins of the site have been well-covered elsewhere, so I’ll spare you the rehash.

While I haven’t updated the site all that much over the past five years (since our big 10th anniversary celebration back in 2015), I still thought it would be nice to mention this anniversary. As you can see, VC&G is still online, and we still gets lot of legacy traffic from our old posts. In particular, I feel that this site’s archive of comments are a priceless historical record of people’s memories of the past. The server still costs money to keep running, and generous folks on Patreon make that possible without advertisements.

And even though I only post on VC&G a few times a year these days, the site is still not dead. Our patron saint Steve Wozniak recently posted on the site, marking a sort of full-circle fulfillment of how much my career has changed since I started the site 15 years ago. Back then, I had no idea I’d still be talking and writing about vintage computers and retrogaming 15 years later, or that it would became a career path. It’s mind-boggling to think of all the historical tech achievements that have taken place in the past 15 years, and now this site itself is vintage.

Benj Edwards in 2006So what’s next for VC&G? I’m not quite sure yet. I plan to keep it up as long as I can, and I’ll post on it when I have something to share that I can’t post anywhere else. For example, I’ve recently been experimenting with setting up the TTL RGB input on one of my old monitors. I might put some of that info on here at some point so it doesn’t get lost. And my wife wants me to try doing some YouTube some day. Not sure when I’ll ever do it (and the topic is so well-covered by others), but if I do, you’ll hear about it on this site.

Other than that, it seems retrogaming and vintage computing are both covered very well all over the Internet now (on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Discord, and more), unlike back in 2005, so I don’t feel like the world needs VC&G as much as it did then. But this site has served its purpose, and the old posts and scans still continue to serve as a valuable historical resource for people. I don’t know why but I almost felt a tear well up inside this old vintage head of mine.

Anyway, if anyone is still out there and still reading this site, thanks for sticking with VC&G for so long. I’m grateful to have had you along on this 15-year journey. If you have the time, I’d love to hear some of your memories about your favorite VC&G posts of the past in the comments. Happy Birthday, Vintage Computing and Gaming!

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Why the Apple II Didn’t Support Lowercase Letters

September 8th, 2020 by Steve Wozniak

1977 Apple II Advertisement

[Editor’s Note: I recently asked Steve Wozniak via email about why the original Apple II did not support lowercase letters. I could have guessed the answer, but it’s always good to hear the reason straight from the source. Woz’s response was so long and detailed that I asked him if I could publish the whole thing on VC&G. He said yes, so here we are. –Benj]

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In the early 1970s, I was very poor, living paycheck to paycheck. While I worked at HP, any spare change went into my digital projects that I did on my own in my apartment. I was an excellent typist. I was proficient at typing by touch using keypunches with unusual and awkward special characters — even though some used two fingers of one hand.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs with an Apple II saw a friend typing on a teletype to the six computers on the early ARPAnet. I had to have this power over distant computers too. After building many arcade games on computers, how to build it was obvious to me instantly. I’d create a video generator (as with the arcade games) and display text using a character generator chip. But I needed a keyboard.

I’d show up at HP every morning around 6 AM to peruse engineering magazines and journals to see what new chips and products were coming. I found an offer for a $60 keyboard modeled after the upper-case-only ASR-33 teletype.

That $60 for the keyboard is probably like $500 today [About $333 adjusted for inflation — Benj]. This $60 was the single biggest price obstacle in the entire development of the early Apple computers. I had to gulp just to come up with $60, and I think my apartment rental check bounced that month — they put me on cash payment from then on. Other keyboards you could buy back then cost around $200, which might be $1000 or more now. There just wasn’t any mass manufacturing of digital keyboards in 1974.

So my TV Terminal, for accessing the ARPAnet, was uppercase only.

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Apple I Owned By Steve Jobs Auction ImageThe idea for my own computer came into my head the first day of the Homebrew Computer Club.

Maybe a year prior, I had looked at the 4-bit Intel 4004 microprocessor and determined that it could never be used to build the computer I wanted for myself — based on all the minicomputers that I’d designed on paper and desired since 1968-1970. But at the Homebrew Computer Club, they were talking about the 8008 and 8080 microprocessors, which I had not kept up with after my 4004 disappointment. I took home a data sheet for the 8008, based on a version of it from a Canadian company. That night, I discovered that this entire processor was capable of being a computer.

I already had my input and output, my TV Terminal. With that terminal, I’d type to a computer in Boston, for example, and that far-away computer, on the ARPAnet, would type back to my TV. I now saw that all I had to do was connect the microprocessor, with 4K of RAM (I’d built my tiny computer with the capability of the Altair, 5 years prior, in 1970, with my own TTL chips as the processor). 4K was the amount of RAM allowing you to type in a program on a human keyboard and run it.

My computer wasn’t designed from the ground up. I just added the 6502 microprocessor and 4K DRAMS (introduced that summer of 1975 and far less costly than Intel static RAMs) to have a complete computer with input and output.

So the uppercase keyboard was not designed as part of a computer. It already existed as my TV Terminal.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs with an Apple III truly would have wanted lower case on a keyboard, but I was still totally cash strapped, with no spare money. After already starting a BASIC interpreter for my computer, I would have had to re-assemble all my code. But here again, I did not have the money to have an account on a timeshare service for a 6502 interpreter. The BASIC was handwritten and hand-assembled. I’d write the source code and then write the binary that an interpreter would have turned my code into. To implement a major change like lower case (keeping 6 bits per character in my syntax table instead of 5 bits) would have been a horrendous and risky job to do by hand. If I’d had a time-share assembler, it would have been quick and easy. Hence, the Apple I wound up with uppercase only.

I discussed the alternatives with Steve Jobs. I was for lower case, but not for money (cost). Steve had little computer experience, and he said that uppercase was just fine. We both had our own reasons for not changing it before the computers were out. Even with the later Apple II (as with the Apple I), the code was again hand-written and hand-interpreted because I had no money. All 8 kB of code in the Apple II was only written by my own hand, including the binary object code. That made it impossible to add lower case into it easily.

So, in the end, the basic reason for no lowercase on the Apple I and Apple II was my own lack of money. Zero checking. Zero savings.

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More How-To Geek History Articles from Benj

August 14th, 2020 by Benj Edwards

Three "Ancient Files" disks

As I mentioned back in April, I joined up with How-To Geek in February, and I’ve been regularly writing tech history-related features in addition to my usual how-to pieces.

Since that first post, I’ve written many more pieces that may be of interest to VC&G readers. Here’s a list:

Some of my favorites include the Turbo Button piece, in which I discovered the first PC to ever use a turbo button, the Noisy Modem piece, in which I identified the man who invented the onboard modem speaker, and my look at Gopher, wherein I talked to the lead creator of the Gopher protocol. My ode to Windows 2000 is fun too. But heck, they’re all fun reads.

Hope you enjoy reading them! Keep an eye on my How-To Geek author page for more in the future.

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