One Man’s Trash Is… A Rare $60,000 Historical Computer

According to Smithsonian Magazine, a salvage company in London was cleaning out a property and found an odd-looking computer device. No one knew what it was, and they couldn’t find anything with a quick online search. The devices in question were two ultra-rare Q1 computers dating from the early 1970s.

While these machines looked formidable, they contained Intel 8008 CPUs but did have built-in screens, keyboards, and printers. The two machines had a few minutes of fame at Kingston University London and are now for sale. They will probably bring about $60,000 each. Not bad for salvage junk.

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A bald white man stands behind a table with an Apple II, a large green PCB, and a modular purple and black development board system. Atop the Apple II is what appears to be a smaller Apple II complete with beige case and brown fake keyboard.

Mini Apple IIe Now Fully Functional

Here at Hackaday, we love living in a future with miniaturized versions of our favorite retrocomputers. [James Lewis] has given us another with his fully functional Apple IIe from the Mega II chip.

When we last checked in on the Mega IIe, it was only just booting and had a ways to go before being a fully functional Apple II. We really love the modular dev board he designed to do the extensive debugging required to make this whole thing work. Each of the boards is connected with jumper pins, which [Lewis] admits would have been better as edge connectors since he should’ve known he’d be unplugging and replugging them more than he’d like.

A set of PCBs sits on a table. There is a logic analyzer plugged into one end that looks like a grey square. Three boards stick up at right angles from the main plane which consists of a purple square PCB with the IIe ROM and MEGA chips and a black rectangular PCB with four sets of headers for PCB modules to slot into.

This modular prototyping system paid dividends late in the project when a “MEGA bug” threatened the stability of the entire system. Since it was confined to the keyboard PCB, [Lewis] was able to correct the error and, swapping for the third revision of the board, everything that had been crashing the system now ran.

There were still some issues going to the final unified PCB that nearly made him give up on the project, but perseverance paid off in the end. Combining vintage chips and multiple RP2040s isn’t for the feint of heart.

Now that you have a more conveniently-sized Apple II, why not teach it some new tricks like digital photography or ChatGPT?

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The Golden Age Of Gadget Catalogs

Among Hackaday’s readership are likely to be many gadget enthusiasts who live for the latest electronics and who have obsessively followed gadget trends for most of their lives. You possess elite AliExpress-fu, and like the hipsters, you were into everything long before it was cool. It’s safe to say the Internet has revolutionized the world of the gadget freak, but in a time before even dial-up access there was another way into this most technophilic of pastimes. As soon as there was consumer electronics there were mail-order catalog companies slaking the thirst of the gadget-crazy, and [Cabel Sasser] is here with a look at both their heyday and their swansong.

A full page advert for a "Corporate cockpit" all-in-one wordprocessor computer.
Drew, just shut up and take my money!

He has a particular focus on the catalog produced during the 1980s by DAK Industries Inc, a North Hollywood California based company that was the work of an entrepreneur named Drew Kaplan. He presented a glittering array of the latest and greatest tech of the era, and packaged it with riveting descriptions and beautifully-shot glossy photographs. [Cabel] was hooked, and we would certainly have been too. There were digital watches with outrageous functionality, portable briefcase computers, novelty telephones, Hi-Fi components at knock-down prices, and plenty of cassette tapes to play in them.

Their signature was an engaging copy-writing style that really made you want the product, and here we enter an interesting story in itself. There was another mail order gadget company in the 1970s which used exactly the same formula but running full-page adverts, similar enough to be obviously connected in some way. Had DAK stolen the idea? Not quite, for these were the product of a man called Joseph Sugarman, who also ran a “Learn my formula for sales success” course. Drew Kaplan didn’t hesitate to attribute his success to the Sugarman course, leaving us with the surprising conclusion that there’s more to the “Learn my formula” business than simply making money from marks prepared to pay for the course.

Here at Hackaday we occasionally venture into purple prose for fun, but we’re not trying to sell you any consumer electronics. We can’t help a professional admiration for the copy-writing in these catalogs though, and since they’re all available for download from Internet Archive we’re going to spend a while wallowing in tech nostalgia. It’s a place we’ve been to before.

Inside The PET Keyboard

These days, you have a certain expectation for computer keys on a keyboard. Of course, there are variations and proponents of different mechanisms and noise levels. However, back in the late part of the 20th century, it was a different world. Computers came with a bewildering and sometimes befuddling array of keyboards. Since the IBM Selectric was the king of typewriters, we assumed the IBM PC keyboard would be spectacular, but it wasn’t. The PC Jr was even worse! Atari experimented with flat keyboards to save costs, and many computers had keys more reminiscent of calculator keys than you would imagine. The market voted. In general, a keyboard that wasn’t really a keyboard was the kiss of death for a computer. Case in point: the Commodore PET with its infamous chicklet keyboard, which gets a detailed examination in a recent post from [Norbert Landsteiner].

The PET keyboard gets some bad rap due to software limitations. Because of this, some games would use their own scan routines, and [Norbert] has worked on emulation able to accommodate software that wants to read the hardware directly. The resulting insights into the old keyboard is very interesting. For example, you can press more than one key at once. The result? The answer to that question takes up about half the post.

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PCMCIA Flash Card Gives Up Its Secrets Thanks To Retro Gear

There are two ways to recover data from an obsolete storage medium. One way is to pull out all the tools in the hacker’s kit — with logic analyzers, oscilloscopes, and bit-banged software in a desperate attempt to reverse engineer the original protocol. The other way is to have a really, really deep junk bin that just happens to contain exactly the right pieces that would have been used decades ago.

For recovering data from a 25-year-old PCMCIA memory card, [Dave] from Vintage Apparatus chose the latter method. But to be fair, characterizing the stash of gear he had to select from as a “junk bin” is pretty insulting. It’s more like a museum of retro technology, which just so happened to hold  Toshiba Libretto, a subnotebook computer hailing from the late 1990s. The machine sports a pair of PCMCIA slots and was just the thing to read the data from the old 32 MB SanDisk flash card, which once lived in a backpack-mounted GPS system for surveyors.

If this hack sounds as easy as plugging things into an old computer, you’d be right — if you just happen to have a stack of floppies containing the Windows 98 drivers for said things. So [Dave]’s task became a game of finding the right combination of cards that already had the drivers installed and would provide the connectivity needed to get the data off the flash card. Between a suspiciously crunchy-sounding floppy drive and an Ethernet card dongle badly in need of some contact cleaner, cobbling together the right hardware was a bit of a chore. After that, a lot of the hack was [Dave] just remembering how we used to do things back in the day, with the eventual solution being transferring over the files to an FTP server on a Raspberry Pi.

The video below tells the whole saga, but the real treat might just be the Vintage Apparatus collection of gear. Incidentally, we really like [Dave]’s idea for storing associated bits and bobs.

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Hackaday Links: July 16, 2023

Last week, we noted an attempt to fix a hardware problem with software, which backfired pretty dramatically for Ford when they tried to counter the tendency for driveshafts to fall out of certain of their cars by automatically applying the electric parking brake.

This week, the story is a little different, but still illustrates how software and hardware can interact unpredictably, especially in the automotive space. The story centers on a 2015 Optima recall for a software update for the knock sensor detection system. We can’t find the specifics, but if this recall on a similar Kia model in the same model year range and a class-action lawsuit are any indication, the update looks like it would have made the KSDS more sensitive to worn connecting rod damage, and forced the car into “limp home mode” to limit damage to the engine if knocking is detected.

A clever solution to a mechanical problem? Perhaps, but because the Kia owner in the story claims not to have received the snail-mail recall notice, she got no warning when her bearings started wearing out. Result: a $6,000 bill for a new engine, which she was forced to cover out of pocket. Granted, this software fix isn’t quite as egregious as Ford’s workaround for weak driveshaft mounting bolts, and there may very well have been a lack of maintenance by the car’s owner. But if you’re a Kia mechanical engineer, wouldn’t your first instinct have been to fix the problem causing the rod bearings to wear out, rather than papering over the problem with software?

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CP/M Porting In A Few Hours

If you’ve ever wanted to watch someone bring CP/M up on a new system and you have a couple of hours to spare, check out the recorded live stream of [Poking Technology]. The system in question is an Agon Light, a modern board with a Z-80-derived CPU. If you want to get right to the porting part, you might want to skip about 31 minutes of the nearly 2.5-hour video.

The first half hour is more about the built-in assembler and the board in general. If you’ve ever ported CP/M before, you know it isn’t as hard as bootstrapping a modern operating system. There are two major things you need: A BIOS, which is specific to your machine, and a BDOS, which is usually taken verbatim from the operating system sources. Your programs typically call one of the 40 or so functions in the BDOS.

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