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!