Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, AZERTY

In the US, we don’t hear much about computing from beyond the Anglosphere. We’ve seen some home computer clones from behind the iron curtain, but getting any information about them is hard. If you find an old keyboard with a QWERTZ layout, or even a few Cyrillic characters, in the States, it’s a rarity. To date, the only French computer on Hackaday is an old Minitel dumb terminal. To help rectify this, [Jeremie Marsin], [Thierry Mazzoleni], and [Jean Paul Mari] from Quebec brought the best of the French computing revolution of the 1980s along to this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East

The American-designed French Victor

The evolution of the reigning champion of this exhibit begins with the Micronique Victor Lambda, a licensed copy of a purely American computer, the Interact Home Computer System. This computer featured a 2 MHz 8080A, 8 or 16 kB of RAM, and was quickly discontinued. The French company Micronique quickly bought the original designs and remarketed the computer in France.

In a few short years, Micronique took this design and turned it into the Hector. This machine featured a 5 MHz Z80, 48 kB of RAM, high resolution graphics (243×231 at four colors) and included BASIC and Forth interpreters.

The Victor and Hector were the best home computers at the time, but for every Commodore or Apple, you need a ZX Spectrum. France’s version of this tiny computer with a terrible keyboard was the Matra Alice 32, a computer with a 1 MHz 6803, 16kB of Ram, and a real 80×25 text mode. The Alice is heavily based on the American TRS-80 MC-10, with a SCART connector and an AZERTY keyboard.

DSC_0133

The weirdest computer [Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] brought out? That would be the Excelvision EXL100. The 1980s, for better or worse, were the times of the Z80 and 6502. The EXL100 was running something completely different. This home computer used a TMS7020 CPU from Texas Instruments, a speech synthesizer, and a wireless keyboard. Very strange for the time and relatively inexpensive; in 1984 this computer cost only ₣3190, or about $550 USD.

TMS

[Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] had an exhibit that presented the best the Francosphere had to offer to the computing world in the 80s and 90s. We haven’t seen enough early computers from outside the US, so we’re happy to have met these guys at the 11th annual Vintage Computer Festival East.

31 thoughts on “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, AZERTY

  1. Hackaday, are you getting my emails? I hate to bother you in the comments now, but I’ve sent 3 emails, with 2 different projects, and I haven’t gotten a response. Are the projects too bland? One’s a robot that shoots down drones, the other is just a piece of software.

    1. I have never gotten response but the 2 projects I’ve reported did get listed on HaD a few days later. I don’t think they respond at all and will pick up interesting tips and pass over bland tip. I’ll let the moderator chime in with better explanation.

        1. We collectively read every tip that comes our way, at least once. We _should_ send out e-mails to you when we write something up. If not, it’s oversight.

          We don’t write up every project that comes our way. We get a _lot_ of tips. We try to present the best of them.

          If what you sent was work in progress or only partly working, we’ll usually give you some time to finish it up before we write it up.

    2. Resubmit two or three times over different weeks. We don’t always reply when we decide to write about a post. We get a lot of submissions and they get buried. Also, make sure you have: 1. Good High Res Pictures. 2. A finished Project. If we see a cool projects that’s mostly “I have a neat idea and I’ve done the first step, more in the future” or “I’ve finished it! Here’s a paragraph and one picture taken with a kodak potato.” It makes it really hard/unpleasant/impossible to cover.

      Software is coverable if there is good documentation and a clear description of what it does and why it’s interesting. Also pictures help. but aren’t necessary. (http://hackaday.com/2016/03/31/impressive-starcraft-2-ai-more-fair-to-fleshy-opponents/ ) (http://hackaday.com/2016/03/31/pjon-fancy-one-wire-arduino-communications-protocol-for-home-automation/)

      I think I remember seeing the drone defense project. I wanted to cover it, but I remember it saying right in the first few paragraphs that it wasn’t done. Typically we wait for people to finish.

      Also, as a side. It’s not polite to hog up the comments for your own stuff. At a minimum you could read about this person’s cool project and talk about it on top of whatever it is you wanted to discuss;)

      1. Sorry about that, I just wasn’t sure how else to contact you.

        I have a *lot* of development to do on the weapon, so it will be a few months before it is complete, unfortunately. Good to know that I’ll likely get an article when that finally happens, though!

  2. That exhibit was awesome. I had never seen those machines before and those guys were up all night soldering boards to get all the machines running. They put a lot of hard work into it and it showed. Two thumbs up for our friends “The French Connection” !

  3. Those computers where sold in France. Never seen one of them in Québec. The computers that were populars in the 80’s in Québec were the same ones as those sold in U.S.A. and english canada. I personnally owned a VIC-20, TRS-80 color computer II, TRS-80 model 100. But the first one in 1978 was an extended version of the COSMAS ELF with a CDP1802 CPU I don’t remember the brand name.

      1. Most of them, but surely not all ;)

        At that time I had my one at home and knew few school-friends having Thomson’s machines too. Unfortunately I owned a TO machine whose programs and dataset were incompatible with the MO machine they owned. It wasn’t easy to swap files with them. Anyway I made my way with the Thomson’s machine, learned programing in ASM, and eventually entered in a demoscene group that produced some (hopefully) nice demos.

        See http://www.pulsdemos.com or our entries on pouet.net: http://www.pouet.net/groups.php?which=3787

  4. Around 1982, I was 10 and i remember going many times after school to the “Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville” (a department store in the center of Paris, next to which i lived) to play with the demonstration model of the first *flagship* french home computer : the Thomson TO7
    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomson_TO7
    which came with an optical stylus, so you could litterally (and magically) paint and fill colors on the TV ! :

    It was introduced with a Microsoft BASIC cartridge too. In the years that followed, more than 100.000 units of this model and different upgraded versions, bundled with educative software (like the LOGO programming language : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logo_%28programming_language%29 ) and some network capabilities (“nanoréseau”) were distributed to almost all schools in France but, with a few exceptions, mostly to collect the dust in locked cabinets…

    The pictured machines, although rare and nice, were rather confidentials in regards to these Thomson computers (which, i’m sure, were presented at this Festival : in the last image, I can see a TO7/70 cardboard under the EXL 100 unit, and you can read “TO7” on the monitor) consequently much better known in collective memory, but for many people of my generation, the symbol of a missed opportunity.

    1. lol Me too. On the blog page, when I see the author is [Benchoff] I know I will enjoy the article.

      I’ve spent the last couple of days Wire Wrapping a CPLD breakout board to a Retro CPU / RAM / FLASH. It’s interesting to do the old stuff again but my – how I had forgotten how time consuming Wire Wrap is.

      [Benchoff] also has a retro computer project going https://hackaday.io/project/5-mc68000-computer when he has time sigh.

      That will probably be my next “thing” something with slide in cards like an old sub-rack unit. I have already bought many many connectors.

  5. Alice 32 was my first own computer. So I can’t really bash this piece of sh#t.
    I have a weird TRUE story about it : to make it short, years ago I sold one Alice 32 purchased at flea market weeks before because tape recorder cable was missing. People payed for it Said was happy with the purchase… even if the buyer said : “too bad that the câble was missing”. The point is I NEVER sent the computer. To this day I still don’t know what happened.

  6. Man, I haven’t seen an AZERTY keyboard in a while. Used to have one that I bought in Belgium about 15 years ago, mostly cause I got used to the layout and also for the mindfuck factor back home (Slovenia uses German QWERTZ layout with extra characters) :)

    Anyways, this was an interesting article, I’ve never heard of any of these computers before. Then again, I grew up in Yugoslavia which had their own machines alongside stuff like ZX Spectrum and C64.

  7. Hi, good to hear some people are interested in froggies’ cheese stinking silicon bits. lol
    I’m into Minitel retro-engineering, and read this article, so I have a few details I want to enlighten:
    The Alice 4K was a pal clone to the TRS-80 MC10, since Matra produced the pal ones alongside. The further advanced Alice 32 (then Alice 90) share the processor and basic programs compatibility, but the Video chip is different, based upon the 934x family, designed by Thomson to be used on terminals such as minitels. The EF9345P is thus shared with both Alice 32 and 90, Philips’ VG5000 (Z80 CPU based), and Bistandard Minitels (i8052 MCU Based), that Matra and Philips were producing too.
    We had some other clones or variants of the TRS-80, or big square units, see for HBN le guepard, Goupil, Tavernier. Also, there were machines dedicated to the “computing for all” plan, the EXL100 somehow failed to be favored, Thomson, with Mo/To series was the big winner. We had Amstrad branded ones too, and other oddities.
    Those machines, as underpowered as they could have been, were for the most part underxploited in the rush the editors were to edit games and software, and there are many incredible demos here and there on the net to prove this.

    1. Ah ah ! ça me rappelle pas mal de souvenirs en effet !
      By the way, the manual of Alice 32 was illustrated by Jean Giraud also known as Moebius. (RIP) which was a very respected artist. Fans and collectors of his work should rush on this manual I think…
      And also….Alice was compatible with most MC-10 programs. Don’t miss “La chenille infernale”, a very difficult but excellent version of the snake game ported by Mr. Duarte (is he still alive somewhere on this planet?)……

    2. Wow, I had never heard of these Minitel units. I looked at a couple of schematics and I think they would make a great starting point for some good hacking! They look like the 7 RAM chips short of a half decent computer (for that era) and with some hacks to the video they could be an enjoyable game platform.

      I saw a CRTC chip was it a 9845?? I have never heard of these – is it like the 6845?? Where do I find specs.

      I went looking on ebay and there aren’t many of these around.

      1. Informations about these are very scarce and spread, I’ve begun a collect of what had been done, and reverse engineered some of them, I’ll put the work online when more would be achieved.

        The Thomson EF9345P datasheet can be found easily, but use of it is not very straight, in the most widespread models, it has 8kB of it’s own memory, where the processor can indirectly access and store random data in free blocks.

        They are all around here in France, you can sometimes get them for free, at least for the most common ones. They weigh less than 5Kilos, so as it can be risky and not cheap to send in a parcel, if you know someone that comes from France to you, they may be able to take one in the cabin luggage. You need a voltage converter to use them with 110V.

        1. I found docs on the chip once I found the letters preceding the number.

          I also saw some pics of thousands of them being stripped and it looked like they were re-cycling the plastic and throwing the rest away – so sad.

          I looks like the killer for them was the fact that they are integrated with their own CRT – bulky – costly to post – no one wants…

          Where there any that were separate to the CRT?

          I am in Australia so I have never seen one and there is no hope of me getting one unless it is separate (or separated) from the CRT.

          Can you approach websites like old-computers.com, I am sure they would love to help someone who is in a better position (France) to access the actual hardware.

          I can reverse engineer hardware if I have the boards. I can also do so from good pics but they have to be excellent quality so that I can see all the PCB traces and chip numbers without reflecting light spots from the flash.

          I did look around ebay and there were one or two but they were to large / heavy / costly to post.

          I think you have PAL standard in France (will check) … ok it looks like you were using positive modulated SECAM at the time but that doesn’t matter because these will work with the baseband and not the up-modulated carrier band so I just have to fine the timing model for your version of SECAM.

          1. Yes, it’s a shame, the man, in one of those vids is proud to say that 80% is recycled, mainly because the housing is in ABS, and the tube is just ground then melted in the roads’ asphalt. It’s just a shame, but there are so many of those, and no more use or market for such devices.

            Only some early days prototypes were screen-less. One of the rules to follow to produce them was that it had to be all-in-one, and in the early 80’s, there were no cheap alternatives for CRT, and they had to be cheap, too.

            Getting only the board will be almost the same as getting an 8052 SBC (or development/learning kit, you will lose the screen, keyboard, and power supply, not to notice the design of the terminal itself that were not that bulky (10″x9″x10″ for the Alcatel M1/1b/2). There is not much interest in getting the bare mainboard.

            I looked at the cheapest way to send one, it seems to be 53€! It’s huge compared to the item’s value…

            I’m already in contact with a handful of people that have the right skills to help me a lot in doing what I plan to do, but if you want to help, why not, I think I have enough gear, if not already all the know-how to take good pictures as you told.

            Don’t worry about video signal, Alcatel and Matra ones had holes to solder a header on which you can connect a scart-RGB monitor/TV, since the EF9345P is a color video chip.

  8. Here’s a very proud owner of an Exeltel, a really cool-looking big brother of the EXL-100 (http://www.exelvision.com/musee/ordis/exelvision/exeltel/exl-tel-low.jpg). The features of this computer were really advanced (voice synthesizer, wireless keyboard and joysticks) but it never became popular. The computer was sold by a big chain of department stores in Spain called El Corte Ingles that hosted their own “online” service that customers could use to order food and download software to their computers. I still have the computer at home and I play with it from time to time, there’s not much software available but a few years ago someone made an app to encode audio so people could load new software from the interwebs.

  9. Excelvision EXL100, the first computer my parents brought back home ! (Yes, I’m French ;)

    I was young, but I can remember a few things, like the wireless keyboard and… joysticks ! \o/ (2), hosted in a drawer that poped-out from the main unit (in grey on the left of the front of the unit on the pictures).
    Also there were the plastic masks that you installed on the keyboard (we can see the yellow one on the pictures), to identify the keystrokes assignments depending on the software you were running.

    My next experience with computers were the Thomson TO7, at school, where a very dedicated teacher had set a bunch of them. Including a shared dot matrix printer.
    And then with Thomson TO16 that my dad bought a few years later (MsDOS on a single 5″25 floppy disk :) That’s when he definitely switched from paper to computer for writing. At that time, Works was not a WYSIWYG software yet.

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