VGA explained Hands On

July 13, 2019

If you are like me you do not know much about hardware. In case you wonder how all this (old school) video interface is working, say in case of VGA for example, you are in luck. In this video (and its part II) a Youtube channel called Ben Eater explains the basic VGA signal by freaking building a simple graphics card using breadboards and simple circuitry. He does this, layer by layer, in order to fulfill the different aspects of the VGA specification. And afterwards even I have the impression to have understood how the thing basically works.

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The InterCompex Хоббит (a.k.a. Hobbit) Computer Family

June 23, 2019

As you may have noticed by now, Soviet Bloc computers are not in any way a speciality of mine. Still, there was one model that I longed for since some time because there was also some sort of Forth version of it: the Hobbit. So, recently I was able to finally buy one out of Ebay.

The Hobbit was in one way the typical Soviet computer. It is a Sinclair Spectrum clone, made mainly for the Soviet market. In another way, the unusual thing about it that it was (briefly) sold also in the West as an upmarket version of the Spectrum in the 1990s.

So I thought, writing a short blog entry was easy: there are comparatively many (for a Soviet computer) English information pages on the Hobbit on the Internet. There is no picture of the PCB, so, that’s what I could contribute.

But then parts started not to fit together. My machine (clearly labelled Hobbit) did not really fit most descriptions that I found. Soon, it became clear to me that the Hobbit is really a small family of different machines, but nobody in the English-speaking world seems to be aware of that. So I conjectured and made up wild theses, but found in the end a Russian page which cleared up things. So, what’s what?

There are three versions of the Hobbit:

The (original) Hobbit
Hobbt_A.JPG
It is the earliest model. It is a “Super Spectrum” with its full keyboard, 3.5MHz Z80, 64 kB RAM, 64 kB ROM, (serial) network capabilities, 3 joystick ports, up to 4 5.25″ floppy disk drives connectable, Centronics port, CP/M clone OS, and so on. This is also the version for which there were many different EEPROM images available, offering Basic, Logo, Forth, and so on. (This is also the version I wanted to have :-).

The Hobbit console (Игровой автомат or ИА Хоббит (IA Hobbit))
console
The Hobbit console is to the Hobbit what the C64GS was to the C64: basically the same computer but without a keyboard and lacking most of the peripherals. The Hobbit console had a tape connector (but no module slot), and two joystick ports. It was produced in 1989-1990 and was sold at a price of ~1000 rubles in 1990 in the Soviet Union (but apparently not in the West). An external keyboard (sold separately) could be connected. As there was normally no keyboard, but the computer is still basically a Spectrum, the ROM was modified so it issued a LOAD “” automatically after startup.

The “Programmable Console Hobbit” ((“Программируемый Игровой Автомат Хоббит”, or ПИА Хоббит or PIA Hobbit)
DSC00076.JPG
This is the version that I have. It looks a little bit like the pale, less posh version of the Spectrum+. It is the Hobbit console plus an integrated keyboard. Like the console, it does not have any floppy or network interfaces, only a tape interface. It has only two joystick interfaces. It has 64 kB of (Sowjet production) RAM, but in the ROM socket there is only a 16 kB (Taiwan) EEPROM chip, possibly a replacement. It is unclear whether a 64 kB EEPROM can be used. It has an original Zilog Z80 CPU soldered in. The keyboard has English keys, but on the left top side there are three buttons with Kyrillic text above it. These read “Network”, “Video” and “Reset”. Now, you might want to ask me: Why a “Network” button? I have no idea. Interestingly, this button is as yellow as the normal keyboard while the other to buttons are paler in color. Maybe they had paper labels on them because the user did not speak Russian and the “Network” button was never used? BTW, the “Video” button is a “radio button” that stays down when pressed, whereas the other two buttons are reset-type buttons. This model dates to 1992.

DSC00075.JPG
That’s the underside. Apparently, one can calibrate the colors here with a screwdriver?

DSC00077.JPG
That’s the back. From left to right: TV, Tape, Joystick 1, Joystick 2, power cord. Yes, one of the last owners has fitted a TV output connector to it, danngling quite loosely out of the case. On the top left corner it even says “ПИА” (PIA).

DSC00078.JPG
That’s the computer with the top cover removed (use the four lowest screws on the back). Note that the keyboard has a “1992” stamp on the metal on the right.

DSC00079.JPG
Voila, finally a PCB picture. As you can see, the keyboard is connected to the main PCB by a series of single, very thin wires. All in all the Hobbit seems to require a lot of hand soldering. There seems not be a possibility to fit a network interface in the back.

Numberwise, it is not clear how many Hobbits were made. The 1990 article, Rage Hard colports a number of 15000 Hobbits the manufacturer claims to have sold until then. Nowadays, on Ebay a Hobbit is a quite rare thing.

Knowing the things above I can even correct two incorrect pages on the Hobbit:

And I still need to find an original Hobbit for myself 😉

References

I want to thank Anastasiia Iurshina for translating the text on the case of my PIA Hobbit!

The (arguably) most pleasing Floppy Disk Drive

February 24, 2019

SordA73

I saw recently in an Ebay auction the most pleasing floppy disk drive subsystem ever. Ever! Unfortunately it was too expensive to buy just as a conversation piece.

I am not sure what the designer usually did. Maybe tape drives? Hifi devices? Mainframe peripherals?

Also, seems to be a very rare thing. Google knows nothing about a SORD FD Processor A73…

VCFB 2019 Announcement

February 17, 2019

If you have read my blog, you know that I participated in the Vintage Computer Festival Berlin (Germany) in 2018 and 2017. As I contribute to the organisation this year a little bit, here is the announcement of the 2019 event:

Vintage Computing Festival Berlin (VCFB)

Date: October 12 & 13, 2019
Location: The “Ladestrasse” area of the German Museum of Technology (Deutsches Technikmuseum) Berlin

(Access via Möckernstr. 26, 10963 Berlin, Germany)

The Vintage Computing Festival Berlin (VCFB) is an event about historic computers and computing technology. In exhibitions, talks and workshops, participants from all over Germany and beyond present many different aspects of Vintage Computing. Established in 2014, the VCFB has steadily grown and has attracted well over 2500 visitors in 2018.

In addition to retro computers, also historical operating systems, programming languages, network technology as well as pocket and mechanic calculators will be shown. Most of the exhibited devices are still in working condition and can be used by visitors.

Admission is free!

Special Exhibition “Computers from Germany”

Leibniz, Zuse, Nixdorf and others – German inventors and companies have had a long lasting effect in computing history. As a location for research and development, as an important market, and as a place of manufacturing, both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic have played an important role in history. As the 50th anniversary of renowned East German manufacturer Robotron approaches, we celebrate the event with a special exhibition on computers from Germany. We thus invite exhibitors to present (working) historic computers with a relation to Germany independently of whether they came from a German company, were designed or “Made in Germany”.

Game Room

The “House of Computer Games” presents the history of computer games. Visitors get a hands-on experience of past digital games on over twenty historic game consoles and home computers.

Short Conference “COMPUTER SPACE – 50 years of hardware, software, and wetware in space”

On July 16, 1969, not only the first men landed on the moon – but also the first computer. The moon landing as part of the Apollo 11 mission was an unprecedented symbiosis of humans, hardware and software. Since then, many anecdotes and myths have grown around these protagonists. Five presentations in our short conference will demonstrate that Apollo 11 was not the beginning but only a first climax in the convergence of computer and rocket technology. The conference will further explore what came before and how the moon landings had a long lasting influence on technology and culture (even extending to literature and computer game history).

Information for exhibitors will follow.

Review of the documentary: General Magic

February 7, 2019

I was very excited when I learned in December 2017 that there was a documentary about the company “General Magic” in the making as I know their products, their operating system (Magic Cap), and their vision about Mobile Software Agents using their programming language Telescript. I never deeply researched the company history, though.

When I had an exhibit on Magic Cap devices and a presentation on “Mobile Agents and Telescript” at the VCFB 2018 in Berlin I thought it would round up things nicely to also have there a screening of the documentary that was first shown earlier in 2018 at diverse film festivals. Therefore, I contacted the production company and tried to arrange that. Unfortunately, as I found out, this would have commanded too much money and would have been needed to be restricted to a private audience in order not to spoil their chances at other upcoming festivals. However, they told me then, they were at the verge of doing a big distribution deal.

I now found out that this deal was the distribution as “National Geographic Channel” content and that the movie is even available in other languages (such as German). As such content, the movie is currently available on many distribution channels such as TV and streaming services. I used Sky Ticket (Entertainment), but that is only one of the options.

So, my expectations were high. How is my impression about the movie?

In the beginning, I was quite confused. The first 30 minutes (highlighting the history before General Magic was founded) seemed like an Apple fanboy fantasy. Some of the heroes (like Andy Hertzfeld) of the heroic history of the Mac join forces with the Apple visionary (Marc Porat) who dreams about smartphones as early as the 1980s. In order to bring the vision of devices which allow users to communicate everywhere they form General Magic as a spin-off of Apple. If you watch the movie you get the impression that noone has ever endeavoured such a daring task and only superhuman beings did even thought about it.

As they have not yet introduced the people whose voice they are using in the beginning, initially it is mainly the same kind of stock videos that every Youtuber uses if he/she has only a script, but no actual footage.

In this first 30 mins the movie does not look right nor left, does not take into account other approaches to similar problems, earlier developments, or even facts that do not fit the unbroken image the movie wants to project. One example is the phase in the life of Andy Hertzfeld where he leaves Apple because of the line management, his own Mac software developments outside Apple that an unpleasant-as-always Steve Jobs then licenses from him. Watching the movie you do not even learn that he was not with Apple anymore at the time of General Magic.

However, even in the first 30 mins this film transports the coolness of General Magic very well. People wanted to work there by any means because the cool guys were there, and because the company made such a fuzz (because General Magic is exactly *not* the company you have never heard of, at least at the time). Also, one starts to notice the heavy use of original video recordings at that time, mixed with parts from interviews from today.

The next 50 minutes or so the move changes its posture to a more reflected style. One can get many interesting insights in the history of the company. Also, as the history of General Magic progresses, one gets told the problems the company faces by the people that were involved.

Technically, the movie consists almost entirely from segments of interviews (old and new) and the video footage General Magic had made in their days. There are no speakers from the off and almost never interviewers asking questions. Although the film seems like an objective documentary at the surface, the (invisible) selection of answers and the absence of questions makes one suspicious whether it reflects the complete interviews truthfully.

In the last 10 minutes the movie tries to install the company as the sole reason for the existence of smartphones, naming the influences of the company visions to Steve Jobs (iPhone) and Android (as Andy Rubin who headed the development of Android worked at General Magic). In my opinion that is quite debatable as this discussion omits any discussion of ideas, projects and products outside General Magic. However, I can imagine that the history of General Magic has sharpened the senses of many former employees of which mistakes not to make 🙂

All in all, in my opinion, this movie is not a technology documentary, it is a commemoration drama (in order to invent a term). It confuses the high-flying Apple vision (Pocket Crystal) with the not-so-fabulous and over-engineered-at-the-wrong-places products that in the end come out of General Magic’s efforts. It cites mainly persons inside the General Magic bubble. The film is very good in achieving to bring the visions, the atmosphere, and some of the people to life. From a computer historian’s point of view it is a primary source of subjective information, but one has to objectify and to relate the found information in a bigger picture himself. I find the movie entertaining, but then again, I would have probably done so in almost every case given the subject matter.

“General Magic” is 90 minutes long.

References

DDC 223

February 3, 2019

IMG_0928

I wrote an entry about the company David Computer some time ago. Even after I did some research a lot of things were unclear. However, having read this post, Mr. Pierre Artaz from France contacted me saying that he was in the process of restoring a computer system that says “DDC Computer” on the console (one of the predecessor companies of David).

We wrote back and forth, he send me a bunch of photos, and we think we were able to determine the model that he has. It is a DDC model 223 from about 1980. As you can see on the first picture

  • the machine looks very 70s. Orange with brown, and a little bit of unavoidable grey.
  • the machine is not a small one. The main chassis on the left (which is basically empty) contains the CPU, the memory, and the I/O, the next two cabinets are hard disks with removable disk platters, then comes a desk with a terminal, finally a printer

He sent me also a photograph of the (German) configuration sheet glued on some panel inside the chassis:

IMG_0868.jpg

Ok, so it might be a model “223”. Was there something like that? What do I do if I want to identify a computer model sold in Germany? Of course, I consult the CC Seller archive. And in the “CC Seller EDV 1979” issue, I find the model 223:

  • 96 kB RAM
  • 2 * terminals with 2000 characters each
  • 1 * printer
  • 2 * 14 MB harddisks
  • price: DM 112139 (multiply by a factor of 2.3 for Francs in 1980)

Unfortunately, CC Seller does not tell us anything about the CPU. But if you read my previous entry on David Computer, you know that it was speculated that they used a Fairchild chip that is compatible with the Data General NOVA. I do not have a picture of the CPU PCB (yet), but if you look at the console, what do you see?

IMG_0852

Ok, seems to be a 16 bit architecture. Hmm, it looks very much like this (up to the text for the buttons):

1280px-Nova1200.agr

By ArnoldReinhold – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3578915

The console of a Data General Nova 1200. I think that basically settles it.

The machine also has extensive paperwork for the hard disks. They came as OEM models from CalComp and are a model T-25 and/or T-50.

Telescript University

January 2, 2019

„Telescript University“ was an early tutorial (at the General Magic premises) on how to program Telescript hold at least in May of 1994. I have a paper copy of the handouts of this event. As there is not so much material about Telescript out there, as I did not find a digital copy of this stuff in the Internet, and as a treat for the one other human interested in this sort of thing on christmas, I scanned the handouts. Here they are. Enjoy!

Title Version Date Content
Telescript-Language-Lessons DRAFT (0.x) June, 1993 Book that teaches Telescript to people with programming experience
TelescriptLanguageExcercises 1.1 8 August 1994 Short document on how to handle the exercises
Telescript Programming Telescript-Programming-part1 Telescript-Programming-part2 1.0c May 1994 The main content of the Telescript University slides: How to program Telescript
Programming-Demonstrations ? ? Short overview on Telescript program examples
HighTelescript 1.0c 24 June 1994 More formal, compact language description of Telescript
ScriptsFromScratch ? ? One programming exercise task
ExamplePrograms ? 8/10/94 A bunch of example programs, partially referenced by above documents

Everything Magic: The first app store?

December 23, 2018

When I presented my Magic Cap devices at the VCFB 2018 I heard from some people the claim that the Magic Cap devices had the first app store in the history. I never heard that claim before and decided to try to find out more about that.

It so happened that (looking through the material for the Telescript University seminar) I stumbled upon a small leaflet in the 1994 “AT&T PersonaLink Services” brochure that describes (unsurprisingly) the features of the short-lived AT&T service that provided email and other services to Magic Cap devices. One of these services was the “Market Square” service that was basically a platform for electronic shops that could be used by Magic Cap users.

The small leaflet was about one of these shops called “Everything Magic”. You can find the leaflet on page 34 and 35 of this scan of the brochure. The leaflet claims that whether “you’re looking for business software, games or even just a cool General Magic T-shirt, you’ll find it at Everything Magic […]”. The backside of the leaflet goes on: “Fast electronic software delivery. Everything Magic can deliver the software products you need right to your communicator. And because they’re send to you electronically, you get your order quickly.”

This really sounds like an app store. The electronic pay procedure probably came through the Market Square infrastructure. The delivery to the device was (push-wise) “electronically”. Whether this meant an automatic download-and-install method like in a today’s app store or as an attachment of an e-mail is unclear at this point.

According to the leaflet “Everything Magic” is a trademark of “eShop Inc.” According to its Wikipedia page, eShop Inc. was originally founded in 1991 to develop products for Go Corporation’s PenPoint operating system. In later years, it developed software for the Windows for Pen Computing and Magic Cap platforms. From 1993, it developed electronic commerce software, focusing primarily on the “business-to-consumer” marketplace. eShop was acquired by Microsoft in 1996 for less than $50 million and eShop’s technologies were integrated into Microsoft Merchant Server. Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of eShop, earned over $1 million from the deal and later founded eBay.

So, was “Everything Magic” the first app store? According to the “App store” Wikipedia page, the first app store was the “Electronic AppWrapper” system presented in May 1993. It seems to me that the bulk of the software data of this system was distributed on a CD-ROM (maybe I am wrong there). The next contender Wikipedia mentions is a 1996 SUSE Linux component. It all depends (like for so many “firsts”) on what you see as the defining elements of an app store. Getting some software electronically and installing it on your computer is a very old feature (e.g. the original FTP protocol is from 1971). In my opinion an “app store” is a system where one can browse electronically in programs meant to be executable on some version of the user’s device, select or buy a program electronically, and the chosen program is then transferred and installed automatically in an integrated way (opposed to the need of a user to install a transferred program manually using the OS’ UI procedures). I also have the feeling that when we say “app store” we mean “for a mobile device and all that can happen virtually anywhere through the wireless data connection of the mobile device”. This latter aspect is not really a technical difference (the infrastructure on the server and the end user device side would be the same in either case).

So, if we mean “app store for mobile devices”, “Everything Magic” might have been very well the first one if

  • the program installation would have been taking place automatically (which we do not know currently)
  • if the shop was actually deployed (which we also do not know at this point. Also, one is often suspicious whether things that were announced in the Magic Cap world really made it to the product stage)

If the mobile aspect is not important to your definition of an app store,  “Everything Magic” is at least a very early example.

GridPad 1900: The first mobile pen computer

October 28, 2018

GridPad1900.jpg

As I wrote in my entry for the GRiD Convertible, GRiD was legendary computer manufacturer that produced a lot of “firsts”.

This one is (by and large) the first mobile pen computer. It was released in 1989, two years before NCR released their NCR 3125. It is quite heavy (2 kg) and the pen is connected to the tablet via wire, but it was the first time a company had the vision to give users something like an electronic notepad. In order to do that it offered (restricted) handwriting recognition. The project that led to the GRiDPAD was developed by Jeff Hawkins who would later on found Palm, and then Handspring.

Software- and hardware-wise it was quite far away from what GO and Apple would have in their (later) devices. Instead of an ARM-class CPU, and a special operating system fully exploiting and supporting the possibilities of an electronic notebook, the GRiDPAD has a meager 8086 and MS-DOS (the latter is at least built in and does not need to boot). Apart from a few applications, pen support mainly means that you can fill out text fields with the pen. No harddisk is needed (or offered) as it uses up to 2 battery buffered RAM storage cards as mass memory (up to 2 MB in total).

It is said that 10’000 GRiDPADs were sold in 1990 (probably its most successful year). It was marketed as a niche product mainly towards users with bookkeeping needs.

A later model 1910 had a built in 20MB harddisk, 2MB RAM, a NEC V20 CPU, and a backlit screen. The price for the 1910 was initially $3750.

The (probably) last model of the series was the GRiDPAD SL in 1993 that weighted 2.5 kg and costed initially $4395. This model could also run GO’s PenPoint operating system.

Technical Data

  • Manufacturer: GRiD
  • Model: GRiDPAD Model 1900
  • CPU: 80C86@10MHz
  • RAM: 1 MB
  • ROM: 256 kB
  • OS: MS-DOS 3.3 (built in)
  • Size: 31.4 x 23.5 x 3.6cm
  • Weight: 2 Kg incl. battery
  • Pen: passive, connected by a wire to the case
  • Display: 10“ LCD black&white, 640×480 pixel
  • Interfaces: RS232C (9 pin), keyboard (5 pin), external bus
  • Released: 1989
  • Initial price: $2370
  • Options:
    • Modem (2400 bps, MNP level 5 protocol=)
    • Hard disk extension unit (about the same size as the tablet): 40 MB HDD, 3.5″ FDD

Links

HTC Dream – the first Android phone

October 28, 2018

HTCDream

The HTC Dream, also known as the T-Mobile G1, was the first Android phone on the market. It was released in September 2008.

According to Wikipedia, ” An early prototype had a close resemblance to a BlackBerry phone, with no touchscreen and a physical QWERTY keyboard, but the arrival of 2007’s Apple iPhone meant that Android “had to go back to the drawing board”. Google later changed its Android specification documents to state that “Touchscreens will be supported”, although “the Product was designed with the presence of discrete physical buttons as an assumption, therefore a touchscreen cannot completely replace physical buttons”. By 2008, both Nokia and BlackBerry announced touch-based smartphones to rival the iPhone 3G, and Android’s focus eventually switched to just touchscreens.”

Although probably done “after having gone to the drawing board”, it seems this phone still breathes the before-touchscreen era having not only a keyboard, but also dedicated “phone up” and “phone down” buttons, as well as a trackball(!).

Although a 2008 phone, you can already load the battery using (mini) USB so there is no need for a proprietary power supply.

So it is a historically important smartphone, but is it also a rare one? Wikipedia quotes “In April 2009, T-Mobile announced that it had sold over a million G1s in the United States, accounting for two thirds of the devices on its 3G network.” So, not really rare 🙂