Archive for the 'Design' Category

VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn’t a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

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

Friday, November 6th, 2015

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 ] The Lowly Disk Box

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Amaray DiskBank Media Mate Disk Box Ad - 1984The Amaray Corporation DiskBank Media Mate

It’s not every day that I stop and think about floppy diskette storage boxes. I never had a favorite brand of them, but I did find fault with many of the designs I encountered over the years. My least favorite thing about the DiskBank-stye box is if you pick it up by its “handle” (as illustrated here) without locking or properly latching the lid, the lid flops open and you end up with a pile of floppies on the floor.

It would be interesting to catalog and put together a historical timeline of floppy disk box brands…but then again, I don’t see myself doing that any time soon.

[ From BYTE Magazine, April 1984, p.149 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What kind of containers do (or did) you use to store your floppy disks?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Daisy Wheel

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Scan of a Daisy Wheel Printer Font WheelText in bloom.

Here’s an interesting piece of obsolete technology — a plastic Lanier daisy wheel for a daisy wheel printer. Its actual size is about three inches in diameter.

There was a time when having a “letter quality” impact printer meant that the machine printed text using pre-formed, typewriter-like type elements. Some printers held these elements in the shape of a cylinder or a sphere, but in the case of the daisy wheel printer, the character forms projected from a central wheel in a shape that resembled a daisy flower.

Daisy wheel printers produced text by rotating the wheel to the proper character spoke and striking the back of it against an ink ribbon, which would leave a mark on the underlying paper.

Each daisy wheel rendered a different font (or type size), and thus fonts could be changed as easily as replacing one wheel with another. In this case, you’re looking at a wheel for the font called “Prestige Elite 12,” but printer makers sold dozens of other font wheels, such as those for Courier 10 or Cubic 15.

The daisy wheel method reproduced fonts using a dramatically different technique than, say, dot-matrix printers, which used a single matrix of metal pins to form various characters.

Laser and inkjet printers, which produce much less noise and use software-based fonts, made impact printers thoroughly obsolete for every-day PC use by the late 1980s (though stragglers used dot-matrix printers well into the mid-1990s due to lower prices). Even so, impact printers still reign supreme in specialized applications that require physical force, such as document reproduction via carbon copy paper.

[ Scan of Lanier daisy wheel, circa 1978 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a daisy wheel printer? Tell us about it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Asimov’s Pocket Computer

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Isaac Asimov promotes the TRS-80 Pocket Computer - Magazine Ad - 1982“It’s so small I nearly swallowed it.”

The TRS-80 Pocket Computer was an amazing little gadget. This 1980 calculator-sized computer packed a full QWERTY keyboard and the BASIC programming language built in. The ability to program BASIC on such a tiny pocket machine was incredible in an age when few calculators were programmable at all, and the ones that were required arcane rituals to program.

I used this exact model myself in high school on some math tests to perform some trigonometry equations in a BASIC program I wrote. Even though that was in the mid-late 1990s, the Pocket Computer seemed so futuristic that the teacher had no idea it was possible. Even today, the Pocket Computer remains incredibly useful for certain tasks. That’s an amazing thing to say about a device released in 1980.

[ From Byte, February 1982, back cover ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What’s the smallest computing device you owned prior to the year 2000?

The Secret World of Embedded Computers

Monday, February 7th, 2011

The Secret World of Embedded Computers on

You can now buy a $5 pregnancy test that casually wields more CPU power than an Apple II. The Xbox S controller — by itself — packs more raw processing muscle than a SNES.

Those are merely two of the fascinating things you’ll learn if you check out my latest feature for, “The Secret World of Embedded Computers.” It’s a dee-luxe slideshow that reveals computers at the heart of surprising consumer gadgets.

There are also a couple shout-outs for vintage technology in there (not quite as surprising), so the slideshow is at least somewhat VC&G-relevant. Hope you enjoy it.

The Evolution of Computer Displays

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Evolution of Computer Displays - A Brief History of Computer Displays on PC

PC World recently published “A Brief History of Computer Displays,” one of my most recent slideshow works and the latest in my “Evolution” series. The piece traces computer display devices from blinking lights, to paper tape, to terminals, and beyond.

Special thanks to Steve Wozniak and Lee Felsenstein for help with a certain segment of computer display history — the era when computers shifted from serial terminals IO to directly outputting a video signal. Our conversations were exciting stuff that I’ll explore further in future articles.

I hope you enjoy it. When you’re done reading, come back over and tell us what your first computer display/monitor was like.

Previous entries in Benj’s “Evolution of…” series:
The Evolution of Video Game Media
The Evolution of Removable Storage
The Evolution of The Cell Phone

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] IBM ScrollPoint Mouse

Monday, April 19th, 2010

IBM ScrollPoint Mouse Ad - 1997Overcome one of the Internet’s least annoying problems.

Ever since Microsoft introduced its first mouse with a scroll wheel, the IntelliPoint Explorer, in 1996, mouse designers have been tripping over themselves to solve the non-problem of how to allow a user to scroll a document horizontally as well as vertically. Along the way, we’ve seen solutions like the IBM TrackPoint (above), Microsoft’s own “tilt wheel” mice, and more recently the “scroll ball” on Apple’s Mighty Mouse. In the case of the ScrollPoint mouse seen above, it looks like IBM simply took its TrackPoint pointing device and stuck it on a mouse where a scroll wheel should be.

It’s all been for naught, though, because 99% of mouse users don’t care about scrolling horizontally. In fact, if you have to scroll horizontally to view a website — the task most often enhanced by a scroll wheel — the website has been terribly designed. As a result, I suspect that horizontal scrolling apparatus tend to annoy users more than help them. I’m sure someone out there will read this and swear by their horizontal scrolling mouse, but I’m also fairly certain that person is in the minority.

For more on mouse history, check out this nifty article I did for Macworld a few years ago. It includes a handy mouse technology timeline.

[ From PC World, November 1997, p.27 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Does your mouse provide the means to scroll horizontally as well as vertically? How do you feel about it?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Barbie and Hot Wheels PCs

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Patriot Mattel Barbie PC Hot Wheels PC Ad - 2000“Computers designed with kids in mind.”

[ From Parenting, September 2000, p.73 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Would you ever buy a PC with a themed case? If so, what would be the theme?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Sony 3.5″ Floppy Disk

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Sony 3.5This reminds me of a psychic parlor trick.

The Sony-designed 3.5″ floppy drive (1982) first made waves in the mid-1980s with its use in the Apple Macintosh, released in 1984. The format quickly gained popularity in the PC market and overtook the 5.25″ floppy disk in overall usage by the early 1990s. PC clone manufacturers, many of whom had supported both the larger and smaller floppy formats, eventually stopped including 5.25″ drives in their machines.

Today, 3.5″ floppy drives are rarely found in new PCs thanks to more capacious CD-Rs, removable flash media (especially USB thumb drives), and nearly ubiquitous computer networking. However, that hasn’t stopped Windows XP from requiring @#^$ RAID drivers on a floppy disk when it’s being installed.

[ From Macazine, January 1987 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Do you still use 3.5″ floppy disks regularly? What for?