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Digital Retro 111

I spent several hours this week poring through Gordon Laing's beautiful book Digital Retro , and it's one I'm sure to return to at odd moments, the same way I like to flip through old copies of The Whole Earth Catalog. Digital Retro represents years of research into a 14-year stretch of personal computing history, distilling that effort into a work that is graphically appealing, but also an informative, informal historical look at the machines it celebrates (all 40 of them). Depending in part on what year you were born (and at what age computers entered the picture) you may recognize most of these machines, or only a few -- it's an equally fun read either way. Read on for the rest of my review.
Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal Computer
author Gordon Laing
pages 192
publisher Sybex
rating 9
reviewer timothy
ISBN 078214330X
summary Eye-candy mixed with a good dose of history, perfect for the library of a modern techno fetishist.

Digital Retro is about personal-use (though not necessarily home-use) machines: there are no PDP11's or mainframes represented, nor devices like the DECWriter, which gave computer access to individuals but required a mainframe or minicomputer in the background. The book covers hardware that was sold at retail (barring the Altair and a few other mail-order-only kit machines), at prices householders could afford for their hobby use, including gaming, or that businesses could afford for their executives and other knowledge workers. All the same, the prices are sure to make you calculate every so often things like how many BogoMIPS could be had today for the $3,250 that a 613KHz HP-85 cost in 1980 -- and those are 1980 dollars. Early adoption has its risks as well as its rewards.

From iconic to obscure

Too many computer makers (and even more computers) came and went in the decade-plus spanned by this book for it to cover all of them; Laing's list of chosen machines is representative rather than comprehensive. More than 30 of the machines came from the The Museum of Computing in Swindon, and despite their age most look like they just popped out of their delivery boxes.

Digital Retro's central section starts out with a MITS Altair, the machine generally considered the first computer practical for a hobbyist to buy. (And the buyer had to be a dedicated hobbyist; the Altair was sold in kit form for home-assembly, and its display was a series of winking lights, its input facilities a row of toggle switches.) "Practical" in the case of the Altair meant affordable and accessible -- there wasn't much of a practical nature for the solder-weary user to actually do with an Altair once it was assembled; the chicken and the egg of availability and usefulness were still fighting it out at this point in computer history. The Altair also has another interesting spot in personal computer history: it provided the first platform for an operating system from Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

(There's an Apple I in homemade wooden raiment snuck into the book's introduction -- an Apple I proved too difficult to find for a full writeup and photoshoot, however, and no Apple II clones made the cut.)

From the Altair to the NeXT cube which caps off the Digital Retro's collection, the 38 machines (and in some cases machine families, such as the MSX computers mentioned below) are presented in order of appearance. The book presents too many interesting machines to give each a proper summary, but here are a few to whet your appetite:

  • The Sharp MZ-80K (December, 1978) -- with its 10" screen and built-in drive (tape drive, though -- the 3.5" diskette wasn't invented yet), the MZ-80K seems ahead of its time; the choice of a Zilog Z80 processor didn't do much for its longevity as a business system, though; Z80 systems were soon eclipsed by other choices.
  • The GCE/MB Vectrex (June, 1982) -- the only video game system I really wanted as a kid, and one of the seeming few I've never encountered used in thrift stores. Bright vector graphics, built-in screen and a quality joystick gave it the same kind of appeal that the arcade-console versions of Asteroids and Battlezone had for me.
  • The Jupiter ACE (September, 1982) -- an impossibly simply looking machine, a terraced slab of white plastic with a minimalist typewriter layout (just 40 grey keys). The ACE was aimed at programmer-hobbyists, though, like the similar-looking Sinclair ZX-80, but the ACE ran a version of FORTH and had raised keys rather than the Sinclair's flat membrane.
  • The Sinclair QL (January, 1984) -- one of which, Laing notes, was Linus Torvalds' machine (between a VIC-20 and the 386 with which Torvalds started a quaint Unix-like operating system).

Game consoles are also well represented; six dedicated game machines, starting with the Atari VCS (1977) are included; a whole book could be devoted to consoles, but the ones chosen for Digital Retro (besides Atari and the Vectrex mentioned above, the others come from Colleco, Mattel, Nintendo, Sega) are an eclectic bunch, and a good use of space.

Because Laing is based in the UK, the book features quite a few machines that most Americans have probably never encountered in person, like the Acorn Atom, the Dragon 32 (a Welsh-made near-clone of the Tandy TRS-80) and the Grundy NewBrain. If this book had been an American production, many of these UK-made machines might have gone overlooked.

No incentive to work together

In the wilder days of the personal computer's adolescence, the quest for compatibility and standardization among machines was anything but a top priority -- and when it was a factor at all, it was usually about software compatibility between sibling computers (like the TI 99/4 and its 99/4A successor) or at most within a single model line.

As the book's back cover points out, "Compatibility? Forget it! Each of these computers was its own machine and had no intention of talking to anything else." An overstatement, but not much of one.

Laing covers an intriguing exception to this one-off philosophy, a multi-manufacturer line of machines that appeared in 1983 (starting a 5-year run), sharing a Zilog processor and adherence to an early Microsoft attempt at standardization called MSX. Mostly-compatible machines were launched by JVC, Hitachi, Sony (a name that didn't pop up in the American computer market for quite a few more years) and 18 other Japanese manufacturers as well as SpectraVideo, the only non-Japanese maker. Each manufacturer tweaked their entries in the line to distinguish themselves, adding features like (in Pioneer's case) control of laser-disc players. The differences soon rendered the attempt at standardization moot, and the MSX standard fell from grace. And if you're wondering what MSX stands for, you'll have to choose from the three possibilities listed: I prefer "Matsushita Sony X, where X could stand for any other company."

Get a good look

The photographs dominate; they give external views of each machine from several angles, over two two-page spreads apiece. (The pictures are well-chosen, but not exhaustive: there are no shots from the underside, and in only a few cases are internals exposed. Don't expect to replicate the innards of an Altair from the photographs.) You can make out what sort of ports each device provided, see what kind of display it used in most cases, and look at the included input peripherals. (Many of these machines, though, were hooked to televisions, and only the main unit and its input devices are pictured.)

Speaking of peripherals, one of the nice things about a photo book like this is for the mugshots it provides of unique physical arrangements tried by computer manufacturers: the integrated tape drive of the black-clad Amstrad CPC-464 (which sits to the right of the keyboard) makes it one of the most interesting to me; it sure is a lot neater arrangement than the cassette drive linked messily to the family C64 in the early '80s.

Besides the photographs, though, the spreads devoted to each computer provide a compact history of the machine, list its country of origin, and give a rundown of the most important specs (processor type and available I/O ports).

Practical Upshot

Digital Retro is a coffee-table book which happens to have quite a bit of interesting history, not a deep historical text. For each machine displayed, though, a chunk of text titled "What happened next" gives an idea of what developments each one led to (or prevented); some of these are only a paragraph or two, others are mini-essays in themselves. If you crave more technical and historical details, Laing's book makes an excellent companion volume to narrative-centric books which cover the same period of computer history though, like Fire in the Valley and Steven Levy's Hackers. It's a perfect way to appreciate the aesthetic appeal (and exuberant variety) of personal computers from the mid '70s to the late '80s.


You can purchase Digital Retro from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews. To see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Digital Retro

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  • C64 (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Enigma_Man ( 756516 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:45PM (#10738069) Homepage
    I still use mine. Mostly I just make happy SID noises, and palette shifts.

    -Jesse
    • Apparently I got voted overrated or something. To prove it, here [cantarafamily.net]

      -Jesse
    • Re:C64 (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Zedrick ( 764028 )
      I wonder how come the parent was rated funny, it sounds like a quite common use for the C64 by someone who likes the machine but doesn't have a real die-hard attitute.

      There are still a few thousand people who use this machine for various stuff (I'm one of them, I currently have 5 C64's in the living room and one C128 set up right here next to my AMD64(!) PC). Most demo coders seems to be located in Europe, while North American Commodore users for some reasons seems focused on using their Commies for "se
    • Re:C64 (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bennomatic ( 691188 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:21PM (#10738360) Homepage
      Man, I miss 8-bit computing. Back in the good old days, you just peeked and poked (or LDA'd and STA'd) wherever the heck you wanted. Ask the system for resources? Bah! If I practiced poor memory management and ran out or overwrote something, cool things would happen. Text would change shapes or colors. The screen might change color in the middle. The joystick would work backwards and the tape drive would have a life of its own.

      Back in those days, when I knew the entire 6510 assembler command set and the entire C64 kernel jump table by heart, I could do ANYTHING. I could even debug programs after assembly and correct for assembler errors. 032 212 255? No way!! That's 032 21*0* 255, or JSR $FFD2, the "print character to screen" routine. Let's just shave a bit off one of those bytes and we're good to go...

      Now there are so many languages and so many implementations of each... And so much hardware to support and abstraction layers... It's not that it's harder... it's just not as much fun anymore... Maybe I'll get a C64 emulator and type in the development kit from Compute!'s Gazette again!

      • by dourk ( 60585 )
        Ahh, the days of walking into a Kmart, typing a few lines of code into the display model to start poking random valus into random locations.

        And doing it over and over and over.
    • I just picked up a Commodore 128D [danamania.com] and surprisingly, some of the old C64 disks still work just as well as they ever did. These are floppies I've carted with me through move after move, and probably date back to the mid 1980s. Reminiscing is nice :).

      I love the idea of this book's images of the old machinery. Taking photos of the older stuff I've collected is a hobby of mine, unfortunately it's still only one of those things I ought to spend more time on. poke around here for some of mine [danamania.com].
  • Compatibility? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:47PM (#10738079)

    In the wilder days of the personal computer's adolescence, the quest for compatibility and standardization among machines was anything but a top priority -- and when it was a factor at all, it was usually about software compatibility between sibling computers (like the TI 99/4 and its 99/4A successor) or at most within a single model line.

    You mean like Linux-vs-Windows executable formats on x86 processors?

    • No - more like the different between Apple Macintosh executables and Windows executables. Completely different assembler output.
    • Re:Compatibility? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DogDude ( 805747 )
      Ah, I love to hear /.'ers clamoring for MORE variety in hardware and software. Those /.'ers are obviously not old enough to remember these days of computing, when finding software and parts for each brand and model of computer was next to impossible (requiring the giant Computer Shopper, eventually). Lack of compatibility was an absolute nightmare, and all the experts predicted that compatibility would bring about the Golden Age of PC's. I, for one, have no interest at all to go back to those days. I'm
      • I'm a big fan of buying generic computer parts or software, and they "just work".

        Except for the many times when they don't. Especially the software.

        I guess I can see the bizarre appeal of wanting to find esoteric OS's that all work differently (20,000 distributions of Linux that all work differently and require re-compiles of each software install).

        Or Windows 95, 98, 2000, NT, CE, ME, XP...

        And if you find it necessary to recompile all your software on a Linux platform, may I introdcue you to pa

      • Pah! It's nothing to do with not being old enough. I'm old enough to have used a Pet at School, and have a BBC Micro at home. To read Personal Computer World (in it's heyday), Practical Computing and Byte. The variety of very different hardware was a lot of what made computing fun back then. You'd get a computer magazine each month and gush over the latest computer that had a staggering 16K memory and colour screen. Getting shown someone else's computer was like a voyage of discovery. Computing got b
    • "x86 processors" is hardly a single model line. Nevermind that you can get the same PCI card to work on everything from a 1997 300MHz PC to the top of the line PC today, a dual Opteron system, and a Mac. Nevermind that the disk drives are interchangeable between all those and Sun, IBM and HP servers based on other CPU architectures. Nevermind that IE and Office are available for Windows and Mac, or that OpenOffice is available for PCs, Macs, Solaris, AIX, HPUX and everything else.
    • Well, not quite. Back then different computer models couldn't use the same keyboards, printers, monitors, floppy disks, etc... the only thing that was interchangeable between major computers was the Atari standard of Joystick which other companies like Commodore also used. Today, a mac can take the same RAM as a PC (and you can use a PC video card in a mac if you wan't to forget about using an Apple Display monitor). You can even burn a CD in Linux and open the files up in Windows. To access Commodore 6
      • Back then different computer models couldn't use the same keyboards, printers

        Most computers could use the same printer, because pretty much everyone (that provided printer support) supported the Centronics parallel interface.
        This interface has been around since at least 1975 (when I first used it), and is the same interface that the parallel port on your PC uses (except that the plug is different; the original had 36 contacts).
        I even used this interface to print to a printer from my KIM-II (6502, 1K RAM 2

  • Don't forget the RetroPod (Pics) [clinko.com].

    Too bad Sony shut 'em down.
    • Thats ashame, not only is it cool and protects the ipod, but theives may also skip over you because they may think its a casstte player. Sony had a right to demand ceasation, but the retro pod is cool.
      • All they had to do was change the name from Sony to Sonny, or something like that. Just different enough to not get sued, and they can claim they are doing a parady which is protected speach.
  • True Story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Thunderstruck ( 210399 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:51PM (#10738124)
    Some of these old systems never loose their appeal... A few years back, about 4 if I recall, My boss asked me to find him a computer. He is a pioneering engineer type, never went to college, designs aircraft sensors with pen & paper... And wanted a single-line display handheld computer that took some BASIC variant for a programming language. A high tech toy from the early 1980's.

    I found one on Ebay for like 5 bucks - He uses it almost daily. I guess if it works, you don't need to add features and soak up RAM.

    • Re:True Story (Score:5, Interesting)

      by chrisbtoo ( 41029 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:03PM (#10738223) Homepage Journal
      Wasn't one of these [bioeddie.co.uk], was it? Or one of these [bioeddie.co.uk]? Those were Psion's early handheld computers.

      Rumour has it (from a chap I used to work with at Psion) that they were in the process of writing a database app for the ZX-Spectrum, when someone said something like "hey, wouldn't it be cool if you could get one of these in your pocket?" and thus the handheld computing industry was born.

    • wasn't even a computer, it was a calculator. [pocket.free.fr] I had one of these in high school and (stupidly) gave it away a few years later. Since then I've occasionally found myself online looking for one to replace it. It had application specific programming that allowed you to enter an algebraic formula like f=1/2*pi*r*c and it would prompt you for each variable, solving for the missing variable automatically. Only "macro" type programming (no branching) but its algebraic function was so powerful it didn't need anythin
      • sounds lots like the hewlett packard calculators, I haven't had need to use the lastest versions of these, but the older HP caculators definitely had that ability (the higher level ones had all manner of high level programming that i never really saw use for in a calculator, but somebody plainly got happy being able to program to their hearts content).
    • I have one of those, a Tandy Pocket Computer PC-8.

      I got it on eBay several years ago and occasionally use it. It has 2K of memory and programs in BASIC.

      Mine still has the battery in it that it had when I acquired it, and I've used it some. I am wondering how long the battery will last. Seems like forever. Which is sorta amazing for a machine from the mid 80's that runs off a button battery.

      I also have a HP95LX, which is a nice small MS-DOS machine, with the high quality of an HP Calculator (built by
  • by cbelt3 ( 741637 ) <cbelt@@@yahoo...com> on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:53PM (#10738141) Journal
    Every now and then I pick up my year 1 set of Byte Magazines and peek at the oldies but goodies, and the adds from the hopefuls. Those were the days, when Boys were Boys, and Women were- uh, well, if you were reading Byte Magazine you really had no idea what the hell Women were for. It was a real pity when the mag was essentially taken over by their advertising sales force, and died horribly.
    • It's fairly obvious you're not the only one who feels that way about Byte, I see complaints like yours almost daily... I just don't understand why someone won't come out w/ a magazine that targets the "We read Byte when it didn't suck" demographic...
      • It's corporate idiocy at its finest. Byte was the only magazine of its kind I think -- I always loved that the cover story would be high level, then drill into great detail. You kept reading until you had enough.

        Then, the were bought, discontinued, and my subscription was replaced with "Business 2.0". Bleh. I went through serious remorse over this, but Jerry Pournelle showing up in Dr. Dobbs has made life a little brighter.

        CMP bought Byte, although I think its just an on-line "magazine" now...
      • That would be Circuit Cellar, INK, but it's for the former Techies from Byte, not the general readership.
    • " if you were reading Byte Magazine you really had no idea what the hell Women were for."

      I can furnish you with schematic drawings!
  • Compatibility (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ch-chuck ( 9622 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:55PM (#10738157) Homepage
    that issue is probably the one thing that drove people to the ibm/msdos standard more than anything else. I remember cartoons around 1985 of a salesman showing a real kickass machine with a great price, sound, graphics, etc., to a customer and all the customer could ask was, "But is it PC compatible?".
  • by Teddy Beartuzzi ( 727169 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @05:55PM (#10738158) Journal
    TABLE OF CONTENTS:
    MITS Altair 8800
    Commodore PET 2001
    Apple II
    Atari VCS
    Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80
    NASCOM 1
    Sharp MZ-80K
    Atari 400/800
    Texas Instruments TI-99/4
    Mattel IntelliVision
    Tangerine Microtan 65
    HP-85
    Sinclair ZX80
    Acom Atom
    Commodore VIC-20
    Sinclair ZX81
    Osborne 1
    IBM PC
    BBC Micro
    Commodore 64
    Sinclair ZX Spectrum
    Coleco Vision
    GCE / MB Vectrex
    Grundy NewBrain
    Dragon 32
    Jupiter ACE
    Compaq Portable
    Apple Lisa
    Oric-1
    Mattel Aquarius
    Nintendo Famicom
    Sony MSX
    Apple Macintosh
    Sinclair QL
    Amstrad CPC-464
    IBM PC AT
    Tatung Einstein
    Atari ST
    Commodore Amiga
    Amstrad PCW
    Sega Master System
    Acorn Archimedes
    NeXT Cube


    I've used 21 of these machines during my lifetime. Some for only a few minutes of course, like the Lisa at a computer show.

    Fun times.

    • The chair of the cs dept at my school had a lisa that he let us take apart. Hes an apple fanatic, so im sure the lisa was no longer working before he let us pass the parts around. Was kind of cool, though i was (somewhat) disappointed that nobody else in the class gave a shit. I wanted to reassemble it and power it on right there
    • by madprof ( 4723 )
      What a list. I'm lucky enough to own 15 of these, plus a few more besides (Yamaha's attempt at a DX7/MSX hybrid, Camputers Lynx) but if people (sorry UK only) want to see this stuff closer up they can visit the computer museum at Bletchley.

    • WHAT!?!!? no Kaypro?!

      not even a breif mention of CP/M
      • I had several great years with my dad's kaypro ! Wotta great computer. I did math in the spreadsheet (what was that, visicalc?), wrote papers and printed on the dot matrix, and even enjoyed some lame ass games! I loved CP/M.......
        I also loved the attempt at portability ! That thing was a little heavy, but it had a handle, and it snapped together into one unit, by george.
    • no KIM?
      no Pacific Micro! (Sun 1 was a Pacific Micro)
      no Mac XL (what an abortion, it's not a Lisa, it's not a Mac)

    • Good'ole Trash-80

      Good times
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Computers: An illustrated History by Christian Wurster is another picture book, but this also covers the old mainframes, as well as some of the modern PDAs.
  • Gotta say (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Timesprout ( 579035 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:01PM (#10738205)
    They were fun when I had them but I dont miss them one little bit. ZX 81 with that crappy excuse for a keyboard, took forever to key anything in. A Sinclair Spectrum with a more usable keyboard but god forbid the ram pack should move when you were doing anything. The joy of saving to cassette tape, and the interesting gamble of trying to actually reload it. Even my Amstrad6128 with its monitor and build in disk still pale in comparrison to my first PC, an IBM 286 (assembled by Vickers Tankworks I believe because the case was so heavy). And then one of my old favourites, a lovely tidy Olivetti 386 I got on the cheap, still dont miss it though.

    No thanks, I love my Inspiron 9100 now and will probably love my next machine even more.
    • and will probably love my next machine even more

      The call 'em Macs [apple.com] now. ;)
    • I used an Olivetti 386 (one of the first 386's I thinks) too, when I first started work (when I was still finishing school...many many years ago now).

      It was a really beautifully made machine - I remember opening the case (which was easy) and marvelling at how well laid out it was. It gave you a real faith that the thing was built to last (and it did).

      This was in stark contrast to the machine that replaced it - some generic 486. I think this was the machine that made me hate Wintels - I swear it would ta

      • Re:Gotta say (Score:2, Interesting)

        by bob beta ( 778094 )
        I have an Altos 586. But it's not what people think when they hear '586'. It's an 8086 based machine with serial ports to support five users. It runs an authentic UNIX, too. Pre-SCO Microsoft Xenix. It's pretty cool, a licensed (System III) UNIX box with an OS ported by Microsoft, that supports five users on an 8086 processor in 512K of RAM.
    • Re:Gotta say (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Bambi Dee ( 611786 )
      What I miss is being able to do things all by myself, such as hacking games for infinite lives, modifying the display font, programming sound effects or sprites without any tools beyond the built-in BASIC and built-in machine code monitor.

      Ever since the Amiga and even more so on the PC I often feel like it's just not really worth the trouble anymore. On the one hand everything's so much more complex that it's hard to tell just where to start, and on the other hand there is an overabundance of tools availa

  • by Matey-O ( 518004 ) <michaeljohnmiller@mSPAMsSPAMnSPAM.com> on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:04PM (#10738232) Homepage Journal
    I remember plugging in my brand new ti-99/4a to my parent's spare 19" B&W television....then the excitement of receiving a brand new 9" color telivision after complaining that staring at the B&W TV for any period of time made my vision blurry.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      When you spell it like that, instead of "Ahhhhh," it makes me think you're in a monster movie. You know...

      "AAAAAAAH! The memories!"

      [gets squashed by some sort of memory monster]
  • by jea6 ( 117959 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:04PM (#10738233)
    The GCE/MB Vectrex (June, 1982) -- the only video game system I really wanted as a kid, and one of the seeming few I've never encountered used in thrift stores. Bright vector graphics, built-in screen and a quality joystick gave it the same kind of appeal that the arcade-console versions of Asteroids and Battlezone had for me.

    http://search.ebay.com/Vectrex_W0QQsofocusZbsQQsbr ftogZ1QQcatrefZC3QQfromZR10QQsacategoryZ-1Q26catre fQ3DC6QQsotrZ2QQsosortpropertyZ1QQsosortorderZ1 [ebay.com]
  • by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:11PM (#10738280) Homepage
    Yes, I know that sounds daft. However, I have this book and thoroughly enjoyed it, and it also opened my eyes to a possibility.

    One of the things it mentioned was that the original Mac project was to produce a games machine, but that as time went on that altered and it became a general-purpose computer. However....look at the Vectrex pictures in the book, then look at the Mac. Interesting, isn't it? I'll have a dig now for some links, but for those who have the book you'll see one hell of a physical resemblance, particularly in profile. I wonder...Mac shape inspired by the Vectrex? I don't know, but stranger things have happened.

    Cheers,
    Ian

  • Check this one too (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Here [taschen.com]
    • That's a beautiful book indeed. Not too informative, and the text itself is somewhat style over substance (dot matrix look and all), but it's nice to have lying around. Unless I'm thinking of another book. My mom has it, not me. And no, she's not living upstairs from me ;)
      • Must add, though, that I remember finding some inaccuracies as far as machines I know are concerned. That might just mean there're more. Best treat it like you might one of those graphic design "picture-books" (whatever you'd call them)
  • by Seventh Magpie ( 826312 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:16PM (#10738325)
    You know everyone in a while it is nice to reminisce about the good old days. Back when it was unpopular to use computers. You knew if you met someone on a bbs or at a computer club meeting, he or she (sometimes she, but rarely) would be just as geeky as you. You were into computers not because it was cool, or because your job required you to, or to make money, or to pick up girls, but because you loved exploring this new frontier. I remember when I was about 8 or 9 playing outside when my dad came walking home from the bus stop after work with a Commodore Vic-20 on his shoulder. My life changed from that day on. We used to sit down and program BASIC taking turns reading and typing code from Compute's Gazette. Spending hours trying to debug after because the programs never worked on first try! Boy life was grand back then. But then again, I am sure if I read that book, it would make me sad in a way as well. I kind of miss the good old days and one can never go back.
  • Online eye candy (Score:5, Informative)

    by ignatz ( 10191 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:21PM (#10738365) Homepage
    The book has a site at http://www.digitalretro.co.uk [digitalretro.co.uk].
  • erratum (Score:4, Informative)

    by jejones ( 115979 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:36PM (#10738481) Journal
    ...the Dragon 32 (a Welsh-made near-clone of the Tandy TRS-80)...

    The Tano Dragon was not a near-clone of the Z-80-based TRS-80; it was a near-clone of the Tandy Color Computer [coco3.com] which used the Motorola 6809, the best microprocessor of its era.
    • The Tandy Color Computer was a TRS-80. There were a bunch of different TRS-80 machines, ya know. Like the Model II, which was a 68000 based machine.

      The original was the Model I of course. Whatta kludge: criss-crossing the Address and Data lines almost entirely unbuffered to make a Matrix keyboard interface. An RFI nightmare, one might add.

      • I only spent a small amount of time with with a Model II, but I would bet that you meant 6800. The Model II that I briefly played with was a payroll system for a local furniture company, that had been given to the art department of the college I was attending... with all of the floppies full of data on Giant Furniture. back then I was spending all of my time trying to get the PS/2 Model 60 running properly with Windows 2.1. Sadly I didn't get to spend much time with the Tandy. It probably would have been mo
      • The Model II [home.iae.nl] was an almost properly designed Z-80 with an almost proper bus that allowed a 68K CPU board to be plugged into it.

        If you plugged the 68K board in, it became the II/16.

  • by kin_korn_karn ( 466864 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @06:43PM (#10738551) Homepage
    This story made me go onto ebay and bid on a Model 100.

    I have no idea why.
    • Re:TRS-80 Model 100 (Score:3, Interesting)

      by pilgrim23 ( 716938 )
      I have 2 Model 100s, one of which I have used as a Newton keyboard..but thats another story... Retro indeed! Last night I spent tinkering with a Apple IIgs. I wanted to get the beta Marinetti MacIP TCP/IP layer (check SourceForge) working through a Mac IIci running a router so I could use the GS to access the internet without need of a ethernet card or modem. It worked too.. I got on IRC briefly and used a telnet client to contact a service. There is no such THING as an obsloete system and besides: App
      • I was an apple II guy too! I have a IIgs back at my parents' that I decommissioned from an elementary school (yes, legitimately). When I was a kid I always wanted one (I had a //c) but we could never afford it.

        Unfortunately once I booted it and saw that it was just old and not really going to do anything that I wanted to do, I shut it down and put it back in the attic. Being married and having a full time job kind of puts the damper on your gratuitous geeking.
  • Anyone have one of these [pc-history.org]?

    Lost my virginity to one that my dad built. Had RAM the size of an ATX motherboard (4kb, I think), coax out, and ports to control a portable tape machine, I believe that there were some other connectors back there.

    I recall that I had to load the BASIC interpreter from tape before I could even use it. I was only able to actually save to tape and extract from the tape once in the whole year that I used it.

    It is now collecting dust in the garage, wonder if there are collectors out
    • Re:SOL 8080 (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Normally, I would see "Lost my virginity to one" as a dysphemism, but then there were "some other connectors back there."
    • 3nuff:

      I started my career programming on one of the SOLs. I *loved* that machine. Yes, I could/would give it a good home...

      fred_weigel@hotmail.com

      ratboy.
    • Anyone have one of these?
      Sorry. Afraid you're SOL.
  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @07:16PM (#10738851) Homepage Journal
    Back when you could walk into any mall and locate the arcade from the sound of the fleas falling in the centepede game, which was always cranked up to max volume. Back when it was fun to key in programs from the back of some magazine. Back when hacking out routines in assembly was common. Back when this was a new frontier and people who could make computers do things were like magical wizards. Oh, and here's one for you... back when you could get a rootbeer float at the local Woolworths in between quarters at the local arcade! Heh.

    Now-days it's all commonplace. Any bozo can hop down to the local Comp-U-Comp, drop a grand and be on the Internet inflicting himself on us in a matter of minutes. The frontier's been pushed out considerably, and we've traded in our hand-coded assembly language routines for pre-made GUI libraries. For every wizard who takes pride in his work there are a thousand code monkeys who got into this business for the money and a hundred managers who want that wizard to work faster not smarter. It's called progress...

    Now get off my lawn, you damn kids, before I hit you with my walker!

    • Heh, I had an Apple IIgs, and before GSOS came out all we had was ProDOS. I was jealous of those cool fonts on the Mac so I tried to write a display output routine that would allow different fonts. I wrote a font editor in BASIC, and the output code I wrote in 6502 and typed in the hex codes in the monitor. (I couldn't afford Orca yet).. I can still remember that triumphant moment when I plugged my routine address into the system output hook, and saw my old english looking letters coming out on the scr

    • we've traded in our hand-coded assembly language routines for pre-made GUI libraries.

      Leave the pre made GUIs at work.

      There's nothing stopping you from coding by hand at home, and it is a lot easier to do it now than it was in 1980... I mean we've all got hard disks now and fast machines. No offense, but do you remember how long it took to load a program from tape? or compile a few hundred lines on an XT?

      I do, and it sucked.

      I really miss those arcade games, but not the technology of the times.
  • by dpnow ( 823063 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @07:20PM (#10738882)
    I reviewed (http://dpnow.com/1299.html [dpnow.com]) this book on my site a couple of days ago and submitted a summary here but had no idea Timothy was on the case already. Gordon Laing, the author, and I meet up quite frequently and I was able to gain some fascinating insights into his research. One thing that rather depressed me was that some of the icons he spoke to, like Chuck Peddle and Sir Clive Sinclair are now, apparently, getting on a bit and are rather forgetful of the times they made into the golden age of personal computing. The book is, as Timothy says, a marvelous piece of work. It's meticulously researched and extremely well written. Timothy mentions the pictures - it's rather like having a book of old brochures, but much better, though I observed in my review that there are no pictures or direct quotes from the personalities of the period (1974-1988). I've been using and writing about micros since the late 70s and I still learned a whole bunch of interesting and fascinating anecdotes. One of the nice touches Gordon lends to the end of the book is the reminder that while the hardware might eventually die, the souls of some of these computers live on in the form of software emulators that run on contemporary hardware. Gordon deserves all the success this book appears to be enjoying. Anyway, I'm off to find my BBC Micro emulator for a spot of Elite - Right on Commander! Ian
  • by Fancia ( 710007 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @07:24PM (#10738918)
    I find it quite odd that he claims that only one non-Japanese company made MSXs. I know that at least Philips made them, in addition, and I'm rather certain there were local companies with their own models in at least Brazil and Korea, too.
    • Re:MSX? (Score:3, Informative)

      by johannesg ( 664142 )
      *Lots* of companies made MSX machines, as witnessed by the imposing list [msxnet.org] here.

      Also, it is generally thought that MSX was the brainchild of Kay Nishi, a japanese businessman sometimes called "the Japanese Bill Gates". The only influence Microsoft had on the machines were that they created some of the built-in software, such as the BIOS, BASIC, and DOS (called, appropriately, "MSX-DOS"). The rest - the hardware, the compatibility concept, etc. - was in no way their idea.

      The MSX standard specifies what an

      • Emulation, bah. ;3 I have a Philips NMS-8250 in working condition; it's a nice little machine.
        • Re:MSX? (Score:3, Funny)

          by johannesg ( 664142 )
          My Sony MSX2+ (also in working order, of course) beats your 8250 :-p

          Anyway, you cannot expect people to get an MSX machine these days just to get an idea of what the system was like. For many people they will be near-impossible to find anyway. If people can get enjoyment out of emulators they should by all means do so.

          Besides, I spent about six years of my life writing fMSX Amiga (which is an MSX emulator for the Amiga, but you probably guessed that already). I'm entitled to opinions about MSX emulation

          • Well, I *was* teasing. ;3 I'm not anti-emulation by any means. You're right that it's not only unreasonable to expect most people to get one, it's particularly so for people in North America, since basically no MSXs were released. (Just one Yamaha MSX1, briefly, I think; but I'm not terribly clear on that.)
  • $18.95 at Bookpool.com [bookpool.com]
  • You still have a trs-80 in the attic, along with a vectrex and every cart, 3-d goggles, etc.
  • by dankelley ( 573611 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @09:53PM (#10739795)
    I know this is a bit off-topic, but we all started with calculators, right?

    The Sinclair Scientific http://www.vintagecalculators.com/html/sinclair___ the_pocket_calculat.htmlhere [vintagecalculators.com] was my first calculator. It came as a kit, and it had a small-stack RPN scheme that required remembering numbers or writing down intermediate parts of calculations. I think it only had sine, so you had to get cosine by a root(1-sin**2). It had so little memory that values of e, ln(10), etc., were written on the case! (Hm, I wonder if this is why I remember ln(10) to this day, whereas my students have no clue about the value...)

    I loved this little calculator, partly because it was so light compared to the fancy, expensive boxes the other kids had, but mainly because my Dad had given it to me. My heart ached when I looked up a picture of the little calculator, after reading this thread. This, I think, is why reminiscing about old technology is useful: it dredges up memories of simpler days in all our lives, when an infinity stretched before us on a path so bright and smooth.

    • Your first calculator worked in Reverse Polish? Your father must have really loved you.

      My first calculator, the Texas Instruments Little Professor [si.edu], was not quite so advanced. Also, it was considerably more bulky than your Sinclair Scientific. However, it was a gift from a cherished engineer-type uncle, and I was quite attached. Unlike your calculator, it preferred to ask questions than provide answers (this makes it similar to some professors I know). Mostly, it asked about the times tables, which I b

  • by pair-a-noyd ( 594371 ) on Friday November 05, 2004 @10:44PM (#10740005)
    I recycle old computers. My house overfloweth, my garage overfloweth, my warehouse overfloweth, my dad's garage overfloweth, etc..
    You would not believe some of the Dino's I have. Some of the best stuff of "the glory days".
    I have a genuine IBM XT 5160 with 640k, 10m "hardcard" and IBM color display. I keep it to play **OLD** Sierra games.

    I really want to put it on my lan somehow so I can download games on demand from my big machines because of space on the 10m..

    I've got other Dino's too. A few years ago I finally scrapped out my Burroughs B700 and my B730 mainframes. They had dual 15" removable hard disks of a whopping 5 megabytes each!
    I fired up the B730 and my neighborhood went brown out just before my old time screw-in fuse box burst into flames... So much for that.
    I gave all the cards to my dad so he could miser the gold out of them.

    Seriously, it's SCARY the stuff that I have. If you want to walk through the past, my house is the place.

    I pickup old computers and refurbish and repair them. Very few are not repairable.

    I can install Damn Small Linux [damnsmalllinux.org] on even the oldest clunkers and turn them into usable internet terminals for people that don't want to or can't spend much money on a computer. We're talking cheap... (and to the smart-alecs that visit my website just to beat me up, ignore the prices, they are NOT valid, MOST of the stuff I get in I GIVE AWAY FOR FREE to my son's church.....)

    Anyway, don't throw old computers away, fix them up and have some fun. I could crap when I see people gut out old computers and electronics and replace the insides with modern stuff. I was aghast when I saw what some moron had done to one of those cool ass old Predicta TV's a few months ago [slashdot.org].

    If you just can't stand looking at it anymore, send it to me but for god's sake, DON'T TRASH IT!

  • Collectible Microcomputers.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0764 316001/102-5087194-2600935?v=glance [amazon.com]

    There are some wonderful memories in this one... and some great "gotta finds" for the collector.

    A pre-//c portable Apple? Sure! Page 84, Microsci HAVAC.

    Early tape driven notebook? Sure! Page 46, Convergent Technologies WorkSlate.

    Portable Commodore 64 with PET emulation? Sure! Page 36, Commodore Executive 64/SX-64.

    Really wierd all-in-one (printer, monitor, 3" floppy)PC compat w/ funk

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