Archive for the 'Computer History' Category

HP 95LX Games From CompuServe in the 1990s

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

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 » ]

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]

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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.

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 » ]