Vintage Computing – part 3

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Hardware and Gadgets - Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

“No one will survive the attack of the killer micros!” From the early 70’s onward, the mainframe computer became a relic, confined to industrial usage only, while the “microcomputer” (the device you’re most likely reading this article on) was introduced and took the world by storm. At last, small businesses and home users could have a computer in their home that could cost less than a month’s pay, fit on a desktop, and not use more power than a TV set.

The World Wide Web lagged another ten years behind, but home computers and the Internet developed ahead of it. This was the beginning of the BBS (Bulletin Board System), Usenet, Archie, Gopher, and the home gaming console.

A BBS system splash screen

A BBS login screen, running on a TRS-80. 5.1 megahertz was “blinding” and one megabyte of storage was something to brag about!

Atari BASIC box art

A cartridge for the Atari BASIC programming kit. Even then, IDEs were overhyped.

It is a staggering consideration that there were dozens of computer companies at the beginning and today we have about two major home types. In the 80’s, we had this explosion of companies selling computers, only to see them die off by the score a decade later. What the heck happened to them all?

Note that for obtaining the actual physical hardware, in most cases your best bet is to look up a collector willing to sell or trade on either VintageComputer.com or OldComputers.com. Failing that, the obvious is to search for it on eBay or or find the Usenet group for the model you seek and ask in there. In the case of the more widely-sold models, such as Apple IIs, Commodores, and x86, I’ve found them in thrift stores and flea markets all over the place.

For emulating, almost every vintage computer you’ve ever heard of is emulated in the massive MESS (Multiple Emulator Super System) project. As you would expect, an open source project with ports to Windows, Mac, and Linux/Unix. By default, check here for an emulation option first.

In order to sort the information into something with relevance to how readers might use it, let’s take it one system at a time, without too nit-picking a regard for chronological order.

The Xerox Alto and the Altair 8080 These two were, respectively, the first prototype and the first retail models of the home computer as we know it. The whole idea of a “desktop” metaphor, with windows and icons and a mouse pointer, started with these two. We’re just mentioning them here because, well, they were the first. They were also two of the most famously blown opportunities in computing history; Xerox was too busy fighting the copier war, while the Altair computer company had no clue how to market the models. Both Bill Gates and Steve Wozniac saw these two models and took off with their grand vision to form their own companies. Not widely available in an emulator version these days, and the hardware versions are rare and pricey.

Tandy TRS-80

TRS-80 Tandy’s first major home computer offering. Sold through Radio Shack electronics stores, and featuring a fair BASIC programming environment. An entire line of Tandy computers spawned from this model, which eventually started to look as good as anything available on a Mac system before being discontinued. You can walk into a Radio Shack store today and say the word “Tandy” to the clerk, and they’ll look at you in utter confusion.

Emulators available: Many! For Windows XP, Linux/Unix, and Macs (with the MESS), amongst others. The MESS project also has emulators for other models in the Tandy line.

Commodore 64

Commodores We’ll include everything from the VIC-20 to the C64 to the PET in this category. This line became famous for hobbyist games and demos, BBS activity, and educational deployment, but failed to conquer the business market. Virtually anyone who programs for a living today and who is over 35 can remember hacking BASIC code on a C64 or thereabouts. Also, the form of graphics art using ANSI characters was virtually born on the Commodore.

Emulators available: About half of the Commodore line is emulated under the already-mentioned MESS project. For a blast from the past: Commodore demos, recorded as YouTube videos. And here’s a fan website of die-hard Commodore lovers – while you’re there, do not miss the graphics art gallery – it’s worth the visit alone!

Apple II screensaver

Apple 2 and Apple Lisa Here’s your day, Apple fans! The Apple 2 (or is it “Apple II” or “Apple ][” ?) and Lisa models were the groundbreaking offerings of the Apple line and probably the first introduction to computers most home users of this era had.

Emulators: So numerous, there is even an XScreensaver mode that simulates an Apple2 entering and running BASIC programs (pictured above). This Wiki list shows Apple2 emulators for everything from the home PC to Palms and even a Java applet. The Lisa emulator project releases a Lisa emulator for Windows, Macs, and Unix. And of course the MESS project has a mess of emulators for many versions of legacy Apple systems.

We’ve barely scratched the surface, many more vintage machines and their modern incarnations coming up in the next part!

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11 Responses to “Vintage Computing – part 3”

  1. webjourneyman Says:

    This article just got me thinking.

    You know how movies are called the seventh art. It seems logical to assume that computers are allready the platform for the eighth art although yet un-aknowledged as such by the general public.

    I wonder where this new artform will (already has) make its precence know. In computer games perhaps? Or in the works of someone like Jonathan Harris, creator of http://www.wefeelfine.org that analyses human emotions by detecting emotional keywords on the worlds blogs.

  2. Rea Maor Says:

    Indeed, computers has changed our life inside-out.

  3. Nafcom Says:

    You talk about the C64 like he is dead nowadays, but he is not. (I am a C64 scener myself πŸ™‚ and own a couple of them πŸ™‚ )

  4. Rea Maor Says:

    i would more then love to buy one of them off you πŸ™‚

  5. Nafcom Says:

    No chance. You can buy one yourself. As I said, the C64 scene is not dead, so should be no problem πŸ™‚

  6. Nafcom Says:

    This one as a rebuild in ATX form factor http://www.commodoreone.com/

    original C64s you can get from sceners or C64 mail traders or ebay πŸ™‚

  7. Rea Maor Says:

    Buying one is simple enough when you live in the US as you can buy them by the weight on ebay, but i live in Israel.. it makes it all MUCH harder..
    flea markets are the only option i have left.

  8. Nafcom Says:

    Well, has Israel NTSC? If not, you need a PAL model of the C64., so USA is no option.

    Well, then next a real C64 you can get a CommdoreOne, it is compatible πŸ™‚ (Not that I have one, though)

    Cannot parcels be sent to Israel? I know a friend in Israel who constantly receives/sends stuff

  9. Rea Maor Says:

    Sure it can, i always send things from ebay (and other sites) to the US..
    it’s just a mass usually as there’s local tax, and customs and whats not..
    also i’m pretty sure that if i’ll send such a thing i’ll make a lot of people nervous – thinking i’m planing on building something crazy… ask my mother what she said when i’ve recived a MainFrame computer..

  10. Nafcom Says:

    You just notice that only the PAL (Europe) side of the C64 scene has still a lot of releases.

    The NTSC C64 (USA/Canada) only receives one-two prgs (demos) a year.

    So if you get a C64, then definately a PAL one from Europe

    Also: Israel uses PAL so it would be troublesome gettinmg a C64 from USA to run over there. Plus it would only run in black/white

  11. Nafcom Says:

    I wouldn’t worry about what other people think, this shouldn’t be a reason!

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