Archive for the 'Vintage Computing' Category

Tech Time Capsule: Early 1990s Clip Art Captured an Era

Monday, April 15th, 2024

1990s Clip Art of a Woman Walking into a Store

Clip art collections from the early 1990s are today’s forgotten cultural time capsules, freezing life three decades ago as digital illustrations full of obsolete tech, vintage fashions, and more. Just for fun, let’s explore computer art from a time just before the Internet hit it big.

[Benj’s note—I wrote this piece years ago, and it never saw the light of day until now. Hope you enjoy.]

The Origins of Clip Art

The concept of clip art originated in the pre-computer era, when graphics designers would browse printed collections of royalty-free illustrations to cut and paste into their compositions.

When desktop publishing came to personal computers in the mid-1980s, the need arose for digital artwork that people could paste into newsletters, banners, signs, and more. Illustrators created these artworks and publishers collected them onto volumes of floppy disks or on CD-ROM, and users would load them into applications such as WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Aldus PageMaker.

Historically, artists created most clip art in a vector format, which means the images could be scaled to any size and not lose quality. That makes it extra fun today to take an image designed for very low resolution and scale it up to 3000 pixels wide to see details that you might otherwise miss.

I browsed through about a dozen early 1990s CD-ROM clip art collections found on the Internet Archive and Jason Scott’s CD archive and picked out a handful of examples of the artform that represent an unusual and rare peek into our digital past.

Obsolete Technology

Obsolete Tech in 1990s Clip Art

Clip art collections from the early 1990s are full of obsolete technology, such as 35mm film, pagers, brick-like cell phones, typewriters, word processors, VHS tapes, huge answering machines, overhead projectors, film cameras, and much more. Browsing these images somehow makes you feel like a digital archeologist discovering the tools people used in the past (even if you lived through that time period yourself).

[ Continue reading Tech Time Capsule: Early 1990s Clip Art Captured an Era » ]

My memories of what life was like before the Internet

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Two men on an early buggy car busting through a blue world map.

[Benj’s note — I originally wrote this in 2020 and had it sitting around until now. I still think it might be useful to someone in the future, so I decided to publish it.]

Many Americans alive today witnessed one of the most dramatic cultural transitions since the invention of the printing press: The rise of the consumer Internet, beginning around 1994. For everyone else, life before the Internet may seem like a distant, foggy past. To help future generations understand what happened, here’s what life was like back then, mostly based on my personal recollections as someone born in 1981.

The Internet first made its way to the world as the ARPAnet (1969), a computer network that linked universities and government institutions. The network grew quickly in size and capability, and soon, it opened up to private companies and individuals. Not long after becoming publicly known as the Internet, this global network first made a big splash in the mainstream American press. Around 1995, commercial ISPs began springing up overnight, and soon America was rushing to get connected.

As a result of easy and inexpensive Internet access in homes and businesses (and now in our pockets), many aspects of our society have changed, and I’m going to go over some of them below.

This is a broad generalization

Everything you’re about to read is a generalization. Individual experiences before the Internet differed greatly depending on your location, age, and socioeconomic status.

In fact, experiences varied year-by-year as culture and technology shifted. And obviously, life before the Internet spans back into prehistory. So to simplify things, I’ll be talking about life from the point of view of a middle-class American family in the years before the Internet hit it big—roughly the 1970s to the early 1990s.

I was born in 1981 in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, and raised there in what might be described as an upper-middle-class white suburban family with a technologically literate father (who was an electronics engineer) and access to varied computer platforms and telecommunications from an early age.

I still think this summary of differences might be useful to people in the future since it is coming from the perspective of a veteran tech historian who has spent nearly two decades writing about these topics.

So first, a very big disclaimer: Your Memories Will Vary.

[ Continue reading My memories of what life was like before the Internet » ]

Benj Writes Tech History at Ars Technica

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023

A TRS-80 Model 100 in front of an explosive, fiery background.

In August 2022, I joined up with Ars Technica as their AI and Machine Learning Reporter. Of course, even while documenting one of the wildest cutting-edge stories in tech at the moment, my heart never strays far from the subject of this site: vintage technology and the history behind it.

In between writing about AI at Ars over the past 8+ months, I’ve had the chance to occasionally write a piece about tech history or nostalgia (23 in total so far). To capture them all in one place, I’ve created a tag called “retrotech” for all of those articles at Ars. To check them out, click this link.

Here’s a fun one I did not too long ago: Egad! 7 key British PCs of the 1980s Americans might have missed.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum ad excerptSo if you’re interested, keep an eye on the “retrotech” tag and follow along there. In a way, it’s kind of an extension of what I did on Vintage Computing and Gaming back in the day, albeit this time I make a full-time living and get health benefits. That’s quite an upgrade!

As I usually mention in posts on here for the past few years, I’m sorry that I’ve let VC&G wither with neglect. I’m not shutting it down since there is so much historically valuable content here (especially interviews and comments), and our Patreon supporters keep these archives online. Thanks for your continued support over the past 18 years!

P.S. Did you see this piece that lists out all of the tech history work I did at How-To Geek between 2020 and 2022? Pretty cool.

Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 2

Friday, December 17th, 2021

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 » ]

[ Retro Scan ] The Tandy Sensation!

Friday, December 17th, 2021

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.

HP 95LX Games From CompuServe in the 1990s

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021


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 » ]

Wowzers! 46 More How-To Geek History Articles

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

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 » ]

Reverse Engineering Prodigy, Part 1

Friday, January 15th, 2021

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 » ]

Why the Apple II Didn’t Support Lowercase Letters

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

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]


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.


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.

More How-To Geek History Articles from Benj

Friday, August 14th, 2020

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.