Like many of us, [Alan] says he got his start with electronics at a young age simply by taking things apart and trying to put them back together again. From there he got a job in a TV repair shop during high school, where he was able to hone his natural curiosity into a marketable skill. His career took him through several of tech companies, but he ultimately ended up in an engineering role at Tektronix, a position he’s held for nearly 20 years.
Despite continuing to stay on the cutting edge, it’s no surprise that he still has a certain attraction to the technology from his youth. But it’s more than simple nostalgia — he points out that vintage hardware is generally easier to service than modern gear. As many of his own videos show, there was something of a technological “sweet spot” around the mid-20th century to the 1980s or so; where you could expect to not only have schematics available, but the design and construction of hardware was such that you could still reason your way through it using basic troubleshooting principles.
As for being a ham, [Alan] thinks it’s a great way for get an even deeper understanding of technology. He says that if you’re interested in learning how electronics work, repairing and upgrading old radio hardware is a great way to flex your mental muscles. But at the same time, being a ham isn’t limited to dusting off war-surplus radios that were built before you were born. There’s plenty of ways to mix in modern technology, from digital modes to receiving signals from satellites using a software-defined radio.
The HP-200LX palmtop was a fascinating machine for its time, and [Terrence Vergauwen] proves that its time is not yet over, given that one is responsible for serving up the website for Palmtop Tube, a website and YouTube channel dedicated to vintage palmtops.
All by itself a HP-200LX doesn’t have quite what it takes to act as a modern web server, but it doesn’t take much to provide the missing pieces. A PCMCIA network adapter provides an Ethernet connection, and a NAS contains the website content while networking and web server software run locally. Steady power comes from a wall adapter, but two rechargeable AA cells in the 200LX itself act as a mini-UPS, providing backup power in case of outages.
The HP-200LX was a breakthrough product that came just at the right time, preceding other true palm top computers like the IBM PC 110. In the early 90s, it was unimaginable that one could have a fully functional MS-DOS based machine in one’s pocket, let alone one that could last weeks on a couple of AA cells. It didn’t have some proprietary OS and weird ports, and that kind of functionality is part of why, roughly 30 years later, one is able to competently serve up web traffic.
Ever heard of the KENBAK-1? Recognized as the first personal computer, created by John Blankenbaker and sold in 1971 in comparatively small numbers, it’s now a piece of history. But don’t let that stop you if you are curious, because of course there is an emulator on the web.
If the machine looks a bit strange, that’s because early computers of this type did not have the kind of controls (or displays) most people would recognize today. Inputs were buttons and switches, and outputs were lights showing binary values of register contents. The machine could store and run programs, and those programs were entered in pure machine code (no compiler, in other words) by setting individual bit values via the switches. In fact, the KENBAK-1’s invention preceded that of the microprocessor.
The KENBAK was the first electronic, commercially available computer that was not a kit and available to the general population, but the story of how it came to be is interesting. Back in 2016 we covered how that story was shared by John Blankenbaker himself at Vintage Computer Festival East.
Input devices consisting of optical readers for punched paper tape have been around since the earliest days of computing, so why stop now? [Jürgen]’s Paper Tape Reader project connects to any modern computer over USB, acting like a serial communications device. Thanks to the device’s automatic calibration, it works with a variety of paper materials. As for reading speed, it’s pretty much only limited to how fast one can pull tape through without damaging it.
While [Jürgen]’s device uses LEDs and phototransistors to detect the presence or absence of punched holes, it doesn’t rely on hardware calibration. Instead, the device takes analog readings of each phototransistor, and uses software-adjusted thresholds to differentiate ones from zeros. This allows it to easily deal with a wide variety of tape types and colors, even working with translucent materials. Reading 500 characters per second isn’t a problem if the device has had a chance to calibrate.
The evolution of computer graphics is something that has been well documented over the years, and it’s a topic that we always enjoy revisiting with our retrocomputing readers. To wit, [Stephen A. Edwards] has put together an impressively detailed presentation that looks back at the computer graphics technology of the 1960s and 70s.
The video, which was presented during VCF East 2021, goes to great lengths in demystifying some of the core concepts of early computer graphics. There’s a lot to unpack here, but naturally, this retrospective first introduces the cathode-ray tube (CRT) display as the ubiquitous technology that supported computer graphics during this time period and beyond. Building from this, the presentation goes on to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of DEC’s PDP-1 minicomputer, and how its striking and surprisingly capable CRT display was the perfect choice for playing Spacewar!
As is made clear in the presentation, the 1960s featured some truly bizarre concepts in regards to cutting edge computer graphics, such as Control Data Corporation’s 6600 mainframe and accompanying vector-based dual-CRT video terminal, which wouldn’t look out of place on the Death Star. Equally strange at the time was IBM’s 2260 video data terminal, which used a ‘sonic delay line’ as a type of rudimentary video memory, using nothing but coiled wire, transducers and sound itself to store character information following a screen refresh.
These types of hacks were later replaced by solid state counterparts during the microcomputer era. The video concludes with a look back at the ‘1977 trinity’ of microcomputers, namely the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80. Each of these microcomputers handled graphics in a slightly different way, and it’s in stark contrast to today’s largely homogenised computer graphics landscape.
There’s a lot more to this great retrospective, so make sure to check out the video below. When you’re finished watching, make sure to check out our other coverage of VCF 2021, including some great examples of computer preservation and TTL-based retrocomputing.
The IBM Model F keyboard should need no introduction. Famed for its buckling spring key mechanisms, the Model F is lusted over for its satisfying typing experience and Armageddon-proof build quality. First introduced in 1981, many of these keyboards will now naturally require basic maintenance. However, [Epictronics] recently went a step further and restored a Model F to like-new condition.
Missing keycaps were the least of his worries, as both new and old replacements are relatively easy to come by. [Epictronics] was more concerned about the forty-year-old foam sandwiched tight inside the keyboard, most likely having long since degraded. Apart from being plain gross, the decaying foam has the potential to foul the buckling spring switches. After taking apart the body and removing the ‘disgusting’ foam pad, a replacement was forged from neoprene and a handy-dandy hole punch.
Disassembly of the keyboard case required the gentle touch of a mallet, and reassembly needed similarly inappropriate tools. As demonstrated in this vintage clip from IBM, keyboard assembly was (and still is) performed automatically by robots, driven by an IBM Series/1 minicomputer. These robots were equally impressive for their precision and strength. Without access to IBM’s aptly named ‘closing tool’ and various other robotic helpers, [Epictronics] had to settle for pool noodles and a comically large clamp during reassembly, mixed with sheer determination.
Other neat tricks in the video include applying heat to reform the coiled keyboard cable, and using car polish to clean the case plastics. The latter has the potential to make things worse, so a delicate hand is needed to maintain the textured plastic.
We recently covered another Model F restoration, and it’s exciting to see so many dedicated hackers keeping these keyboards clickety-clacking well into the 21st century.
When he went shopping for a vintage serial terminal to go along with his reproduction PDP-8/I computer, [Michael Gardi] came down with a bad case of sticker shock. But rather than be discouraged, he reasoned that if his “retro” computer could stand to have modern components at its heart, so could the terminal he used to talk to it. Leaning on his considerable experience in designing 3D printed replica hardware, he’s built an absolutely gorgeous scaled down DEC VT100 terminal that any classic computer aficionado would be happy to have on their desk.
Now to be clear, [Michael] hasn’t created a true serial terminal. Since the faux PDP-8/I is running on a Raspberry Pi, all he needed to do was come up with something that could connect to its HDMI and USB ports. Put simply, he’s essentially just made a 3D printed enclosure for the Pi’s monitor and keyboard. Oh, but what a gorgeous enclosure it is.
Recreating the VT100 in CAD was made more difficult by the fact that [Michael] couldn’t get his hands on the authentic hardware. But of course, that’s never stopped him before. It turns out DEC provided some very detailed dimensions for the terminal in their original documentation, and while comparing them to photographs of the actual terminal did uncover a few key differences, the overall look is spot on. Once the design was done, he reports it took two rolls of filament and more than 200 hours to print out all the parts for the enclosure.
To help sell the authentic look [Michael] tracked down a 4:3 LCD of the appropriate size, and the use of an off-the-shelf portable mechanical keyboard should make text entry a pleasure. For a little fun, he even came up with a themed arcade controller for the VT100 that can be used with RetroPie. The printed logo plate is an especially nice touch, and we’re more than willing to forgive the fact that he had to print it at a larger scale than the rest of the terminal to get all the detail in with his printer’s 0.4 mm nozzle.
On a technical level, this is perhaps the most straightforward replica we’ve ever seen from [Michael]. But even on a relatively simple project like this, his signature attention to detail and craftsmanship is on full display. It’s always a good day when he’s got a new build to show off with, and we’re eager to see what he comes up with next.