The Man Who Didn’t Invent The Personal Computer

[John Blankenbaker] did not invent the personal computer. Museums, computer historians, and authors have other realities in mind when they say [John]’s invention, the KENBAK-1, was the first electronic, commercially available computer that was not a kit, and available to the general population.

In a way, it’s almost to the KENBAK’s detriment that it is labelled the first personal computer. It was, after all, a computer from before the age of the microprocessor. It is possibly the simplest machine ever sold and an architecturally unique machine that has more in common with the ENIAC than any other machine built in the last thirty years..

The story of the creation of this ancient computer has never been told until now. [John], a surprisingly spry octogenarian, told the story of his career and the development of the first personal computer at the Vintage Computer Festival East last month. This is his story of not inventing the personal computer.

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Chess Computers Improve Since 90s

The AlphaGo computer has been in the news recently for beating the top Go player in the world in four out of five games. This evolution in computing is a giant leap from the 90s when computers were still struggling to beat humans at chess. The landscape has indeed changed, as [Folkert] shows us with his chess computer based on a Raspberry Pi 3 and (by his own admission) too many LEDs.

The entire build is housed inside a chess board with real pieces (presumably to aid the human player) and an LED on every square. When the human makes a move, he or she inputs it into the computer via a small touch screen display. After that, the computer makes a move, indicated by lighting up the LEDs on the board and printing the move on the display. The Raspberry Pi is running the embla chess program, which has an Elo strength of about 1600.

While the computer isn’t quite powerful enough to beat Magnus Carlsen, we can only imagine how much better computers will be in the future. After all, this credit-card sized computer is doing what supercomputers did only a few decades ago. With enough Raspberry Pis, you might even be able to beat a grandmaster with your chess computer. Computer power aside, think of the advancements in fabrication technology (and access to it) which would have made this mechanical build a wonder back in the 90s too.

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Museum Shows Off Retro Malware

There’s some debate on which program gets the infamous title of “First Computer Virus”. There were a few for MS-DOS machines in the 80s and even one that spread through ARPANET in the 70s. Even John von Neumann theorized that programs might one day self-replicate. To compile all of these early examples of malware, and possibly settle this question once and for all, [Mikko Hypponen] has started collecting many of the early malware programs into a Museum of Malware.

While unlucky (or careless) users today are confronted with entire hard drive encryption viruses (or worse), a lot of the early viruses were relatively harmless. Examples include Brain which spread via floppy disk, the experimental ARPANET virus, or Elk Cloner which, despite many geniuses falsely claiming that Apples are immune to viruses, infected Mac computers of the 80s. [Mikko] has collected many more from this era that can be downloaded or demonstrated in a browser.

Retrocomputing is an active community, with users keeping gear of this era up and running despite it being 30+ years old. This software, while malicious at the time, is a great look into what the personal computing world was like in its infancy. And don’t forget, if you have a beige computer from a bygone era, you can always load up our Retro Page.

Thanks to [chad] for the tip!

Open Source… Windows?

There’s a lot to be said for open source software. The ability to change code to suit one’s needs, the fact that security vulnerabilities can be easier to find, and the overall transparency are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strengths of using open source software. And, while Microsoft is no Apple when it comes to locking down their source code, their operating system is still, unfortunately, closed.

Don’t despair, though! There is a project out there that aims to change this. No, they’re not stealing anything or breaking into any computers to obtain Microsoft’s code. They’re writing their own version of Windows called ReactOS that aims to be binary-compatible with Windows. The software has been in development for over a decade, but they’re ready to release version 0.4 which will bring USB, sound, networking, wireless, SATA, and many more features to the operating system.

While ReactOS isn’t yet complete for everyday use, the developers have made great strides in understanding how Windows itself works. There is a lot of documentation coming from the project regarding many previously unknown or undocumented parts of Windows, and with more developers there could be a drop-in replacement for Windows within a few years. It’s definitely worth a shot if you fondly remember the frontier days of Linux where doing things like reading information on a CD required extensive experience using the terminal. If this is a little too much, though, there are other unique operating systems out there to investigate.

Thanks for the tip, [Matt]!

Retrotechtacular: New York City’s Secret Computer

Over 750,000 people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal each day. Located in the heart of the city, it’s one of the largest train stations in the world. Its historic significance dates back to 1913, when it opened its doors to the public. At the time, few were aware of the secret computer that sat deep in a sub basement below the hustle and bustle of the city’s busy travelers. Its existence was kept secret all the way into the 1980’s.

Westinghouse had designed a system that would allow authorities to locate a stuck train in a tunnel. There were cords stretched the length of the tunnels. If a train stalled, the operator could reach out and yank on the cord. This would set off an alarm that would alert everyone of the stuck train. The problem being that even though they knew a train was down, they did not know exactly where. And that’s where the computer come in. Westinghouse designed it to calculate where the train was, and write its location on some ticker tape.

So this is the part of the post where we tell you how the computer established where exactly the train breakdown occurred. Although the storyteller in the video is admirably enthusiastic about telling the story, our depth of detail on the engineering that went into this seems nowhere to be found. Let us know in the comments below if you have a source of more information. Or just post your own conjecture on how you would have done it with the early 20th century tech.

The invention of the two way radio made the whole thing obsolete not long after is was built. Never-the-less, it remains intact to this day.

Thanks to [Greg] for the tip!

Update: What You See Is What You Laser Cut

If there’s one thing about laser cutters that makes them a little difficult to use, it’s the fact that it’s hard for a person to interact with them one-on-one without a clunky computer in the middle of everything. Granted, that laser is a little dangerous, but it would be nice if there was a way to use a laser cutter without having to deal with a computer. Luckily, [Anirudh] and team have been working on solving this problem, creating a laser cutter that can interact directly with its user.

The laser cutter is tied to a visual system which watches for a number of cues. As we’ve featured before, this particular laser cutter can “see” pen strokes and will instruct the laser cutter to cut along the pen strokes (once all fingers are away from the cutting area, of course). The update to this system is that now, a user can import a drawing from a smartphone and manipulate it with a set of physical tokens that the camera can watch. One token changes the location of the cut, and the other changes the scale. This extends the functionality of the laser cutter from simply cutting at the location of pen strokes to being able to cut around any user-manipulated image without interacting directly with a computer. Be sure to check out the video after the break for a demonstration of how this works.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: From Q To NAND

The apocalypse is coming, and the last time I checked, not many people have a semiconductor fab in their garage. We’ll need computers after the end of the world, and [matseng]’s project for the Hackaday Prize is just that – a framework to build computers out of discrete components.

The apocalyptic spin on this project is slightly exaggerated, but there is a lot someone can learn by building digital devices out of transistors, resistors, and diodes. The building blocks of [matseng]’s computer are as simple as they come: he’s using three resistors, four diodes, and one NPN transistor to build a single NAND gate. These NAND gates can then be assembled into any form of digital logic. You’re never going to get a better visual example of functional completeness.

A project like this must be approached from both the top down and bottom up. To go from a high level to ones and zeros, [matseng] built an assembler and an emulator. Some ideas of what the instruction set will be are laid out in this project log, and for now [matseng] is going for a Harvard architecture with eight registers. It’s a lot of work for a computer that will be limited by how much memory [matseng] can be wired up, but as far as ambition goes, there aren’t many projects in the Hackaday Prize that can match this tiny, huge computer.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: