Automatic Microfiche Scanner Digitizes Docs

While the concept might seem quaint to us today, microfiche was once a very compelling way to store and distribute documents. By optically shrinking them down to just a few percent of their original size, hundreds of pages could be stored on a piece of high-resolution film. A box of said films could store the equivalent of several gigabytes of text and images, and reading them back only required a relatively simple projection machine.

As [Joerg Hoppe] explains in the write-up for his automatic microfiche scanner, companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) made extensive use of this technology to distribute manuals, schematics, and even source code to their service departments in the 70s and 80s. Luckily, that means hard copies of all this valuable information still exist in excellent condition decades after DEC published it. The downside, of course, is that microfiche viewers aren’t exactly something you can pick up at the local Big Box electronics store these days. To make this information accessible to current and future generations, it needs to be digitized.

The camera panning over a full DEC microfiche sheet.

[Joerg] notes there are commercial services that would do this for you, but the prices are just too high to be practical for the hobbyist. The same for turn-key microfiche scanners. Which is why he’s developed this hardware and software system specifically to digitize DEC documents. The user enters in the information written on the top of the microfiche into the software, and then places it onto the machine itself which is based on a cheap 3D printer.

The device moves a Canon DSLR camera and appropriate magnifying optics in two dimensions over the film, using the Z axis to fine-tune the focus, and then commands the camera to take an image of each page. These are then passed through various filters to clean up the image, and compiled into PDFs that can be easily viewed on modern hardware. The digital documents can be further run though optical character recognition (OCR) so the text can be easily searched and manipulated. In the video after the break you can see that the whole process is rather involved, but once the settled into the workflow, [Joerg] says his scanner can digitize 100 pages in around 10 minutes.

A machine like this is invaluable if you’ve got a trove of microfiche documents to get through, but if you’ve just got a sheet or two you’d like to take a peek at, [CuriousMarc] put together a simple rig using a digital microscope and a salvaged light box that should work in a pinch.

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Examples of ZX81 computer game screens

The Labor Of Love That Is Recovering Lost Software

At the beginning of the home computer revolution, the humble compact cassette was far and away the most popular choice for microcomputer data storage, especially on the European continent. As a volunteer at the Museum of Computing, [Keith] was instrumental in recovering and archiving the early works of Roger Dymond, a pioneering developer of early computer software in the United Kingdom.

In his video, [Keith] goes to great lengths detailing the impact that Roger Dymond had on the early home computing scene. After being let go from his council apprenticeship, Roger turned his attention to developing games for the ZX81, and later the ZX Spectrum. With the help of his family, he went on to run a moderately successful mail-order games publishing venture for several years. Increasing advertising costs and a crowded development scene saw Roger’s business become nonviable by 1983, but not before developing several gambling-style games and a standout Space Invaders clone.

Fast forward to 2021, and while some of Roger’s Spectrum software had been archived, much had been marked as ‘missing’ by online archivists. After further research, [Keith] realized that another potentially important tape had been forgotten about. ‘Games Compendium’ for the ZX81 had been completely lost to time, with the only evidence that it had ever existed coming from a 1983 advert in ‘Sinclair User’ magazine. Being written for the earlier model ZX81, the compendium would undoubtedly be of interest to software archivists and game historians.

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Hey, MiSTer Emulator, Gimme Almost Any Classic Platform!

I’m back with another of the talks from Hackerspace Gent’s NewLine conference, fresh from my weekend of indulgence quaffing fine Belgian food and beers while mixing with that country’s hacker community. This time it’s an overview from [Michael Smith] of the MiSTer project, a multi-emulator using an FPGA to swap out implementations of everything from an early PDP minicomputer to an 80486SX PC.

At its heart is a dev board containing an Intel Cyclone SoC/FPGA, to which a USB hub must be added, and then a memory upgrade to run all but the simplest of cores. Once the hardware has been taken care of it almost seems as though there are no classic platforms for which there isn’t a core, as a quick browse of the MiSTer forum attests. We are treated to seamless switching between SNES and NED platforms, and even switching different SID chip versions during a running Commodore 64 demo.

There are many different routes to a decent emulator set-up be they using hardware, software, or a combination of both. It’s unlikely that there are any as versatile as this one though, and we’re guessing that as it further evolves it will become a fixture below the monitor or TV of any gamer.  It’s a step up from single-platform FPGA emulators, that’s for certain!

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Apple II computer on a workbench

Simple Fan Controller Helps Apple II To Beat The Heat

In its day, the Apple II computer didn’t typically require active cooling. However, the increasing scarcity of replacement hardware convinced [Joshua Coleman] to come up with a more robust active cooling solution for his Apple II+, increasing the likelihood that it will keep on crunching numbers for decades to come.

Joshua mentions that he recorded temperatures inside his Apple II+ peaking at 110 Fahrenheit (over 43 Celsius). This isn’t totally unexpected for a fully-loaded Apple II system, and components were built to handle this – the original datasheet for the 6500 microprocessor family reveals that the CPU can handle temperatures as high as 158 Fahrenheit (70 Celsius). Unfortunately, we’re not dealing with brand new components anymore. Decades-old microprocessors don’t necessarily have the same thermal tolerance as they once did. All components will eventually wear out, and heat can certainly accelerate the aging process.

In the interests of maintaining his system, Joshua cobbled together an Arduino-based cooling system for his Apple II+. A temperature/humidity sensor continuously monitors the heat situation inside the case – when things get too toasty, a 12V fan powers up to draw fresh air over the logic board and expansion cards. A simple cooling curve reduces wear on the fan motor and relay.

This is hardly the first active cooling system for the Apple II line – in the 1980s, Kensington produced a popular (if not stupendously ugly) ‘System Saver’ accessory, an external bolt-on fan that kept things running cool. These were often deployed in schools and by power users looking for added reliability when maxing out the Apple II expansion slots, a configuration that could increase temperatures due to the extra power requirements and reduced airflow.

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An Amiga computer at NASA

Retrotechtacular: Amiga Pips The PC For Mission-Critical Computing At NASA

In 1986, a group of NASA engineers faced a difficult choice in solving their data processing woes: continue tolerating the poor performance of PC architecture, or pony up the cash for exotic workstations. It turns out that the Commodore Amiga was an intriguing third choice, except for the fact that, paradoxically, it didn’t cost enough. Oh, and Apple wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Steeped in history, NASA’s Hangar AE is a hub for launch vehicle telemetry and other mission communications, primarily during prelaunch phases for launches at Cape Canaveral. Throughout the late 20th century, Hangar AE supported NASA launch vehicles in all shapes and sizes, from the Atlas-Centaur evolutions to the mighty Titan family. It even supported user data from the Space Shuttle program. Telemetry from these missions was processed at Hangar AE before being sent out to other NASA boffins, and even transmitted worldwide to other participating space agencies.

Coming down from decades of astronomical levels of funding, the 1980s was all about tightening the belt, and NASA needed budget solutions that didn’t skimp on mission safety. The Commodore Amiga turned out to be the right choice for processing launch vehicle telemetry. And so it was still, when cameras from the Amiga Atlanta group were granted permission to film inside Hangar AE.

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The Faux-Vintage Becomes Vintage

For those who might have missed it, there was a brief period in the mid-00s where gamers everywhere eschewed consoles and PCs in favor of simple Flash-based games to be played in a browser. Among these was the game Peasant’s Quest, created by the folks at Homestar Runner and modeled after video games from the 80s. [deater] was a fan of this game and wondered if it would actually be possible to play this retro-styled game on actual retro hardware.

For the experiment he decided on using an Apple II since this computer is featured as a prop rather often by the developers at Videlectrix. It turns out that with some determination it’s actually possible to run this game on the late 80s hardware with very little modifications. Squeezing the sprites into the required space was a challenge, as well as getting the sound tracks to play properly, but in the end the game runs within the hardware’s 280×192 resolution with 6 colors. There are also detailed notes on how the complicated graphics system on the Apple works for those willing to take a deep dive. There’s a lot going on here, but surprisingly few compromises needed to be made to get this to work.

The game itself is available on the project’s webpage for anyone who still has an Apple II kicking around, or for anyone who is willing to try it out in an emulator. Of course you could always play the original Flash version but that’s missing a certain charm that decades old retrocomputers have with games. We certainly aren’t seeing video game controllers like those built for the Apple II anymore, for example.

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Taking A Walk Down [Computer] Memory Lane

There’s nothing quite like going to a museum and being given a tour by a docent who really knows their way around the exhibits. When that docent has first hand experience in the subject matter, the experience is enhanced even further. So you can imagine our excitement when hacker, maker, and former DEC mainframe memory engineer [Ned Utzig] published a tour of what he calls “Memories of Weird Memories of Computers Past.” [Ned] expertly guides us through each technology, adding flavor and nuance to an already fascinating subject.

The tour begins with early storage media such as IBM punch cards, and then walks us through time to the paper tape, vacuum tubes, and even complex vats of mercury — all used for the sake of storing data either permanently or temporarily.

Next in the exhibit is an impressive CRT hack that isn’t unlike modern DRAM. The tour continues on to ferrite core memory such as that used on mainframes, minicomputers, and even the Apollo Guidance Computer. Each type is examined for its strengths and weaknesses and its place in computing history.

We really appreciated the imaginative question posed toward the end of the article. We won’t give it away here- it’s worth it to go give The Mad Ned Memo a read.

Is obsolete technology your cup of tea? Perhaps an Arduino based experiment with core memory will scratch the itch, or maybe storing data in thin air will bring back memories of computers gone by.