A Deep Dive Into The Chemistry Of Retrobright

Considerable effort is often required to rejuvenate the yellowed and grungy plastic cases of retrocomputing gear. One generally does well to know their enemy in order to fight it, though, which is where this guide to the chemistry of plastic yellowing and whitening (PDF) comes in handy.

“The Retrobright Mystery” was written and sent in to us by a high school student who goes by the name [Saltypretzel]. The paper begins with an excellent description of the chemistry of plastic yellowing. We had always heard that the yellowing in ABS, or acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, the plastic most commonly used for cases back in the day, was primarily caused by brominated compounds added to the plastic as flame retardants. It turns out that’s only a minor contributor, with the bulk of yellowing occurring thanks to a complex chain of reactions starting with free radicals liberated from the butadiene copolymer through a reaction requiring oxygen and energy.

Reactive radicals from the decomposing synthetic rubber, added to ABS to increase its flexibility, unroll the benzene ring in styrene copolymers to form a conjugated compound called 2-hydroxymuconic acid. The alternating double and single bonds in this compound tend to absorb light towards the blue end of the spectrum strongly, so the accumulation of 2-HMA in the plastic over time thus makes it reflect more and more yellow and red wavelengths, giving aged ABS its unhealthy bronze glow.

Luckily, just as ketchup smears and grass stains, both rich in conjugated compounds like lycopene and chlorophyll, can be bleached out of existence, so too can yellowed plastics. [Saltypretzel] notes that Retrobright, which contains a powerful dose of hydrogen peroxide, does its whitening trick by breaking the UV-absorbing double bonds in 2-HMA. There’s little that can be done about the embrittlement of the ABS caused by the breakdown of butadiene copolymers, but at least it’ll look good.

We found this guide quite comprehensive and instructive, and it should only help retrocomputing fans in their restoration efforts. For those less interested in the chemistry, [Bob Baddeley] published an overview of the yellowing of plastic and manufacturing steps to avoid it, and we covered the more practical considerations of Retrobright treatment too.

A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.

There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.

It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.

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MouSTer Brings USB To Retro Computers

Folks who like the take the old Amiga out for the occasional Sunday drive usually do it because they have wistful memories of the simpler times. Back when you could edit documents or view spreadsheets on a machine that had RAM measured in kilobytes instead of gigabytes. But even the most ardent retro computer aficionado usually allows for a bit of modern convenience.

Enter the mouSTer. This tiny device converts a common USB HID mouse into something older computers can understand. It even supports using Sony’s PlayStation 4 controller as a generic game pad. While the firmware is still getting tweaked, the team has confirmed its working on several classic machines and believe it should work on many more. Considering the prices that some of these old peripherals command on the second hand market, using a USB mouse or controller on your vintage computer isn’t just more convenient, but will likely be a lot cheaper.

Confirmed retrocomputing superfan [Drygol] is a member of the team working on mouSTer, and in a recent post to his retrohax blog, he talks a bit about what’s happened since his last update over the summer. He also talks a bit about the challenges they’ve faced to get it into production. Even if you’re not into poking around on vintage computers, there are lessons to be learned here about what it takes to move from a handful of prototypes to something you can actually sell to the public.

We especially liked the details about the mouSTer enclosure, or lack thereof. Originally [Drygol] says they were going to have the cases injection molded, but despite initial interest from a few companies they talked to, nobody ended up biting because it needed to be done with relatively uncommon low pressure injection. While 3D printing is still an option, the team ended up using clear heatshrink tubing to create a simple conformal protective shell over the electronics. Personally we think it looks great like this, but it sounds like this is only a temporary solution until something a bit more robust can be implemented.

As you might imagine we’ve seen DIY projects that aimed to bring modern input devices to vintage computers like the Atari ST, but the diminutive proportions of the mouSTer and the fact that it’s a turn-key product is sure to appeal to those who want to minimize headaches when working with their classic gear.

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The Origin Of Cut, Copy, And Paste

I’m always fascinated that someone designed just about everything you use, no matter how trivial it is. The keyboard you type on, the light switch you turn on, even the faucet handle. They don’t just spontaneously grow on trees, so some human being had to build it and probably had at least a hazy design in mind when they started it.

Some things are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember that someone had to dream them up to begin with. A friend of mine asked me the other day why we use Control+X and Control+V to manipulate the clipboard almost universally. Control+C for copy makes sense, of course, but it is still odd that it is virtually universal in an industry where everyone likes to reinvent the wheel. I wasn’t sure of the answer but figured it had to do with some of the user interface standards from IBM or Sun. Turns out, it is much older than that.

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Apple II Prints Off The Breaking News

These days, we’re alerted to the rise of Bitcoin and the fall of nations via little buzzes from the smartphones in our pocket. Go back fifty years or so and it was all a bit more romantic, with noisy teletype machines delivering hot tips straight to the newsroom for broadcast to the wider public. [Joshua Coleman] wanted a bit of that old fashioned charm, so set up a news printer at home with his old Apple II.

The Apple II in this case isn’t directly connected to the Internet. Instead, it talks to a modern Macintosh, acting as a serial terminal. The Macintosh then connects to a modern BBS that delivers news headlines over Telnet. The Apple II then routes the headlines as they come in to a beautiful Epson LQ-500 dot matrix printer, replete with vintage tractor feed paper. [Joshua] takes the time to highlight just what hardware is required, as well as how to set up the Apple II to redirect the serial output to the printer so the news automatically prints as it comes in.

It’s a fun and noisy way to stay up to date, and you can be sure that if you hear the printer really start going for it, you might want to switch on the TV for more information on just what’s going wrong at the present minute. Old computers may not have the grunt to really hang with the modern net, but they can make a charming interface for it; this SE/30 does a great job with Spotify, as an example. Video after the break.

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A Miniature VT102 Running A Miniature PDP11

We spend a lot of time looking at retrocomputing in the form of gaming and home computers, but it’s true to say that minicomputers are less common than hardware projects. Perhaps it’s the size, cost, or even relative rarity of the original machines, but DEC minicomputers are a bit unusual around here. [Sprite_TM] hasn’t bought us a PDP11 or a VT102 terminal, but he’s done the next best thing in the form of a miniature working VT102 that also conceals a PDE11 emulator. It runs Tetris, which was originally developed on a Russian clone of the PDP11 architecture, and the 2.1BSD operating system.

Powering it all is an ESP32 module, and the PDP11 emulator is the well-known SIMH software. Porting this to the slightly limited environment of the microcontroller required a few compromises, namely the network stack and the configuration interface. In a particularly clever move [Sprite_TM] enabled BSD networking by writing an ESP32 layer that takes network packets via SIMD directly from BSD. It includes its own DHCP client and wireless network configuration tool, allowing an ancient UNIX-derived operating system from the 1970s to connect to the 21st century Internet through an emulator with its network code stripped out.

The case is a masterwork in OpenSCAD, a complete VT102 unit in miniature with a tiny LCD screen that when printed on a resin printer is a remarkable facsimile of the real thing. It doesn’t have a keyboard counterpart, but even with a miniature Bluetooth ‘board it still looks pretty impressive. In the video below the break he boots it into 2.1BSD, and importantly since it is a server operating system, logs into it from his laptop and plays a game of Zork.

[Sprite_TM] has brought us so many impressive projects over the years using the ESP32 and other parts. Maybe you have a favorite, but for us it’s the PocketSprite Game Boy-like tiny handheld console.

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TRS-80 Model 100 Gets 64-Bit CPU And A Very Wide LCD

To say the TRS-80 Model 100 was ahead of its time would be something of an understatement. It had a high-quality mechanical keyboard, phenomenal battery life, plenty of I/O and expansion capabilities, and was actually small and light enough to easily carry around. While its layout might seem to be a bit dated to modern eyes, there’s little debate that it was one of the most successful and influential computers in history.

So it’s little surprise that [belsamber] thought the Model 100 might make an ideal platform for his mobile command line work. With a few modifications, naturally. While technically the nearly 40 year old portable could connect to a Linux computer as a simple serial terminal, its outdated and non-backlit LCD leaves a bit to be desired in 2021. But there’s little sense in upgrading the display if he’d still be saddled with the anemic Intel 80C85 motherboard, so he decided to clean house and replace everything.

Once stripped of the original hardware, the Model 100’s enclosure offered up plenty of room for a Pine A64 LTS single-board computer, four 18650 cells, and a 1920×480 ultra-wide LCD. While not a perfect match for the dimensions of the original panel, the new screen is an exceptionally close fit. The keyboard has been left intact, but rather than adding a QMK-compatible microcontroller to the mix, [belsamber] wired the matrix directly into the GPIO of the A64.

While we know some retro aficionados might shed a tear to see an iconic computer get gutted, [belsamber] mentions that nothing will go to waste; the parts he pulled from this machine will serve as spares for a second Model 100 he has in his collection. Besides, given the immense popularity of these machines, they aren’t exactly rare to begin with.

As an aside, we recently saw this same unique display used in a 3D printed desktop computer with distinctively retro-futuristic styling. We didn’t have miniature 4:1 ratio displays on our list of 2021 hardware predictions, but it seems they’re already making a strong showing.