Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Mother of all Demos

What did Douglas Engelbart invent in the field of computing? Well arguably you can say the WYSIWYG concept of computing, use of the mouse and multi-windowed user interfaces, hyperlinks, video conferencing, multimedia documents, instant messaging, keyword searches...

Why not just see the demo he made in 1968 of these concepts, it really did change everything.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The history of Digital Equipment Corporation

Digital Equipment Corporation or DEC was at one time one of the largest computer companies in the world, even threatening to overtake IBM at one stage. However like a number of similar companies which made their fortunes from minicomputers they were unable to adapt to the rapid pace of change to personal computing in the late 1980s.

Don't mention the computer

DEC was formed in 1957 by a couple of computer engineers, Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, with experience of working on computers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. They wanted to build interactive computers but had trouble getting funding to start their business.

Due to the reluctance of investors to commit to funding a computer company (as the fast changing nature of the industry had made making a profit on the new technology rather elusive) the early DEC instead concentrated on building electronic and computing modules for laboratories with the aim of building full computers later on. The name that was chosen, Digital Equipment, also masked the original intention of the company.

Programmable Data Processor

With the company up and running the first computers came soon enough - though to keep investors from running away scared they did not call them computers, the PDP (Programmable Data Processor) family arrived with the PDP-1 in 1960. The PDP family continued to be developed throughout the following two decades with the 12-bit PDP-8 - the first successful minicomputer, and the 16-bit PDP-11.

The PDP-11 remained on sale until the 1990s with over six hundred thousand sold. Ironically one of the eventual agents of DEC's demise as we will see later, Unix, was first developed at Bell Labs on a PDP-7 in 1969.

Virtual Address eXtension

DEC's next major family of computers was the 32-bit Virtual Address eXtension (VAX) family of high-end minicomputers which arrived in the late 1970s. The VAX family along with smart terminals like the VT52 and VT100 (DEC soon dominating the terminal market) helped DEC rise to become the second-largest computer company in the world in the mid 1980s.

It is probably worth mentioning more about DEC terminals. The first DEC terminals were the VT05 and VT52 which were successful enough but the VT100 in 1978 became the most recognised terminal name in the world and made DEC the leading vendor of terminals. Eventually over six million terminals would be sold by DEC.

The decline begins

Along with competitors like Prime Computer and Wang DEC began to falter in the late 1980s with the company's first quarterly loss following on a mere couple of years after the company had reached it's peak. Personal computers and Unix workstations were beginning to appear in ever greater numbers. Companies were quickly moving away from minicomputers in favour of the client server model, workstation performance (especially RISC based systems) was beginning to approach that of the "old iron" like DEC's VAX.

However as DEC was a "full spectrum" computer giant with a product range from microprocessors to software surely it could adapt?

Alpha to Omega

DEC had dipped their toes in the water with the likes of the Rainbow 100 personal computer in 1982 but these efforts did not set the world on fire and DEC was far too reliant on the fast shrinking minicomputer market. The company was not set up to sell computers cheaply.

In 1994 DEC joined the RISC workstation club with it's 64-bit Alpha family of CPUs and workstations. Despite the industry leading speed of the Alpha microprocessor (which had Intel worried for a while) DEC's losses were beginning to mount. Restructures were followed by record losses as the 1990s progressed. Despite layoffs and sell-offs of parts of the business DEC could not be turned around and the company was bought by Compaq, one of the "upstart" PC manufacturers, in 1998. The purchase did not go well for Compaq though who ended up being bought themselves by HP in 2002.

Now DEC is long gone though it was survived by Alta Vista, the search engine it created in it's final few years. Alta Vista was eventually bought and absorbed by Yahoo in the early 2000s.
DEC PDP-8 at the National Museum of Computing

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Creating the Apple Lisa (and Mac) user interface

How exactly are graphical user interfaces created? Obviously it involves programming and design work but where do you start, especially if there arn't many examples of GUIs to gain inspiration from? This extraordinary page on the Mac Folklore website has a series of photographs how the Apple Lisa GUI developed from the first basic graphic tests to the finished article which shipped in the early 1980s, and later carried on by the Apple Macintosh to the present day.

What is especially interesting how the Apple UI, with elements still familiar and used today such as the menu at the top, evolved. Early in the Lisa GUI development a softkey menu along the bottom of the screen was the direction the developers took before the abrupt change to a window and mouse based design. Inspired / stolen from Xerox PARC? Well various theories abound, i'm sure there was plenty of inspiration taken but some elements of the GUI are said to predate that.

It is interesting that in 1980 the Lisa had a menu on the top of windows (like Microsoft Windows later went with) instead of along the top of the screen as how the final design used.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

MOnSter 6502

The MOnSter 6502 is very neat, it is a working replica of the MOS 6502 CPU (as used in computers like the Apple II - see below for my IIe) using transistors. Obviously it is quite a bit bigger than an actual 6502 (about seven thousand times) being made out of non-minaturised components though it is fully working - if slower. It just shows how integrated circuits made microcomputing possible.

Apparently a modern CPU like the Apple A9X as in my iPad redone like this would cover about two hundred and eighty six square metres...

I just love things like the MOnSter 6502, i'm so glad there are people with the time and the ability to still do such nonsense.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Programming the PDP-11

This is great, part 1 of a video series showing to operate and program a DEC PDP-11. The other parts are accessible from the end of part 1.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Apple Monitor IIc (A2M4090)

As we saw earlier the Apple IIc was Apple's first attempt at a portable computer, though was not a laptop as we might imagine today. Merely it was a smaller version of the 8-bit Apple II that was easy to carry around. However the computer needed an external power supply and monitor... the Monitor IIc. Less easy to carry around.

If ever a monitor can be described as cute then the Monitor IIc is. It was small, just a 9" display and green on black. The Apple IIc was the first computer to use Apple's then new "Snow White" design language. Uniquely the IIc family are in a special off-white colour known to Apple as "fog". No other computers were released by Apple in this colour.

Friday, 9 February 2018

1970s Computer Adverts... an occasional series

Never mind about your minifloppy kid, its what you do with it which counts.. allegedly.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

IBM 1403 Printer

This is an interesting feature on the IBM 1401 computer system which revolutionised computing in the early 1960s and it's printer the IBM 1403 which could reach 1,100 lines of print per minute. The 1403 was impact printer so of course was rather loud. I remember the printers connected to the (Prime) minicomputer at university, they were also fast and also sounded like a chain saw when in operation.

The printers were remote in another building from the actual computer which was in the campus' computer centre. If the printer paper fouled up and you were changing the paper you never knew if a print job sent from someone else in the faculty was about to come through and send everything into chaos. I suppose that counted as excitement back then.

Anyway returning to the 1403, it was fast because it was a line printer. A chain of metal embossed characters (each character on the chain 5 times) continuously revolved and the paper was pushed against the relevant character (and an ink ribbon) by tiny hammers to print a character [1]. Hence the speed... and the noise. The article comes with an interesting video history of the 1401. You can see it below too.

[1] Barry Wilkinson & David Horrocks, Computer Peripherals (Edward Arnold, 1987) p. 90

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Apple IIc

The Apple IIc was Apple's first attempt at a "portable" computer. However it wasn't quite as we would expect a portable these days. Although fairly small and compact (though quite a bit bigger than the average laptop these days - including the Macbook i am typing this on) and came with a carry handle it did not have a built in screen or power supply. Both had to be carried separately.

The Apple IIc was quite impressive from the point of view of technology of the time though (1984) with a built in floppy drive (5.25 inch one too!) and a good full size keyboard. However it lacked the expandability of the hugely successful Apple IIe and as it was released nearly at the same time as the Macintosh some of the technology already looked a bit dated. It was much cheaper than the Mac of course.

The Apple IIc introduced the "Snow White" design language which would define Apple hardware throughout the decade and beyond. Uniquely the Apple IIc was in an off-white colour called "Fog" which was not used on any other Apple computer, which is a shame as it does look pretty good. My Apple IIc did work the last time i tried it though that was a long time ago...
IIc atop the much larger IIe

Ports on the back, and the handle