Archive for the 'Vintage Computing' Category

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.

Benj Writes History at How-To Geek

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Back in February, I landed a full-time job at How-To Geek as a Staff Writer. It’s been a great gig, and I am enjoying helping people with tricky (and sometimes very simple) tech problems.

I’ve written a lot about iPhone, iPad, Mac, Windows 10, and the Nintendo Switch so far, but HTG also lets me do a history feature about once a week. That way I can keep flexing my tech nostalgia muscles. Here are the history pieces I’ve done so far:

Expect much more where that came from, so keep an eye on my How-To Geek page, and you’ll see new ones pop up from time to time.

I hope everybody out there is doing well.  This blog isn’t dead yet — I still plan to post some more Retro Scans some day.

Larry Tesler (1945-2020)

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Larry TeslerIn Memoriam: Lawrence G. “Larry” Tesler (1945-2020),
inventor of Copy/Paste at Xerox PARC, member of Apple Lisa team,
human-computer interaction expert

Tesler was a giant in the field of human-computer interaction, having pioneered modeless interfaces at Xerox PARC and carried those over to Apple as part of the Lisa team. While at PARC, he and Timothy Mott created a text editor called Gypsy that included the first implementation of the now-common Copy and Paste features for moving blocks of information easily within a document. According to Robert Scoble, Tesler was also on the committee at Apple that decided to re-hire Steve Jobs in the mid-1990s. He will be missed.

Atari 800 Turns 40

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

Atari 800 FastCompany Article by Benj Edwards

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Atari 400 and Atari 800 home computers — Atari released them in the fall of 1979.

(Many sources say November 1979, but I found some newspaper references to retailers having them in stock in October 1979.)

To celebrate the birthday of my favorite computer and game machine, I investigated the story behind its creation for FastCompany. I threw in some personal nostalgia and vintage photos of my older brother using an Atari for good measure.

Forty years ago, Atari released its first personal computers: the Atari 400 and 800. They arrived in the fall of 1979 after a prerelease marketing campaign that had begun the previous January when the company unveiled the machines at what was then called the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Then as now, “Atari” was synonymous with “video game,” and the new machines packed more technological potential than any game console at the time, with custom graphics and sound chips, support for four joysticks or eight paddles, and the ability to play games on cartridge, cassette, or disk. At launch, one of the machines’ first games, Star Raiders, defined cutting-edge home entertainment.

To research the piece, I spoke in depth with former Atari engineer Joe Decuir and former Atari software evangelist Chris Crawford (also a game designer best known for Eastern Front: 1941 and Balance of Power). Crawford is a fascinating guy, and I should probably publish my full interview with him at some point.

I’ve been meaning to write a piece like this about the Atari 800 since 2009 when the console turned 30. (Read more about that on this post about my 30th anniversary teardown.) What can I say — I play the long game.

I hope you enjoy it — and Merry Christmas!

The VC&G Christmas Collection (2019 Edition)

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It’s that time of year again: the Yuletide. Over the past eight 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.

This year, I updated the PC World/MacWorld/Techhive links to Archive.org WayBack Machine links. The images on all of my old PCWorld features are now sadly broken.

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 (2019 Edition) » ]

[ VC&G Anthology ] The Evolution of Computer Displays

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

Evolution of Computer Displays by Benj Edwards Title Image

Take a good look at this sentence. You’re reading it thanks to the magic of a computer display — whether it be LCD, CRT, or even printed out on paper. Since the beginning of the digital era, users have needed a way to view the results of programs run on a computer — but the manner in which computers have spit out data has changed considerably over the last 70 years. Let’s take a tour.

[ Continue reading [ VC&G Anthology ] The Evolution of Computer Displays » ]

[ Retro Scan ] IBM 4341 Super-Mini

Friday, July 12th, 2019

IBM 4341 Super-Mini Mainframe computer University Big man on Campus advertisement scan - 1984A controller bigger than your head

As far as I recall, this is the first time I’ve ever featured an advertisement for an IBM mainframe computer system on VC&G. The system in question is the IBM 4341, a System/370-compatible model first launched in 1979 and discontinued in 1986.

In this 1984 ad, we catch the system — apparently used commonly at universities — near the end of its lifespan. Other than this ad, I know nothing else about it. But Wikipedia does.

Huge IBM mainframes at universities predate my time in college — I’m actually glad I never had to use them.

[ From Discover Magazine, January 1984, p.22-23 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever used an IBM mainframe computer? Tell us about it.

[ Fuzzy Memory ] Mouse and Snake Labyrinth Game

Friday, July 5th, 2019

Fuzzy MemoryEvery once and a while, I receive emails from people looking for a certain game, electronic toy, or computer from their distant past. I then pass it on to intrepid VC&G readers to crack the case.

The Clues

Roberto writes:

I’m trying to find an “nostalgy” old game, I remember a mouse running through a labyrinth eat cheeses and a boa pursuit it.

Several years I’m trying to find this old dos or ms dos game.
Can you help to find it?

Thanks in advance,
Roberto

The Search Begins

It’s up to you to find the object of Roberto’s fuzzy memory. Post any thoughts or suggestions in the comments section below. Roberto will be monitoring the comments, so if you need to clarify something with him, ask away. Good luck!

Have a memory of a computer, video game, computer software, or electronic toy you need help identifying? Send me an email describing your memories in detail. Hopefully, the collective genius of the VC&G readership can help solve your mystery.

I’ve Been Building Joysticks

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Benj's Joysticks in Mid-September 2018

Since August 1st of this year, I’ve been building and selling custom joysticks through Twitter. This small venture has been an unexpected success.

People love them, and that makes me very happy. I’ve sold about 140 so far, and I’ve built and shipped about 100 all around the world.

The past few months have been a wild ride, and I’d like to tell you some about it.

The Highest Quality Parts

Benj Edwards BX Foundry JoysticksThe basic concept behind every joystick I’ve made so far is simple: bring the best quality arcade parts to home consoles and computers.

I’ve been using Japanese arcade joysticks and buttons from Sanwa Denshi, a firm that makes some of the best arcade assemblies in the world.

The results have been incredible. Games I thought previously unplayable are suddenly rendered fun, like lifting some kind of fog.

Mushy, worn out control pads have come between me and gaming for too long, and I had no idea. When you push a button or move the lever on one of my sticks, something happens. Every time. There is no blaming the controller for gaming failures.

That extra level of accuracy brings new life to older games. Especially on platforms that didn’t have great controllers to begin with. Figuring this out has made me want to share these joysticks with everybody. But let’s take a step back and see how this all got started.

[ Continue reading I’ve Been Building Joysticks » ]