Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Apple II: Back To The Future

It is probably no secret that my favorite vintage personal computer (and maybe my favorite computer of all time) is the Apple II. This amazing machine, introduced in 1977 by a virtually unknown new company, was clearly ahead of its time. Steve Wozniak created an incredibly flexible, open architecture, publishing the workings of this machine for others to enhance and extend. Steve Jobs brought it to market in a complete, attractive, and well marketed package, quickly catching the eye of those eager to jump into this new world of personal computing. In fact, the Apple II was so successful that it was marketed virtually unchanged, with minor enhancements only, for nearly 17 years (until 1994 as the Apple //e).

Recently, my original Apple II + (circa 1979) was transported in time to the future (circa 2013) with the addition of the recently announced CFFA3000! The CFFA3000 by R & D Automation is a CompactFlash/USB-Flash Interface card for Apple II computers (][+, //e, //e enhanced or //gs) that can emulate either a floppy or hard drive using CompactFlash or USB storage.

With just about any piece of Apple II software ever written now available online in emulator readable formats, this card will give your Apple II the ability to run all of these images directly from solid state storage. This means that, with a single CF or USB drive, you can have all your favorite software from back-in-the-day just a keystroke away, with no vintage moving parts to wear out. Or you can pack just about every game ever written for this machine onto a single USB, and make this a Retro Gaming Console second to none!

I had tons of fun installing, configuring, and loading mine with every piece of retro software I ever dreamed of owning. The future is here now, and the CFFA3000 has breathed new life into an old friend! What will the next 35 years bring?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Turbo Pascal

In the early eighties, Pascal was a popular programming language in education and universities, and growing in business use as those students carried their knowledge into the working world. So it was no surprise that when Borland introduced Turbo Pascal for MS DOS in 1983, it was a huge success... and it cost less than $100!

Turbo Pascal was a unique software development tool in that it supported a very powerful compiled, strongly typed language, included a groundbreaking integrated compiler/IDE, and produced extremely fast compact code. Before this point, my college professors used to strongly discourage multiple re-compiles of our assignments, probably due to their memory of a single compile taking over a day in the punch-card era. However, with Turbo Pascal, and similar tools to follow later, compiling was so fast (seconds!!!) and PC's so ubiquitous, that now the compiler could be used to do the work of repeatedly checking your code (and spelling, etc). For me, this created a huge productivity boost.

Now this original groundbreaking code is available for free from the Antique Software page at Embarcadero Developer Network. I downloaded Turbo Pascal 3.0 (the version that I used in my first professional software development project in 1986). It brought back fond memories of a simpler time, and is as fast and useful today as it was 24 years ago!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers

I've got a new addition to my library and this one will definitely end up on the coffee table... Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers is a mostly photographic account of a small number of historic computer systems ranging from the 1950's to the present. These images were taken of systems provided by our friends over at the Computer History Museum in California. This is a somewhat artistic view of early technology which many will find strange and intriguing. It is hardcover bound and is nicely printed on photographic quality paper. Definitely a fun voyage through time for the interested!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The HP-41C Handheld

One of my earliest personal computer systems wasn't really what you might think of when you think "personal computer". However, the HP-41C was a true programmable system that had a wealth of software and peripherals available. This flagship scientific programmable calculator introduced in 1979 was a favorite of engineers and scientists world wide, and was sold in various incarnations until HP introduced a successor, the HP-48 in 1986. However, the HP-48 never created the groundswell of the 41, largely because of the advent of the PC.

At one point in the mid 80's I owned the following peripherals for this powerful little handheld: Card Reader, Bar Code Wand Reader, Thermal Printer, Tape Drive, Time Module, Memory Module, Math Module, and many more. Software was available on plugin ROM modules or wand scannable books, and I had special binders that could store the little mag cards that you would save programs on and label with a pencil.

One of the greatest features was a hack that allowed one to escape from the internal RPN based operating language to the core assembly of the internal 64 bit custom HP "Saturn" processor. This came to be known as "Synthetic Programming" and a whole industry of books and software evolved around this.

These reliable programmable handhelds could be daisy chained to an HP-IL ring bus that could connect to HP peripherals and scientific instruments and control an entire lab of equipment. There remains a dedicated group of enthusiasts even today and you can find many links, software, and emulators on the web. Check out the Museum of HP Calculators for lots of detail on the HP-41C and many others.

If you want to learn more about this powerful handheld system but don't want to pony up the $ on eBay, Check out nsim, an excellent HP-41CV emulator (Mac). Of course you'll need the Owner's Handbook and Programming Guide which is reproduced here in excellent detail. A search on Google will result in an astounding number of links to enthusiast sites and active communities of users. Long live the HP-41C!

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Book Review: iWoz

It seems his whole life was leading up to that moment... he spent his teenage years designing and re-designing time-sharing mini computers in his mind and on paper. He taught himself how to build a video display terminal by studying surplus video equipment. He constantly demonstrated his intellectual prowess by designing and re-designing hobby electronic projects to use fewer and fewer parts. But when this quiet engineer sat in the back of the room at an early Homebrew Computer Club meeting and heard of this new chip, called the 6502, it all came together.

His invention, a combination of a microprocessor, keyboard interface, and video display circuitry all on one board took the club, and eventually the world by storm. While Woz is no Shakespeare, his book does give a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a brilliant, and somewhat unknown other Steve, Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple I and Apple II computers. It also makes one realize that while he developed the Apple II almost entirely on his own, he needed the opposite personality traits of Steve Jobs to complement his work and that combination is what really led to the winning team they built 30 years ago.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Book Review: ON THE EDGE The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore

ON THE EDGE The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore is a must have for any retro-enthusiast's library. This book has become the definitive reference for Commodore 64 lovers seemingly overnight. The author, Brian Bagnall, has done a tremendous amount of research and collected many first hand interviews of the key developers and company officials from the eighties and nineties.

While numerous titles over the years have been dedicated to the early history of Apple Computer, Commodore has somehow missed out on the limelight. And this, despite the fact the the C64 remains the most popular personal computer model of all time in terms of total units sold.

The heart of the book is the many first hand accounts of the ups and down of the tumultuous C64 era, and the company's inability to successfully move its huge install base to a next generation Commodore product. There is even some new and interesting accounts of early encounters with Bill Gates licensing BASIC for the PET. Reading this 500+ page book was immensely enjoyable and informative.

While the post-C64 section focusing on the Amiga years was a little light on substance, I found the first section of the book most informative and enjoyable. This section starts by introducing the reader to the legendary Chuck Peddle, the creator of the 6502 processor which was the basis of many of the early personal computers (Apple 1, Apple II, Atari 400/800, Atari 2600 game console, Commodore PET, VIC-20, Commodore 64, KIM-1, SYM-1, Rockwell AIM 65, and many others).

Peddle's company, MOS Technology, was subsequently purchased by Commodore and became the genesis for most of the computers commodore produced in the early years. In fact, if I took away one thing from reading this book, it was a new found appreciation of just how influential a figure Chuck Peddle was to the birth of the computer revolution. This is a must read for all fans of 8bits!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The IBM PC at 25

Love it or hate it... this one changed the world. IBM has posted some historical information about the original IBM PC on their site. I still miss that green screen... it had the sharpest characters I have ever seen on a CRT (though not as good as modern LCD displays).

This was the Cadillac of PC's in the day. The $1,565 price bought a system unit with 16K of memory, a keyboard and a color/graphics capability. Options included a display, a printer, two diskette drives, extra memory, communications, game adapter and application packages — including one for text processing.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Happy Birthday Apple Computer!

It's hard to believe it's been 30 years since Steve and Steve got together and founded this great company! And it's hard to believe how far the technology has come, and how our lifestyle has become so digital in the process.

Here's a great way to put a perspective on this change... take a look at Wired's visual tour of the Apple Computer OS History with some interesting descriptions. How far back do you go? Have you used them all?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Soul Of A New (Old) Machine

In 1980, Data General was a fast growing minicomputer manufacturing company poised to take over DEC and possibly IBM with their next generation of Eclipse computers. In 1981, Tracy Kidder released The Soul of a New Machine, a compelling best-selling story of the people and personalities involved in creating that new machine. Today the company no longer exists, but this book is still as good a read as it was 25 years ago.

I first read this in 1981, and it had a profound impact on my career. In fact, it was one of the catalysts that caused me to go into the same industry (I worked for IBM designing systems in the mid 80's). In 2000, Wired Magazine did a profile on Tom West, the improbable hero of the story, and discussed where his career took him after this book, as well as how his perception of those times has changed.

If after reading these you want to explore further, try running the simh emulator and log on to your own Eclipse system and explore their handiwork!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Retro Emulation

Is your office or basement full of old computers that you keep around just in case you "need" to use an old program or game that no longer runs on today's computers? Is your spouse threatening to throw you out if you don't get rid of all those old boxes in the attic or garage that contain your prized collection of old computers? Or maybe you just can't throw anything out and need a reason to sell all that stuff on eBay but still want to keep that favorite old software.

Well, you are not alone. Emulation software is the solution to your problems and is better than ever. For years, fans of early personal computers and video game technology have been faithfully creating emulation software that very accurately simulates real hardware. In this photo (click photo for larger view) I am running an Apple 1, Apple II, Sinclair ZX81, Atari 800, PC DOS, and a DEC PDP-11 running RSTS/E, all on my OS X MAC (I could have opened another shell and included UNIX on this list). These are running on the following emulators, in order; Pom 1 (Apple 1), OSX II (Apple II), NO$ZX8 running in DOSBox (Sinclair ZX81), Atari800MacX (Atari 800), DOSBox (PC DOS), and Simh running RSTS/E (DEC PDP-11).

These are just a few of the shareware or open source emulators that are out there, and a quick search on Google will turn up hundreds. You can also find many archives of old software (including on bittorrent) so that you may not have to go through the effort of converting your existing floppy disk based software to pc based emulator disk images. Now all you need to do is decide what to do with all that extra space around the house after you sell all that old equipment on eBay!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

PDP Planet

What would a retro computing fan do if he or she had all the money in the world? Well, Paul Allen (billionaire and Microsoft co-founder) has created an organization, PDP Planet, and a project to restore one of his favorite vintage computers, the DEC PDP-10.

In fact, he has a whole collection of vintage DEC and other minicomputers. You see, in the early days of Microsoft, Paul and his buddy Bill Gates did all of their development work on minis, and despite the fact that the world is now dominated by Microsoft operating systems, they still have fond recollections of these old systems.

According to Paul, PDP Planet "fulfills my hope that the achievements of early computer engineers aren't lost to time. I wanted to provide a Web site and repository that recognized the efforts of those creative engineers who made some of the early breakthroughs in interactive computing that changed the world."

Check out the progress of his PDP-10 restoration, and get yourself an actual user ID on one of his personal PDP-10's running Tops-10. You can write and run your own programs from the internet on the actual vintage hardware. You'll be the hit of your next geek party when you show off your new program running on Paul's "personal computer"!

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The First Killer App

The term "Killer App" is often used by technology marketing people to describe the next big application for a new technology, such as e-mail or the WWW being the Internet's killer app. When the first personal computers burst onto the scene in the late 1970's, there were no killer apps. In fact, there were few marketing people in this industry either. The field was dominated by hobbyists and techies, and practical applications were few, notwithstanding some teaching tools and games.

The Apple ][ was selling briskly to hobbyists and educators in 1978, but few yet saw the potential of the personal computer beyond this limited audience. Meanwhile, a Harvard Business School student named Dan Bricklin was working on a novel business tool idea and linked up with MIT graduate Bob Frankston to implement his idea on an Apple ][. When it was completed, they called it VisiCalc.

VisiCalc was the Killer App that transformed the Apple ][ (and Apple Computer Inc.) from a niche product to an essential business tool that virtually every company in America had to have. Today the spreadsheet remains ubiquitous in modern business, and virtually all of this can be traced back to this single invention created in an attic in a Boston suburb.

While VisiCalc, and the company created to sell this tool, Software Arts, are mere footnotes in computing history (Software Arts was later bought by Lotus which was eventually eclipsed by Microsoft), you can read about the creation of VisiCalc at Dan Bricklin's website, and even download an early version of VisiCalc for the IBM PC, which was made available to the public for free through an agreement by Lotus which still owns the copyright.

Today, over 25 years later, the personal computer industry is a several hundred billion dollar business. However, the creation of VisiCalc and the business revolution this started, long before the dominance of Microsoft, remains one of the most important events in personal computing history!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Digital Archeology: Ancient UNIX

This is the first of a series of posts entitled Digital Archeology where I will be discussing interesting projects or amusing anecdotes involving the early days of computing. This story begins in 1969 in a small computer room at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill New Jersey. Two ground breaking programmers have just created a new time-sharing operating system they have called UNIX. UNIX is unique in that the two developers, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, are describing this as the first "portable" operating system because they have written UNIX in a new language called C, invented by Ritchie himself. The minicomputer that this new operating system first came to life on was a DEC PDP-7.

Lets now travel 28 years forward in time to 2005 to see where I'm going with this. One of the best ways to experience what it was like for the early digital pioneers is to spend some time at the keyboard of one of these old machines. However, if you don't have the space to put three or four refrigerator size boxes in your living room or basement (the older DEC PDP models are still available on eBay if you have a moving van available for pickup), you can experience the next best thing through software emulation.

There are many software emulators that run on Windows or the Mac that create exact replicas of older original computer systems. The Apple I, Apple II, Sinclair ZX81, Atari 800, and some early DEC PDP models are some of my favorites. A simple google search for emulators will bring up hundreds of links for what is becomming a popular hobby for many vintage hackers like myself... more on this in another post.

The simh emulator (from the Computer History Simulation Project) is an open source effort that provides faithful emulation of many old computers including the PDP-11. If you were not aware, UNIX experienced its greatest growth in the 1970's and early 1980's on the PDP-11 with versions such as BSD (Berkley Systems Distribution). As a matter of fact, I got my first taste of UNIX on a PDP-11 in college.

Several dedicated enthusiasts have been sifting through tape archives and have resurrected a number of old disk images. These have been transfered to emulation software readable image files and are available on the web (see links on the simh site). Caldera has licensed several versions of old UNIX source code in the public domain.

I worked with UNIX V5 which I found fascinating in its simplicity as well as how little UNIX today has changed from this early version. The source code is till online in this version, as are sub directories titled "ken" and "dhr" containing early beta versions of several popular UNIX utilities, presumably left there in the early seventies by Thompson and Ritchie themselves!

Logging into this ancient system and navigating around the file system is a fascinating walk through time. The OS was small, yet still powerful. The UNIX source code includes original comments, and anyone with an interest in the origin of both the C language or UNIX itself will find this an absorbing journey into the past.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Looking for something to put on your coffee table that really captures the essence of that vintage computer collection of yours? How about a beautiful book on photo grade stock with pictures of all your favorite personal computers from the seventies and eighties and more? Check out this book by Gordon Land called DIGITAL RETRO the evolution and design of the personal computer. All of my favorites are in here; Apple I, Apple II, Sinclair ZX81, Atari 800, IBM PC, IBM PCAT, Macintosh and over 40 others. Great photos and short historical descriptions accompany each making this an interesting read from end to end, or just fun to browse.

An reviewer writes of this book "Take a visual stroll through the early days of personal computing, from 1975's seminal MITS Altair to 1988's failed NeXT cube, before the market bifurcated between Mac and Windows users. This 192-page paperback examines 40 classic computers of yesteryear, each depicted from all sides with full-color photography and annotated with original specifications and pricing. Laing's text also reveals many juicy tidbits about the companies and personalities that dominated the industry in its infancy."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Sinclair ZX81

The year was 1981. IBM had just announced the IBM PC for the modest sum of $3,000. The Apple II was everywhere. I had been programming various computers ranging from DEC PDP-11's to Apple II's and the dream of owning my own computer was still out of reach for this college physics student and electronics hobbyist.

Then came the Sinclair ZX81. Here was a kit, advertised in BYTE magazine, that you could build and own for $99! It didn't look like much more than a large calculator, but to someone with my desire to soak up every bit of knowledge about computers that I could find, this was my ticket to a whole world of possibilities.

It was ordered, arrived, and I quickly put my soldering skills to use. In two days I was programming Sinclair BASIC and reading a Sinclair users group newsletter out of Harvard describing undocumented tricks that would allow you to load a Z80 machine language program into memory and call directly to your code, bypassing the BASIC interpreter and making the Sinclair architecture as accessible as any minicomputer or personal computer at the time.

I was soon writing machine language on a yellow pad and hand assembling into hexadecimal bytecodes which I would write in the left column of the paper. I think I still have some of those program listings somewhere. While hand coding this way was extremely tedious, the feeling of euphoria when finally seeing your debugged program working was just reward.

If I were asked to describe the biggest weakness of the Sinclair ZX81, it would have to be the storage... audio cassette tapes, that is. It took a lot of messing around with the volume control on my tape recorder. It was easy to lose a program, and they were stored sequentially so you had to play through to the point in the tape you were interested in. You got very accustomed to listening to these tapes as you were rewinding or fast forwarding to the program you were looking for, and you could often recognize a piece of code by how the beginning sounded.

And of course there was the constant threat of the "wiggle" crash. This invariably occurred after you just spent an hour painstakingly typing in a large program listing on the membrane keyboard, pressing hard on the no-feedback keys when the computer moved slightly and the external rampack (seen in the ad above) would wiggle ever so slightly, and cause the system to crash losing all that hard work. I suppose many ZX81's were thrown out a window for just that reason!

To many, the Sinclair ZX81 was a toy. To me, it was a development system. Here is a picture of a buffered expansion board from Computer Continuum Inc., with the ZX81 mounted on edge. In the buffered slots are some of my wire wrapped expansion cards that I built for various college physics projects. The first is a UART serial interface, the second card is a 2K memory expansion, and the third is a 8255 PPI interface. I was planning to add a real keyboard and mount this in a box for a home control application... another unfinished project.

The ZX81 still has a strong following today 23 years later! There are a number of emulators out there and many web sites with code to download. comp.sys.sinclair is a good place to see what the latest news is on new versions of emulators or code. You can even still buy new unbuilt ZX81 kits. Zebra Systems has several hundred kits available for the original price of $99 so that you can still experience the thrill of building one of the earliest (and least expensive) personal computers from the 80's!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Creation of the Macintosh

In the early 80's there was a quiet project underway in a small remote building at Apple Computer where a team of engineers and programmers worked tirelessly with a dream of revolutionizing the personal computer into an information appliance that would be "for the rest of us". Even to those of us who were deeply involved in technology at the time, this was an exciting leap forward. Now 20 years have past and this event remains a milestone in personal computing.

Read about this revolution from the inside, from original members of the small team that caught the imagination of everyone who came in contact with them, including Steve Jobs who championed their cause. is a collection of stories and anecdotes from the designers, developers and programmers who made up this unique team. It is also an interesting look at the dynamics of a startup struggling within a more rigid business culture.

Many of the recountings are written by Andy Hertzfeld who was a cornerstone of the software team. Andy has since taken this to the next level with the publication of a book Revolution In The Valley, the insanely great story of how the Macintosh was made. Click on the link to buy this at's everyday low price and support the operation of this site at the same time!

Friday, November 19, 2004

Apple I/Replica I and FORTH

The Apple I started as a hobbyist's project in 1976, and turned into one of the early catalysts of the personal computer revolution. The simple elegance of the WOZ monitor (only 256 bytes!) and readily available parts made this computer accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, today only a few survive.

Below I have links to the original documentation that came with the Apple I, including the hand typed basic manual and owner's manuals. Browsing these, you really get the feel that this was a hobbyist's project, not the beginning of a billion dollar company!

Apple I User's Guide
Apple I BASIC Manual
Apple fritter
Apple I Owner's Club

Replica I
The Replica I is a single board computer that is a functional replica of the groundbreaking Apple I from the 70's. The primary difference is that some of the parts are implemented with modern components. However, it still uses the venerable 6502 and contains the original Woz monitor and Woz's hand assembled BASIC!

My Replica I is using a standard modern PC power supply, a PS/2 style keyboard, and Apple //c 9" monitor. Some of my projects for the Replica I include creating a program loader to allow easy loading/saving programs to an attached PC, and porting one of my favorite old languages, FORTH, to the Replica I/Apple I.

You can buy a Replica I in kit form or ready built from Vince Briel, a hobbyist and fan of the original Apple I.

Forth is a fast, powerful, and portable high level language that was popular in the early days of micro computing because of its ability to easily manipulate hardware details while retaining many benefits of a high level language. It is a "stack oriented" language and thus maps efficiently to an 8-bit microprocessor.

Forth has a small kernel of "words" that are implemented in the native assembler of the target platform. The balance of the language consists of further word definitions made up of "address" references to these kernel words. In this way, only a small part of the assembler listing is dependent on the host platform, making this a very portable language (even in assembler!).

This is a figFORTH 1.1 port originally distributed by W. F. Ragsdale for the Rockwell AIM65 back in the late seventies. I have taken this listing and made a port to the Apple I/Replica I, resulting in a powerful programming environment for experimentation or computer control applications. FORTH is still popular today and is found in such diverse applications as embedded controllers and PDA's to NASA applications on the Space Shuttle!

FORTH is compact, only 7 Kbytes for the kernel. While fully functional now on the POM Apple I emulator, I still need to implement block storage in memory so that programs can be loaded and saved independent of the kernel itself with the cassette interface. You can download the current version below.

Note: There is currently an issue in the Pom1 emulator that results in ASCII $1F being used to represent [space] where the Apple I/Replica I expect $20. This must be changed in the listing and recompiled depending on the platform you chose to run on.

If you want to learn more about FORTH, The best place to start is Leo Brodie's book Starting FORTH which is conveniently online. Also, if you wish to change my port for the Apple I/Replica I, you will need the CC65 C Compiler and Macro Assembler/Cross Compiler for the 6502. More enhancements to follow...

Micro Chess
One of the most fun things I have done with my new Replica I was to load and run Peter Jennings' original Microchess written in 1976. The excitement of seeing this vintage early program come to life on my just assembled Replica was probably much like early Apple I users back in the 70's would have felt on powering up this landmark program the first time. This program was a wonderful accomplishment for several thousand bytes of code!

Welcome to

Why old technology and new ideas? Several reasons... First, many of us who have been in this industry for 25 or 30 years are beginning to look back on all the developments over those years and are realizing that there were several key moments in time, pieces of technology, or products that defined an era in computing.
Many of those pieces of technology or products lie at the bottom of land fills today. Others are just being recognized for their significance and are starting to be dusted off and collected, initially by those of us who have a sentimental connection with some of the first machines we were able to call "our own".

The second reason is the low cost of this old technology. Atari, Commodore, and Apple ][ computers can often be had for less that $10 on eBay and make a great starter for learning machine language programming or for just hardware hacking.
A third reason, and I think one that leads to much of the interest in vintage computers, is because technology advancement is moving so fast, many of the older computers never reached the potential of their full capabilities. Many of us moved on to MS DOS and Windows long before we had exhausted the possibilities of our old favorite Apple ][, Atari, TRS-80 or Sinclair computers.

The final reason I see, and one interesting to me as an electronics hobbyist, is the apparent resurgence in the basic microprocessor. I'm not talking about the 64 bit Itaniums and the like, but rather, the explosion of embedded processors and microcontrollers on the market. The 8-bit CPU is finding a new home in everything from your dishwasher to your vacuum cleaner. These are simple processors usually dedicated to performing a single task.

MicroChip PIC's, Zilog Z8, ARM, Parrallax Basic Stamp, and many others are filling this space. One of the most interesting and powerful of these is the Z8. It is one of my favorites because it still compatible with Z80 source code from the 70's and early 80's. The basic stamp is simple to use and a lot of fun too. Many have equated the power of the Basic Stamp to an "Apple ][ on a chip". What's more, most of these microcontroller chips cost less than $15!

This site is dedicated to fans of old computers, hobbyists, and engineers who appreciate the power and simplicity of yesterday's and today's 8 bit microprocessors/microcontrollers, or who just like tinkering with vintage technology!

November 2004