The Other First Computer: Konrad Zuse And The Z3

Bavarian Alps, Dec. 1945:

Since 1935, Berlin engineer Konrad Zuse has spent his entire career developing a series of automatic calculators, the first of their kind in the world: the Z1, Z2, Z3, S1, S2, and Z4. He accomplished this with a motley group of engineers, technicians, and mathematicians who were operating against all odds. With all the hardships and shortages of war and the indifference of their peers, the fact that they succeeded at all is a testament to their dedication and resourcefulness. And with the end of the war, more hardships have been piling on.

Two years ago, during the Battle of Berlin, bombers completely destroyed the Zuse family home and adjacent workshops on the Methfesselstraße, where they performed research and fabrication. All of the calculators, engineering drawings, and notes were lost in the rubble, save for the new Z4 nearing completion across the canal in another workshop on Oranienstraße. In the midst of all this, Zuse married in January of this year, but was immediately plunged into another crisis when the largest Allied air raid of the war destroyed the Oranienstraße workshop in February. They managed to rescue the Z4 from the basement, and miraculously arranged for it to be shipped out of the Berlin. Zuse, his family, and colleagues followed soon thereafter. Here and there along the escape route, they managed to complete the final assembly and testing of the Z4 — even giving a demonstration to the Aerodynamics Research Institute in Göttingen.

On arrival here in the Bavarian Alps, Zuse found a ragtag collection of refugees, including Dr Werner Von Braun and a team of 100 rocket scientists from Peenemünde. While everyone here is struggling just to stay alive and find food and shelter, Zuse is further worried with keeping his invention safe from prying eyes. Tensions have risen further upon circulation of a rumor that an SS leader, after three bottles of Cognac, let slip that his troops aren’t here to protect the scientists but to kill them all if the Americans or French approach.

In the midst of all this madness, Zuse and his wife Gisela welcomed a baby boy, and have taken up residence in a Hinterstein farmhouse. Zuse spends his time working on something called a Plankalkül, explaining that it is a mathematical language to allow people to communicate with these new machines. His other hobby is making woodblocks of the local scenery, and he plans to start a company to sell his devices once the economy recovers. There is no doubt that Konrad Zuse will soon be famous and known around the world as the father of automatic computers. Continue reading “The Other First Computer: Konrad Zuse And The Z3”

Hershey Fonts: Not Chocolate, The Origin Of Vector Lettering

Over the past few years, I kept bumping into something called Hershey fonts. After digging around, I found a 1967 government report by a fellow named Dr. Allen Vincent Hershey. Back in the 1960s, he worked as a physicist for the Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, studying the interaction between ship hulls and water. His research was aided by the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC), which was built by IBM and was one of the fastest computers in the world when it was first installed in 1954.

The NORC’s I/O facilities, such as punched cards, magnetic tape, and line printers, were typical of the era. But the NORC also had an ultra-high-speed optical printer. This device had originally been developed by the telecommunications firm Stromberg-Carlson for the Social Security Administration in order to quickly print massive amounts of data directly upon microfilm.

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Fran Finds Four Foot Alphanumeric Displays From 1910

Video blogger and display technology guru [Fran Blanche] has discovered a splendid retro-tech alphanumeric display from 1910. (Video, embedded below.)

We have always enjoyed her forays into old and unusual displays, including her project researching and reverse engineering an Apollo DSKY unit. This time [Fran] has dug up an amazing billboard from the early 20th century. It was built by the Rice Electric Display Company of Dayton Ohio, and operated in Herald Square for about two years. Requiring $400,000 in 1910-US-dollars to build, this was clearly an Herculean effort for its day and no doubt is the first example of selling advertising time on a computer-controller billboard. It boasts characters that are about 1.3 m tall and 1 m wide which can display letters, numbers, and various punctuation and symbols. These are arrayed into a 3-line 18-character matrix that is about 27 x 4 meters, and that’s up only a third of the total billboard, itself an illuminated and dynamic work of art.

Diagram Depicting the 3×18 Character Display

There are quite a few tantalizing details in the video, but a few that jumped out at us are the 20,000 light bulbs, the 40 Hz display update rate, the 150 km of wire used and the three month long installation time. We would really like to learn more about these two 7.5 kW motorized switch controllers, how were they programmed, how were the character segments arranged, what were their shapes?

In the video, you can see triangles arranged in some pattern not unlike more modern sixteen segment displays, although as [Fran] points out, Mr Rice’s characters are more pleasing. We hope [Fran] can tease out more details for a future video. If you have any ideas or knowledge about this display, please put them in the comments section below. Spoiler alert after the video…

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Ethernet At 40: From A Napkin Sketch To Multi-Gigabit Links

September 30th, 1980 is the day when Ethernet was first commercially introduced, making it exactly forty years ago this year. It was first defined in a patent filed by Xerox as a 10 Mb/s networking protocol in 1975, introduced to the market in 1980 and subsequently standardized in 1983 by the IEEE as IEEE 802.3. Over the next thirty-seven years, this standard would see numerous updates and revisions.

Included in the present Ethernet standard are not just the different speed grades from the original 10 Mbit/s to today’s maximum 400 Gb/s speeds, but also the countless changes to the core protocol to enable these ever higher data rates, not to mention new applications of Ethernet such as power delivery and backplane routing. The reliability and cost-effectiveness of Ethernet would result in the 1990 10BASE-T Ethernet standard (802.3i-1990) that gradually found itself implemented on desktop PCs.

With Ethernet these days being as present as the presumed luminiferous aether that it was named after, this seems like a good point to look at what made Ethernet so different from other solutions, and what changes it had to undergo to keep up with the demands of an ever-more interconnected world. Continue reading “Ethernet At 40: From A Napkin Sketch To Multi-Gigabit Links”

A Double Shot Of Vintage Computing This Weekend

Going anywhere interesting this weekend? No, of course you aren’t. None of us are. So why not tune your computer or smartphone to the online stream of one of the virtual Vintage Computer Festivals that will be taking place between October 10th and 11th. Granted only one of them is in English, but we’ve often thought of blinky lights as something of a universal language anyway.

Vintage Computer Festival East, which normally would have happened in the Spring, has finally decided that 2020 is a wash for any in-person meetings and has decided to switch over to virtual. Interestingly, it sounds like they’ll be live streaming at least some of the exhibitor tables from the InfoAge museum in New Jersey where the physical event would have been held. So from an attendee perspective, the virtual event should be a bit closer to the real thing than if everyone had to figure out their own streaming setups from home. Presentations will run from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Eastern on both days.

On the other side of the globe, Vintage Computing Festival Berlin will be broadcasting their own exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. In an interesting use of the virtual format, they’ll be giving viewers an intimate look at vintage computers and technology that’s held in private collections, museums, or otherwise inaccessible storage and research facilities. Content will be streaming from 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM CEST on both days, with a musical performance overnight.

While there’s an understandable tendency to bemoan the trend of moving events online in the face of COVID-19, there are certainly situations where the format can actually bring you more content than you’d have access to otherwise. Especially when they end up being free, as is the case with both of these Festivals. We’re still eagerly awaiting the point where we can get back to attending these events in person, but we certainly aren’t complaining when so many incredible people are willing to put on these presentations without seeing a dime.

Recreating Early Apple Mice For The Modern Era

At a time when practical graphical user interfaces were only just becoming a reality on desktop computers, Apple took a leap of faith and released one of the first commercially available mice back in 1983. It was criticized as being little more than a toy back then, but we all know how that particular story ends.

While the Apple G5431 isn’t that first mouse, it’s not too far removed. So much so that [Stephen Arsenault] believed it was worthy of historic preservation. Whether you want to print out a new case to replace a damaged original or try your hand at updating the classic design with modern electronics, his CAD model of this early computer peripheral is available under the Creative Commons license for anyone who wants it.

The model is exceptionally well detailed.

[Stephen] tells us that he was inspired to take on this project after he saw new manufactured cases for the G5431 popping up online, including a variant made out of translucent plastic. Realizing that a product from 1986 is old enough that Apple (probably) isn’t worried about people cloning it, he set out to produce this definitive digital version of the original case components for community use.

With these 3D models available, [Stephen] hopes that others will be inspired to try and modify the iconic design of the G5431. Perhaps by creating a Bluetooth version, or adding the ability to right-click. Considering we’ve already seen custom PCBs for mice, it’s hardly a stretch. We’d love to see somebody take him up on the offer, but even if not, the digital preservation of computer history is always welcome.

BeOS: The Alternate Universe’s Mac OS X

You’re likely familiar with the old tale about how Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple and started his own company, NeXT. Apple then bought NeXT and their technologies and brought Jobs back as CEO once again. However, Jobs’ path wasn’t unique, and the history of computing since then could’ve gone a whole lot different.

In 1990, Jean-Louis Gassée, who replaced Jobs in Apple as the head of Macintosh development, was also fired from the company. He then also formed his own computer company with the help of another ex-Apple employee, Steve Sakoman. They called it Be Inc, and their goal was to create a more modern operating system from scratch based on the object-oriented design of C++, using proprietary hardware that could allow for greater media capabilities unseen in personal computers at the time.

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