My Earliest Memories of Microcomputing — And How I Came About Them

I was lately in a twitter back-and-forth with some of my vintage computing brethren when the topic of the earliest systems each of us owned came up. My first was a TI-99/4A gifted me (I coached the parents on the purchase carefully beforehand) on Christmas morning, 1982. It was a nice first step, and from there it was off the the Apple //c, Macintosh, Amiga 1000, etc. I have first-hand knowledge of a great many systems given the speed at which I leapt most fickle from one to the other, but my the bulk of my knowledge of the microcomputer revolution came not from first-hand experience but from a small cinderblock room in a private school in southern Virginia.

From 6th grade through high school graduation, I attended Hampton Roads Academy, a private school in Newport News, Virginia. I started in the Fall semester of 1983 and was already a computer geek (long, long before computers were remotely cool). I’d hand in book reports written in TI Writer, printed on my Smith-Corona TP-1 daisywheel printer well before anyone else in the class had seen a word processor, I believe. A burgeoning computer geek, I was. And, given this, I took the opportunity to explore the library for books and magazines on the subject.


In short order, I located the tiny periodicals room, off of the main library, and found several years of Creative Computing magazines to pore through. [Read them for yourself, at the Internet Archive.] On most days, I would spend part of the lunch hour in that room reading about a great number of systems I’d never before heard of. Put together by David H. Ahl, Creative Computing was unique in covering basically every platform out there — and there were many. Way back when, each system was its own ecosystem; it was very different from today’s world of Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and basically nothing else. The intricacies of these disparate system fascinated me, which is why I remember salient details of most every computer described within, even to this day over 30 years later.

I read about the ongoing MSX situation, initiated by Spectravideo‘s systems. I was amazed by the Dimension 68000. The industrial design of Wang word processors intrigued me (and HRA had one in their finance office). Kaypro seemed the CP/M system to have. Data General had the most impressive laptop. The Mindset graphics computer was a marvel to behold from a technical and design perspective. Heathkit, Leading Edge, NEC, Sharp, AT&T, Actrix, and GRiD had some particular stand-outs, as well. These details are still with me today.

Adding to the fun of that tiny periodicals room was the fact that one of the first Apple II’s in the school was eventually setup on a desk inside. With that, a somewhat larger crowd grew, but my main focus was still the magazines. (I had a //c at home by then.)

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Upgrading the Atari 520ST to 4MB of RAM

This one’s been a long time coming.

I purchased an Atari 520ST back in late 1986. It has a particular charm and is one of the systems I most fondly remember. Shortly after I got it I ordered a system organizer / stand known as the A520 STation. It made the somewhat awkward keyboard-unit computer ergonomically close to ideal.


Before and after that ST, I owned several Amigas. Years later, when deciding what systems I wanted to have on-hand in the Byte Cellar, I decided I didn’t really need an ST because the Amigas are something of a superset of them, capability-wise, and most game titles exist on both platforms. (No offense ST people, among whom I count myself.) I did love that particular setup I used to have, though. So, eventually I decided if I could ever source an extremely rare A520 STation, I would build a proper 520ST system around it. Sort of a cart before the horse scenario, I suppose. At any rate, after years of searching, wild chance threw the system organizer I was seeking into my lap. So, I went ahead and built an ST system around it, a 520ST system — not a more common 1040ST; I’ve always found the latter’s elongated case profile to be aesthetically inferior to that of the original 520ST.

HxC2001_STAfter assembling the system, I enjoyed it with a handful of floppies I had to play with, and then decided to fit it with an HxC2001 floppy emulator, after earlier having success with such a unit on my Amiga 2000. Now, while a lot of ST users have embraced the HxC2001, they’ve been fitted to the far more common ST models that contain an internal floppy drive. The original 520ST (a.k.a. STM) has no internal drive, and I’ve seen no other instance mentioned online of someone mounting the HxC2001 in an Atari external boot floppy drive. My system, I believe, is unique in this respect.

So I had the 520ST setup like I wanted, with the loading of new floppies being as simple as copying disk images to an SD card on a net-connected machine and sticking it back into the ST. The only remaining problem was the price I paid in sticking with the short 520ST formfactor I love — it has only 512K of RAM. Lots of games and scenedemos require 1MB or more. And, that’s a problem that I finally solved, but with a great deal of adversity. It’s an arduous tale, and getting it finally sorted is what prompted this celebratory post.

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A Review of “CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy’s Underdog Computer”

coco_bookI love spending time sitting down and using the various vintage computer systems I’ve collected over the years, but more than that I enjoy learning new bits of history about these  systems and how they came to be. While my vintage collection is sizable — 16 systems (excluding consoles and handhelds) — I’ve been a hardware geek for over 30 years and I love to research, so I’ve got pretty rich histories of most of these systems in my head at this point. That’s why I was so happy to see the publication of vintage computing notables Boisy G. Pitre and Bill Loguidice’s CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy’s Underdog Computer.

When I was a kid, I had to sell one system to fund the next, and so I went through a slew of  computers as my fickle self became enamored with the next platform…and the next, and the next. (Long before eBay, it was an ad in the local newspaper.) Most of my collection consists of systems I have owned before, and know well. However, there are a few systems in my collection I’ve picked up because I had a particular interest in them way back when, but never actually owned. One of them is the Tandy Color Computer 3.

Growing up, I fiddled with the CoCo line from the grey, chicklet-keyed original to the final  CoCo 3 in Radio Shacks around town. While the CoCo was evolving, I was spending time at home in front of a TI-99/4A, Apple //c, Amiga 1000, and Atari 520ST. Although I found all of the models interesting, it was the CoCo 3 that, to me, held the most appeal given its enhancements over the previous models; it was Tandy’s answer (albeit an 8-bit one) to the Amiga and ST. So finally, back in 2012, I grabbed a nice system on eBay [my CoCo photo gallery] and began exploring the CoCo ecosystem. I found it to be a fascinating little computer, but I couldn’t fully embrace the system because my knowledge of its history was pretty light. That is, until Pitre and Loguidice’s excellent CoCo retrospective brought me fully up to speed.

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The Amiga Turns 30

Thirty years ago today, on July 23, 1985, the Amiga was introduced in a star-studded gala featuring Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Warhol demonstrated the Amiga’s incredible graphics capabilities by “painting” an on-screen portrait of Debbie Harry as attendees looked on.


The Amiga (which later was called the Amiga 1000) began shipping in September, and I got mine in early October at Chaney Computer in Newport News, VA. I have reason to believe it was the first unit sold in the state of Virginia. I took the photo above shortly after I brought it home, in my bedroom in York County, VA in late 1985. I still have this photo of my first Amiga, framed, sitting atop the third Amiga 1000 I’ve owned, down in my Byte Cellar.

Happy birthday, Amiga.

A few other Amiga-related posts I’ve made over the years:

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That Time I Ran Linux on the Desktop

A GNU/Linux logo circa 1996I stumbled upon a discussion of GNU/Linux on the desktop on Reddit recently, with someone predicting that “next year” will be the year of Linux on the desktop (with tongue-in-cheek and as it ever was). This got me thinking about the one time that I ever ran Linux as my primary desktop OS, and I thought I’d write a little about it.

I’ll set the scene. After graduating college in December 1995, I immediately found employment as a systems administrator of a LANtastic network of Windows 3.1 machines at an engineering firm in southern Virginia. I was living alone (the only year of my life I ever did so) in an apartment in lovely Williamsburg, VA. It’s good that I was alone, as the work hours were occasionally late and the Playstation had just launched, so I spent an inordinate amount of time in the wee hours on that console. Or down at the delis (the Williamsburg equivalent of pubs). Or anything other than cleaning what eventually became a shockingly wrecked bachelor pad. Ahh, the halcyon days.

Anyway, I had an eCesys 486 66MHz PC that I purchased in 1994 to run NeXTSTEP for Intel during college. After a while I installed Windows 95 beta on it and then upgraded the motherboard and CPU to an AMD 486 DX4120. Shortly thereafter, I bumped the CPU once again, this time to an AMD 5×86 160MHz. Most of the time I spent on that PC while living in that apartment (1996) I was running Windows 95, playing Phantasmagoria and Zork Zero with my girlfriend, and exploring the new World Wide Web via dial-up PPP. Then one day, late in the year, it struck me to try out desktop Linux.

Debian Linux v1.2 - 1996In the labs in college we used SunOS on SPARCstations and HP/UX on HP workstations (there were even some Tatung Sun clones about), and as I mentioned, I ran NEXTSTEP for a while at home, so Linux was a comfortable notion. After looking around, I decided to go with Debian Linux — their latest development build (v1.2 “Rex”). And it wasn’t a download, it was an order for media shipped by mail. And that media wasn’t a CD, but around 15 3.5-inch HD floppy disks. It arrived, I installed.

Or tried. It turns out there was a path issue in the install script, which I discovered in the newsgroups, and so I ended up having to edit a script on one of the floppies, correcting a path, in order to get Debian running. The whole process took every night of a week, plus some of the weekend. It was painful. But, I was finally greeted with a lovely X-Windows desktop.

In greyscale. You see, the video card I was using was a Hercules Dynamite Power 2MB VLB featuring a Tseng ET4000/W32p, the fastest DOS-mode chipset available at the time. I chose this card through a desire to wring the most graphic performance out of DOS-based scenedemos of the day. But, when it came to XFree86, well, the support was minimal.

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Posted in OS, Other Platform | 7 Comments

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:

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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