Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers

Computer games have been around about as long as computers have. And though it may be hard to believe, Zork, a text-based adventure game, was the Fortnite of its time. But Zork is more than that. For portability and size reasons, Zork itself is written in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), makes heavy use of the brand-new concept of object-oriented programming, and runs on a virtual machine. All this back in 1979. They used every trick in the book to pack as much of the Underground Empire into computers that had only 32 kB of RAM. But more even more than a technological tour de force, Zork is an unmissable milestone in the history of computer gaming. But it didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module
DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module

The computer revolution had just taken a fierce hold during the second World War, and showed no sign of subsiding during the 1950s and 1960s. More affordable computer systems were becoming available for purchase by businesses as well as universities. MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was fortunate to have ties to ARPA, which gave MIT’s LCS and AI labs (formerly part of Project MAC) access to considerable computing resources, mostly in the form of DEC PDP systems.

The result: students at the MIT Dynamic Modeling Group (part of LCS) having access to a PDP-10 KA10 mainframe — heavy iron at the time. Though this PDP-10 was the original 1968 model with discrete transistor Flip Chip modules and wire-wrapping, it had been heavily modified, adding virtual memory and paging support to expand the original 1,152 kB of core memory. Running the MIT-developed Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) OS, it was a highly capable multi-user system.

Naturally, it got mostly used for playing games.
Continue reading “Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers”

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!

Marty! You’ve Gotta Come Back With Me!

Like any good plan, you should always start with the intention to build a time machine. That way if your future self succeeds, your current self doesn’t have to worry about actually doing it!

Well, unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out for hosts of [Toymaker], but they have managed to make a pretty authentic Telecom Time Machine instead!

What they’ve created is something called a “dumb terminal”. Back in the days of yore before personal computers existed, if you wanted to get “online” you would have to do so at a dumb terminal. It’s essentially a monochrome monitor, a keyboard, and a serial port. You would have to actually connect to the mainframe to do anything — but back then, you couldn’t just hook up a modem — oh no, you had to use an acoustic coupler to connect. You had to play sounds through your telephone in order to communicate with the mainframe. How’s that for a bit of history with your morning coffee!?

Continue reading “Marty! You’ve Gotta Come Back With Me!”

Retrotechtacular: The Mother Of All Tech Demos

Most bits of a computer we take for granted today – the mouse, hypertext, video conferencing, and word processing – were all invented by one team of researchers at Stanford in the late 60s. When the brains behind the operation, [Douglas Engelbart], showed this to 1000 computer researchers, the demo became known as The Mother of all Demos. Luckily, you can check out this demo in its entirety on YouTube.

Even though [Englebart]’s demo looks incredibly dated today, it was revolutionary at the time. This was the first demonstration of the computer mouse (side note: they call the cursor a ‘bug’), a chorded keyboard, and so many other technologies we take for granted today. During the presentation, [Englebart] was connected to the SDS 940 computer via the on-line system 30 miles away from Stanford. Yes, this pre-ARPANET, what is normally cited as the precursor to the Internet.

Sadly, most of [Englebart]’s researchers became disillusioned with the time sharing /mainframe paradigm shown in this demo. Those researchers wanted a more decentralized means of computing, so they went off to Xerox PARC where they helped create the first personal computers. Still, most of the ideas from 1968, such as the mouse, hypertext, and word processing, were in those little Xerox boxes.

On a more philosophical note, [Englebart] began his demo with the question, “If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display, backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?” In the 44 years since this Mother of all Demos, we’ve gotten to the point where we already have a computer on our desks all day that is able to do any task imaginable, and it certainty improved our quality of life.

There are a few great resources covering the Mother of all Demos, including the Douglas Engelbart Institute’s history page and the Stanford Mousesite. Looking back, it’s not only amazing how far we’ve come, but also how little has actually changed.

Happy Birthday Internet: 5 History Videos

Leonard-Kleinrock-and-IMP1

National Geographic has pegged September 2, 2009 as the 40th anniversary of the Internet. They do not cite their source and our source doesn’t make the same claim. But, August 30, 1969 is the date the first Interface Message Processor was delivered to the Arpanet. The IMP is what allowed different computer networks to talk to each other and so it follows that September 2 is probably an acceptable date to celebrate.

To commemorate this glorious day we’re sharing some of our favorite History of the Internet videos. Start with the National Geographic video and then take in the geeky, the new, the old, and the simple. Continue reading “Happy Birthday Internet: 5 History Videos”