Smithsonian’s “Places of Invention” Exhibit Highlights the Rise of the Personal Computer


On the first of this month, the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. re-opened its west wing, loaded with new attractions, among them the Places of Invention exhibit. While the entire exhibit is fascinating, a particular portion of it I found to be of particular interest and am certain that regular readers would find it likewise.

As Smithsonian describes the display I speak of,

first_mouseThe rise of the personal computer in Silicon Valley, Calif. in the 1970s–80s adds up how suburban garage hackers plus lab researchers equaled personal computing.

I recently visited the museum and there saw many legendary things, among them: the Xerox Alto; a MITS Altair 8800; Douglas Engelbart‘s (father of hypertext) invention: the first, wooden mouse; the original Macintosh computer; a general history of Silicon Valley at the genesis of personal computing; a hobbyists’ billboard pulled from the Valley’s long past; and a lovely display highlighting the work of distinguished iconographer Susan Kare.


Kare started her career as an early Apple employee who created all of the icons and fonts for the Apple Macintosh, the first consumer-oriented computer featuring a graphical user interface, released in 1984. I’ve a particular fondness of Kare’s work and it’s that which drew me to the exhibit.

Her display was the centerpiece, featuring two early “Macintosh computers” connected to 12×12 tile flipboards, allowing visitors to create their own icons which would, at the click of a mouse, appear on the Mac’s screen. It’s interactive fun that I watched a great many kids clamor to enjoy firsthand (video). (I use quotes, as I observed that the Macs in question had their CRT’s replaced with LCDs and were likely not being powered by a 7.8MHz MC68000…)

alto_mac_altairWhile there, I took a few photos and placed a gallery online. Note the recreation of Ralph Baer‘s workshop located just outside the Places of Invention exhibit, complete with a Simon electronic memory game, “The Brown Box,” a video game system Baer created in the late ’60s, as well as it’s commercial incarnation, the Magnavox Odyssey which was the first game console ever to hit the market (1972).

Have a look, and if you’re in any way able, make your way to the American History Museum and experience this excellent exhibit for yourself.

Other Smithsonian exhibits covered here, likely of interest to readers:

Posted in Macintosh, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Look at VM Labs’ NUON — A Modern Retrospective

As regular readers are aware, my own basement “Byte Cellar” is host not only to many different home computers that span the decades but to game consoles of varying vintage, as well. Among these, my most unique and treasured is without question the Samsung NUON Enhanced DVD Player / DVD-N501. Originally called “Project X” by its creators, VM Labs, NUON is a multimedia platform featuring four VLIW processor cores — or “Media Processor Elements” — that VM Labs (and many of us tracking the development of the system back in the late ’90s) felt would become the game system to surpass all others and take the world by storm. As it turns out, it didn’t.

Ars Technica has posted a look at this notable — if short-lived — platform in an article by Richard Moss entitled “Remembering NUON, the gaming chip that nearly changed the world—but didn’t: How DVD players and game consoles nearly combined to rock consumer electronics in the ’90s.” It is a superb piece that gives a solid rundown of this system that the market and manufacturers conspired against.

While you’re at it, check out the excellent NUON synopsis video I recently stumbled across by Aaron Nanto. In just two minutes it gives you a nice taste of what the NUON is all about.

I was made aware of the Ars Technica article by way of a tweet from Jeff Minter ( @llamasoft_ox ) who was the champion of the platform, crafting his exquisite Tempest 3000 as a launch title and authoring the embedded VLM-2 (Virtual Light Machine) visualizer.

Other NUON posts of interest:

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The Man Inside the Macintosh and Amiga 1000

pen2The original Macintosh, released in early 1984, was a groundbreaking machine built to “put a ding in the universe,” and its creators knew it. To mark the occasion, they pressed the signatures of all of the team members into the mold of the Macintosh’s rear shell. Open up an early Macintosh and behold the marks of those who made it come to pass.

I am aware of only one other machine that was adorned with its engineering team’s signatures: the Amiga 1000. Released in late 1985, the Amiga 1000 features the same sort of interior shell signatures as the Macintosh. And, while the ding made by the Amiga 1000 was less substantial than that of the Macintosh, it was notable for being by far the most capable consumer-oriented computer yet released. Sadly, timing (as in ahead of its time) and marketing held it back. It was signature-worthy, to be sure.

Macintosh: top, Amiga 1000: bottom

So, not long ago I’m browsing Reddit, as one does, and I came across a post showing the inside of a Macintosh, complete with signatures, with the author asking if it was worth anything (because of the signatures). I wish I could find the link. Someone in the comments pointed out that the signatures were standard for several early Mac models, but also mentioned the fact that the Amiga 1000 has such signatures and that one particular engineer has his name written inside both machines.

I had no idea that this was the case, and it fascinates me!

After a bit of research, I found the man in question to be Ron Nicholson (or Ronald H. Nicholson, Jr., as signed in both machine molds). What’s more, Ron has an interesting past.

As his LinkedIn page details, he was “Member of the original Macintosh engineering team. IWM ASIC project engineer. Apple II peripheral engineer,” from 1980-1982. He was a Founder and Director of Engineering at Amiga working as “System and ASIC architect [with] 4 U.S. patents,” from 1983-1984. He has also worked for Silicon Graphics (SGI) on the Nintendo 64 chipset, was a Docent at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, wrote PalmOS apps, and now writes iOS apps under the brand name HotPaw Productions.

I felt this to be an interesting bit of history concerning two notable computers from my past as well as, surely, the pasts of many of this blog’s regular readers.

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April 24, 2015 — A Good Day to Stop Wearing Watches

my last watch?Today might be the last day that I ever wear a watch.

It occurred to me when I woke up this morning that it might be worthwhile to mark this moment in time.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve worn a watch of some kind. As a kid, digital watches seemed cool and futuristic and shiny. I’ve had many. I’ve had basic watches, a few calculator watches, a PAC-MAN video game watch, a good many colorful Swatches (ahh, the ’80s were fun) — all sorts of watches. As I grew older, analog watches held the most appeal for me and that’s what I’ve worn for the past decade or two. Even with an iPhone always in my pocket, I feel naked without a watch on my wrist.

But today, April 24th 2015, when I get home from work an Apple Watch will be waiting for me (stainless steel, 42mm, white Sport Band). And, while it is the Apple Watch, it is not actually a watch. Just as the iPhone is not actually a phone. And the iPad, well, it is actually a tablet, but it immediately made it clear that what some had been calling “tablets” for the previous 15 years or so were not actually tablets. These Apple devices that came before were transformative. The iPhone instantly became the model of what all smartphones would become. The iPad instantly became the model of what a tablet is. And they both dramatically changed the way many of us do things, and in ways that would have been difficult to anticipate.

And, so, today the Apple Watch arrives. I have a hard time imagining just what my usage pattern with the device will be. Will it be as transformative as the iPhone and iPad were? If it is even remotely, then I will surely become a smartwatch user who doesn’t look back, just as I no longer use “a cell phone” and I never pull out the laptop anymore when I’m dick-tracyrelaxing with the web on the couch at home. I’m anxious to find out, and doing so should be a rather interesting experience here at the dawn of a new personal digital device category.

Honestly, I thought we might get here quicker than we have. I have a vivid memory of playing on the floor of my family’s den back in 1981 or so when a news short came on TV — 60 Minutes, I think it was. The piece was looking at the state of advancing technology and speculated that within 10 years, a person would be able to buy a $15 watch that would function as a telephone. (No talk of carriers or rate plans…) I recall being dazzled and excitedly asking my father if he would buy me one when it came out. He told me he would and I waited eagerly for that watch to arrive, thinking of that evening news prognostication often. I now think that spot may have been overly optimistic. Whatever the case, I believe that watch is presently waiting for me back at the house.

If my dad were still around, I’d ask him for that $15.

Posted in Just Rambling, Other Platform | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Bmp2DHGR Revisited: A Slideshow Running on Real Metal

Last month I published a post about Bill Buckels’ Bmp2DHGR, a command-line utility for modern systems that converts high-color source images into Apple II graphics files supporting every graphics mode of the 128K Apple IIe and //c. The most interesting of these modes is Double Hi-Res Graphics (DHGR), which is a 560×192 pixel monochrome mode that can deliver 16 colors by way of NTSC artifacting (go Woz!). To put it in a nutshell, most DHGR graphics seen over the years on the II has been created at an effective resolution of 140×192 pixels, with four monochrome pixels making up one “color pixel.” Buckels’ utility uses intelligent algorithms and what could be considered a sub-pixelling approach to produce striking DHGR images that far surpass anything we’ve seen natively generated on an Apple II.

The images I posted in my writeup last month and the many others that Buckels has shared in the Apple II Enthusiasts Facebook group are screenshots taken of the images rendered within AppleWin, the one Apple II emulator that emulates the 128K Apple IIe, //c Double Hi-Res Graphics mode precisely enough to allow accurate viewing of the images in question. The graphics we’ve seen are impressive, and to take showing off the Apple II’s capabilities to the next level, I have recorded a slideshow of Bmp2DHGR-converted images running from a 3.5-inch floppy on my 128K Apple IIe, as displayed on its 13-inch Apple ColorMonitor IIe. The video was taken with an iPhone 6, mounted and aimed at the CRT (forgive the slow-rolling banding).

I felt this would convey more of a “real world” viewing experience than looking at screenshots from an emulator. And, so, seeing is believing. Impressive, eh?

Those interested may want to also have a look at YouTube user Vintage Micro Music’s recording of nearly the same DHGR slideshow, captured on the Formac Studio DVR direct from an Apple IIe’s NTSC composite output.

Posted in Apple II | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Handheld Gaming on a Snowy Day

The recent winter storm in the D.C. area left us snowed in for a couple of days last week, and when I wasn’t romping around in the white stuff with my daughter or otherwise enjoying the family, I spent some time gaming on the handhelds. I picked the Nintendo 3DS back up and started working through Ocarina of Time 3D not long ago, and I’ve been having fun with TxK on the Vita quite bit lately. Rory and I are playing through the beautiful Monument Valley on the iPad again, as well. With so many handhelds lying about, I decided to pull the rest out and take a photo of the lot.

You’re looking at the Atari Lynx, iCade Jr. (son of iCade, fit with an iPhone 4S), Nintendo DS Lite, Sony PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Sony PSP, a Tamogatchi (virtual pet), and a GamePark GP2X (Linux-based console). And that’s all of them.

I was happy to see my photo made Flickr’s Explore gallery just hours after I uploaded it. That’s a record!

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Fun with the Tandy CoCo 3

This past week was “Radio Shack Week” at /r/RetroBattlestations, what with the bankruptcy, store closings, etc. For my contribution, I pulled out the Tandy Color Computer 3 and did my thing in the NitrOS-9 shell. (It’s a little bit more fun than my Model 4.) Mission accomplished. But, really, it was more fun was playing around with the CoCo 3 given that it was all setup and running. (Sadly, I acquired the CoCo 3 (and a second CoCo 3 and a CoCo 2) after I ran out of space in the computer room, and so it sits on the shelf most of the time.) #sadface

I spent much of the weekend booting up both old favorites and games I’d never tried before. It was a lot of fun. And while I was at it, I took a few very rough videos that I’ve stitched together into what you see below. It’s crude, but I’ll bet there are a few games in there you’ve not seen before.

The CoCo is a great little machine. The Motorola 6809E is arguably the most powerful 8-bit architecture of them all. I really need more desk space to keep this system setup and ready to go. And maybe a Model I, as well…

And the games shown? In order: Flight Simulator II, Sierra Christmas Demo, The Black Cauldron, Super Pitfall, NitrOS-9, Donkey Kong, Silpheed, Pitfall II, Tut, Mega-Bug, Horace Goes Skiing, Pooyan, Time Bandit, Rubes Cubes, and Glove.

Posted in TRS-80 | 1 Comment

Don’t Let the FCC Impose Dial-Up Access Charges!

Dial-up users, we have to unite! The FCC is attempting to impose access charges to interstate enhanced services, such as Sprint’s Telenet, that use local dial access. Or, they were…28 years ago…as can be seen in the above letter I received way back when as a user of PC Pursuit.

Telenet, which went online in 1974, was the first public packet-switching network. Telenet Inc., with Larry Roberts as President, was established to create a private sector version of ARPANET. PC Pursuit, for a flat monthly fee, let users dial into the Telenet in one city and then dial out through the modems in another city to bypass long-distance phone charges in accessing distant BBSs. It was a proposition that sounded better on paper than in practice, in my experience at any rate. I dialed in at a mere 1200 baud, but the effective data transfer speed was much slower than that. After a couple of months, I dropped the service.

I just ran across this letter Sprint sent out to customers back in 1987 in a box of items in my basement. I thought readers might enjoy the look back.

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New Blog Announcement: Nostalgic Virginian

This is not a vintage computing post, but it has to do with the vintage. Vintage memories. Of Virginia.

I’ve run this vintage computing blog for 11 years. Pouring out my own memories of thrilling geeky days gone by and sharing news of the retro new has been very fulfilling for me. Almost spiritual. And, as I’ve gotten older, my mind drifts back to the vintage more and more, but in realms beyond just computers and technology. My sense of nostalgia has grown in general, perhaps as a part of the normal aging process.

And, so, I here announce a new blog I have setup that will serve as an outlet for my reminiscence as a person who grew up in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have spent my whole life living somewhere within what was one of the original 13 Colonies in the American Revolution. I even grew up in York County, near Yorktown proper, where Cornwallis surrendered.

The new blog is called Nostalgic Virginian…and that’s what I am. I look forward to sharing memories with other Virginians who call this place home, and perhaps a small few outside the state will find it interesting reading. Perhaps.

At any rate, it’s been fun over the past two months and I just wanted to spread the news, here on my better known blog.

Come have a look. Or don’t.

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Whither Radio Shack [Updated]

As everyone reading this is surely aware, Radio Shack has very recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is in the process of closing 1784 of their stores. And there can be no doubt that everyone reading this saw the writing on the wall years ago. And that’s where I will leave the matter of their decline, as the purpose of this post is not to malign the once mighty, fallen. The purpose of this post is to share my memories of the Radio Shack that once was. Here we go.

The first memory I have, connected with Radio Shack, is the crystal radio kit my father gave me when I was about seven years old. (A crystal radio is a passive receiver that requires no external power source. I recall finding that pretty amazing.) The next memory I have is of the first time I recall being inside a Radio Shack store. I was with my mom and dad in a shopping mall in Harrisonburg, VA, wanting some toy from a toy store there. My dad told me to come with him, as there was something I’d probably like better than the toy. He took me to a Radio Shack a few stores down the way and bought me a portable AM transistor radio (this model but black, not red). He was right about the toy, by the way.

I grew up along the York River in York County, VA and, living on the water in that region, hurricanes were something we had to watch out for. I recall getting front-line weather news way back when via our Realistic Weatheradio, perched atop the kitchen fridge. (It was a hurricane that, ultimately, destroyed the house I grew up in.)

Dad was a NASA engineer and, unsurprisingly, enjoyed poking around the local Radio Shacks (in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia) with some frequency. I was often there with him or in a store on my own while my mother shopped down at the mall. The things I was most interested in, of course, were the computers.

I started taking an interest in the computer displays around 1981, as I recall. I would spend a lot of time on the TRS-80 Color Computer, playing whatever cartridges were laying out. I used to love playing the CoCo version of Mega-Bug with its nifty little magnifying glass effect — it was always a treat to find that running in the store. (Weak joysticks, though.) The more business-oriented machines were intriguing to me, as well. The TRS-80 Model II with its 8-inch floppy drives looked, to me, like an intimidatingly powerful computer. The Model III had my attention, also. I would sit down in front of those all-in-one systems and type things into their TRS-DOS command lines…but I didn’t know any of the commands.

Continue reading

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