Category Archives: History

A trip to the computer history museum

Computer History Museum

As a computer historian, I have – of course – always been a fan of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. It’s a remarkable, amazing place, where you can see displays relating to things we are already familiar with: Things such as the evolution of the Internet and hypertext, a small display on gaming, as well as a slew of hardware, much of which I actually used at one point or another (Hello SGI workstation!).

There are also more eclectic displays, such as the one regarding the evolution of computer graphics and the hardware that created and displayed it (one more time: Hello SGI workstation!). Even the well-known Utah teapot that became a standard for computer graphics and animation has its own display.

A relevant side-note I should mention here: I’ve mentioned Silicon Graphics workstations twice now, and as fate would have it, The Computer History Museum itself is housed in the old SGI building. See how things come around?

Outside of CHM building

Outside of CHM building

Right when you walk in , there is a huge display about the iPhone, and I was very impressed to see how fair it was; it sung the praises of it, while at the same time presenting some controversies surrounding it in a very balanced an forthright way. Kudos to them for that, I was impressed.

iPhone display

iPhone display

Its most interesting displays are, at least in my humble yet nonetheless correct opinion, the ones dealing with the real, wayback history, including things like an extensive display about the abacus, slide rule, and less-known analog computing tools such as Napier’s Bones, and there are more on offer. To the credit of those who developed and used these tools, they were not easy to use, and there are directions on how they worked for those who wish to give them a try.

Abacus display

Abacus display

Soon after your time in that room, you are then introduced to one of the most significant events in computing history, and one students in my Ubiquitous Computing course spend a whole week learning about: the creation of the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, developed by Herman Hollerith to compute data for the 1890 census. It was a huge success, both in terms of its function and design, and formed the foundation of what would later become IBM.

Hollerith Tabulating Machine

Hollerith Tabulating Machine

Soon after this exhibit come the computers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, ones mainly used by governments and universities, and that often took up rooms of space thanks to their prodigious use of vacuum tubes. There were many, and there are many on display, some from companies well known and some from one-shot attempts. Below are pictures of the IBM 1403 mainframe, including tape drives and card reader/sorter, as well as what I feel is a pretty nifty image of the Johnniac tube array. Of course, the highlight of the display is their UNIVAC, to which mere photos could never do justice.

IBM 1403 Mainframe

IBM 1403 Mainframe

Johnniac tube array

Johnniac tube array

UNIVAC main control board

UNIVAC main control board

Another thing my Ubiquitous Computing (or Internet of Things, if we want to be familiar) students learn about is the evolution of storage, and the CHM doesn’t disappoint here either. Whether wire-wrapped core memory, or magnetic versus optical storage, the museum presents a very thorough look at how storage of all types has evolved from the very beginning.

Storage

Storage

One thing I found disappointing about the museum is their anemic display on gaming. It’s as cursory as it can get, with very few displays and nothing about the real history of the industry, something we spend weeks talking about in my game development course. Nothing about Adventure, an absolutely groundbreaking game that my students have to play and write a paper on, nothing about the defection of Atari employees because of atrocious company management, with said employees then forming Activision, the first third-party publisher that completely disrupted how games were made. It’s a minuscule display that fails gloriously at really discussing the history of gaming, and instead simply presents what appear to be random artifacts. It didn’t even warrant a picture.

That being said, they do have a fantastic display of a PDP-1, the machine on which the very first computer game, Spacewar!, was developed. Additionally, they have a repeating video of Steve Russell, who developed the original, playing to educate visitors about how significant this was. Of course, if you took my class, you would know that he developed the base game, but others added additional features, such as a star map based on the actual sky, gravity, additional controls, and so on. It’s humbling to see, and since back then computer companies sold hardware while giving software away for free, the game garnered a lot of attention as PDP mainframes were, comparatively, used a lot by people who would be interested in something like that (about fifty were made, but they all had Spacewar!). Also, just to clear up any potential confusion, the exclamation point in Spacewar! is actually part of the title. If you’re interested in giving it a try, you can play a faithful HTML5 version at this link.

PDP-1

PDP-1

Steve Russell talking about Spacewar!

Steve Russell talking about Spacewar!

The museum has a ton of exhibits, from the Altair that Bill Gates wrote his company’s first program for, to the first Apple computer signed by Steve Wozniak, to consumer robots over the years, to a Commodore Pet (the computer on which I first learned programming), even an Enigma machine! If you’re interested in the history of technology and computing, it really is a fascinating place, covering the earliest attempts at computing to the future and beyond. From the first transistor to the Xerox Alto with the first GUI to the Cray mainframe and a ton of other great stuff, have a look at the pictures in the album below and see some of the fascinating displays on offer.

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On this day, the TRS-80 was born!

Today, August 3rd, is the 40th anniversary of the TRS line of PCs, manufactured by Tandy and sold through Radio Shack.

Ah, Radio Shack. My eulogy for your passing continues to this day. When you were actually a ‘radio shack,’ a place I could go to buy electronics, transistors, capacitors, soldering irons, when you catered to the people who made you what you were. At one point, Radio Shack was so ubiquitous, one could be found within three miles of almost all American households. Now, however, they were reduced to this before disappearing completely. Even with 70 stores apparently remaining, for all intents and purposes it is gone, considering it lost its way and identity long ago.

But I remember quite fondly the Radio Shack of yore. When I started college at my mostly-beloved Alma Mater UMBC, my significant other at the time worked at a Radio Shack right around the corner. They sold electronics for real enthusiasts and hobbyists, and even PCs from their Tandy line. Tandy, a leather company that still exists today, bought the struggling Radio Shack back in the 60s in attempt to diversify. In fact, the TRS portion on many of their computer model names was an acronym for Tandy Radio Shack. It was glorious for me to go in to the store on a dark and snowy winter night, when the store was open but no customers were about, to play Space Quest One on one of the Tandy machines they had on display.

But my affinity for the TRS line goes back much, much further than that. I actually learned to program, using line-number basic no less, on a TRS-80 model III. I actually took programming classes using this machine, which would have been around 1981 or so. Normally I would just hyperlink to a page about it as I have indeed done, but I feel it is important enough that I must also include an image whose glory in which you should bask (The header image is a Model III as well).

TRS-80 Model III

TRS-80 Model III

Isn’t it beautiful? It was a great machine for the time, with a speedy 2MHz Zilog processor, the same one found in all TRS-80 desktop models, however its 4K of ram could be boosted to 48K which was ludicrous overkill at the time. Even though it had dual disk drives, which was a feature shared by the Apple IIe, it also had external cassette storage, which is what I mainly used. $600 would get you the whole shebang, cassette storage and monitor included.

I also find it strange that model numbers are often left off when people describe these machines. Earlier models had all components as separate items, and less memory, and a slower processor, and reduced functionality. When referring to the TRS-80 line, the model number is very important.

I programmed my first game on one of these very machines, a model III. It was a text adventure through a haunted house from which you were trying to escape. You had to find items, using some and combining others. I even went out of my way to have everything make logical sense, if not be overly challenging; for example, at one point you come across a skeleton who is searching for his lost femur. You later discover a dog trying to bury a bone. Hmm. I must say it was pretty fun! I would save the code to cassette – that’s right, audio cassette – and load it to play or edit. It was also because of that that I learned another valuable lesson which was not taught in programming classes at that time: save your work. You see, to save onto a cassette, you had to manually wind the tape past the leader tape that was not magnetic and can’t hold data, or else the computer would try to save some of what you were doing to that, and the whole thing would fail, of course.

Valuable lesson to learn, that.

So it bears repeating: as the headline states, the reason I am telling you all about one of my favorite vintage PCs (an honor shared with the Commodore Pet and Apple IIe), is because today, August 3, is the anniversary of the TRS line of PCs! They were first announced in 1977. This is one of the machines that had a major impact and influence on me, and amplified my love of and interest in technology. I’d like to get one and do some tinkering once again. Unfortunately, TRS-80s have also, along with others including the aforementioned Commodore Pet, become sad victims of the Ebay economy, in which everything is worth a fortune if you’re selling it on Ebay. Here’s the going rate for a Model III, which isn’t as bad as it has been in the past (remember this post from 2014? Of course you do!). For good measure, here’s a Commodore Pet and an Apple IIe.

Even so, I’ll keep an eye out for a chance to relive my childhood, and celebrate this day. If anyone finds one cheap, let me know!

Journey with me back to the early days of the Internet with ReoCities, the GeoCities archive

GeoCities

In my graduate design class this week, the additional discussion topic (bonus, as I refer to it, although I suspect my students might disagree) involves the attempt to archive one of the early web’s most important communities. Indeed, I wanted to go back in time to the early days of the World Wide Web, circa 1993, and as a technology historian, indulge that aspect as well. The Internet, like me, was brought online in the glorious year of 1968, however it remained the domain of scholars and governments for over two decades before becoming available via the World Wide Web to the riff raff public and its clammy tendrils (by the way, ‘Internet’ is always capitalized, regardless of what the Oxford English Dictionary says). Remember also that the Internet and the WWW are not the same thing; the Internet is the technologies, hardware, software and protocols on which the web sits – the Web didn’t come online until around 1990. Getting back on track, to say design was at its nadir at that point would be a severe understatement; while interaction methods had been developed and attempted over the years (light pens, for example), that was by specialists in specific domains, and when I say specialists I don’t mean interaction specialists, I mean engineers and programmers, but now web design was about to be attempted by everyone.

When everyday people began to experiment with what the Web offered, they did so from an adventurous, new, exciting perspective. Interaction methods, organizing elements, color, layout, usability, nobody cared about this stuff, we were amazed at the accessibility of it all. We hadn’t even learned it was bad form to hotlink images! Almost none of the technologies, platforms, infrastructure, anything, really, we have today was available back then other than base protocols, and even those have evolved significantly. But one thing we did see, very early on, was a foreshadowing of the idea of a web 2.0, in which user generated content and communities guided the growth of one particular website far beyond what anyone expected. Before the design disaster that was MySpace, anyone who was anyone cut their teeth on GeoCities.

GeoCities page

GeoCities page

Everyone knows GeoCities was the equivalent of a design traffic accident with its animated gifs and auto-play MIDI tunes (and was the inspiration for the landing page for this very course), but that’s looking at it through the-opposite-of-rose-colored glasses. We know that *now.* Back then, the ability for anyone to have a presence online and represent yourself immediately all over the world was almost too much to process. No one cared about design, they just wanted to create. As anyone now looking at a GeoCities page could tell you, design would come later. Much later.

BossWolf's Den

BossWolf’s Den

GeoCities divided their content up into towns, each of which represented a particular interest. Whether it was fantasy, health, sports, the arts, or whatever else, there was a neighborhood for it where a community of like-minded individuals could set up a shingle, as it were, and have a presence…perhaps even make some new acquaintances or even friends with the same interests.

The site’s growth and eventual buyout by Yahoo and unavoidable death is beyond the scope of what is intended to be a design history, however it is a fascinating story and very interesting if you get the chance – you can read about it on this Computer History Museum page (look at that GeoCities landing page!).

Instead, this long narrative is to let you know that you can still experience GeoCities in all its poor-design glory thanks to the project known as ReoCities. They have archived millions of pages from GeoCities, and while the usability leaves a lot to be desired, it is a fascinating look at web design back then, and looking back through time at these pages I feel like an astronomer looking back in time at a star. It gives a frozen-in-time glimpse into not just where we were, but how far we’ve come. I used ReoCities for all the screenshots in this post.

GeoCities Page

GeoCities Page

I have to be honest, some of the pages are difficult to view, the design is that wacky. In terms of expression, in terms of digital explorers mapping out a new, unexplored land, however, it’s mesmerizing. I can’t tell you how long I spent not only exploring the myriad pages archived by the service, but seeing how many of the external links still worked (not many, although some GeoCities page redirect to a proper hosted site; very smart), and even doing some research to see if any of the people or organizations are still around and updated their web presence. It was a pleasant surprise to see some of them actually had!

Friends

Friends

It’s a really fascinating time capsule not just of early web design, but also of where the web was its infancy. Seeing how design has changed, what was considered acceptable design back then versus now when we have so many rules and standards and guidelines is enlightening. And if, on the off chance, you have a link that points to a GeoCities site that they’ve archived, a simple letter change can update your link!

I’m a big fan of historical preservation of digital property (archive.org is another glorious monument to what was). Start your wayback voyage to GeoCities over at ReoCities.

It’s all gone

Finally done

(UPDATE: Many more pictures of the collection itself and some additional narrative can be seen at this Imgur post)

Actually, it’s not really gone, it’s just gone to a better place. It was finally time. I have donated my entire 40+ year collection of video games, consoles, manuals, displays, advertising and other miscellany to the Transformative Game Lab in the Department of Informatics at The University of California, Irvine.

I had been thinking about what to do with it all for a number of years. I have been collecting these things for decades, and while I love them all, most of the collection has been sitting in a garage in Las Vegas for the past six or so years, baking summer after summer in the brutal Vegas heat.

I wanted it all to go somewhere where it would be of benefit and use. Somewhere where it would be appreciated, where the games would be played and the manuals read, where they would be studied and researched as the works of art they are. I had thought about willing them to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester NY, however the problem there is I would have to be dead to see my dream realized.

While I was thinking about it, I took a position in UCI’s Department of Informatics, where I learned quickly they do games research, they have a game lab, and most importantly of all, they consider it a valid field of study and give it the respect it deserves. I spoke with Joshua Tanenbaum, the professor who heads it all up, and serendipitously it turned out he was looking to expand the lab into retro gaming! An earlier attempt at getting an eBay seller to donate his collection hadn’t worked out, and although my collection was nowhere near what that seller had, we both knew this would still work out perfectly.

It wasn’t easy. My collection is big and random. It didn’t lend itself to easy packing and storing. Having sat in the garage all these years, it was also covered in a layer of dust, not to mention spider webs, dead bugs, and other detritus that is unpleasant to say the least. Having lived in Vegas for so long cleaning it up wasn’t a problem, but it was a big part of the project. Not to make anyone uncomfortable, but here is a picture of one of the webs when I first opened the garage door. You can also see in the background how disorganized it all is. Under that is a (poor iPhone) pic from the other end. It’s the loosest, most disorganized collection you can imagine.

Webs

Webs

Garage View

Garage View

Even my beloved Genesis Collective went into the donation. I was surprised to receive some backlash from friends and family over that, and resistance to it. I didn’t realize how important it was to not just me, but others as well. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, that reinforced my belief I was doing the right thing, that they held meaning and importance and needed to be somewhere they were appreciated.

Also, meet Walter.

The Genesis Collective

The Genesis Collective

As is true of any collector, however, I had some duplicates, and it turned out my friend only wanted Aladdin anyway, so I have already restarted the collection and they got what they really wanted. Win-win!

Rebirth!

Rebirth!

There was much more than that, of course, so here are some non-exhaustive pictures of the other fun stuff that was donated. From the top: Sega Dreamcast (and some PS2) games, Sega Master System/Jaguar/Atari 5200/Sega Game Gear titles, Nintendo Virtual Boys (also notice the adults-only Mystique titles for the Atari 2600 on that lower right-hand shelf), and PC games.

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Virtual Boys

Virtual Boys

Can't forget the PC!

Can’t forget the PC!

It took days to get it all packed up. And when it was, it was just as chaotic as before. There was simply no way to organize everything into a cohesive package, and I gave up on the idea pretty early in the process.

Here’s how it looked when all packed and ready for loading into the U-haul.

Garage

Garage

Hall

Hall

There’s a lot there. The next step was to finally load it all into the U-haul. My dad flew in from Central California to help, and my dear friend Shauna even pitched in.

Progress

Progress

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

It was so hot on loading day (105 degrees, which for Vegas is actually considered a cooldown) that when the truck was finally loaded with boxes and other fun stuff, we had to leave the door propped open or it would have roasted the contents beyond repair. We left it open for about 4 hours, until around 7, until it was cool enough to finally close it up.

Because of the heat

Because of the heat

The next morning at 6am, we were off.

It’s a long, mostly uneventful drive through the desert and down the 15 until you hit SoCal, but I like the desert and its vast open plains. We saw the massive reflector fields, formally known as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, near Primm, and this picture is only one of them. They’re an impressive thing to see!

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

And to be fair, when you’re driving through the desert, EVERY road is a ghost town.

It sure is

It sure is

We arrived at UCI around 11:45, and began the unloading process. Josh Tanenbaum, who I introduced earlier as the main man doing game studies in the department was there, as well as just-hired Aaron Trammell and others who agreed to pitch in. While it took three and a half hours hours in the blazing heat to load the truck in Vegas, with the help of 10 people it took about ninety minutes in not-too-bad heat to unload, and that even means carrying everything – including three arcade machines – to the sixth floor and through a labyrinthine maze of doors and halls to get to their final resting place. Well, it’s not actually their final resting place, but they’ll all be here for a while until we find them a permanent home in the building. Thanks to Josh for providing these pictures, as I was too exhausted and excited and neglected to take any!

The first is the truck right before unloading, the second and third are a couple of celebratory poses after a job well done, and the rest are some pictures of the room after it was all loaded.

The truck before unloading

The truck before unloading

Finally done

Finally done

Cheer!

Cheer!

Storage Room

Storage Room

The storage room

Storage room

Storage Room

Storage Room

To say it’s bittersweet is an understatement. I have carried some of these items with me for what seems like my whole life, having received them as birthday or holiday gifts when I was still in the single digits. I distinctly recall the specific moment when I acquired many of these things, whether it was the subpar Fighting Masters for the Genesis I picked up at the Annapolis Mall in Maryland or the Genesis collection I found in a flea market in Edmonton, Canada; Adventure for the Atari 2600 I received for my Bar Mitzvah at 13 or the ColecoVision controllers I had to wade through a warehouse in a seedy part of Baltimore to find. The Atari Lynx games I’d buy at the very same Toys ‘r’ Us at which I worked or first discovering the original GameBoy, each one carries significant memories with it, and it’s all a major part of my life. I did not give it up lightly.

I by no means have lost interest in the hobby, I’m still very much interested and very much vested, however changes have occurred both within and without the industry that moved me in this direction, however those are issues for another post. I would just like to say PC Master Race. PC MASTER RACE! Also, Steam, GOG, and emulation (don’t judge!).

I kept a couple of things. A Dreamcast VMU that has a fully unlocked Hydro Thunder Save, The World of Warcraft server (Bloodscalp) I used to play on, a soundtrack for the PlayStation title Road Rash: Jailbreak that my band was featured on, and the promotional Christmas Nights Into Dreams for the Sega Saturn. But everything else went in the truck.

At the same time, I have no regrets and had no hesitations. Where the collection is now is where it belongs – with people who will truly appreciate it, where it will be treated with dignity and respect, where it will be used and enjoyed. It wasn’t right to keep it in the garage for years on end, and although they’re just inanimate objects, well, I think they’re happier here, and we all are, too.

As the collection is inventoried and catalogued, as a final location for its display and use is selected and brought online, as the catalog and apps and everything else are created, and as any other milestones are reached, I’ll post updates. I’m excited for the future of it all.

R.I.P Ray Tomlinson

I have been so busy lately it’s hard to put into words, however I had to take some time to acknowledge the passing of Ray Tomlinson. That may not be one of the most famous names in computing history, but his invention certainly is.

Ray is the inventor of email, and the nomenclature including the ‘@’ sign to indicate the system on which the message was to be delivered. It’s a shame more don’t know his name, considering how profound his impact on computing was – not just for computery-y types back in 1971 when he first developed the thing, but for every single individual on the planet as the years went on. So important was it, that he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was the stereotypical engineer, very pragmatic and matter-of-fact when he spoke, however back in the very early seventies that’s the kind of person that made these incredible contributions. His developments set the tone for electronic communication for decades.

Although the use of email is on the decline and incline at the same time, it is still an entrenched, foundational component of what made the Internet the revolutionary, culture-changing thing it is. I mean, teens don’t use it, but that’s probably for the best.

Marvin Minsky, the midpoint between man and machine, passes away

Marvin Minsky

I can’t help but notice there are a lot of “M’s” in that sentence. I notice things like that, and things like why I prefer certain types of food, or music, or cars, or houses, or movies, or why I use certain phrases, or why I find myself using the very same phrases my dad uses, or why I tend to be very animated with my hands like my uncle, or what I find humorous or sad or strange…I think about those things because they are what make me human, and because they can differ so much from others.

Machines don’t do any of that, at least they didn’t in times past, however today things are different. Now, machines can learn, pseudo-empathize, adapt to environments, however as is often the case, while we barrel forward in the search for what is pseudo-oxymoronically referred to as artificial intelligence, with exploding research in deep learning and neural networks, and apparently no one questioning whether we should, we forget how we got to this point and what the true challenges are that lay ahead.

But some knew.

Today, Marvin Minsky has passed away, and like so many other pioneers his name is not one known to the general public, but he was, for all intents and purposes, the originator of the idea of artificial intelligence. Not the first, mind you, but the one who really started the field forward. He was a great futurist thinker like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, however he focused his background in mathematics into the development of neural networks and artificial intelligence. He founded MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and all the way back in 1952 developed what may very well be the first automated machine capable of learning, the SNARC (using vacuum tubes, no less, the only way it could be done at the time).

Like Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Grace Hopper, Alan Turing, and the many other pioneers in the fields of computer science and technology, Marvin Minsky is one of the originals who saw where it was and where it could be, and helped get it there. Sad that right as we are beginning to see exponential leaps in AI development he passes away, but he lived a long, rewarding, accomplished life, and he clearly saw where the future was heading, just as he did back in the 1940s.

In fact, it occurred to me that there was no way I could sum his lifetime of accomplishments and contributions in this one post, and it’s pretty clear I ended up just throwing it together haphazardly. I encourage you, therefore, to visit his obituary page on CSAIL’s site, and you will see how important, influential and forward thinking he was.

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