Hitachi Basic Master Family

April 2, 2021

In the West, we often know astonishingly little about early Japanese computers, especially when they were not also sold in the Western world. One of these examples is the “Basic Master” family of 8-bit models produced by Hitachi from 1978 to 1985.

Being sold from 1978, the Hitachi Basic Master (MB6880) was the first real home computer in Japan (and the first one to use the term “personal computer” over there). Apart from early Western models (like the TRS-80) before the Basic Master, you could buy basically only single board systems like NEC’s TK-80. And as it was considered a niche household consumer device it was developed by the Yokohama-based TV Division, not Hitachi’s Computer Division (who did the “serious” computers).

Motorola 6800-based models

In contrast to most other home computers, the early Basic Master models used a Motorola 6800 CPU. The 6800 was Motorola’s first CPU, an 8-bit processor. Apart from the Hitachis, only the APF Imagination Machine used the 6800 (also the SWTPC 6800 and the MITS Altair 680 used this CPU, but these were not home computers in the classical sense).

The first model of the family is the Basic Master (Level 1), MB-6880.

Hitachi MB-6880

It has a Hitachi version of the Motorola 6800 CPU running at a whopping 750 kHz. It features 4 kB of RAM and 8 kB of ROM containing Hitachis Level 1 Basic that offers only integers. It can display 32 x 24 characters in black and white and offers a 64 x 48 pixel resolution. The video output is either composite oder (Japan) NTSC. The only mass memory option is a 300 bps cassette interface. This model uses an external PSU. The initial price wass 188,000 Yen.

1979 the second model was released, the Basic Master Level 2, MB-6880L2.

Hitachi MB-6880L2

The only difference to its successor is double the amount of RAM (8 kB), double the amount of ROM (16 kB) containing Hitachi’s Level 2 Basic (hence the name), now also offering floating point numbers. Also the initial price is significantly higher (228,000 Yen).

The successor to the Basic Master Level 2 is the Basic Master Level 2 II in 1980 (MB-6881).

Hitachi MB-6881

This time the RAM amount is increased to 16 kB and the price dropped to 148,000 Yen.

The final model that uses the Motorola 6800 is the Basic Master Jr. (MB-6885) that was released in 1981.

Hitachi MB-6885

It also offers 16 kB RAM, 16 kB ROM, and the Level 2 Basic. It is initially offered for 89,800 Yen and is considered to be an entry level model. In constrast to the other models described above it now has a dedicated VRAM allowing a resolution of 256×192 pixels monochrome, even if one cannot access it from Basic. The case now looks different and includes the PSU.

I recently bought this model and can now show you the inside:

Case opened
The PCB from above
The PCB in more detail

As one can see my model has the ROM upgrade which adds another 2 kB ROM and probably increases the cassette speed to 1200 bps. The PCB is very cleanly designed and built and contains a lot of Hitachi chips (that’s the advantage of being a big Japanese electronics company with a lot of experience in manufacturing consumer electronics).

The interfaces on the back of the case are labelled in Japanese. These are (from left to right):

  • Cassette
  • Video 2
  • Printer
  • Video 1
  • Expansion Port

Motorola 6809-based models

The models using the Motorola 6800 CPU were not the only branch of the Basic Master family. The first model of the other branch was released already in 1980. This branch used a Motorola 6809 8-bit processor which ran at 1 MHz. They used a completely different architecture than the 6800 models and featured a Microsoft Basic (called Level 3 Basic). Additionally, the 6809 models offered a resolution of 640×200 pixels or 320×400 pixels in 8 colors. The usage of Microsoft Basic and the graphics resolution modes influenced man other Japanese computer models at the time. Finally the case became much larger and offering 6 expansion slots, almost having an Apple II vibe.

The first model is the Basic Master Level 3 (MB-6890) (codename: Peach) released in 1980 and sold initially for 298,000 Yen.

Hitachi MB-6890

It offers 32 kB RAM and 24 kB ROM. It was also the first personal computer to offer Japanese characters! This model was also sold in Australia.

The successor was the Basic Master Level 3 Mark 2 (MB-6891) released in 1982. It was sold for 198,000 Yen.

Hitachi MB-6891

I did not reliably found out the difference between the Mark 2 and the Mark 1. Some sources say the Mark 2 would contain Chinese characters in ROM. Some English sources on this computer claim it used a Z80 CPU. This is, of course, wrong. It uses the same Motorola 6809 CPU as the predecessor and the successor model.

The final model of the 6809 branch is the 1983 Basic Master Level 3 Mark 5 (MB-6892). It was sold for 118,000 Yen.

Hitachi MB-6892

The RAM increased to 64 kB.

Motorola 68B09-based models

After the first branch of the Basic Master family using 6800 CPUs, the second one using 6809 CPUs, there was a final, third branch using 68B09 CPUs (Hitachi HD68B09E, to be more exact). The difference between 6809s and 68B09s is that the latter can clock twice as fast (i.e. at 2 MHz).

This third branch are the S1 family of computers. Apart from the much faster CPU, they also featured a 1 MB address space, 48 kB RAM, 48 kB VRAM (that can also be used for storing Basic programs if not in use), and not only Level 3 Basic, but also S1 Basic (an extension to Level 3 Basic created by Hitachi itself).

Hitachi MB-S1/10

The first models in 1984 were the MB-S1/10 and the MB-S1/20, the difference being that the MB-S1/20 has a Kanji (Chinese characters) ROM card.

Hitachi MB-S1/40

The next models, also in 1984 were the MB-S1/30 and the MB-S1/40. Both have a 1 MB floppy disk drive and the latter having a 2nd floppy disk drive and again having the Kanji ROM card.

Hitachi MB-S1/10,20,30,40
Hitachi MB-S1/10,20,30,40 prices and features

In 1985 we get the MB-S1/10AV with a Super Impose feature, 6 voices audio and 2 Atari-compliant joystick interfaces. We also get the S1/15 and the MB-S1/45 which are MB-S1/10 and MB-S1/40, respectively with an additional communication ROM card and a RS232C interface.

Limelight Interfield Systems JB-806E1-2

There is also a variant of the S1 called the Limelight Interfield Systems (JB-806E1-2) sold in 1985. As the Japanese Wikipedia page puts it: A model that has the same features as the MB-S1 released by Interfield Corporation. Although it may be considered as a compatible machine, the built-in FDD is 2D instead of 2HD, the cassette interface has the limitation that it can not be controlled from BASIC. Level 3 mode (mode B), ROM BASIC, image generator, RS-232C interface, and the joystick interface have been removed.

There was a final model called the “Basic Master 16000”. Despite its name, it was a PC-compatible machine that had nothing to do with the Basic Master family of computers.

In the Western world, all Basic Master models are very rare. In Japan, most models are still available in auctions from time to time for a, partially even reasonable, price. There, the S1 models seem to be the rarest of the family.

References

Exeldrums

March 10, 2021

As I said in another blog post I find the computers of the 1980s French company Exelvision interesting and under-appreciated. Not only featured these computers (French) speech synthesis, but it had also one of the most interesting and quirky add-ons of the 80s: a digital drum computer (well, sort of)! Fitting into the naming scheme of Exelvisions products, it was called the “Exeldrums”. It was first sold in 1985 for 1200 French Francs (about 400 USD today).

Exeldrums: Complete product (without the manual)

Exelvision’s computer already came with a TI TMS5220 speech synthesis chip that was the same as in some of TI’s other products like the (last version of the) speech synthesis module for the TI-99/4A, the BBC Micro, and several arcade machines. It used something called “pitch-excited linear predictive coding (PE-LPC), where words are created by a lattice filter, selectably fed by either an excitation ROM (containing a glottal pulse waveform) or an LFSR (linear feedback shift register) noise generator. Linear predictive coding achieves a vast reduction in data volume needed to recreate intelligible speech data.” [Wikipedia]. The thing is that the Exelvision computers did not have a regular sound chip. In principle, you could use the speech synthesis chip also for sound effects, but it was a very complicated process to calculate the data for the synthesis chip given a target audio file. What Exelvision offered was to send them an audio cassette with the audio, then they would send this cassette to some TI labs in Dallas where a VAX computer would calculate the necessary data to feed the chip which you would get back as data on the cassette. As a result, even Exelvision’s own games have very sparse sound effects (and a lot of speech).

You could use a trick to generate some single channel audio, though. This trick consisted in using the cassette interface(!) and the timer to generate tones of a certain pitch and duration (see the last example in the section “Le composant audio” in [2] for an example).

So, all in all, the Exelvisions were not the best computers to do audio. Therefore, maybe in order to increase the attractivity of the machine to this market segment, two of the Exelvision engineers developed a cunning plan to use the computer as a drum machine (or at least a rhythm device). In true Exelvision fashion, an extension module was designed (all Exelvisions have an extension bay in the back), and some software written and put in a cartridge (they also had a cartridge slot in the front).

The module was designed around a rythm chip from Hohner (yes, the 150+ year-old German musical instruments manufacturer famed for their harmonicas). You see, Hohner used to manufacture a lot of different instruments in their day, and were in the 1960s and 1990 also famed for their range of innovative and popular electromechanical keyboard instruments. Between 1968 and 1976 they even produced (small) computers. In 1982 Hohner brought a successful series of home organs to market. Some of these models were sold in the US under the Wurlitzer brand, but stating on the case „Computer System by Hohner“.

This rhythm chip (the PCF0705) was manufactured by Philips. It is an interesting, but quite obscure chip. We know, of course, what it can do (see below), but apart from that we know basically nothing about it, not even a data sheet is available. This is because most probably, this chip was used only in Hohner products, and in Exeldrums…
All I found was a mention of this chip in a (Hohner designed) Wurlitzer “WX42 Keyboard Computer” because the seller mentions that you need to replace this chip if you want to get rid of the noise in the rhythm part of the keyboard…

Now, what can the Exeldrums do? Well, you can play 6 instruments in parallel out of a library of 17 drum and percussion sounds. These 17 instruments are clustered in 6 channels, and you can select one instrument per channel per time. The toms and the maracas are duplicated on two channels, so you can add them more often:

  • channel 0: bass drum, tom 1, tom 2
  • channel 1: hi-hat open, hi-hat closed
  • channel 2: cymbal, maracas
  • channel 3: snare drum, roll, brush, rim-shot
  • channel 4: maracas, tambourine, claves, tom 1, tom 2
  • channel 5: bell, hand clap

The resulting sound is probably good enough as a rhythm for a home organ, but it is no TR707: all sounds have the same length and the same volume.

The hardware module consists of the Hohner chip, a 32 kB ROM, a tiny (128 bytes) static RAM chip, and an analog/digital converter. You can hear the sound either via the TV or via the stereo cinch output at the back of the module.

Exelvision is a French company, producing computers mainly for France, and also the manual for the Exeldrums is in French. The software, however, has an English user interface 🙂

The basic screen is the classis TR707-style measure x sounds grid and you mark the beat where a sound shall be played. You can change the BPM, and you can have up to 57 sequences that can be saved onto tape or ExelMemory. In the software, you can use also one of 16 predefined rythms. Exeldrums can also be played from the Basic.

Here are all instruments (bass drum, tom 1, tom 2, hi-hat open, hi-hat closed, cymbal, maracas, snare, roll, brush, rim shot, tambourine, claves, bell, hand clap) played one after another each for 8 beats:

All instruments for 8 beats each, 50 bpm

There you have it: The Exeldrums digital “drum computer” module for the Exelvision family of computer in 1985. A rare and quirky add-on for a relatively rare French computer.

References

Sord M5 Pro

February 21, 2021
Sord M5 PRO

Recently, I bought a quite rare Japanese homecomputer at Ebay. It is the M5 Pro variant of the less rare (but still rare) Sord M5 computer. As the M5 was sold also in Europe, there is some information available on it. However, the M5 Pro was sold only in Japan, so this post focuses on the differences of the M5 Pro to the M5. As we will see, we can get rid of some misconceptions that have been made on the M5 Pro and Jr.

Sord Computer Systems was founded on 15 April 1970 by Takayoshi Shiina. In its first ten years it had become one of Japan’s fastest growing firms thanks to its success selling business micros on its home turf. The word Sord was derived from ‘SOftware haRDware’.

In 1982, Sord introduced its homecomputer model “M5”. It was meant to be mainly used as a games console. Therefore, it featured two joystick ports, only 4 kB of RAM, 4-channel audio, 32 sprites, and a cartridge slot. Also typically for game machines, the Basic was not built-in, but was delivered as a cartridge. Even more revealing is that the delivered Basic, Basic-I (I for Integer) did not feature floating point numbers or graphics commands. If you wanted these features, you’d need a Basic-F, or a Basic-G cartridge, respectively. The design of the case was very slick, and the PCB design and its build was high-quality and clean. The machine contained a dedicated graphics and audio chip and used Static RAMs. The keyboard was of a ZX Spectrum quality (because, again, this is not a serious business machine, and a 4 kB Basic program can also be entered by a lower quality keyboard). The M5 was introduced in other markets in 1983 (see the “The Register” article in the references for an account of the (lack of) success on the British market). There are also “CGL” branded M5s because CGL was the distributor of Sord in the UK.

Because the M5 was not a success, subsequent M5 models were only released in Japan, and not much is known about them. When we look at what we find on some popular web pages about the M5 Pro and M5 Jr., we find:

  • “[…] M5 Turbo, a faster version with “at least” 64KB of Ram […]. The M5 Turbo […] appear to have been released in Japan – as the M5 Pro […]” (The Register)
  • “M5 Pro […] were released with a built-in power supply unit (and more RAM?)” (old-computers.com)
    As we will see, most of that is basically not true.

What is true is that the M5 Pro and the M5 Jr. were introduced in 1983, one year after the M5. They were sold only in Japan. The price of the M5 Pro was 39800 Yen, and the one of the M5 Jr. was 29800 Yen. At the same time, the price of the M5 was reduced in Japan to 49800 Yen.

The point which the above sources are missing is that the M5 Pro is not the extended version of the M5, but the cost-reduced version of the M5 with the same features in the same case (but a different color scheme). It is neither faster nor has it more RAM. Also no built-in power supply, but exactly the same external power supply as the M5.

The difference between the M5 Pro and the M5 is the PCB. The M5 Pro PCB (Revision M5C-1B) is smaller, and uses different RAM chips (HM6116P-4 instead of TMM2016). The RF box is not mounted on the PCB anymore, but resides in the case next to the PCB.

There is also a strange switch that can be altered between H and L. On the M5 Jr. this switch is called “CH”, so I assume you can switch the antenna channels here.

The feature-reduced version of the M5 (and M5 Pro) is the M5 Jr. The missing features seem to be

  • the printer port
  • the video port (RF is still available)
  • the audio port

Addditionally, the power supply finally is integrated into the case. The PCB again is different from the M5 Pro (Revision M2C-01A). The case is slightly changed and the joystick ports moved to the front (which makes so much sense for a games console). The price is 25% less than the M5 Pro.

Z80 CPU, Japanese home computer: is the M5 family MSX-compatible? Well, no. It is using the same graphics chip as MSX computers, and a similar (but not the same) audio chip. But M5s have not enough RAM to meet the MSX standard, and they do neither have the MSX BIOS nor the MSX Basic.

While researching the M5 family, I found that the M5 Pro and the M5 Jr. were also offered in Japan under a different brand, namely as two models (?? and 84S) of the “Sanno Primary Computer” family. There are also other computers sold under this brand, but as the cases look the same as in the Sord case, they are easy to recognise. The Japanese “Sanno Institute of Management” had as its mission to computerize the Japanese schools. This program was lead by the Sanno Institute of Business Administration.

There you have it. The M5 Pro and the M5 Jr. are Japanese-market-only cost-reduced version of the M5. They are quite rare.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: Sord
Model: M5 Pro
CPU: Z80A @ 3.58 Mhz
RAM: 4 kB + 16 kB Video RAM
ROM: 8 kB
Graphics: Up to 256 x 192 at 16 colors, 32 sprites
Audio: 3 channels with 8 octaves, 1 noise channel
Interfaces: Power, Tape, Parallel, 2 x Game Pads, Audio, Video, RF (NTSC), Cartridge
Dimensions: 262x185x35mm, 800 g.
Introduced in: 1983
Initial price: 39800 Yen

References

IBM ThinkPad 730T

January 24, 2021


As some of you know, I’m very much interested in Tablet computers of the 1990 that are able to run PenPoint, the Operating System the company GO developed for the first “real” pen computers.

The computer IBM send into the race for this first pen computer was a new product, a tablet computer they christened “ThinkPad”. This product did not take off and they re-used the name for the new line-up of notebook computers. In order to fit the old tablet computer into the new naming scheme, they re-christened the tablet the “ThinkPad 700T” (T is the “slate” tablet version in the ThinkPad line-up).

All ThinkPads, of course, are basically PCs, and can run (in this case also) Windows. Therefore, the tablet ThinkPads could still be sold even though PenPoint as an Operating System (although much better adapted to a computer operated by a pen) did vanish very fast from the market.

The successor of the 700T was the 710T, which was then suceeded by the 730T. The final iteration of the T-Models was the 730TE. All of these models (well, at least the 700T and the 730T) can run PenPoint. If you want to know the differences between the T-Model, here you are:

Model700T710T730T730TE
Year1992199319941995
CPU80386SX@20MHz80486SLC@25MHz80486SL@33MHz80486DX4@75MHz
RAM4-8 MB4-12 MB4-8, max 20-24 MB4-8, max 20-24 MB
Display10″ STN VGA, 8 Gray scales9.5″ STN VGA, 16 Gray scales9.5″ STN VGA, 16 Gray scales9.5″ STN VGA, 16 Gray scales
Weight2.8 Kg2.49 Kg1.77 Kg (2 Batteries)1.77 Kg (2 Batteries)
ThinkPad Tablet Slates Data

The 730T that I bought at Ebay was very cheap, but also clearly broken (which I knew). Its display has a strange wobbly-wave-like surface and has underneath some broken areas. The case is covered in a white crystalline powder and the material is very brittle and sticky. Therefore a good candidate for opening the device and contribute some PCB photos. Here they are.

730T PCB, top
730T PCB, bottom

The internal RAM (8 MB in my case) comes as a “Panasonic Memory Card”, a daughtboard with a strange connector. The RAM can be expanded with special PCMCIA cards.

References

Technology Museums and Collectors: Question Time: An FAQ (German)

January 3, 2021

At the last VCFB 2020 I moderated an event on “Technology Museums and Collectors: Question Time“. The event was held in German because the event related to the situation in Germany (i.e. German museums and Collectors). The rest of this post is the German FAQ that resulted from that event.

Technikmuseen und Sammler: Eine Fragestunde: Die FAQ

Zusammengestellt von Fritz Hohl (fritz@mosaik-stuttgart.de)

Es kommt die Zeit, da sich ein Techniksammler fragt, ob seine Sammlung nicht größeren Zwecken als nur der Befriedigung des eigenen Sammlertriebs dienen kann. Es gibt doch Museen, und ist deren Zweck nicht die Volksbildung? Man könnte die Sammlung doch einem Museum spenden, die wären bestimmt froh, zumindest die seltenen Stücke zu bekommen…

Im Rahmen des (virtuellen) Vintage Computing Festivals Berlin 2020 fand am 11.10.2020 ein Workshop mit dem Titel “Technikmuseen und Sammler: Eine Fragestunde” statt.

Ziel dieses Workshops war es herauszufinden, wie Technikmuseen arbeiten und was die Rahmenbedingungen für deren Arbeit sind, um es so Computersammlern zu ermöglichen abzuschätzen, wie Sie mit Technikmuseen interagieren können. Dies sollte durch Fragen an einige Kuratoren in Rahmen eines Workshops erreicht werden.

Aus diesem Workshop sollte dann die FAQ, die ihr gerade lest, erstellt werden, um die wichtigsten Fragen und Antworten zu dokumentieren, ohne daß einzelne Kuratoren auf einzelne Antworten festgenagelt werden können und so in Gefahr gewesen wären, unverbindlich zu antworten oder sich eine Antwort museumspolitisch absegnen zu lassen. Daher wurde die Veranstaltung auch nicht aufgezeichnet. Diese FAQ gibt daher ausschließlich die Meinung des Moderators wieder, die sich in einzelnen Fällen mit den Meinungen einzelner Workshopteilnehmer überschneiden kann, aber nicht muß.

Auf dem VCFB 2020 gab es darüber hinaus auch noch drei (aufgezeichnete) Vorträge von Museen, die
sich und ihre Konzepte und Prozesse vorgestellt haben, und die für die Leserin dieser FAQ von
besonderem Interesse sein könnten:

Wie sammeln wir als Museum Computer oder wie kommt ein Brotkasten ins Haus?
von Dr. Christian Berg, Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum

Computer sammeln im Museum: Die Informatiksammlung des Deutschen Technikmuseums
von Eva Kudrass, Deutsches Technikmuseum

Führung durch das Oldenburger Computer-Museum
von Thiemo Eddiks, Oldenburger Computer-Museum

Die folgenden Kuratoren haben am Workshop teilgenommen:

  • Dr. Carola Dahlke (Kuratorin für Informatik und Kryptologie, Deutsches Museum)
  • Thiemo Eddiks (1. Vorsitzender OCM e.V., Oldenburger Computer-Museum)
  • Eva Kudrass (Leiterin des Sammlungsbereichs Mathematik und Informatik, Deutsches Technikmuseum)
  • Dr. Jochen Viehoff (Geschäftsführer, Heinz Nixdorf Museumsforum)

Moderation: Dr. Fritz Hohl (Blog www.randoc.wordpress.com)

Ein Ergebnis des Workshops war die Einsicht, daß die vier vertretenen Museen drei verschiedene
Typen von Museen repräsentieren.

Einrichtungen öffentlichen Rechts

Dazu gehören z.B. das Deutsche Museum und das Deutsche Technikmuseum Berlin.
Solche Institutionen können z.B. keine Objekte aus ihrer Sammlung verkaufen.

GmbHs

Dazu gehört das Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum. Alle Sammlungsobjekte gehören der GmbH, die damit natürlich auch frei entscheiden kann, was sie damit macht.

Museen in privater Trägerschaft

Dazu gehört das Oldenburger Computermuseum. Diese Museen haben keine einheitliche Trägerstruktur.
Beim Oldenburger Computermuseum z.B. sind alle Objekte jeweils Privateigentum einzelner Sammler, aber es gibt einen Verein, der das Museum betreibt. Deshalb können dort auch die einzelnen Sammler entscheiden, Stücke einzukaufen oder zu verkaufen.

Fragen und Antworten

Q: Was sind die Kriterien, die entscheiden, ob sich ein Museum für einen Computer interessiert?
A: Die privaten Museen entscheiden darüber individuell.
Die öffentlichen Museen haben u.a. folgende Kriterien:

  • brauche ich das Stück für die nächste Ausstellung?
  • tendenziell: je kleiner, desto lieber
  • passt das Stück in mein Sammlungskonzept?
  • funktioniert das Stück?
  • kommt es mit Software?
  • ist zu dem Stück auch eine Nutzungsgeschichte dokumentiert? Zunehmend sammeln Museen nicht mehr nur Objekte und stellen sie aus, sondern wollen anhand der Objekte ein Stück Sozialgeschichte vermitteln. Alles Material, das mit dem Objekt mitkommt und diese Geschichte erzählt (und vor allem, wenn diese Geschichte relevant ist), macht ein Objekt interessanter

Q: Woher bekommen Museen Stücke?
A: Dazu können wir uns ansehen, was eines der Museen über 2019 berichtet hat.
Es hat 150 Angebote erhalten, 139 Schenkungsangebote und 11 Kaufangebote. Von diesen hat es 6 Schenkungen angenommen und 2 Stücke gekauft. Von diesen Stücken hat es eines nach 2-3 Monaten in die Ausstellung geschafft (weil es eine ungewöhnliche historische Bedeutung hat).

Q: Wie hoch ist das typische Ankaufsbudget?
A: Das Budget ist für den Informatikbereich bei verschiedenen Museen unterschiedlich und liegt typischerweise zwischen 1000€ und 4000€/Jahr. Nein, nicht pro Stück, für alles zusammen.
Man sollte dabei die langfristigen Kosten für die Museen nicht vergessen, über den Daumen gepeilt sind diese 5 – 10 Mal so teuer wie der Kaufpreis des Objektes.

Q: Wieviel Stücke sind im Depot?
A: Die Museen haben typischerweise im Informatikbereich zwischen 4000 und 25000 Exponate, wobei ein Museum etwa 20% der Exponate im Ausstellungsbereich hat und 80% im Depot. Dieses Verhältnis ist bei verschiedenen Museen unterschiedlich.

Q: Wieviel Platz ist noch im Depot?
A: Bei allen Museen liegt der Füllstand in ihren Depots bei etwa 120%…

Q: Kann ich ein Museumsstück kaufen?
A: Von öffentlich-rechtlichen Museen auf keinen Fall. Bei anderen Museumsformen muß das nicht ausgeschlossen sein, ist es aber in der Praxis (zu deutsch: Nein).

Q: Kann ich ein Museumsstück tauschen?
A: Im Prinzip ist das möglich, beschränkt sich aber bei öffentlichen Museen auf andere Museen als Tauschpartner.

Q: Ich möchte meine Sammlung an ein Museum schenken, geht das?
A: Aus dem obigen geht bereits hervor, daß ein Museum typischerweise keinen Platz hat, und auch nicht mit der Bürde einer Mischung aus Schrott, Dubletten, und interessanten Geräten kämpfen will. Museen werden sehr gerne gefragt, ob sie sich für eine Schenkung interessieren, möchten sich aber die Geräte, die sie haben wollen, aussuchen. Die Einrichtungen öffentlichen Rechts sind zur Einhaltung ihrer Sammlungskonzepte angehalten und können daher nicht frei über eine Annahme einer größeren Sammlung entscheiden.

Q: Ich möchte, daß das Museum meine Sammlung als Sammlung ausstellt, geht das?
A: Nein. Vielleicht, wenn mit der Sammlung auch genug Geld mitkommt, die Sammlung zu lagern, aufzubereiten, zu inventarisieren, zu unterhalten und auszustellen…

Q: Wo kann ich mich darüber informieren, was ein Museum im Depot hat?
A: Zwei Museen nutzen Museum Digital (https://www.museum-digital.de/) um einige Stücke zu präsentieren, das sind aber eher der kleinere Teil. Intern benutzen zwei Museen die Software MuseumPlus, ein Museum eine selbst erstellte Datenbank. Diese internen Verzeichnisse sind nicht für die Öffentlichkeit bestimmt. Die Hürden, diese Daten der Öffentlichkeit zur Verfügung zu stellen sind rechtlicher Art (Rechte an Bildern) und Mangel an Humanressourcen, auch wenn die Museen das eigentlich gut finden würden.

Q: Kann ein Technikmuseum meinen Computer schätzen?
A: Nein. Ist weder deren Aufgabe noch deren Stärke.

Q: Was machen Museen mit den Stücken, die sie bekommen, zuerst?
A: Verschiedene Museen gehen hier verschieden vor. Die einen nehmen v.a. alle Batterien und Akkus heraus, die anderen geben sie direkt ins Depot, bei wieder anderen hängt das vom Alter und der Seltenheit des Stückes ab. Restaurierungsforschung ist in diesem Bereich ein aktives Forschungsgebiet.

Q: Helfen Euch Ehrenamtliche?
A: Den meisten Museen helfen Ehrenamtliche, auch wenn manchmal das Problem besteht, die richtigen zu finden bzw. solche, die gut als Gruppe harmonieren. Nur das HNF darf aufgrund ihrer Rechtsform keine Ehrenamtlichen einsetzen.

Thomson TO9+

December 27, 2020

I recently bought a Thomson TO9+ on ebay because I wanted to add another videotext model of a homecomputer family to my collection. It is a rare model, but of a (at the time) succesful manufacturer, so I thought there would be certainly enough information out there so I did not have to write a blog entry. Turned out that there is quite some information, but mainly in French, so maybe some more English details do not hurt. Here we go.

Nico201214, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomson was a French electronics manufacturer (freshly nationalised in 1982) that produced homecomputers from 1982 to 1989. Thomson had a TO (Tele Ordinateur) and a (more downmarket) MO line of computers, all based on the Motorola 6809 CPU (in fact, all of their models used a 6809 at 1 Mhz). Thomson was a very popular computer manufacturer in France (partly because most schools used their devices), but did not see a huge success in other countries (they also exported some models to Germany, Spain, and Switzerland). The most distinctive feature of Thomson computers was the light pen. It was delivered with each of their first models and available as an option for the later models.

In contrast to its predecessor, the TO9, the TO9+ had

  • Basic 512 as oposed to Basic 128
  • 512 kB RAM instead of 192 kB
  • a double sided floppy disk drive (640 kB) instead of a single sided one (320 kB)
  • an integrated modem
  • more programs delivered with it
  • the mouse port in the base, not the keyboard
  • two ports for mice or joysticks compared to a single mouse port

There was also an export version of the TO9+ that had a QWERTY keyboard, a serial port instead of the built-in model, and a PAL (antenna?) output instead of a SCART one.

I started this article by saying something about a videotext version of a previously introduced family of computer models. You see, in 1986 there was no widespread use of the Internet outside Universities and a few companies. At that time the nerd in the know would use mailboxes to connect to the world (the start of the web is still 7 years away, and the widespread use even longer). The only thing that was available for electronic communication on a more widespread national (not even international) level was videotext (or Minitel, or Peritel, or BTX as it was called in different countries). This system used a terminal at the users and a central server infrastructure that made everything work. The terminals were non-general-purpose computers of some complexity, to be connected to TVs. The terminal hardware required an officially authorized 1200/75 bps Modem and some graphics capabilities that were not easy to fulfill by 1983s home computers. Therefore, a few computer manufacturers (especially in France where Minitel, the French variant of videotext, was very popular) decided to bring out versions of existing computers that included a suited modem, fulfilled the graphics requirements, and that also had the videotext terminal software on board. For the Exelvision company, this were the Exeltel VS/VX models, for Oric this was the Telestrat, and for Thomson this was the TO9+.

The TO9+ was delivered with four programs on floppy disks:

  • Paragraphe (text processsing)
  • Fiches et dossiers (database)
  • Microsoft Multiplan (spreadsheet)
  • A communication program
    In contrast to the TO9+, the programs the TO9 was delivered with were contained in ROM. This was a problem as some of the programs on the TO9 had bugs and their bug fixes could not be integrated in the delivered machines easily. You can find a version of the programs the TO9+ was delivered with on the website “dcmoto” in the references.

The TO9+ was basically the top-of-the-line model of Thomson’s homecomputer lineup. However, due to the late introduction year (1986) and the high price (7500FF), this model was rarely sold. In that year you could already buy an Amstrad CPC 6128 for much less, and an Commodore Amiga or Atari ST (10000FF) for not so much more given that they had a performance that was much higher. After the TO9+ Thomson also introduced a PC compatible model and then ceased producing microcomputers in 1989.

TO9+ were always rare due to their price and their competition in 1986. Therefore, there are very hard to come by today.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: Thomson
Model: TO9+
CPU: Motorola 6809E @ 1 Mhz
RAM: 512 kB
ROM: 80 kB
FDD: 3.5″ disk-drive
Text: 40×24 / 80×24
Graphics: from 160×200 to 640×200
Colors: from 2 to 16 among 4096
Audio: 3 channels, 7 octaves
Basic: Microsoft Basic 1.0 and Basic 512
Interfaces: Light Pen, 2 * Joystick or Mouse, Keyboard, Centronics, FDD, SCART, Cartridge, Cassette, Audio, Bus slots (2), Telephone
Dimensions: 105 × 440 × 300 mm
Introduced in: 1986
Initial price: 7490 FF, about 1925 € in 2016

References

Epson EHT-10

October 26, 2020

Epson created the first “true laptop computer” with the HX-20. It was released in July 1982 and weighed 1.6 Kg. The successor to the HX-20 was in 1984 the 2.3 Kg PX-8 which was now capable to run CP/M due to its Z80-compatible CPU. The next model, the 1985 PX-4 combined features from the PX-8 and the HX-20, was also Z80-based and offered CP/M. I could not find the weight of the PX-4, but it was probably in the range of the HX-20.

The HX-20, the PX-8, and the PX-4 were all laptop computers, i.e. they required a desk or at least a lap to sit on so you can use it with your hands. But there are usage scenarios that require a more mobile device, i.e. one that you can hold in one hand while the other one uses the device. It is technically possible to use e.g. a HX-20 for this purpose, but it’s not comfortable at all.

So if you are a device manufacturer like Epson and want to serve the market that needs that higher mobility, what do you do? You design a version of the PX-4 that is lighter and that you can hold in one hand. Voila the Epson Handy Terminal (EHT)-10 family from 1986 onwards.

EHT-10

The (original?) model, the EHT-10 is a (from a today’s point of view) massive beige brick with an on/off switch at the top and an enormous 7-inch black-and-white display. It is mainly a touchscreen that you use with your finger, no pen required.

The basic usage scenario of the EHT-10s is mobile data entry. But you do not need to develop your application on the EHT-10, in fact, you can’t. You develop it instead on a desktop CP/M machine, and then simply transfer it to the EHT-10. To that end the EHT-10s are equipped with both CP/M 2.2 and the basic runtime environment that allows to run Epson Basic programs (e.g. coming from a PX-4). All you have to take into account are the different display sizes and input possibilities. This does not mean that you can get a CP/M shell on the EHT-10 or an editor to enter Basic programs; the EHT-10 is purely an execution device. You can transfer your programs to an EHT-10 either by serial connection, or by “IC Card”, or burn it on an EPROM and stick it into the conveniently located socket next to the main battery. So, you cannot program on the EHT-10, but you can connect the EHT-10 to your development computer by using a “Development Cartridge” for debugging purposes.

The main battery of the device is a proprietary 4.8V, 700 mAh NiCd module which gives the device a runtime of 8h. In case you have to change the battery, there is a secondary RAM backup battery (4.8V, 45 mAh). Using the stock power supply it takes 10h to load the main battery and a whopping 45h to load the secondary one it was completely empty.

On the sides of the case, at the bottom, there are two massive buttons to which you could strap a ribbon, so the device could go around your neck, thus freeing also the other hand if needed.

EHT-10/2B

The other two models of the family are, first, the EHT-10/2b which looks like an oversized calculator with its 4-line display and its 34 keys (there is even a CALC key which puts the device in basic calculator mode). Apart from that, it’s innards are the same as the EHT-10’s.
The second model is the EHT-10/2 which is a EHT-10/2b without a backlight.

I received my two EHT-10/2bs (plus a printer) together with a simple 5.6V, 0.4A travel power adapter with a connector crudely welded to it. I have a 64 kB and a 128 kB RAM model. Using this power adapter I could never get the 128 kB model to run for more than a few seconds even connected to the power adapter, but the 64 kB model worked fine. And if you think about it, this makes complete sense. There was no main battery in any model (because they would be quite proprietary NiCd modules), but the backup cells were still in there. No, if you load the backup cells, the (battery-buffered) RAM immediately run on the cells, and even if they are full, the power needed by 128 kB is seemingly larger what the backup battery can deliver when switched on. The 64 kB model need less power and can run on my power adapter. The stock adapter had 6.0V anyway.

Epson produces many printers, and there is a clip-on dot-matrix printer model that fits the top of any EHT-10 device (it even uses a tiny ribbon cassette which you find even today on ebay).

There are almost no Internet sources on the EHT-10. The only one is listed below. It contains some photos (actually showing the very devices I ended up with), some (but unfortunately not all) manuals and the development software meant for CP/M or MSDOS desktops.

Epson sold these devices from 1986, but they were not the first company to target the ultra-mobile market. The first company probably was DVW (later on Husky Computers) with their Husky line of devices from 1981. The competition to the EHT-10 at the time was probably the 1984 Husk Hunter 2 which weighed 1.15 Kg, and had to be held in landscape mode, where as the EHT-10 was below 1 Kg, 50% smaller, and could be used hanging from the neck. The CPU and OS on both the EHT-10 and the Husky Hunter 2 was very similar.

Another competitor would have been the much lighter and cheaper Psion Organizer II from 1986, but it was much more proprietary in terms of CPU and OS, had much less RAM, and was much slower than the EHT-10.

Progress cannot be stopped and Epson later on gave up the EHT-10 family for the 1991 EHT-20, EHT-30, and EHT-40, which were PC- and DOS-based devices for the same usage scenario (all looking quite similar to the original EHT-10). The final model was the 1995 EHT-400c which was a small color-screen pen-based Pen Windows 3.1 tablet.

Epson EHT devices are probably quite scarce today because they were probably never distributed over normal computer stores (but to system integrators) and they were very pricey (which they could be in the beginning because there was not much competition). As a piece of industrial equipment, though, only a few people are interested in them.

Models

EHT-10

  • CPU: Z80@3.68 MHz (CMOS)
  • RAM: 64-256 kB
  • ROM: 128 kB System ROM, up to 128 kB Application ROM
  • OS: CP/M 2.2
  • Batteries: main: backup: NiCd cells
  • Interfaces: RS232C, Barcode Scanner, IC cards
  • Dimensions: 21.3 x 9.3 x 3.8cm
  • Weight: 600g without main battery
  • Display: 12 x 14 characters (5 x 14 characters out of which can be used as a touch screen), 84*154 pixels

EHT-10/2

  • same data as the EHT-10/2b, but without the backlight

EHT-10/2b

  • same data as above except the
  • Display: 20 x 4 characters, 120 x 32 pixels, with backlight
  • Keyboard: 34-key-calculator keyboard

Reference (yes, this time it’s only one)

Vintage Computing Festival Berlin 2020

October 8, 2020

In contrast to some other events, the VCFB 2020 will actually take place. This weekend (depending on when you read this), on October 10th and 11th, it will take place via a Wiki, BigBlueButton, and some streaming.

Find all important information on https://wiki.vcfb.de/2020/start?id=en:start

Most exhibitions, presentations and workshops are in German, but there are also some English things:

I will also hold a presentation (on “Collecting Computers as an hobby: An Introduction“), but it will be given in German (as some information relates to the German situation).

Also, I will moderate an event on “Technology Museums and Collectors: Question Time“, but again, in German, because these are German museums.

Siemens Nixdorf PCD-3 Psl/20

October 8, 2020

Recently, on Ebay I discovered a variant of the NCR 3125 that I did not know: the Siemens Nixdorf PCD-3 Psl/20.

I did not buy it, but from the picture it seems quite clear that this is, in fact, a NCR 3125. Also, the name seems to hint to the 3125′ 80386SL CPU at 20 MHz…

Update (21.03.2021): Actually this is a NCR 3130, not a NCR 3125. It says “SNI 3130” in the boot menu and has the backlit display. Which I know because now I own one.

VTech Logo Computers

August 5, 2020

I am always fascinated about computers with a programming language other than Basic in ROM. You might have heard of computers with Forth (e.g. the Jupiter Ace), maybe even APL. But do you know any computers with LOGO as their first language? No? Then you probably also do not know the company with the largest lineup of LOGO-computers. Any guesses? No, it’s VTECH!

You might pretend that you don’t know VTECH, but that would be very unlikely given that they are in business since the mid-70s and that their products are still sold in a big shop near you. VTECH is a Hongkong-based electronics company and my impression of them was always that they started selling computers in the 80s, and cleverly never changed their architecture afterwards, just their target market. However, that’s not really true.

VTECH (short for Video Technology) started their business in the mid-70s with a PONG console (what else?). They followed this up with LED-based games (looking like old calculator displays), then LCD-based handheld games. In 1982, they released their own games console, the CreatiVision. We might know VTECH for their 1980s line-up of home computers (and similar devices), the Laser family of computers (i.e. the Z80-based Laser 50, 100, 200, 210, 300, 310, 350, 500, and 700, and the 6502-based Laser 128, 2001, and 3000).

Next to their “serious” home computer line, VTECH also started in the 80s to build up a line-up of educational devices targeted at kids that soon imitated the looks of serious computers, either desktop models, or, later on, notebook models which makes one think of them as toy computers, especially when a tiny, black-and-white LCD display is mounted in a normal-size notebook lid, resulting in a huge bezel. Initially, these models were also based on Z80 CPUs.

Now, lately, I watched Nostalgia Nerd’s Youtube episode on VTECH (educational, toy) Laptops (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9F4it_DH6ps), and I was very surprised to learn that there was a model from 1998 which even had the programming language LOGO built in.

This puzzled me because there is no other computer with a built-in Logo in ROM (as far as I know). Sure, there were quite some Logo modules and interpreters that could be added to all sorts of computers, but no manufacturer chose to provide this as the initial choice and in ROM.

So, I started to explore this road a little bit. What is the CPU Logo is interpreted on? How many models did VTECH produce with Logo? How good is the interpreter? There is not much information about these aspects on the Internet (probably you can find all of it in the references section). So, here is what I could find out.

All the models with Logo were a single generation of VTECH educational computers that were produced between about 1997 and 2001. This generation was probably all based on the same or at least a similar System-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture plus a RAM chip (the Black Magic CX had 128 kB of static RAM) that was completed by a conventional masked ROM chip that had up to 2 MB of ROM memory.

Unfortunately, we do not know the exact SoC model(s) that were used for sure, but the MAME code trying to emulate some of these computers use “CR16B” emulations. CR16B is a version of National Semiconductors 16bit “CompactRisc” architecture that can address (you guessed it) up to 2 MB of code/data. We don’t know for sure because, unfortunately, the SoC is bonded directly on the (very small) PCB, with a drop of epoxy on top of it, and no helpful labels on the PCB.

Main PCB of the Black Magic CX

However, the friendly decapping nerds from Team Europe decapped the SoC of a 6600 CX (see References) and produced a picture of the chip underneath the epoxy. It looks as if the die has a label that reads “NSC1028”. They also cite a press release from 1999 saying: “National Semiconductor designed the Geode NSC1028 processor specifically for VTech’s new email appliances. The system-on-a-chip integrates a powerful 16-bit RISC processor, keyboard and printer ports, LCD display controller and speech synthesis circuitry into a single piece of silicon. This custom integrated processor represents the first step in a partnership between VTech and National to bring attractively priced, easy-to-use information appliances to the consumer market.”

BTW, it seems to me that this line of Geode-branded SoCs has nothing to do with the x86-compatible line of Geode processors based on Cyrix technology that was sold later on to AMD.

The Logo is a nameless, quite basic version of the programming language. It is rudimentarily explained on 2.5 pages in the manual of the device, and consist of 25 drawing commands (turtle graphics), 15 mathematical functions, 9 “word and list” commands (don’t forget that Logo is a descendent of Lisp), 3 logical functions, 17 “other” commands, and 11 “flow control” commands, resulting in 80 commands overall.

If we compare this to e.g. to Commodore’s C64 Logo (by Terrapin), we find 37 drawing commands, 20 mathematical operations, 16 word and list commands, 7 flow control commands, and 66 other commands, 146 commands in total. The differences lie mainly in the larger range of devices that can be addressed on the C64.

Words and lists (in the Logo sense!) must not have more than 20 characters. Apart from that it is not known how much memory is available to the Logo interpreter, or whether there are other restrictions to the language. It seems to me that the interpreter is very, very slow, at least when graphics are involved.

The VTECH devices do not only offer the Logo interpreter (and editor mode), but also three groups of sample programs, ready to be edited if needed. When using the editor, Logo programs can be stored to either the internal (battery buffered) memory or a storage cartridge if you have one.

The different VTECH computer models had partially different displays, varying in size and resolution. The basic model (e.g. the 5005 X) had only a 5.4″ display with a resolution of 130 x 50 pixels (still giving you 4 or 5 lines of text). The deluxe Black Magic CX has a whopping 7.1″ with (about) 237 x 138 pixels. Unfortunately, because VTECH needed to appear modern, the usable area for Logo programs is much smaller as there is a window border around the area, and command icons on the right and the bottom. As a result, e.g. on the Black Magic CX, you can use maximally 202 x 86 pixels under Logo.

Apart from the English version, there was also a German version of Logo that is completely localized language-wise even down to the command names. So if you have e.g. the 5005 X model which features both English and German, you get also an English and a German Logo! Apart from German I did not find another language Logo was localized to (although I could check this only for the Genio 6000 model which has Spanish and English software. The Spanisch software offer also the English Logo.
For the later, deluxe model (the Black Magic CX) the Logo part of the manual was even extended heavily. Now, you are introduced through 10 pages into Logo (plus the extended explanation of the commands), quite a nice change.

Now to the question of which models of this generation do have Logo on board. This question is a little bit hard to answer as

  • there is no comprehensive, worldwide catalogue of VTECH devices
  • different language versions of basically the same machine have different names

So it’s up to lists of machines where the Logo feature we could ascertain. Here is my current list:

Power Zone 2000

Year: 1997
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Languages: English

PC Endeavour

Year: 1998
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Power Zone Edge

Year: 1998
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Languages: English

Power Zone Plus Notebook

Year: 2001
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Power Zone Plus Desktop

Year: 2001
Format: Desktop
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Genius 5005 X

Year: ???
Format: Notebook
Display size: 13.8 cm = 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: German & English

Genio 6000

Year: ???
Format: Notebook
Display size: 13.8 cm = 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: Spanish & English

Genius 6600 CX

Year: 1999
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: German

Genius 8008 CX

Year: 2000
Format: Notebook
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels
Languages: German & English

Genius Tabletop Black Magic CX

Year: 2000
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Usable pixels under Logo: 202 * 86
Languages: German
Keyboard: wireless (infrared) keyboard with connector for the mouse
RAM: 128 kB Static RAM (GM76v8128cllfw70)

In conclusion, VTECH produced a number of models of educational computers offering a built-in Logo interpreter. Given the typical volumes of VTECH products, this makes them the largest (and only) manufacturer of Logo computers. If you want to own one yourself, get a model with the large screen.

Genius 9009 CXL

Year: 2000
Format: Notebook
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels
Languages: German & English

References