Archive for December, 2008

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Forget the CD — Here’s the Optical Card

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Canon Optical Card Ad - 1990Ah yes; a worm pun.

Around the turn of the 1990s, “WORM” (Write Once Read Many) became a common computer industry buzz-word for a new mass-storage concept. Numerous companies released their own WORM drives that used proprietary forms of optical media, most of which were incompatible with other WORM drives. Seen here is such an attempt: a curious “Optical Card” from Canon that obviously didn’t achieve widespread usage. According to the ad, it stored two megabytes of data on an optical layer that could be written once and never changed — much like a CD-R, but without the spinning disc.

Cursory Google searches reveal that the Canon Optical Card eventually saw limited trials as an identification card, either for travelers or medical information. Whether it’s still in use today is unknown to me.

[ From BYTE Magazine — October 1990 ]

Discussion topic of the week: Do you recall using any strange computer storage media that didn’t become a standard? (i.e. Bernoulli, magneto-optical, WORM, VHS, tape, cassette, Jaz, etc.) Tell us about the most exotic computer storage media you’ve used.

If you use this image on your site, please support “Retro Scan of the Week” by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] A Peachtree Christmas

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Peachtree Christmas Ad - 1983Click above to see the full advertisement

Of all the Christmas-themed vintage computer ads I’ve seen, this 25 year-old specimen stands out for its rich, colorful illustration as one of my favorites. The item for sale in this case is PeachText 5000, an otherwise-boring productivity application (from a modern perspective, anyway). But hey; at least they hired a good illustrator.

By the way, I’d like to wish everybody out there a Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays from VC&G. While being relatively lazy for the next week, I’m going to take this opportunity to do some serious video game playin’. I hope you get the chance to do the same. Mother 3, here I come!

[ From Personal Computing — November 1983 ]

Discussion topic of the week: It’s Santa time. If you could magically (and freely) have any one item for your classic computer or video game collection, what would it be?

If you use this image on your site, please support “Retro Scan of the Week” by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.

Christmas Music Classics — NES Style

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

8-Bit Jesus Album

Just yesterday, chiptune artist Doctor Octoroc released a full MP3 album of NES-inspired Christmas songs called 8-Bit Jesus. It’s nothing less than a chiptune tour de force, brilliantly re-imagining familiar Christmas songs like Silent Night, Joy to the World, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the style of classic music from NES titles like Castlevania, Mega Man, Kid Icarus, and more.

Each track feels like it was pulled straight from an authentic NES cart; the haunting Kraid, Rest Ye Mother Brain delivers Christmas in the depths of Zebes, cleverly mixing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen with one of Metroid’s classic tunes.

Download the full album in MP3 format here. Or, if you donate $15 to Octoroc, he’ll even send you a physical copy on CD.

One warning though: aside from the last two tracks, this album is not a relaxing, laid-back listen — most of these action-packed songs will make you feel like you’re living in a frantic NES game (in other words, it’s not quite grandma material). But for those who grew up receiving the latest NES game for Christmas, this collection brings back warm and fuzzy feelings that perfectly channel the spirit of the Yuletide.

VC&G Interview: 30 Years Later, Richard Wiggins Talks Speak & Spell Development

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Texas Instruments Speak & SpellThirty years ago last June, Texas Instruments introduced Speak & Spell at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. This electronic spelling teacher for kids broke new ground by speaking out words via built-in voice synthesis — a world-first for a consumer product.

By Christmas 1978, the iconic orange and yellow device hit stores with a suggested retail price of $50 (US). TI’s new toy sold very well and became a media sensation, landing on magazine covers and eventually making an appearance as a key prop in a major Hollywood film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Intending to write an article about Speak & Spell’s 30th anniversary last July, I conducted an email interview with Richard Wiggins, a member of the original Speak & Spell development team. Wiggins is notable for co-designing speech synthesis techniques capable of being mass-produced in an inexpensive consumer product, which was no minor task in 1978.

I wanted to share my interview with Mr. Wiggins before the year is out, as it’s not only more relevant during 2008, but it also might be of interest to historians some day. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy reading it.

[ Continue reading VC&G Interview: 30 Years Later, Richard Wiggins Talks Speak & Spell Development » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Atari 2600 Newspaper Ad

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Atari 2600 Advertisement in Newspaper - 1981Click to see the 2600 ad in context.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a vintage video game ad from a newspaper. The subject in this case is the Atari 2600, and it appears in a “Howard BRANDiscount” advertisement from 1981. It’s especially amusing to see the Atari 2600 marketed in this particular context, peddled among such diverse items as spray paint, pocket t-shirts, picture frames, and disposable diapers (click on the image above to see what I mean).

Remember my grandmother’s cedar chest I talked about in September? Well, this is from the same chest, from a set of newspapers that my grandmother saved. I scanned many things from those papers, so you’ll probably be seeing more examples of vintage newsprint ads in the future.

[ From The Oak Ridger — Wednesday, January 21st, 1981 ]

Discussion topic of the week: What do you think this ad says about the state of the video game industry in 1981?

If you use this image on your site, please support “Retro Scan of the Week” by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.

Forty (Plus) Years of the Computer Mouse

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Image Desc

In case you were wondering, the computer mouse turned 40 today.

… or, at least, that’s what everybody is saying, despite the fact that Douglas Engelbart cobbled together his first mouse in 1963 (which would make the mouse something more like 45). But ah, the vagaries of media semantics — somebody toots their horn and then everybody has to jump on board.

Despite the numbers game, this date is indeed a special anniversary, because 40 years ago today, Douglas Engelbart presented “the mother of all demos” at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. This event was notable, among other reasons, for being the first time the public laid eyes on the computer mouse.

By now, you’re probably saying, “That’s great Benj, but I’m suspicious that you actually posted something on VC&G! Where do you and your professional career fit into this?” Well, I’m getting to that. In honor of this anniversary, Macworld asked me to write a short piece on the history of the mouse. After deliberating with myself for about 30 seconds, I accepted the assignment.

Over the next few days, I managed to assemble a comprehensive timeline that traces the mouse’s technical evolution through the years. Unsurprisingly, you can find it on Feel free to check it out if you’re interested, and tell them Benj sent ya. Even if you don’t check it out, remember to stare extra hard at your mouse today and contemplate its origins in the vast foggy distance of time.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] TrackMan Marble FX

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Trackman Marble FX Box - 1997I didn’t find this one in the creek.

And now, I present to you…a box. I know it’s not that old, but I’ve been hanging on to this scan since I finally threw out the packaging for my TrackMan Marble FX a few years ago (I scanned it first). I believe I bought this trackball around 1998. I had another Logitech trackball before it, but I was fed up with cleaning the rollers every few weeks. The neat thing about the TrackMan Marble series is that it used an optical scanning mechanism that tracked the movement of dots printed on the marbled red ball. I used the FX for years until it finally crapped out — some components inside of it irreparably broke, although I still have the parts. There’s more to my TrackMan Marble story, though, albeit with a different model.

Trackball Creek

When I moved to a new house a few years ago, I walked out one day to explore a twisty, shallow creek in the woods behind my house. The stream lies in a flood plain that gathers nearly all the water runoff in the area when it rains, so it regularly overflows its banks.

Some ways up the creek, I found a makeshift junkyard of soiled, broken goods both tossed and washed in from every direction. There, among the discarded bicycle spokes, power drills, soggy basketballs and broken mirrors, I spotted a curious looking ball protruding from the mud. I pulled it out and realized that it was a red trackball for a Logitech TrackMan Marble.

TrackMan Marble in the CreekMonths later, I found the unit itself, and it looked like this. I took it apart to see if I could salvage anything of interest, but, of course, sitting half a decade in a muddy, wet environment isn’t conducive to the proper operation of electronics. Beneath the dirt — caked and wedged between every crack imaginable — I found nothing but a corroded mess.

For a few weeks, the unit served as a strange fence ornament in my back yard until my wife complained about it, then I threw it out. In the end, I walked away with a nifty red trackball, half-bleached orange from years in the sun, that I still have in my collection. It serves as a token from an almost embarrassingly pitiful lesson in technological humility — how something once new, shiny, high-tech, and amazing can be quickly rendered worthless and derelict by an apathetic hand a coat of mud.

[ From back of TrackMan Marble FX Box, circa 1997 ]

Discussion topic of the week: It’s one of the great debates: trackball or mouse? You tell me!

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Kraft Premium Joystick

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Kraft Premium Joystick Ad - 1983Better than sliced cheese.

[ From Popular Computing, November 1983 ]

Discussion topic of the week: What’s the best Apple II or IBM PC compatible joystick you’ve ever used? It was always hard to find a really good one for platforms with analog joystick inputs.

If you use this image on your site, please support “Retro Scan of the Week” by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.