Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The History of Pr1me Computer

Pr1me Computer (Prime will be used from now on) was a manufacturer of minicomputers in the 1970s and 1980s. The company was started in 1972 by seven founders and started off with the Prime 200 which was compatible with the Honeywell 316/516 (which had been discontinued). Prime continued to develop minicomputers throughout the decade culminating with the 750 which was known as a "VAX killer" (running at 1.0 MIPS) and this set off Prime into the big league.

By the mid-1980s it was the sixth largest minicomputer manufacturer with many customers in US banking and academia. Primes also had a major use as CAD systems.

However like all the large computer manufacturer they hit turbulance in the late 1980s as customers began to turn away from mainframes and minicomputers and instead went for PCs, workstations and Unix based servers instead. Hardware was becoming a cheap commodity, the real money was in software. Prime bought a CAD software company called Computervision in 1989.

Prime stumbled into the 1990s, surviving hostile takeover attempts but declining revenues were resulting in a number of new system projects being curtailed. Although once Primes had been cutting edge, by the late 1980s they had fallen behind competing systems in terms of processing power. They also failed to join the PC revolution of the 1980s. A Prime PC was developed (or rather bought from another company) but was delayed and by the time it was finally released it was already obsolete.

In the late 1980s Prime tried to break into the lucrative workstation market but the debt mountain finally caused Prime to run out of time in the Summer of 1992. The company was restructured under the Computervision name with hardware projects and manufacturing ceased and most staff were laid off.

Although hardware sales had ended Computervision continued to develop the Prime operating system PRIMOS for a number of years. The last major version (Rev 24) was released in 1994 and the last known update was Rev 24.0.0.R51 released in March 1996. Computervision itself was bought by PTC in 1998.

Nowadays it is unlikely there are any Prime systems still in operation however a number did survive well after the demise of Prime (and indeed Computervision).

Monday, 25 December 2017

Creating a Christmas card on an IBM 1401

Back in the days of "old iron", when computers filled large rooms and printers were huge noisy affairs creating novely calenders and cards was quite the thing. The Snoopy calender from 1969 was something every "real programmer" had apparently. But how about using an IBM 1401 mainframe (and a 1403 printer) to create a greeting card for Christmas?

Ken Shirriff (who's blog is one of the best out there) took up the challenge. It's not quite as simple as it sounds as the card needs to be folded and so normal printed text would be sideways. Here is how to do it using BDCDIC characters. The code is provided in case you have a handy IBM 1401 yourself. Or just watch the video below.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Recovering old system software and data

Although there are some great museums like the National Museum of Computing doing their best to preserve computing's rich history so much computing heritage has unfortunately been lost.

One major problem being that data stored on obsolete formats often cannot be read any more. This website illustrates the problem, the CROOK operating system for a Polish minicomputer called the MERA-400 was sought. A copy of the OS had survived but it was on magnetic tape and there was no easy way to read the media.

Luckily with some ingenuity and hardcore geekdom a way was found to read the tapes. In the end they found multiple copies of CROOK, other old operating systems and some other thought-lost software which can now be read and saved for humanity.
ICL tape drives at the National Museum of Computing

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Using a TTY Model 43 teleprinter with Linux

Using a monitor isn't the only way to receive output from a computer of course and indeed in the early days the main way to get output was from a printer. A teleprinter is a kind of combination typewriter and printer that was used in the early days of computing (and still now occasionally) with commands typed in and output from the computer received and printed out. Here one is being used to communicate with a modern Linux computer.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The story of Powerpoint

Presentation software overlord Powerpoint has a bad name in some quarters (not entirely undeserved)...

The genesis of Powerpoint is interesting as this article details. Powerpoint was developed by a company set up by ex-Apple II and III engineers and came about almost by accident. The company, Forethought, had been trying to create an object orientated GUI for IBM PCs but were running out of cash and time and so needed to change their business plan and bring in some revenue. First they published FileMaker (still a popular Mac app) and later wrote Powerpoint, originally for the Mac only.

Powerpoint was an immediate success when it was released in April 1987. So much so that Microsoft bought the company just 3 months later! It took a few years for Powerpoint to see off its rivals like Harvard Graphics but now it is the undisputed king of presentation software with an estimated 95% of the market!

Columbus' PowerPoint Presentation from David C. Brock on Vimeo.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

1970s Computer Adverts... an occasional series

First of a series of interesting adverts from the 1970s, these adverts will mostly come from archived copies of Byte. Lets start with an Apple advert, remember when Apple adverts actually told you something about the item in question?

The rise of the microcomputer

An interesting video from the Open University discussing the rise of the microcomputer in the 1980s and the great variety of machines which were released as computers became democratised and were within the aim of normal people and not just corporations.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Visicalc and the origin of spreadsheets

Spreadsheet programs are one of the major types of applications on personal computers today, many millions of people use the likes of Excel and Numbers daily. The first spreadsheet for a personal computer however was Visicalc which was written by Daniel Bricklin and Bob Frankston in the late 1970s. The program was released for the Apple II initially and other computers like the IBM PC later on. It was an immediate success and is said to have kick started the idea of personal computers as things you could do work on instead of playing games or experimenting/developing.

Visicalc's time in the Sun was fairly short, after a few years it was eclipsed by Lotus 1-2-3 and in turn that was eclipsed by Excel but its place in computing history is safe.

An executable version of Visicalc for DOS (including DOSbox on the Mac) can be downloaded and works fine. Whats fascinating is how Visicalc defined so much of basic spreadsheet usage right at the start. Formulae like @SUM and @COUNT which i still use nowadays in Excel and Numbers were defined by Visicalc. Without fonts and formatting getting in the way its also rather quick to set up a spreadsheet in it too...

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Macintosh 512K (M0001W)

Following on a few months after the release of the original Macintosh in 1984 was the Macintosh 512K (M0001W). The 512K referring to the memory, a whole half a megabyte of RAM! The original Mac had just 128K of course so the 512K was quite an upgrade and indeed in 1984 was a lot of RAM for a personal computer. Apart from the memory the 512K was the same as the original Mac but the extra memory made it a much more useful computer.

Some new applications required the extra memory including Microsoft Excel which was first released for the Mac. The extra memory also enabled an early form of Mac multi-tasking and networking. The 512K remained on sale for 2 years.

The 512K is the oldest Mac in my collection. I use it as a stand for my bedroom clock. The Mac could still work though mine is a US 120v one so would need a converter to use power in this country. I do have a converter but the Mac (and converter) have not been turned on for a long time, i'd rather not risk blowing it up!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The oldest PC DOS

The OS/2 Museum has come into possession of a 160K disk containing what may be the oldest surviving piece of software for the IBM PC. This is PC-DOS 1.0 dating from June 1981, thus predating the official v1.0 release of the IBM PC operating system by a few months. PC-DOS (and MS-DOS - the two were identical for a long time, PC-DOS just being the IBM branded version) ruled the roost in the business computer world in the 1980s and later conquered the home market.

The first PC i had was an Amstrad PC1640 which came with MS-DOS 3.2. Later i bought a copy of MS-DOS 4.0 (which i thought personally was good though it had many critics at the time) and later PCs came with v5.0. DOS was quite a limited operating system and there was a huge industry of add-ons and enhancements, software like Xtree which was highly popular.

Eventually Windows took over and people stopped caring which DOS they were running, especially after Windows 95 replaced it. I can still remember some of the commands though like dir and type.

These days i run Mac OSX however i have DOSbox installed for running old games (something i seldom do to be honest, no time to play!) I can thus open it and type those commands again. And then return to my GUI.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Macintosh Mouse (M0100)

M0100 was the first Macintosh Mouse which shipped with the original Macintosh back in 1984. The Macintosh Mouse was actually just a modified version of the Lisa Mouse and they are interchangeable.
My M0100

The mouse is a pleasing block shape. I'm not sure how good this would be to use all day but it seems to be nice to hold. The single (of course!) mouse button has a nice click to it even after all these years.

The Macintosh Mouse (like the Lisa one) uses a DE-9 connector. Then quite a standard connector for peripherals.
How do i connect this to my Macbook Pro?

Well the Apple Macintosh changed the world, or at least showed a different way in computing though it was a number of years before people were clicking icons instead of typing in commands on their personal computers. Without the Mac it may well have happened anyway but it is likely that Apple's stimulus bought about the mouse driven computer world just that little bit sooner.

Friday, 8 December 2017

40 years of the Xerox Alto

Just over 40 years ago the Xerox Alto computer was publically unveiled. Why is this important? Well this computer system basically revealed the future (and thus our present). So what do you have on your computer today? A Windowing interface? Bit mapped display? Copy and paste? All these things and more, part of everyday computing now but in 1977 it was alchemy.

This article covers the 40th birthday celebrations of the Alto including live demos of restored Alto hardware. The Alto actually came out in 1973 though it took Xerox a few years to decide to try and commercialise the world beating technology being developed at PARC. However as everyone knows it fell to outsiders (especially Apple and Microsoft) to truly recognise the potential of what was being developed there (though not slavishly copy as some allege) and not the Xerox executives and the rest is history.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The strange beauty of historic computers

Wired have a great article on the sights and smells of historic computing, the strange beauty indeed of the "olden days" of computing : mainframes, minicomputers, line printers and other historic computing artifacts. Many of the computers and peripherals at places like the Computer History Museum in California still work after being restored adding an extra dimension to the experience. The sound and heat of a punched card reader...

It is a very different tech world to now, a bigger world too. Computers filled huge rooms with printers being the size of small cars, plus tape units the size of wardrobes. That is part of the fascination i feel, its just so different to the computing we use now.

Unfortunately by the time i entered work we were past the age of old iron, though i did use a Pr1me minicomputer at university which was great fun. The biggest computer i've ever had physical access to is a HP PC server which was the size of a small fridge. A large computer indeed just not the same as a room full of IBM 360.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Welcome to the Computer History Blog

Welcome to my Computer History blog. Well the obvious question to ask is... why a blog on the history of computing? Computing has changed the world so markably over the last few decades (and the rate of change is increasing) so i thought it would be a good idea to record where we have come from before we move onto where we're going. Plus i have degrees in software engineering and history so it seems a good idea... and it is something to do.

Key areas the blog will cover (because i find them most interesting more than anything else) will be mainframes, Apple and 1980s application software. Though others will also appear too. There will be no logical (ironically) pattern to what i blog about. It will purely be what is interesting to me, hopefully to you too.