Making Intel Mad, Retrocomputing Edition

Intel has had a deathgrip on the PC world since the standardization around the software and hardware available on IBM boxes in the 90s. And if you think you’re free of them because you have an AMD chip, that’s just Intel’s instruction set with a different badge on the silicon. At least AMD licenses it, though — in the 80s there was another game in town that didn’t exactly ask for permission before implementing, and improving upon, the Intel chips available at the time.

The NEC V20 CPU was a chip that was a drop-in replacement for the Intel 8088 and made some performance improvements to it as well. Even though the 186 and 286 were available at the time of its release, this was an era before planned obsolescence as a business model was king so there were plenty of 8088 systems still working and relevant that could take advantage of this upgrade. In fact, the V20 was able to implement some of the improved instructions from these more modern chips. And this wasn’t an expensive upgrade either, with kits starting around $16 at the time which is about $50 today, adjusting for inflation.

This deep dive into the V20 isn’t limited to a history lesson and technological discussion, though. There’s also a project based on Arduino which makes use of the 8088 with some upgrades to support the NEC V20 and a test suite for a V20 emulator as well.

If you had an original IBM with one of these chips, though, things weren’t all smooth sailing for this straightforward upgrade at the time. A years-long legal battle ensued over the contents of the V20 microcode and whether or not it constituted copyright infringement. Intel was able to drag the process out long enough that by the time the lawsuit settled, the chips were relatively obsolete, leaving the NEC V20 to sit firmly in retrocomputing (and legal) history.

The IBM PC: Brainchild Of A Misfit

We’ve read a number of histories of the IBM PC and lived through that time, too. But we enjoyed [Gareth Edwards’] perspective in a post entitled The Misfit who Built the IBM PC. The titular character is Don Estridge, a decidedly atypical IBM employee who was instrumental in creating the personal computer market as we know it.

It’s not that IBM invented the personal computer — far from it. But the birth of the PC brought personal computers to the mainstream, especially in offices, and — much to IBM’s chagrin — opened up the market for people to make add-on cards for printers, videos, and other accessories.

IBM was a computer juggernaut in the late 1970s. Its divisions were the size of other companies, and some have compared it to a collection of mafia families. The company was heavily invested in big computers, and management was convinced that personal computing was, at most, an avenue to video games and most likely a fad.

Known as a conservative company, the PC project drew from a number of corporate misfits who had been technically successful but often punished for coloring outside the lines. They developed a prototype. The post quotes one of the people involved as saying, “The system would do two things. It would draw an absolutely beautiful picture of a nude lady, and it would show a picture of a rocket ship blasting off the screen. We decided to show the Management Committee the rocket ship.” Wise choice.

That’s just the kind of tidbit in this post, and if you have any interest in computer history of the 1980s, you’ll definitely want to check it out. Estridge died in 1985, so he didn’t get to see much of the result of the market he opened up. Of course, there were many other players who appear in this story. The PC has many parents, as you might expect.

We’ve done our own recounting of this story. However, we tend to obsess more over the internals.

Aiken’s Secret Computing Machines

This neat video from the [Computer History Archives Project] documents the development of the Aiken Mark I through Mark IV computers. Partly shrouded in the secrecy of World War II and the Manhattan Project effort, the Mark I, “Harvard’s Robot Super Brain”, was built and donated by IBM, and marked their entry into what we would now call the computer industry.

Numerous computing luminaries used the Mark I, aside from its designer Howard Aiken. Grace Hopper, Richard Bloch, and even John von Neumann all used the machine. It was an electromechanical computer, using gears, punch tape, relays, and a five horsepower motor to keep it all running in sync. If you want to dig into how it actually worked, the deliciously named patent “Calculator” goes into some detail.

The video goes on to tell the story of Aiken’s various computers, the rift between Harvard and IBM, and the transition of computation from mechanical to electronic. If this is computer history that you don’t know, it’s well worth a watch. (And let us know if you also think that they’re using computer-generated speech to narrate it.)

If “modern” computer history is more your speed, check out this documentary about ENIAC.

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Retrotechtacular: The IBM 7070

If you think of IBM mainframe computers, you most likely are thinking of the iconic S/360 or the slightly newer S/370. But what about the 7070 from 1958? It had transistors! It didn’t, however, use binary. Instead, it was a decimal-architecture machine. You can see a lost video of the machine below.

It was originally slated to upgrade the older IBM 650 and 705 computers. However, it wasn’t compatible with either, so IBM had to roll out the IBM7080, which was compatible, at least, with the 705. Both machines could run 650 code via emulation.

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Bringing An IBM Butterfly Laptop Back From The Dead

Among all the laptops produced over the last few decades, there is one which rises above the rest and which has retained an appeal long after its meager computing resources became obsolete. It’s the IBM 701c, the famous “Butterfly” laptop, whose fold-out keyboard still gives it star  quality, and [John Graham-Cumming] has documented the restoration of one from the tattered remains of two scrap examples.

The two laptops in question were someone else’s never-started project, and were in a sorry state. The flexible cables were in poor condition, and the 1990s Ni-MH batteries had leaked and damaged both circuits and case. We were unaware that NiMH leakage could damage plastic, but the parts of these machines were significantly damaged.

One had a working mainboard, the other a working modem card. One keyboard was in pretty bad shape, the other was complete. Of the pair there was a double super twisted nematic (DSTN) display and a more contemporary thin film transistor (TFT) panel. Be thankful if you have never had to use a DSTN laptop, as they were truly awful. From this pile of parts a working machine could be made, and with a new CMOS battery, that cable repair, and a repaint, he was ready. Or at least, as he says, ready for 1995.

This isn’t the first 701c restoration we’ve seen, and within reason, it’s even possible to give them a retro processor upgrade.

The Hobbes OS/2 Archive Will Shut Down In April

The Hobbes OS/2 Archive is a large collection of OS/2 software that has been publicly available for many years, even as OS/2 itself has mostly faded into obscurity. Yet now it would appear that the entity behind the Hobbes OS/2 Archive, the Information & Communication Technologies department at the New Mexico State University, has decided to call it quits — with the site going permanently offline on April 15th, 2024.

Fortunately, from a cursory glance around the comment sections over at Hacker News and other places, it seems that backup efforts have already been made, and the preservation of the archive’s contents should be secure at this point in time. Regardless, it is always a shame to lose such a central repository, especially since IBM’s OS/2 operating system is still anything but dead. Whether for hobbyist, industrial or commercial use, there is still a vibrant community around today, as we noted in 2019 already in relation to the NYC’s subway system.

Beyond downloaded copies and boxed CDs bought on EBay, you can even get a modernized version of OS/2 called ArcaOS, which even comes with commercial support. Whatever the fate is of the Hobbes OS/2 Archive’s data, we hope it finds a loving new home somewhere.

How IBM Stumbled Onto RISC

There are a ton of inventions out in the world that are almost complete accidents, but are still ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives. Things like bubble wrap which was originally intended to be wallpaper, or even superglue, a plastic compound whose sticky properties were only discovered later on. IBM found themselves in a similar predicament in the 1970s after working on a type of mainframe computer made to be a phone switch. Eventually the phone switch was abandoned in favor of a general-purpose processor but not before they stumbled onto the RISC processor which eventually became the IBM 801.

As [Paul] explains, the major design philosophy at the time was to use a large amount of instructions to do specific tasks within the processor. When designing the special-purpose phone switch processor, IBM removed many of these instructions and then, after the project was cancelled, performed some testing on the incomplete platform to see how it performed as a general-purpose computer. They found that by eliminating all but a few instructions and running those without a microcode layer, the processor performance gains were much more than they would have expected at up to three times as fast for comparable hardware.

These first forays into the world of simplified processor architecture both paved the way for the RISC platforms we know today such as ARM and RISC-V, but also helped CISC platforms make tremendous performance gains as well. In fact, RISC-V is a direct descendant from these early RISC processors, with three intermediate designs between then and now. If you want to play with RISC-V yourself, our own [Jonathan Bennett] took a look at a recent RISC-V SBC and its software this past March.

Thanks to [Stephen] for the tip!

Photo via Wikimedia Commons