The Interesting Fate Of Kenya’s First Computers

If you are an enthusiast for 1950s computer hardware, you are probably out of luck when it comes to owning a machine of your own. Your best chance will be to join the staff of one of the various museums that preserve and operate these machines, at which you can indulge your passion to your heart’s content. But what if we told you that there is a 1950s computer available for pick-up at any time, to whoever is prepared to go and get it and has suitable transport? You’d be making plans straight away, wouldn’t you? The computer in question is real, but there’s a snag. It’s at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just at the start of international waters off the coast of Kenya. The story of Kenya’s early computing and how the machine met its fate is the subject of a fascinating article from a year or two ago on owaahh.com that had us riveted from start to finish.

Like large state-owned enterprises worldwide, the Kenyan railway and power monopolies were among the first commercial customers for computing. In the final years of the British Empire, those were ordered from a company in London, International Computers & Tabulators, and it was their ICT1202 that served the railway company. The article goes into detail about the history of the company’s East African operation, the problems of running a tube-based computer in an African climate without air-conditioners, and the 1202’s demise and replacement. We’ll not spill the beans here on how the computer ended up on the seabed and how its replacement ended up being spirited away to China, for that you’ll have to read it all. It’s worth saying, the author also has a personal website in which he goes into much more detail about his experience with computers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Not had enough ancient computer tech? A couple of years ago we toured the primordial electronic computer, Colossus, and also took a look at the National Museum Of Computing that houses it.

From Cop Car Data Terminal, To Retro Computer

It is possible that you will have lived your life without ever coming into contact with a Motorola MDT9100-T. The data terminal of choice for use in police cars across the globe was a computer with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard, a small CRT display, a mainboard sporting an Intel 386SX processor, and a custom version of Windows 3.1. [Trammell Hudson] and some friends from NYC Resistor scored some MDT9100s in an online auction and found them to be just too good an opportunity not to crack them open and see what could be done.

The custom Windows install could be bypassed with a DOS prompt for some period demoscene action, but [Trammell] wanted more. The 386SX wasn’t even quick when it was new, and this computer deserved the power of a BeagleBone! A custom cape was created on a prototyping cape to interface with the MDT9100 header carrying both keyboard and video. A bit of detective work revealed the display to be a 640×480 pixel mono VGA. The ‘Bone’s LVDS output can drive VGA through a resistor ladder DAC with the aid of an appropriate device tree overlay. The keyboard was then taken care of with a Teensy working as a USB device, resulting in a working Linux computer in the shell of an MDT9100.

It’s always good to see old technology brought up to date. Amusingly a couple of years ago we reported on the death of VGA, but retro projects like this one mean it’ll be a long time before we’ve heard the last of it.

Great Beginnings for Vintage Computing in Seattle; VCF PNW

The pitch to my wife was simple: “Feel like spending the weekend in Seattle?” That’s how I ended up at the inaugural Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest last weekend, and I’m glad we made the five-hour drive into The Big City to check it out. Hackaday is a VCF sponsor, after all, so it seemed like a great excuse to make the trip. That it ended up being two consecutive days of great Seattle weather was only icing on the cake of being able to spend time with fellow retro computer aficionados and their dearest bits of old hardware, in a great museum dedicated to keeping computer history alive and accessible.

The fact that Seattle, home of Microsoft, Amazon, and dozens of other tech companies, has until now been left out of the loop in favor of VCF East in New Jersey and VCF West in Mountain View seems strange, but judging by the reception, VCF PNW is here to stay and poised to grow. There were 20 exhibitors for this go around, showing off everything from reanimated PDP-11 and Altair 8800 control panels to TRS-80s from Model 1 through to the CoCo. Almost every class of reasonably transportable retro hardware was represented, as well as some that pushed the portability envelope, like a working PDP-8 and a huge Symbolics 3640 LISP workstation.

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Resurrecting An Amiga CD32

As an editor on Amiga magazines in a previous life, this is kind of bittersweet. [RetroManCave] was donated an Amiga CD32 games system, and it is trying to resurrect it. If you’ve not heard of it, the CD32 was a 1993 games console based on the Amiga home computer system. It was the last gasp for Commodore, the beleaguered company behind the Amiga. In this first video of a series, they take the system apart, take you through what’s inside and boot it up. The system boots, but there is some sort of problem with the video sync, and they will be taking a closer look at fixing that next. We have featured a couple of similar projects from [RetroManCave] before, such as their brain transplant on a Big Trak toy and Commodore 64 fix. This video (after the break) is worth a watch if you are curious about old systems like this, want some tips on resurrecting old hardware or just want to shed a tear as your misspent youth is torn apart before your eyes.

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Looking Back at Microsoft Bob

Every industry has at least one. Automobiles had the Edsel. PC Hardware had the IBM PCJr and the Microchannel bus. In the software world, there’s Bob. If you don’t remember him, Bob was Microsoft’s 1995 answer to why computers were so darn hard to use. [LGR] gives us a nostalgic look back at Bob and concludes that we hardly knew him.

Bob altered your desktop to be a house instead of a desk. He also had helpers including the infamous talking paper clip that suffered slings and arrows inside Microsoft Office long after Bob had been put to rest.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: The Minimalist Z80 Computer

The best projects always seem to come from eBay. A few weeks ago, we found a few tiles meant for gigantic LED panel installations, and fifty bucks got you ten tiles. That eBay auction is now sold out. A while ago, [Just4Fun] realized he could build a Z80 microcomputer with $4 worth of parts from everyone’s favorite online auction house. The result is a $4 Z80 home computer, and a great Hackaday Prize entry to boot.

So, what do he need to build a retrocomputer loaded up with Forth, CP/M, and Basic? A CPU is a necessity, and [Just4Fun] found a Z80 (technically a Z84C00) for just a bit more than a dollar. A computer will need some RAM too, and a 128 kiB parallel SRAM was just the ticket for another dollar.

Here’s where things get a bit more interesting. Where the retrocomputers of yore were loaded up with glue logic, PLAs, or other weird chips, modern technology has come a long way. Instead of a massive amount of glue, [Just4Fun] is using an ATmega32A for all the I/O, address decoding, and a serial terminal.

The ATmega thrown into this cornucopia of vintage chips is itself more than a decade old, but it does have 40 pins and 32 kiB of Flash. That’s enough to ‘virtualize’ all the peripherals you’d need on a Z80 bus and provide the clock signal for the rest of the computer.

This home computer was originally designed and laid out on a solderless breadboard, but [WestfW] managed to stuff this all onto a small PCB. That’s a cheap computer that gets you all the retrocomputing goodies, and it’s something that’s just random enough to be a perfect entry for the Anything Goes portion of the Hackaday Prize.

Amiga Gets a PS/2 Keyboard Port

Name any retrocomputer — Apple II, Sinclair, even TRS-80s — and you’ll find a community that’s deeply committed to keeping it alive and kicking. It’s hard to say which platform has the most rabid fans, but we’d guess Commodore is right up there, and the Amiga aficionados seem particularly devoted. Which is where this Amiga PS/2 mouse port comes from.

The Amiga was a machine that was so far ahead of its time that people just didn’t get it. It was a true multimedia machine before multimedia was even a thing, capable of sound and graphics that hold up pretty well to this day. From the looks of [jtsiomb]’s workstation, he’s still putting his Amiga to good use, albeit with an inconvenient amount of cable-swapping each time he needs to use it. The remedy this, [jtsiomb] put together an emulator that translates scancodes from an external PS/2 keyboard into Amiga keyboard signals. Embedded inside the Amiga case where it can intercept the internal keyboard connector, the emulator is an ATmega168 that does a brute-force translation by way of lookup tables. A switch on the back allows him to choose the internal keyboard or his PS/2 keyboard via a KVM switch.

Are Amigas really still relevant? As of two years ago, one was still running an HVAC system for a school. We’re not sure that’s a testament to the machine or more a case of bureaucratic inertia, but it’s pretty impressive either way.

[via r/electronics]