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 http://forum.classic-computing.de/index.php?page=Thread&threadID=5965 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

Image

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

Links

 

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

Image

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

Links

Dauphin DTR-1

April 27, 2014

DTR-1 pictureReleased in 1994, the optimistically named “DeskTop Replacement 1″ is an early pen-based, mobile computer. Like the NCR 3125 3 years earlier it’s a PC that you can carry in your hand and that  you can operate using a pen as a mouse. Of course, the DTR-1 used updated hard- and software, but the idea is the same. Therefore, the architecture of these devices did not allow much freedom and required a desktop-class performance CPU. As a result, all these devices are the most heavy mobile pen computers with a weight almost twice as much as  the one of an Apple Newton or a Magic Cap-based PDA. Not only were they heavy, the PC architecture also meant that the price was double or triple the price of a Newton or a Magic Cap device (a similar problem exist nowadays
in a lesser form for Windows-based tablets as opposed to Android-based tablets).  The upside of the used PC architecture was that it sported all the standard interfaces also found on desktop PCs.

The machine ran on NiMH batteries. They were advertised to last for 3.5 hours.  The pen ran on SR48 batteries and lasted for 350 hours.

The Dauphin DTR-1 could recognize handwriting and convert it to text on the fly.

The DTR-1 was manufactured by IBM.

The operating system was “Windows 3.1 for Pen Computing”.

Another very interesting feature about this computer is that it uses a tiny HP Kittyhawk 1.3″ harddisk.  It seems to be the only computer where this drive came as a standard (it was an option in AT&T’s EO 440 Personal Communicator).

Of course, the DTR-1 was not a success (else this blog would not write about it :-) ). A quite steep price tag of  over $2500 dollars where the initial Apple Newton costed only $700 a year earlier, a high weight, and  an OS that was very exotic in the mobile market made the company starting to collapse in 1995. From the reported assets and debts, divided  by the price for a DTR-1 I assume that Dauphin made at least 18000 units. Dauphin, however seemed to survived  somehow at least until the year 2000.

The power supply of the DTR-1 is notoriously bad. People who own DTR-1’s recommend to use modern 12V DC power  supplies instead of the original one. The original one is specified at 2.1A. The plug is center-positive. As a pen replacement old Fujitsu pens can be used.

In 1996 Dauphin also released a second model (called DTR-2) which was selling for $4445, but very few of them (in the few hundreds)  seem to exist. The DTR-2 had a 486SLC2@50 MHz CPU, a 120 MB HDD, and 2 PCMCIA2 slots.

There are articles from 1999 about a “Dauphin Orasis” computer based on a Pentium@266 MHz, and there are people  that report that they once had such a device, but these machines seem to be even more rare.

Technical Data

  • CPU: Cyrix 486SLC @ 25 MHz (has about 35 MIPS)
  • RAM: 4MB(expandable to 6MB)
  • HDD: HP 1.3″ Kittyhawk microdrive 40MB
  • Size: 5 x 9″
  • Weight: 1100 grams
  • Pen: active, requires batteries
  • Display: pen-sensitive, backlit, passive-matrix, monochrome VGA (640 x 480)
  • Interfaces: VGA (800 x 600, 256 colors), parallel and serial ports, Ethernet, Modem
  • Modem: Hayes-compatible (the modem and serial port are set to the same interrupt, so they can’t be used simultaneously)
  • Ethernet: the Ethernet module (apart from the connector) is an option
  • Keyboard: separate, but included
  • Released: 1994
  • Initial price: $2595
  • Options:
    •  3.5″ floppy disk drive $200
    •  Ethernet module $300

Links

 

Siemens NotePhone

August 16, 2013

A lucky find on a recent local flea market.
NotePhone

  • Apple-Newton (OMP)-based Siemens-branded telephone (German version only)
  • This Newton has a special case so the Siemens modem (box on the right) can be attached (very firmly) to it
    • The Newton plus the modem can be used separately from the phone
    • The Power Supply connects to the modem which then can feed the Newton (this PSU is a generic 7V one; no need for the very special Newton PSU)
  • Then the two devices can be attached to the phone via a connector hinge
  • The modem would use the phone as its connection to the telephone line so you could dial a call from the Newton’s contact list or send a fax directly
  • The phone itself does not need any external power supply
  • iF product design award 1994 – TOP 10
  • RAM: 640KB
  • ROM: 4MB
  • CPU: ARM 610 @20 MHz
  • Newton OS: 1.11 (German)
  • Screen: 336×240, no backlight
  • Fax/Modem:  2400bps Data / 9600bps Fax modem
  • Original price (1994): DM 2400 ($ 1000 at that time)
  • Today’s value: about € 170 – 490

Matra Alice 8000

March 5, 2011

A new piece for my collection has arrived: an ultra-rare Matra Alice 8000 with LSE cartridge and LSE and Basic manuals. As there seems to be almost no English text on the Alice 8000 available, I compiled the following article from mainly French sources.

Apart from compiling existing information this text features data on the ROM size and more photos from the PCB, data on size and weight and warnings about disassembling the unit :-).

Matra

Mécanique Aviation TRAction or Matra was a French company founded in 1942 covering a wide range of activities mainly related to automobiles, bicycles, aeronautics and weaponry. In 1996 it started to operate entirely under the name Lagardère Group.

Alice 8000

After having failed to conquer the entry systems market for home computers in 1983 with the Alice series of computers in collaboration with the French publisher Hachette (Alice, Alice 32, Alice 90), Matra tried to apply for the French Informatique Pour Tous (Computer Science for All) program with the design of the Alice 8000 (codename Nano) in 1985. A preproduction run of maybe 250 devices has been produced. As the design is said to be too expensive, Matra abandoned all plans to stay in the home computer market and after then concentrated on the business market.

This first type of Alices was intended to work diskless via a local network (french: nano reseau, hence the code name Nano) thus using the storage capacities of a server.

Two programming languages were developed for (or at least, ported to) this machine. Digital Research’s P-Basic is contained in the ROM. LSE (see section below) is available via a cartridge. LSE uses the 8088 processor.

The ROM further on contains a rather powerful configuration menu as well as some file management possibilities (instead of having a DOS).

There are 4 ROM ICs on my PCB, with a total of 96 KB. 48 of which account for the Basic, 32 KB are labelled “Nano”, and 16 KB are called “6803”.

[1] claims that only 125 Alices have been built (although 250 mother boards have been produced), and 200 cartridges. Out of these machines, only 100 should be functional. Further, [1] tells that Matra trashed most of these Alices, only 20 machines were sold for a symbolic price to a school, and 10 others were given to developers and other members of the project. Later on the 20 school machines were also destroyed, so nowadays only about a dozen are known to exist (see list below).

From a collectors point of view the Alice 8000 is extremely attractive because of its rarity, home computer type, the 2 CPUs, and its beautiful design.

Keyboard unit

The keyboard unit contains the computer and most of the interfaces. It has a fixed cable that can be connected to the monitor unit for power. A second, proprietary Scart cable the connects both units video-wise. The expansion port would have probably offered the possibility to connect to a separate LAN module as this was needed from the concept point of view.

Please note that the SCART interface is the same as in the Alice 90 which requires a special cable. The following information are taken from http://membres.multimania.fr/romualdl/alice/alice_faq.txt :

Alice 90 Scart Cable (note: you cannot use an ordinary SCART cable, you'll have to make it)

Alice end             TV end
6 --------------------- 6
7 --------------------- 7
8 --------------------- 8
11 -------------------- 11
15 -------------------- 15
16 -------------------- 16
17 -------------------- 17
19 -------------------- 19
20 -------------------- 20

Attention! If you detach the keyboard half from the PCB, it might be the case that you cannot put back the keyboard connection into the PCB (at least this was the case for my machine)!

Monitor unit

The monitor unit contains the monitor and the PSU as well as (according to a photo) space for 2 3.5” disk drives (but there does not seem to be any means to connect or control these drives).

Attention! 1) it is not easy to put the front and back half together once you opened the case. 2) I was not able to disconnect the two halves due to many cable connections between them. 3) After fiddling with the fuse, the entire fuse component broke off the PCB!

Name Alice 8000
Manufacturer Matra Datasysteme
Type Home Computer
Origin France
Year 1985
End of Production 1985
Built in Language Basic
Keyboard AZERTY, mechanical keyboard, 67 keys (Cherry)
CPU + Speed Motorola 6803 @ 4.915 Mhz, Intel 8088
RAM 64 KB, 2 KB Video-RAM
ROM 96 KB (48 KB Basic, 32 KB “Nano”, 16 KB “6803”)
Text Modes 40 or 80 columns
Graphic Modes 160×125 (2 colors)160×200 (3 colors)
Color 3 colors
Sound Beep only
Size /Weight Keyboard unit (LxWxH, [mm]):395x235x75 / ~ 2 KgMonitor unit: 245x240x260 / ~ 5 Kg
I/O Ports Expansion port, 2 cartridge slots, RS232, Parallel, Scart, tape recorder, 2 joystick ports (Tandy DIN type)
Built in media -
Power Supply Power Supply in Monitor Unit
Peripherals LSE cartridge
Status Preproduction Run
Produced Devices 250 (estimated)

LSE

LSE or Langage symbolique d’enseignement (Symbolic Teaching Language) is a programming language developed at the beginning of the 1970s for teaching. It was widespread in French high schools as a result of an edict of the French ministry of education but vanished quickly with the upcoming of PCs as there was no implementation for these machines. Technically, LSE is similar to BASIC, except with French instead of English keywords. It also supports procedures.

Here is an example of a LSE program that prints out the French version of the song “99 bottles of beer” (from Wikipedia):

  1*CHANSON DES 99 BOUTEILLES DE BIERE
  2*PASCAL BOURGUIGNON, <PJB@INFORMATIMAGO.COM>, 2003
 10 FAIRE 20 POUR N←99 PAS -1 JUSQUA 1
 20 &STROF(N)
 30  AFFICHER['IL EST TEMPS D’’ALLER AU MAGASIN.',/]
 40 TERMINER
100 PROCEDURE &STROF(N) LOCAL S1,S0;CHAINE S1,S0;S1←"S";S0←"S"
110 SI N=2 ALORS S0←"S" SINON SI N=1 ALORS DEBUT S1←"";S0←"" FIN
120 AFFICHER[U,' BOUTEILLE',U,' DE BIERE SUR LE MUR.',/]N,S1
130 AFFICHER[U,' BOUTEILLE',U,' DE BIERE.',/]N,S1
140 AFFICHER['EN PRENDRE UNE, LA FAIRE PASSER.',/]
150 AFFICHER[U,' BOUTEILLE',U,' DE BIERE SUR LE MUR.',2/]N-1,S0
160 RETOUR

Note that the program contains a procedure STROF (100-160) while the FOR loop in 10 refers to line 20 as the body. The main program starts at 10 and ends at 40.

Relevant Links

Known Alice 8000s

00001: Carl Hervier
???: Bruno (http://bruno.maitresdumonde.com/perso/antiquites/alice8000.html)
???: Andry (http://www.andryshouse.com/index.asp)
???: Andrea Pier
003: Bernard (http://bmi56287.chez.com/id98.htm)
018: Romuald (http://membres.multimania.fr/romualdl/alice/alice_faq.txt)
053: http://www.mapetitecollection.com
084: Stefan Walgenbach (http://www.homecomputer.de/pages/MachineInfo/Matra_Alice_8000.html)
153: cyberfritz (http://www.randoc.wordpress.com)
192: Olivier Achelbaum
243: www.mo5.com (http://mo5.com/article-275-acquisition-le-matra-alice-8000.html)

Pictures

The following pictures have been taken (with permission) from http://siravo.fabrice.free.fr/alice/palice8000.htm .

See you at Classic Computing 2010

October 1, 2010

I’m off to the Classic Computing 2010 meeting in Walddorf, Germany. Maybe we meet there?

Dates: October, 2nd and 3rd 2010, 10:00 – 16:00 (Sa – 18:00)

Location: Festhalle Walddorf, Badstr. 33, 72213 Altensteig-Walddorf, Germany

I prepared a display on Magic Cap computers. Let’s see how the folks like it…

Xerox 6085

July 18, 2010

Recently, I could lay my greedy hands on a Xerox workstation (thanks to Daniel who transported it for me from Berlin!), probably a 6085 (codename Daybreak). Probably means that the case and the components resemble very much to a 6085 or a 1186 (which was a 6085 with Lisp instead of ViewPoint). But, the serial number prefix (or model number) is 82D, and it has an up-to-240V PSU (it came from a (probably German) university).

Unfortunately, it has no hard disk, or should I say, hard disk module (there is an empty module slot below the PSU). If somebody owns such a thing, it would be nice to know :-).

Nevertheless, it is a rare beast, and I took it apart and had some photos of the PCBs (as I did not found anything like that on the Internet I guess the photos are an Internet premiere…):

As you can see the serial number is 82D 155  107809 – 0.

This is the label. 120-240V, obviously for the international market.

Here are the 7 module slots. 5 on the left for large PCBs, 2 on the right, the top most is the PSU, the one below is probably the one for the hard disk module (taking a 5.25 inch hard disk like a St251 and maybe the controller).

The 5 modules on the left. The DCM (Display), MEP (Memory Expansion Board?), MPB (Main Processor Board?), IOP (IO Board), and PCE (PC Expansion?). The blackened numbers below the board serial numbers are probably the sizes or options installed (e.g. numbers of MB RAM installed). The modules itself consist of a PCB mounted on a metal sheet that can be inserted into the cage. Each board has one or two connectors to a backplane installed in the cage. Let’s have a look on the boards.

This is the DCM board. Note the display connector at the bottom and one backplane connector at the top.

This is the MEP board. 90 256 Kbit nMOS Dynamic RAMs (between 2 and 3 MB).

The MPB, containing the CPU. It is not a single CPU chip or a standard design, but a proprietary Xerox design based on some AMD 2900 series bit slice chips:

At least the design is not completely TTL-based as in the first D*-machine from Xerox, the Dolphin.

And here we have the IO board giving us Ethernet, Floppy Disk, Keyboard (and Mouse that was connected through the Keyboard), and 2 serial interfaces. And we have another processor on this board:

Yes, its an Intel 80186. But it is not (only??) used for the interfaces, but in conjunction with the

PCE board for the PC emulation (note the tiny board which has a size of only a 1/3 of the others :-).

So my next task is to find a hard disk module. Let’s see whether this works out :-) Nevertheless, isn’t it cool to own a Xerox 6085?

Vintage Computer Meeting in Stuttgart

June 12, 2010

I’m organizing a small Vintage Computer Meeting next week in Stuttgart (Germany :-). In case you’re interested: follow this link (German…).

Name: Stuttgarter Sommertreffen (StuS)
Date: 18.-20.06.2010
Location: Mahatma-Gandhi-Str. 13+15, 70376 Stuttgart
Duration: 2.5 days

Program (apart from talking and soldering):

  • Friday, 18.6.2010, 16:00 Guided Tour IBM Museum, Sindelfingen
  • tbd: Guided Tour Computer Museum at the University of Stuttgart

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