Category: history

Someone on the DC206 mailing list posted about a Seattle Retro Computer Society Meeting which sounds cool on it’s own but what really caught my eye was that it was being hosted at Paul Allen’s new Living Computer Museum in Seattle.  This museum is not yet open to the public so I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to see the place and check out the retro computing meetup.  I showed up and the group was small (12-15 people) but very enthusiastic about what they were doing so that made it worth seeing.  It’s nice to know at least that I’m not the only one interested in old gear.

There was Frank who built a single board computer based on a 6800 in an old AT style chassis.  Very cool stuff.

Then there was someone who had a Tektronix computer that ran BASIC and was based on vector graphics.

Then Dave had an old TRS-80 but had a Catweasel card in his PC that allowed him to produce disks for that system (or nearly any other) from images stored on his system.  But I didn’t snag a picture of it.

Hanging out with and talking to all these guys was awesome but then the bonus came later when the museum guys Bill and Keith showed up and gave us a tour of the upstairs where they are working on the exhibits that will eventually make up the museum.

We made out way up the rickety elevator to the dimly lit 3rd floor and we suddenly transported to nerd-heaven.  First on the tour was a PDP-7 from 1967.  That is their oldest machine.

Next few stops we some other PDP’s that were all extremely cool too but the crashed 200mb hard drive really caught my eye.

Then we moved on to see an Altair and a Xerox Alto which were both quite impressive.

After those, there was an XKL Toad-1 hidden in the back road.  This system stands out in my memories because I actually went to XKL a couple of times when the Toad-1 was being built.  I picked up a bit of trivia today about it.  Toad apparently stands for “ten on a desk” which refers to the PDP-10 it was built to emulate but they didn’t quite get there with the large rack mount form factor.

In the same room as the Toad-1, there was also a couple of DEC System 20’s.  One of which they had interfaced with a modern NAS in order to preserve the life of the system’s hard disks.  Speaking of which, there were a few of those in there as well.

The tour ended with what probably was the newest system there which was a mid to late 80’s DEX VAX 780.  Still pretty old stuff but I would wager that there are a lot of VAX systems out there still in use today.

Can’t wait for the SRCS meeting next month.  Now I have a better idea of how it works and have some cool stuff I can bring to share and hopefully everyone will get a kick out of it.  If you want to see more even better pictures of the types of computers this museum has, check out this book Core Memory.


I recently came across a list of the first hundred domain names that were registered on the internet.  As cool as it was, there was not a lot of information first off and second, I was curious about how many were still relevant to their original purpose.  For sake of your attention span, I’m going to focus on the first ten names that were ever registered:

1. 15-Mar-1985 SYMBOLICS.COM Hmmm, sounds kind of familiar but I don’t even recall why.   When you go there today, it’s a parking page that acknowledges that it was the first registered name and states, “We are seeking to develop this into a useful and beneficial organization for the betterment of humanity.”
2. 24-Apr-1985 BBN.COM Never heard of this one.  Now it’s a redirect to which is a Singapore-based real estate conglomerate.
3. 24-May-1985 THINK.COM This one now points to which is owned by oracle.  At a glance, it’s a bit unclear what their purpose is.  I have to wonder why point such a valuable domain at something like this and not explain it’s purpose a bit better.
4. 11-Jul-1985 MCC.COM Clearly another wasted historical domain.  This one points to
5. 30-Sep-1985 DEC.COM Here is the first one that I legitimately and fondly remember.  DEC was the maker of the Alpha family of processors and MANY other innovations before them.  In their final days, the DEC Alphas were affordable desktop supercomputers.  Affordable should have an asterisk because even the clones I was building in 1997 were roughly $10k but that’s another story.  Unfortunately for the computing world, DEC sold out to Compaq in the late nineties only to be later dissolved by HP which is where the domain now points.
6. 07-Nov-1985 NORTHROP.COM This is just a redirect for Northrop-Grumman, a sloppy and nasty redirect at that.  Click the link to see what I mean.
7. 09-Jan-1986 XEROX.COM Aha!  Here’s the first domain name on the entire list that is A) still relevant B) doesn’t redirect to another URL. 
8. 17-Jan-1986 SRI.COM “SRI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute conducting client-sponsored research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations, and other organizations. SRI also brings its innovations to the marketplace by licensing its intellectual property and creating new ventures.” At least they appear to be the original domain owner.  Oddly, there is ANOTHER SRI which is also a research organization who owns the .org.
9. 03-Mar-1986 HP.COM Love ’em or hate ’em, HP has been around and on the internet for a long time.  This is the second out of all ten domains that still actually points to the same place it always has and is still the same company with the same purpose as in 1986.
10. 05-Mar-1986 BELLCORE.COM Bellcore redirects to

So out of 10 domains, 3 of them still point to the sites they were originally registered to.  Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

It was recently my birthday and my folks consulted my Amazon wish list for gift ideas.  I have a pile of books, movies and other tech goodies on there but out of it all, they chose these two movies as part of the package.  Not wanting to bore my wife with these, I had to wait until she was out of town to watch them.  She humored me with Pirates of Silicon Valley.  But I didn’t expect these to be nearly as entertaining for someone not grossly obsessed with the tech industry.  I would still stick with my original call.  These movies are not likely wife-friendly.

I started out with Triumph of the Nerds.  I have to say that I found this movie thoroughly enjoyable from the start to finish.  At this point, it’s a little dated but still very relevant.  Bill Gates was only worth around $11B at the time of this movie for instance so it was probably much easier to capture the great interviews with him at that point in time.  Steve Jobs still looks pretty young and lively in this movie as well.  Some of these founding fathers of the tech industry are just as outrageous as ever.  Steve Ballmer for instance spewed out a few lines that were just hilarious.

This movie also has an interesting and just plain bizarre host, Bob Cringely.  Bob claims that he was Apple employee number 12 and was offered stock back in those days because the company was short on cash.  Unfortunately for him, he held out for the cash and apparently his mother has never let him live it down.  🙂  The movie is broken up into three parts but you’ll probably just want to plow through it all at once if you are anything like me.  I would consider this movie as the perfect follow up to Pirates of Silicon Valley.  If you want a much more accurate portrayal of what actually happened, this is your movie.  That being said, I certainlywould not skip Pirates of Silicon Valley.  It’s also an excellent movie and not HORRIBLY inaccurate.  Just a little dolled up for Hollywood.

The second movie I got was Revolution OS.  If you are not a Microsoft hater, I might consider skipping this one.  There is an undertone throughout the whole movie that Linux can do no wrong.  That being said, there are several great interviews in there that are worth seeing.  Interviews with Richard Stallman of FSF, Linus Torvalds(creator of the kernel) and Larry Augustin of VA Linux.  They touch on the wild Linux IPO’s, open source vs free software camps, pivotal decisions by Netscape and the Apache web server.

If you have been into Linux for a while, you might not learn or gain much from this movie but if you are new to Linux and want to learn about it’s roots, it’s not a bad place to start.  Just a word of advice though, don’t drink all the kool aid this movie is spitting out.  Pay close attention and you will see some of the ways that clever video editing is being used to put new context into what the interviewees are actually trying to say.  Also, pay close attention when they are talking about the IPO’s.  You’ll notice that they BRIEFLY flash onto the screen the post earnings announcement stock prices.  You can barely even read the message, let alone comprehend it and see that the stocks when from the mid $200’s to less than $5 overnight.

This movie brought back some not so pleasant memories.  I was there myself, right in the thick of it.  I worked for a start up company that was producing a Linux-based product.  We were trying to raise funding for ourselves and had tangible network appliances that we were ready to release.  After Redhat and VA Linux tanked, no one would touch our company with a 10-foot pole.  This eventually led to us shutting the doors and we weren’t the only ones that suffered.  I personally believe that the tech crash was catalyzed by those two specific companies.  Having that footnote glossed over annoys me a bit and reminds me why I didn’t touch Linux for a good 3-4 years after that period of time.

My first Linux install

I was reminiscing with uglyman of The Airlock last night thinking back to the first time I tried Linux. It’s been nearly 20 years since I tried Linux for the first time. I was just a kid so I didn’t really understand Unix concepts or what I was playing with but my dad and I had stopped by a shareware store in Bellevue. Back in those days, there were actually brick and mortal stores in this area that near exclusively thrived off of putting shareware on 5.25″ floppies and selling it.

I saw this expensive piece of “shareware” (little did I know). I was on a CD and was $29 if memory serves me.  At the time, we didn’t have a bunch of old computer hardware laying around.  I had a computer and my dad had one.  At the time I was running a Pentium 60Mhz engineer sample that I scored from our local monthly computer swap meet that rotated between Kent Commons, Everett Holiday Inn and Bremerton.  We paid $1000 for that motherboard, cpu and the 16mb of ram on it but at the time it was cutting edge.  I had a full height 5.25″ 1GB scsi hard drive(that we bought USED for $1,000) and of course a cd-rom drive.

The CD we bought was Yggdrasil Plug’n’Play Linux.  I’m not sure what intrigued me about it.  Maybe that it was an alternative operating system to Mac and Windows which were the only two systems I knew.  Maybe the words plug’n’play which even predated the new term coined by experienced MS users, “plug’n’pray”.  Whatever the case, we bought it.  The minimum system requirements were a 386 with 8mb of ram and a CD-ROM.  I figured I had this beat so why not?  I didn’t know what it meant at the time but Yggdrasil was based on a .99 kernel.

The most remarkable thing about Yggdrasil was that it was the first Linux live cd.  Pretty sure the cd wasn’t bootable because this was before the days of bootable IDE CD-ROM’s supported in bios.  Instead, included with Yggdrasil was a boot disk that would load the cd drivers and eventually you would be presented with a boot menu giving you the option to install it or run it live.

I chose to run it live.  It was pretty slow.  It probably took 5 minutes to get to an X windows screen but I remember being blown away that I could run a full gui OS without even installing it.  Ultimately, I played with it once or twice but eventually didn’t have much need for it since I didn’t understand how to use any of the applications(such as vi, latex, etc) and I wasn’t really savvy or motivated enough at the time to get my modem working in Yggdrasil to connect to the internet (through my shell account provider).

My first taste of Linux was brief but it certainly planted the seed for delving into it later with both feet around 1998 when Redhat was maturing.  I’d love to see some comments from anyone who had more experience with Yggdrasil or an even older distro.

Review: CODE by Charles Petzold

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

The cover of CODE does not leave you much to judge it by.  It looks plain and minimalist at best but the reviews on the back cover peaked my interests:

“[A] gem that will appeal to anyone who wants to understand computer technology at it’s essence.”  –David Wall,

” You can tell writing CODE was a labor of love for Perzold and reading it is, too.”  –Bill Camarda,

I agree 100% with both of these reviews of the book but there is much more here.  The author took painstaking care to present topics in a way that makes sense but never dumbs them down into abstracts that are plainly inaccurate like many other books/papers of this nature that overuse poor analogies.  The best way to explain the book is to walk through the chapters a bit:

Chapters 1-6 gently introduce basic principles using a pair of childhood friends who wish to communicate with each other silently after dark when their parents have said “lights out”.  Petzold talks about using a flashlight, morse code and eventually moving up to building a simplistic telegraph system.

Chapters 7-9 builds upon the earlier chapters by explaining different numbering systems and relating them to fingers, toes and bits.

Chapters 10-14 starts to get REALLY interesting where he introduces logic circuits built entirely from telegraph relays.  In earlier chapters, he explains the concepts of telegraph relays and puts them to amazing uses in these chapters.  He brings it as far as building a binary adding machine (conceptually, using your imagination).  As far fetched as it may sound to build a computer entirely from simplistic devices such as relays, it is possible and has been done.  The whole point of this book is to show how simplistic(and simultaneously complex) a computer actually is.

Chapters 15-18 gives an AMAZINGLY gentle introduction to machine code and assembly language which is at the heart of every computer program.  Petzold’s explanation of machine code is by far the best explained version I have seen thus far.  If you want to follow up this book with something useful that will teach you even more about machine language, check out A Short Course In Computer Programming and if you run a Mac, grab the TinyELF 1802 emulator.

Chapters 19-22 work up to slightly higher-leveled details such as handling keyboard input, video output and an interactive console.  The explanations in these chapters are VERY easy to understand.

Chapters 23-25 close out the book with the significance and methods of processing floating point numbers(any number with a decimal point in it).  Higher level languages such as BASIC, C and some others that even I had not heard of.  Finally he closes out the book with the shift into graphical user interfaces, object oriented programming and API’s.  Even if those things sound mind boggling, by the time you read to this point in the book, you will easily be able to grasp these concepts.

Petzold does an amazing job of putting all of the concepts he is trying to convey into a palatable order.  Furthermore, when the reading has gotten REALLY thick in certain chapters, he promptly brings things back into perspective and switches gears into lighter topics like history which gives you a chance to absorb what he has just said and connect the dots.  Petzold also keeps it interesting by referencing later chapters in the book, this is probably one of the reasons that I absolutely could not put this book down.  I managed to plow through it in 3 days.  For anyone interested in computers, this book is a must because it gives you and excellent foundation to learn higher level concepts off of.  Yes, the book was written in 1999 so some of the examples he gives are dated and amusing such as when he quotes system specs of “modern” systems but NOTHING in this book is any less valid today than it was when he wrote it.

Digging through my files the other day I came across these little gems.  They are the sales order and build sheet for the first IBM compatible system my family ever had.  It was built by Bear Computer who is actually still in business to this day but they moved to a different location down the street.

The system we bought was configured as follows:

  • 386DX/33 chip and motherboard
  • 4 megs of ram
  • Seagate 120 meg hard disk
  • 2 the max 1mb video card
  • 16-bit generic IDE/serial/parallel combo card
  • 5 1/4 inch floppy drive
  • 3 1/2 inch floppy drive
  • 2400 baud internal modem
  • 13″ Sony Trinitron SVGA 1024×768 monitor
  • Keytronics 104 key keyboard
  • Logitech Serial Mouse
  • MS-DOS 4.01
  • Windows 3.0

Price?  $3766.20 including Washington State sales tax.  That was a good chunk of money in April of 1991 but my dad felt it was necessary for his construction business to have computerized accounting and felt that it would help me take an interest and learn more about computers.  I think the computerized accounting was far more trouble than it was worth in 1991 but the second goal of peaking my interest in computers was certainly a success.

Reading this paperwork brings back memories.  Oddly, my dad purchased the computer and they handed us the sound card separately in a box.  The technicians didn’t feel comfortable installing it in the system.  I thought this was a bit odd since they felt comfortable enough to plug in 30 pin simms and a 386 chip into a non-ziff slot but couldn’t deal with a $200 sound card?  Oh well.  I’m really GLAD they did this since it gave me the opportunity to open up the system myself and jam that sound card in there.

There were several other things that happened with this system.  Somehow, we managed to fry 3 IDE controllers while it was still under warranty.  One time was CLEARLY my fault but the other two I’m not so sure about.  A Smith Corona electronic typewriter that we had featured a DB9 port on the back so I tried to plug that into the controller to see if I could interface the two.  That ended up releasing the magic smoke.  The other couple of times were random failures I think.  Back in those days, computer parts had just started being mass produced in China so there were some QC issues from time to time.

Roughly two months after my dad purchased that computer, I got a summer job working for my friend’s dad building computers at his computer store in Bellevue.  Keep in mind, I was twelve years old at this point.  As part of my working there, I managed to trade up to a 486DX/33 CPU and motherboard.  Needless to say, my dad didn’t know whether to be pleased or furious when he came home to his 2 month old computer in pieces while I was swapping in the new board.  The computer he just paid nearly $4,000 for I might add.  In the end it worked out though.  I worked off the price of the upgrade, the computer still worked after the upgrade and he didn’t have to put out a dime for it.

That wasn’t the last time I tore into the hardware or broke the software on this poor system.  I’m shocked my dad didn’t rip his hair out after the 10th time or so that I had to reinstall the operating system for one reason or another.  I did learn a lot from breaking it and fixing it however.  Those were all invaluable lessons and proof positive that the learning process includes making a few mistakes along the way.

Even the sales order itself is as archaic as the computer described on the paper.  It was printed on a dot matrix printer with tear off sides and has faded terribly over the years.  Oh the good old days…  at least I have this paperwork to remember them by.

What happened to rend386?

Long before the latest 3D craze that was spurred single-handedly by Avatar, there was a big virtual reality boom in the early to mid 1990’s.  It was a prime time for virtual reality 1.0 because of movies like the lawnmower man and the availability of relatively cheap 3D-capable hardware.  If you already had a 386DX/25, you could interface a Mattel Power Glove and a Segascope 3-D to it via parallel ports and run rend386, a MS-DOS based virtual reality environment.  By that time, those items were outdated and showing up at thrift stores for next to nothing and rend386 came with several books, most notably Virtual Reality Creations with was written by the authors of rend386.

As of 1993, the Dave Stampe and Bernie Roehl decided to split up and perpetuate virtual reality research with separate tools.  Dave Stampe apparently went on to write a tool called VR-386 which was essentially a 90% rewrite of rend386 and was exponentially better.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any more information on it than is mentioned here on the power glove page.  Bernie on the other hand went on to create a tool called AVRIL.  Then Bernie went on to work on VRML which was designed to be used in a web browser and subsequently worked on Java3D.  Taking a quick look at some of the Java3D examples, I’m thinking that it’s not really quite as easily implemented as rend386 but I’ll reserve judgment for a later date when I have a chance to delve into some of these languages.

Reading the VRML wiki, it seems that VRML has been superseded by a language called X3D which is an XML based description language for virtual worlds which I plan to take a closer look at.

I am tentatively planning on building a USB power glove and/or Segascope interface out of an Atmel AVR at some point in the future.  As we all know however, hardware useless without the accompanying drivers and software.  Consequently, I’m still looking for the final environment in which I want to implement my interface.  Maybe I’ll just grab a 486DX/66 and dig up one of those old copies of rend386 but I would far prefer something that I could use with Google Sketchup drawings so the search continues.

Here is a small contemporary house I drew in Sketchup

Here is the inside

Here is another inside view

Here is a view of the back

I’d love to walk through that house in 3D with my Segascope and power glove in hand someday…

DEC Alpha CPU from the early 1990's

I was googling my own name today and found something interesting a few pages into the serp.  It was a little reminder that old data never dies.  In 1998 my second job in tech was building DEC(Digital Equipment Corporation) Alpha clones.  We could build the clones for FAR less than DEC sold them for and DEC still made money since they sold us the motherboards with a CPU for $5,000.

In those days, I used to come up with creative ways to burn the systems in.  I was installing Windows NT(alpha), DEC Unix & Redhat Linux.  None of these were binary compatible with anything x386.  These were 600Mhz, 64-bit risc architecture machines at a time where a Pentium Pro 150Mhz was a FAST desktop machine.  Since I didn’t have a proper burn-in suite, I would use distributed applications to crunch tons of data in hopes of at least running the processor through it’s paces a bit even if not the hard drive and other components.  Seti was among my favorites but sometimes I “donated” cycles to some other projects.  The Certicom ECC cracking challenge was one such project.  At the time, I didn’t really realize the significance of what I was doing.  If you look at the lists of people, there were only 40-80(or so) people who donated cpu cycles to each of these challenges.

I was just a young guy looking for precompiled binaries to test the somewhat rare systems I was building since I didn’t know how to compile code on those systems at the time.  Little did I know my name would be immortalized on the web as part of this project wielding some of the fastest single processor computers of the era. Check out the page here.  It’s really kind of fun to read about how one of the people running the project was crunching data packets on his ARM2 8Mhz machines.

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