Fortune Systems

June 5, 2016

Today, I want to talk about a relatively small company that existed in the 80s. They started off in time and with a good idea, but as so many forgotten companies, they delivered too late and then lost their strategic way after the original founder and visionary left. Little is known about that company in the Internet, there is not a single website dedicated to its memory although they produced interesting computers. So, let’s start the tale…


Funnily, despite their quite unfortunate fate, the name of the company was Fortune Systems. They were US-based and started off in 1980 on the idea of producing multi-user systems for serious business purposes like word processing, accounting, and the like. The selling point would have been to be cheaper than the mini-computer-based competition by relying on a (at that time) new, relatively cheap, powerful microprocessor and an existing, relatively standard multi-user operating system. The CPU naturally was the Motorola 68000 and the operating system was Unix in the form of Microsoft’s Xenix.

Who now feels reminded of another startup of the 80s that used the power of the 68000 and Unix to surpass the competition and thinks “Sun” is on the right track. Fortune tried to be for the business market what Sun later on became for the scientific market. Although one can compare Fortune and Sun in their approach and they started at about the same time, their machines are quite different. This is because the requirements by their respective  markets are quite different.

A scientific workstation tries to provide the user sitting in front of the machine as much compute and graphics power as possible and typically put the focus on communication very early on. The price point is relatively high due to the amount of high-capacity components. The availability of commercially available software is a bonus, not a necessity. Users will write their own software anyway or use freely available packets from similar minded colleagues. Users and administrators are typically quite computer-literate, so a complex system is acceptable. The competition of workstations were typically super-computers.

In contrast, a business-oriented computer system tries to provide all needed services to all user groups inside a company for the smallest price. The audience is typically not very computer-literate, and easy administration is a clear plus. The provided services are typically either commercial software packets or services that use them. Therefore, it is important that the computer system appeals to the manufacturers of the software. This can be achieved either by a large installed system base or by using an operating system to which the manufacturer can easily port its software. All this typically leads to an architecture where the users access the system via terminals as terminals are cheaper than full-fledged computers and can be controlled better by an administrator. This architecture allows a computer of the same CPU power to serve more users than in a workstation scenario as every user only needs some compute power per time (e.g. when he or she types a letter in a word processor). The competition of Fortune were business-oriented mini-computer installations.

A sensation at COMDEX 1981

Therefore, it was quite a sensation when Fortune announced at the COMDEX 1981 a powerful  business-oriented computer at the price of only 5000$. The model, the Fortune 32:16 with a promised 128k of RAM, Unix, and a 1.5 MB floppy disk drive was one of the first 68000-based computers (although 68000 CPU cards for e.g. S100 systems existed before) and probably the first business computer based on this CPU. Would it have been available at that time, even in early 1982, at that price, it would have been really a steal. But as you can already tell, it was not available neither in 1981 nor 1982, but only in mid to late 1983. Also the price of $5000 was not the one of a usable system as the system required a harddisk (Unix, remember?), and this added some hefty amount to the overall price.

Even in May 1983, almost no 32:16 seems to have been available as even Apple’s Lisa “Marketing Binder” (a wonderful document that analyses the competition of the Lisa) speaks of the 32:16 only as hearsay: “As of December 1, 1982, Fortune is just beginning to deliver hard disk-based systems.  Fortune dealers quote a delivery date of two to five weeks on the hard disk systems, and they refuse to dicuss a delivery date for the floppy based systems.”

32:16 family

Still, what was delivered finally in 1983, was a neat system, but not the sensation it could have been in 1982. The initial 32:16 was a 6 MHz 68000 system with a 5.25” floppy drive, 256 kB of RAM, and harddisks ranging from 5 to 20 MB. The system included one 12” monochrome display, one serial interface, 5 extension slots, and 4 memory slots for a total amount of up to 2 MB of RAM. The system also included the text processing software. According to [Lisa], a  configuration of 256 kB RAM, and 5 MB harddisk was available for $8990. A 10MB version would cost $9990 ([Lisa] cites Fortune dealers saying that they strongly recommend the 10MB harddisk in order to make the system “usable”). Available as options were serial interface cards, and tape drives with a capacity of 20MB per tape. Software-wise you could by Business Basic, Cobol, Fortran, Pascal, and C. The basic machine was a 1-user system. According to [Lisa], extending it to more users would cost an additional $1700 for the second user and $1200 for any subsequent user.

In the CC-Seller copy of June 1983, in Germany, the following competing computers were available at similar or lower prices:

  • Altos ACS 8600 and 68000 series running Xenix
  • Burroughs B20 under BTOS
  • Tandy TRS-80 Model 16 (running Xenix later on)

To compare the machine to others, one also can have a look on the Dhrystone measure as there is an entry for a “Fortune 32:16 68000-6 MHz” system with a “V7+sys3+4.1BSD” operating system. This value put this machine performance-wise between an IBM XT with 8086 at 8 MHz and a PDP-11/34A. A (later) Macintosh512 with a 68000 at 7.7MHz is about 75% faster.

The PS and XP families


Already in 1983, the initial model was replaced by two new models. The lower end PS series had only 2 memory and 3 extension slots, the higher end XP series (like the original 32:16) 4 memory and 5 extension slots. All models now come with more initial RAM and the hard disks start at 10 MB. The PS series could be extended up to 3 users, the XP series up to 9 users (or terminals). Everything else stays the same, the CPU, the case, and the periperals. The only other difference is that the harddisk subsystem of the XP is faster than the one of the PS.

I recently had a more detailled look on a 32:16 PS10 (Photos will follow in a later posting). What I found was that in that PS model, probably the same PCB was used as in the XP, but only 3 of the 5 extension slots and 2 of the 4 memory slots were populated. Unsuprisingly, both memory slots were used, each one was filled by a 256 kB RAM card. From the 3 extension slots, one was used by the (text-based) display controller, one by the harddisk controller and only one was available for e.g. a multi-serial card (it had a 4-port-card in it). So if you want to connect a display (not a terminal) to the machine, you could already subtract 2 extension slots from any configuration. The PS model I examined also had a CPU that was specified up to 8MHz. I cannot tell whether it still was clocked only to 6 MHz or higher.


Also a nice feature of a 32:16 model is the keyboard. As wide as the computer case, massive, and with many special keys such as “Execute” (no, there is a separate “Enter” key”), “Help”, “CANCEL / DEL” (a “DELETE” key also exists), a “LF GL” key, 3 keys with tilde, swung brackets,a colon etc., and 16(!) function keys. The keys are not mechanically clicky, but this keyboard is probably the only one with a dedicated wheel for the volume of the click sound! Finally, there is a space for a function key template below the function keys and underneath the keyboard there is a space to store unused templates… The keyboard that I opened during the mentioned PS model examination was produced by the Digitran Company.

Reportedly ([Warnock 2004]), the 32:16 series did not have a MMU (because it was not available yet). Now, for Unix-like systems you typically need something like a MMU (unless it’s Minix). Therefore, Fortune designed their own circuit (using MSI TTL chips) that allowed at least swapping (but not paging).

Also quite interesting is their reasonably effective copy protection scheme according to [ClassicCMP2005]: “Uninstalled Fortune software on distribution media was encrypted using a key known to Fortune and to Fortune’s installation program.  When you installed software from the distribution media, the software would be decrypted and then re-encrypted using a key based on the motherboard serial number for storage on the hard disk (so you couldn’t just copy the executables from your system to some other system: installed software only ran on the system on which it had been installed); and of course the installer marked the distribution medium as “installed” so you couldn’t just go install it again somewhere else.”

Price per user

The significant value for a Fortune customer was always the price of the system per user. Therefore, let’s have a look at them. The following calculations are based on the 1983 IBR price list and a conversion factor of 1.5 USD per GBP in 1983. The one end of the scale was a 2-user PS10 system with (probably) 512 kB RAM, 10 MB harddisk, a 2-port serial card and the multi-user upgrade for the operating system. This would cost around 13000$, or 6500$ per user (quite a difference to the promised price of 5000$ for the smallest initial model). The other end of the scale would be a 10 user XP20 system with 2 MB of RAM, a 20 MB harddisk, two 4-port serial cards and 9 Fortune terminals. This would cost 38’000$ or 3’800$ per user. We abstract from the fact that 10 users would put quite a strain on the system and that you also would need to buy some more application software, but these prices are probably comparable among different computer systems. If we now compare this price to a quite cheap competitor, the TRS-80 Model 16 with 3 users (1984, 512 kB RAM, 48 MB harddisk) at about 5600$ per user we can see that at least initially, the prices per user were competitive. On a one-user-per-computer-scale, though, the TRS80 Model 16 in 1983 and 1984 would be cheaper before on this market the original Macintosh ($2495), and in 1985 e.g. the Atari ST ($800) would crush the prices and offer a much better user interface. However, Fortune Systems never tried to be in this market.

The CEO leaves the company

At the 1983 new models announcement, Gary Friedman, the CEO also announced that he was to leave the company. Gary Friedman co-founded the company, secured two rounds of venture capital funding. The first round of venture capital in October 1981 added up to 8.5M$, and the second round in May 1982 of 10.5M$. In addition, Thomson-CSF added in May 1982 1.5M$, “reportedly the largest commitment of venture capital ever made to a micro-computer company”. He also brought Fortune Systems on the stock market in March of 1983. There were 5 million shares sold which brought in a sum of 110 million dollars. In 1982 Fortune had a umsatz of about 26 M$ and a profit of 2.9 M$. In October 1983, Gary Friedman resigns on a “disagreement with the board of directors over management style.” Gary Friedman says that “if I didn’t [resign], I probably would have been fired.”. It was rumoured that the companies that put money into Fortune were not happy with the CEO anymore and that the initial technical difficulties of the 32:16 machines (some said that pratictically note more than two terminal could be supported) led to his demise.

SX family

In 1985, Fortune announces the 32:16 SX family. This time the 68000 runs at 12MHz and is announced to support up to 24 terminals. The maximum RAM is still 2MB (so I guess it has still 4 memory slots). A basic SX45 model gives you 1MB of RAM, 45MB harddisk and costs $12995. It seems that the integrated text terminal, the display, and the keyboard are not part of the packet anymore, so you had to buy a terminal with the machine before you could even set it up.

Fortune often sells to bigger companies. In August 1985 InfoWorld reports that nearly 1000 Fortune systems are both installed at Ford and Bell South.

Formula 8000 family


In 1986, Fortune announces the Formula family. They are 68020-based and actually use a new (tower) case! They are claimed of supporting up to 80 users. There are two versions. The lower version for $21900 has 1MB RAM, 70 MB harddisk, a 70 MB streamer. The higher version for $24900 has a 70 MB harddisk. In the announcements, the models are simply called Formula, but later on they are named Formula 8000 series.

Selling the business to SCI

In 1987 Fortune sells its hardware business to the much bigger SCI Systems for between $17M and $20M. SCI has an own line of Unix-based computers, but is more in the scientific and military business. SCI keeps the Fortune brand until about 1988. SCI still exists today.

Formula 4000 family

Also in 1987 a lower-end Formula family is announced. The Formula 4000 family has the same processor at the same speed as the Formula 8000 series, but is aimed at supporting 22 users at maximum. The entry-level 40MB harddisk configuration starts at $9900. The high-end 145MB harddisk, 4MB RAM, 60MB tape drive configuration is at $19900.


So, to conclude the company history, what do we find? We see a company with the right idea at the right time. We see that technical difficulties let the company access the market too late with the competion already at their toes. We see that the company from an investor’s point of view is not up to the promise and burns a lot of money very fast. As a consequence the CEO is fired, and the company falls behind the competition over time, selling the business for a small amount to a competitor.


What I’m seriously confused about are the graphics capabilities of the 32:16 series, or, to be more exact, the lack thereof. Different sources state different things. [Lisa] assumes a resolution of 640 x 480 in “Graphics Mode”, but says that the standard display is capable only of text. [oldcom] speaks about an “optional High resolution graphic card”, but I never saw one appearing in a price list. [CC] does not list any graphics capability or even an option for any Fortune model. Fortune’s own prospectus in 1983, [FS1983a], claims that “Two options may be added to the standard video display controller. First, a bit-mapped graphics display controller with its own 64 Kilobyte memory provides 640 x 480 and 800 x 480 high resolution graphics on the standard 12 inch monochrome display. The second option provides additional memory (256 Kilobytes total) and a second MC68000 microprocessor which is used to drive either the monochrome or color display. This option allows the operator to select 16 colors from a palette of 512 with resolutions up to 1024 x 1024 in the pan mode.“ The very official UK November 1983 price list ([IBR1983]) does not know anything about graphics options at all. So, my guess is that Fortune always promised a graphics option, but never delivered, maybe also because the market never really wanted it. There is no doubt, though, that you could connect (serially) a terminal with some graphics capability from a 3rd party vendor.

From a collector’s point of view

Let’s also talk about Fortune System machines from a collector’s point of view. Text-only 68000-based Unix machines are typically not something collector’s are especially excited about. They are not home computers, they are professional machines, they are not the first in any relevant aspect, and their performance is not extremely good. Probably noone has ever desired to have one in their heydays. On the plus side, the models are all very rare, especially the later ones. They are quite self-contained, so if the main box is running, you probably can use the entire system if you have a monitor and a keyboard or a serial terminal for the later models. It’s a friendly, nice-looking system, and it is one of the earliest 68000 systems you can find. Finally, at that has been always the slogan of this blog anyway, if you have one, even your snobby collector friend will admit that he has never seen or heard about it before. And isn’t that the best reason of all, to have exclusive bragging rights?


As the company existed only for some years, the number of models they produced is limited.


The initial model, presented in 1981, but not delivered before 1983, was called 32:16 after the 68000 CPU which was internally a 32 bit design with a 16 bit bus system. Unfortunately, this was not only the name of the first model, but also the name of the entire model family, so sometimes it is hard decide what is meant when 32:16 is mentioned.

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 128kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 5 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $5000 (for an useless one-user model  without harddisk) to $9990

Thomson Micromega 32

Thomson CSF, the (in 1982) newly nationalized French electronics company participated in financing Fortune Systems from very early on. In 1982, they invested $1.5M and received also the rights to market Fortune’s computer in France exclusively. They did this under their own brand and using their own model name, the Micromega 32 (there has been a Micromega 16 of a completely different design). It also seems to have used a different (probably French) keyboard. A user at ( remembers: “I worked on this computer in the 80s in a french government ministry where it was used for word processing and custom applications based on the Informix database. French ambassies either had Micromegas (for large ones) or Bull PC clones (for the small ones) that would enable them to run the software we wrote based on the Informix database, as this RDBMS was available on Unix (Micromega) and MS-DOS (Bull Micral 30).”

The data of the Micromega 32 (which was sold from 1983) were the same as the 32:16.


These series was designed to be non-upgradable to multi-users, i.e. strictly single-user only. 5 – 20 MB of harddisks were available, the RAM was 256 kB. I never have seen these models mentioned other than in the IBR price list of 1983, so I do not know whether they were really offered.

32:16 PS

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 384kB – 1MB (2 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 10 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $7500 – $10000

32:16 XP

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 512kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 20 – 30 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $17000 – $19500

32:16 SX

CPU: 68000@12MHz
RAM: 1MB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 45 – 70 MB
OS: For:Pro
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics)
Initial prices: $12995 – $14995

Formula 8000

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 70 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $21900 – $24900

Formula 4000

This is the first model after the hardware business is sold to SCI.

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 40 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $9900 – $19900

Later models

Fortune/SCI had a last series of models in 1990. The FORTUNE/SCI System 5000 family had an Intel 80×86-based low end (using Unix) and a high end that added a Motorola 88000 CPU to the system. But in my opinion, that were SCI, not Fortune models, therefore I omit them here.


[CC] CC-Computerarchiv,
[Lisa] Lisa Sales Marketing Binder, June 1983
[IBR1983] Fortune 32:16 Microcomputer Systems Suggested Retail Price List effective 1 November, 1983. IBR Microcomputers Limited.
[FS1983a] Fortune Systems. Fortune 32:16. The Complete Business System. 1983
[Warnock 2004] comp.unix.bsd.freebsd.misc, 26 May 2004, Rob Warnock, Re: Andrew Tanenbaum on the origins of Unix/Linux
[ClassicCMP2005] 2005 posting to ClassicCmp cited after

OMFG: CC – Computerarchiv

May 21, 2016

While doing my research on the upcoming Fortune Systems entry I stumbled upon the most interesting, useful, and eye-opening resource on the ancient computer market I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately (for some of you), it’s in German, and it’s about the German computer market, but it’s simply wonderful for any statistically interested retro computing nut.

What this resource represents is the archive of a (once) commercial information service in Germany that published virtually all available computer models on the market for all manufacturers. For each model they compiled at least one configuration (often up to three different configurations, a small one, a typical one and a large one), described the configuration briefly (using their own notation) and noted down the price for that configuration (without tax). Sometimes they also described the technical data of a model family in more detail. They did this every 3 months from 1971 to 2001.

These reports were published as paper brochures with varying page numbers from 5 pages in 1971 to 195 pages in 1991. According to their history it soon became an indispensable part of every computer sales professional’s suitcase.

There were two types of reports: orange ones on smaller computers (“Bürocomputer”), PCs, work stations, middle-sized systems and the like, and blue ones on “regular” computers (“EDV”).

The archive consists of two parts:

  • the first part (“30 Jahre Computermarkt D 1971-2001 (pdf)”) consists of scanned copies of the original brochures. Not all issues are represented, but there is one issue for every year.
  • the second part (“Hersteller-Dateien 1986-2001 (html)”) assembles the entries as text over the different issues. The entries are organized according to manufacturers.
    Unfortunately, some entries exist only in one part, but not in the other.

The value of these reports were (and are) not only that they assembled all the market information in one booklet and that it was published periodically, but also that they pre-processed price list information by chosing a configuration and collecting the prices for the needed components. This information was even more valuable for the companies that did not publish public price lists, but insisted to give you a number for your quote only after a lengthy consultation process. This, of course, also means that you as a buyer, might end up with a different price than the one described in the report, but a rough price for a computer was more important for the competition than none price…

The publisher of these brochures, the CC company, certainly intended to earn money by doing all this, but they certainly also lived up to their claim to shed some “light on the computer market”.

Apart from the market reports on computers, the CC company also published market reports on

  • software
  • terminals
  • text processing systems

but unfortunately, these are not available as of now.

The URL is:

If you know something similar for other markets, I’d love to hear about it.

In the upcoming months I might feel inclined to do some analyses using this resource and present it in this blog.

Atari ATW800

August 16, 2015

There are rare computers and there are very rare computers, and there are computers that are extremely hard to come by. Recently, almost by accident, I was able to acquire one of the latter, one that I always (since the time you could actually buy it as a brand new product) wanted to have. It looks gorgeous, even nowadays, because it is basically a steel case where the colour is not ageing (and because it comes from a collector that obviously took very good care for this machine). But enough rambling, let’s look at my precioussss…

The Atari Transputer Workstation (also known as ABAQ, ATW-800, or simply ATW) was a workstation class computer released by Atari in 1989, based on the INMOS Transputer.

As some of you might remember, Transputers were considered to be the Next Big Thing in the late 1980s. Transputers wanted to solve the problem of increasing the performance of a computer system without the need of having to develop faster CPUs (which was already then considered to be economically feasible only up to a certain limit. This limit was reached in a way in 2001). Instead, an arbitrary number of cheap but complete CPUs should collaborate to provide the needed performance. Sounds familiar? Yes, its basically the same concept as multi-core machines today with the difference that Transputers were separate chips that also did not share caches. As the collaboration of CPUs was very important for this approach fast (for the time) interconnections between the Transputers were built into each of them that could extend even outside a single computer system and therefore connect multiple Transputer computers to a combined system. Transputers contained a built-in RAM controller, so RAM could be added easily.
Transputers were the product of a single British company, Inmos that released the first Transputer in 1985. Transputer systems could not hold up to their more traditional competition, and in 1989 Inmos was sold to SGS Thomson. After that, Transputers were basically discontinued.

Inmos designed these Transputer CPUs models in it’s lifetime:

name clock word remarks
T212 17.5, 20 MHz 16 bit
M212 17.5, 20 MHz 16 bit with on-board disk controller
T222 20 MHz 16 bit
T225 20 MHz 16 bit
T414 15, 20 MHz 32 bit
T425 20, 25, 30 Mhz 32 bit
T400 20 Mhz 32 bit stripped-down T425
T800 20, 25 MHz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support
T801 20, 25 MHz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support
T805 20, 25, 30 Mhz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support

The ATW and its operating system, HeliOS, was conceived by Perhelion, a company that was founded by former employees of MetaComCo. As MetaComCo had good connections to both Atari and Commodore, Perhelion tried to interest both companies in releasing a Transputer workstation running HeliOS. Commodore had expressed some interest in their new system, and showed demos of it on an add-on card running inside an Amiga 2000. It appears they later lost interest in it. It was at this point that Atari met with Perihelion and work started on what would eventually become the ATW.

The machine was first introduced at the November 1987 COMDEX under the name Abaq. Two versions were shown at the time; one was a card that connected to the Mega ST bus expansion slot, the second version was a stand-alone tower system containing a miniaturized Mega ST inside. The external card version was dropped at some point during development. It was later learned that the “Abaq” name was in use in Europe, so the product name was changed to ATW800.

The ATW system came in a large tower case. It consisted of three main parts:

  • the main motherboard containing a T800-20 Transputer and 4MB of RAM (expandable to 16MB)
  • a complete miniaturized Mega ST acting as an I/O processor with 512kB of RAM
  • the Blossom video system with 1MB of dual-ported RAM

All of these parts were connected using the Transputer’s 20 Mbit/s processor links. The motherboard also contained three slots for additional “farm cards” containing four Transputers each, meaning that a fully expanded ATW contained 13 Transputers. The bus was also available externally, allowing several ATWs to be connected into one large farm. The motherboard also included a separate slot for one of the INMOS crossbar switches to improve inter-chip networking performance.

HeliOS was Unix-like, but not Unix. Of particular note was the lack of memory protection, due largely to the lack of an MMU on the Transputer. This is not quite the issue it might seem, as the Transputer’s stack-based architecture makes an MMU less important. Meanwhile HeliOS was Unix-like enough that it ran standard Unix utilities, including the X Window System as the machine’s graphical user interface (GUI). In addition HeliOS ran on all of the Transputers in a farm at “the same time”, which allowed all computing tasks to be fully distributed. Turning off an ATW would not affect the overall farm, the tasks would simply move to other processors on other systems. Later HeliOS was ported to other processors including the ARM architecture.

The Blossom video system was developed specially for the ATW. It offered 4 different video modes up to 1280 by 960 pixels at 16 out of 4096 colours. The Blossom also included a number of high-speed effects (128 megapixels/s fill rates) and blitter functionality, including the ability to apply up to four masks on a bit-blit operation in a fashion similar to a modern graphics processing unit’s ability to apply several textures to a 3D object. The team in charge of the Blossom would later work on another Atari project, the Atari Jaguar video game console.

There is an ATW price list in Pound Sterling (GBP) stating the prices for the machine and various options excluding VAT:

Product Price Education Price
ATW 5000 2500
Farm Card 2000 1500
+4MB RAM 750 562
Expansion 500 375

5000 GBP in 1990 equals to about 13700 DEM or 8000$ at the time which corresponds about 9900 GBP or 14000$ today. Quite a price… On the other hand, an Atari TT was 3000$ in 1990.

It took quite long in a PC before a machine could handle more than 4 processors or cores.

I also looked into how the ATW compares to other product-level Atari computers in terms of speed. MIPS-wise, a corresponding list looks like this:

model clock CPU MIPS year
ST 8MHz 68000 1 MIPS 1985
MegaSTE 16MHz 68000 2 MIPS 1991
Falcon 16MHz 68030 3.84 MIPS (Motorola DSP: 16 MIPS) 1992
TT 32MHz 68030 8 MIPS (I guess because is runs at 2*16MHz) 1990
ATW 20MHz T800-20 10 MIPS (per T800, i.e. 130 MIPS for 13 T800-20) 1989

One can argue that the DSP inside the Falcon has a quite hefty 16 MIPS, and that a combined 20 MIPS for the Falcon (CPU + DSP) is more than the combined 11 MIPS of the ATW, but first, a DSP is not a general purpose processor, so this power is not available to every program. Second, you could add up to 12 T800-20 inside an ATW… So, although the ATW did not run TOS, and it therefore not the fastest ST that has been sold by Atari, it was the fastest computer by Atari. Of course, later projects (e.g Hades) would have been much faster.If we look at the cost per MIPS, we can state the following:

model cost per MIPS configuration
TT 375$
ATW 800$ no farm card
ATW 240$ 1 farm card
ATW 135$ 3 farm cards

So, if you needed to have compute power, a loaded ATW was an economic option.It is said that only between 200 and 350 ATWs have been built, out of which 50 to 100 were prototypes that were released already in in May 1988. The production run has been released in May 1989. Another rumour is that 200 ATWs were sold to Kodak. The label on the back of an ATW say something like:

Serial Number: AB84A 90XXXX

The serial numbers that I know are:

  • 909131
  • 909215

It says also: Made In Germany. That sounds unusual. It probably means that the ATW was assembled by a 3rd party.If you have ever heard of Transputers outside this text, it was probably a long time ago. This effect typically indicates that a technology was not successful as it is also the case here. For the ATW 800 there are three groups of reasons for the failure of this machine:

  • this machine was ways too pricey for the mass market
  • Atari seem not to have invested much time and effort in supporting this model or to develop successors (I can also imagine they made a loss on every machine)
  • HeliOS was a too exotic environment
  • Perihelion remained the exclusive distributor in England (and it was always a small company)
  • Transputers as a technology failed because they had problems in terms of pricing, and later on performance compared to the (traditional) competition
  • Inmos as the sole manufacturer of these CPUs was a too small company
  • finally, Inmos folded basically in the same year as the ATW was published

Still, despite the failure of the machine for the masses (:-)), the ATW 800 was a good computer and had the potential to be used advantageously in some niches like scientific computing. A running ATW 800 is still the best opportunity to experiment with the Transputer technology. If you can get one, that is. It is rare to a ridicule degree.Technical Data

  • CPU: Inmos T800-20 @20 MHz (10 MIPS)
  • RAM: 4MB (expandable to 16MB)
  • HDD: 44MB
  • OS: HeliOS
  • Graphics: Blossom video system with 1MB of dual-ported RAM, supporting
    • mode 0: 1280 by 960 pixels, 16 colours out of a palette of 4096 (including 16 true greyscales, on a monochrome monitor)
    • mode 1: 1024 by 768 pixels, 256 colours out of a palette of 16.7 million
    • mode 2: 640 by 480 pixels (2 virtual screens), 256 colours out of a palette of 16.7 million
    • mode 3: 512 by 480 pixels, 16.7 million colours
  • Interfaces: RGB component display interface
  • Contains: a miniaturized Mega ST with 512kB RAM with all its interfaces
  • Released: May 1989
  • Number of produced machines: between 200 – 350 (of which 50 – 100 were prototypes)
  • Initial price: 5000 GBP



May 17, 2015

In Germany, the Atari ST was very popular among users of “serious” applications such as text processing, CAD, and equipment controlling. This stemmed not least from the fact of the early availability of an affordable high framerate (70 Hz), high resolution (640×400) black-and-white monitor, the SM124 (and its successors).

Now, the Atari was conceived as a game machine (and Atari was initially really surprised by the demand of the SM124), later on morphed into the form factor of a business machine (Mega ST), but, of course, never had the form factor suited for industrial, 19″ rack-capable usage.

That’s where two German companies, IBP and Rhotron, saw a market. They converted Atari STs into modules that could be fitted into 19″ racks and added standard bus interfaces and measurement modules that could be used by the STs.

This is one of these models, the 190ST from IBP.

IBP presented the first version of this family in 1988. It was a licensed Mega ST design that has been re-designed to fit on three Eurocards. These were packed into a 19″ module with most interfaces, using industry-grade connectors at the front.
The 190ST was offered with one of three possible bus options:

  • ECB-Bus
  • VMEbus

Additionally (and in contrast to the original Mega ST), the 190ST also provided a socket for a 68881 mathematical co-processor. Other additional, built-in goodies included:

  • 1 Watt audio amplifier
  • battery-buffered realtime clock
  • buffered DMA interface
  • Midi with up to 126kps (gilded 9-pin Sub-D connector)
  • keyboard via V24 interface (Sub-D)
  • Watchdog that can be software-controlled
  • application software sockets can use either ROMs or  battery-buffered RAMs

Funnily, there was no mouse nor joystick interface on a 190ST. But you could add both using a special keyboard from IBP that was connected via V24…

Later on, the 190STV30 was added to the family. It featured an additional V30 CPU (8 MHz) in order to allow MSDOS compatibility.

Finally, the 190ST020 offered a Motorola 68020@16 MHz processor. It was introduced in 1991 and started from 5330 DM. As the 68020 was only used as a 68000 replacement, the bus width was unchanged (i.e. 16bit).

I always wanted such a machine, partly because it is a real Atari ST clone, not only a re-packaged one, partly because my first job as a student worker was to implement some software on such a machine. And, of course it is a rare computer made in Germany. Therefore, I was really surprised to find one in the US, from a commercial used factory equipment provider. It is the most basic model (68000, GemDOS, 512 KB RAM), but nevertheless🙂

Technical Data

  • CPU: Motorola 68000@8 MHz or 68020@16 MHz, V30@8MHz as an option
  • RAM: 0.5, 2, or 4 MB
  • HDD: internally none, but can be added externally (e.g. as another module)
  • Graphics: Standard Atari ST graphics
  • Interfaces: Centronics, DMA, keyboard, Midi, RS232, video, floppy disk
  • Released: May 1989
  • Number of produced machines: 700 (hearsay)
  • Initial price: 1500$


Canon Cat (I own one)

May 14, 2015

I completely forgot to tell that I own a Canon Cat (plus the printer) now for quite some years…

A Canon Cat on Ebay

April 22, 2015

There is a rare Canon Cat on ebay(.com):

The Buy It Now price is 1500$. The machine looks nice. The listing has a good compilation on Cat information. If you want to have a nice Forth computer and a non-standard design vintage computer, have a look!

StuS 2014

June 19, 2014

On July, 4th – 6h 2014 I organize a tiny retro computing meeting (called StuS) in Stuttgart, Germany with the usual bunch of retro fiddlers.

If you are able to speak German, visit for a forum on this meeting.

If not, and you are interested to participate, send me an email or post a comment.

NCR 3125

May 29, 2014


This mobile computer from 1991 is the second pen-based device (after Grid’s Gridpad from 1989), the first one with a separate pen (although it beats the Gridpad 2050 or Gripad SL by only a few months if any) and the first one from a big manufacturer. It is also one of the most expensive mobile computers with an initial price of a hefty $4795 (about $8200 in 2014 numbers). Finally, it is one of the few mobile computers designed in Germany (by NCR in Augsburg).

Operating systems-wise the device is very flexible because it came out at the right time. As a PC it can run MSDOS plus NCR’s proprietary “PenOS”, a.k.a. the software that let you use the pen as an input device to enter text in a DOS environment. From 1992 onwards it could execute also (Microsoft) Pen Windows. Finally, even GO’s PenPoint was available for this computer. Some people even got (PC-)GEOS running on it.

My machine (as far as I can see) has only DOS + PenOS. If you happen to have PenPoint for it, I would be very happy…

The model number of this device is 3125. According to some old NCR information (see links below) this makes is a member of the NCR 3000 family that spans from this tablet and a notebook all the way up to a multi-processor, 100,000 MIPS big iron computer system under Unix. As all these systems do not share the same architecture or even the operating system, that’s quite a stretch…

The design of the device is very sleek; it looks very streamlined and timeless. The pen for example is neatly contained in a small hidden compartment at the front. It was rewarded a “iF product design award 1992 – Best Of Category”.

There seems to be a successor to this model with the Model 3130 NotePad in 1992. The 3130 had a backlit screen and a 40 or 60MB HDD and comes with Pen Windows. The weight increased by a pound. The price was about $4000.

I am very unsure on the fate of this machine. It was expensive, not often mentioned in the news, and so I assume it was not very successful. Maybe it was also subject of the turmoil following the takeover by AT&T in 1991/1992.

Technical Data:

  • CPU: 80386SL @ 20 MHz (has about 15 MIPS)
  • RAM: 4MB
  • HDD: 20MB
  • Weight: 1500 grams
  • Pen: passive
  • Display: LCD 640 x 480, 16 gray shades
  • OS: MSDOS plus PenOS or PenPoint or PenWindows
  • Interfaces: VGA, keyboard, RS232C, Centronics, all via a “I/O Connector Adapter”
  • Released: 1991
  • Initial price: $4795



Kids react to Old Computers

May 25, 2014

In the insightful series of confronting today’s children with oldstyle technology, today: Kids react to Old Computers. Very funny and thought-provoking. Why did we accept that crap at that time? The answer is, of course, because nothing better existed at that time at that price point.

These kids already reacted to:

Western Digital Pascal MicroEngine WD900

May 1, 2014


The WD-900 is the main board of a very rare computer whose CPU can execute P-Code (compiled from Pascal) directly. Before I come back to this computer please allow me a short detour🙂 .

There are few computer architectures that aim at executing code that is closer to a certain programming language directly on the CPU. And none of them were successful in the sense that they sold to a larger extend because simply the technical progress on CPUs that do not have to obey such restrictions is faster than for these special CPUs. As a result, executing the programming language on general CPUs of the next generation is faster than doing it on the special CPU.

The list of programming languages for which such special CPUs exist(ed) is rather short:

  • Lisp (starting in 1975)
  • Forth (starting in the early 80s)
  • Prolog (starting in the 80s; research level only)
  • Java (starting in 1996)

Lisp machines did have some commercial success, but vanished in the early 90s.

Prolog machines never came out commercially although their development was one of the promises of the Fifth Generation projects.

Forth is considered by some not so much a high-level programming language, but something very close to computer hardware. There are still some interesting Fort CPUs products, so it’s probably more the low interest in Forth that leads to a low interest in Forth hardware (don’t get me wrong – I love Forth).

In contrast to that, Java is a high-interest programming language. Now, Java does not need to be executed directly on a CPU as it is often compiled into “Bytecode” anyway. Bytecode is a stack-oriented language like Forth. Of course, in contrast to Forth Java supports e.g. objects, but the principle is the same. Bytecode is a much simpler language than Java and better suited to be executed in hardware.

Now, the concept of Bytecode was not invented by Java. It existed long before Java, notably as the runtime system of UCSD Pascal, and now we are back at the WD-900.

In 1979, Western Digital, then a manufacturer of CPU and controller chips, looked for another use case of their MCP-1600 micro-coded, multi-chip microprocessor consisting of 3 types of chips:

  • CP1611 RALU – Register ALU chip
  • CP1621 CON – Control chip
  • CP1631 MICROM – Mask-programmed microcode ROM chip (512 – 22 bit words)

The main use of this CPU was as the processor in DECs LSI-11 computer, a compact, integrated version of the PDP-11 minicomputer. As the CPU was micro-coded and as the microcode was stored in one or more separate chips, it was easy to let the CPU execute a different command set by switching the microcode storage chips.

So what they did was to change the microcode to directly execute “p-code”, the bytecode of UCSD Pascal (of course, also p-code is a stack-oriented language). To that end they developed the WD-9000 chip set consisting of

  • CP2151 Data chip (was no different from the CP1611 of the MCP-1600 chipset and could be interchanged)
  • CP2161 Control chip
  • 3 CP1631 MICROM chips

The difference was in the CP2161 control chip (and of course the MICROMs).  Though the CP2151 contained multiple registers, but as the the p-code implementation was a pure stack machine, it did not use the registers.

In 1979, the competition were mainly 8bit machines. As a result, the MicroEngine outperformed e.g. a Z80-based machine at the same clock speed by almost a factor of 10. Of course, later 16bit machines like the 68000-based HP9836 (at 8 MHz, sold from 1981 for $11950) were faster by a factor of 3. Also, the performance advantage was eroded by the later availability of p-code to native machine code compilers.

The WD-900 board that I own is reportedly a New Old Stock board bought as a spare for a WD-90 computer that never has been used. It is boxed. The WD-900 board contains all the electronics: the CPU, RAM, serial interfaces and a floppy disk controller (WD1791/2) for two disks.

The WD-90 system contained a WD-900 board and a power supply. The (up to two) floppy disk drives needed to be attached externally.

The first boards shipped were poorly designed (power and ground traces the same size as signal traces, very few capacitors), required a large number of modifications, and even then did not work reliably. A couple of years would pass after introduction before a well-engineered MicroEngine was available. Between a damaged reputation and the introduction of the IBM PC, in the end the MicroEngine was not successful. You can see the lack of craftsmanship in the board design very clearly if you have a closer look on the photo of my board. Many patch wires, additional components and hand-soldering on a New Old Stock board…

The MicroEngine series of products was offered at various levels of integration:

  • WD-9000: five chip microprocessor chip set
  • WD-900: single board computer ($2995)
  • WD-90: packaged system ($5000)
  • SB-1600: MicroEngine single board computer
  • ME-1600: Modular MicroEngine packaged system

Technical Data:

  • CPU: WD-9000@ 3.0 MHz
  • RAM: 64 kB (32k 16bit words)
  • Interfaces: 2 x RS232, 2 x parallel (i.e. floppy disk)
  • Released: 1979
  • Initial price: $2995


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