Retrocomputing at City Tech Site Updated with Software Inventory

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Neuromancer for Commodore 64/128. Item in City Tech’s Retrocomputing Archive.

Recently, I posted about the new OpenLab site that I launched for “Retrocomputing at City Tech.” On the site, I included a photographic inventory of the computing hardware and peripherals that I have on-hand in my office in Namm 520. Now, I’ve added to the site with a second page that inventories a majority of the software that is in the vintage computing archive. The software archive includes games (like Neuromancer pictured above, Star Wars X-Wing and TIE Fighter, and Star Trek 25th Anniversary), productivity software (such as Microsoft Office 2004), encyclopedias (Comptons, Groliers, and Microsoft Encarta), and operating systems (Windows 95, Macintosh System 7.5, Mac OS X 10.0-10.3 and 10.5). Follow the link above to see all of the software on its original media followed by textual descriptions.

Retro-Review of Used Lenovo ThinkPad X230 Sourced from eBay

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I’ve wanted an IBM ThinkPad since I first saw my boss’ at Netlink in the fall of 1998. But, while I’ve been invested in PCs over the years tangentially, I reserved Macs as my primary desktop or laptop computing platform, which combined with the premium price on IBM and then Lenovo ThinkPads kept me in the Apple premium category. Put another way, I could afford one but not both.

Apple, as I’ve confided with friends, is diverging from my computing interests and needs. While design has been an important part of Apple’s DNA since the Apple II (arguably even earlier if we consider Woz’s design aesthetics for the Apple I motherboard layout), its increasing emphasis on fashion and accessorization and seeming less technological investment and innovation in its desktop and laptop computers have soured my allegiance to the company and its computers.

So, I thought about how to try out a different kind of PC laptop–one that I had wanted but could not afford when it was originally released–and make an investment in extending the life of what some folks might consider an obsolete or recyclable computer.

Within this framework, I wanted a laptop to take the place of the MacBook Pro that I had sold on eBay awhile back while the resell value was still high before rumored price reductions as product refreshes roll in. It needed to be relatively lightweight and have a small footprint. Also, it needed to have good battery life. And of course, it needed to run the software that I use on my home-built desktop PC.

Eventually, I decided to purchase a very well taken care of Lenovo ThinkPad X230 on eBay. Originally released in 2012 for a lot more than what I paid for it, this ThinkPad model features an Intel Core i5 3320M Ivy Bridge CPU running at 2.6GHz with 2 cores and supporting 4 threads. It has 8GB DDR3 RAM and a 180 GB SSD. In addition to built-in WiFi, it has an ethernet port, 3 USB 3.0 connectors, an SD Card reader, VGA and Display port connectors, and a removable battery.

From a user interface perspective, it has a chiclet keyboard which responds well to typing quickly. Its touchpad leaves a little to be desired in terms of responding to some gestures like scrolling, but its red pointing nub and paddle-style mouse buttons at the top of the touchpad are exquisite. It includes some feature buttons like a speaker mute button next to volume keys above the function key row, and on the left side there is a radio on/off switch for the WiFi and Bluetooth.

Initially, I tried out the ThinkPad X230 with Ubuntu, and everything seemed to work out of the box (though, I added TLP for advanced power management). However, I switched back to Windows 10 Professional with a full nuke-and-pave installation, because I have some software that is far easier to run natively in Windows instead of through Wine or virtualization in Linux.

In Windows 10 Professional, the ThinkPad X230 meets all of my productivity needs. I use LibreOffice for most things, but I also rely on Google Docs in Chrome for some tasks (like inventorying the City Tech Science Fiction Collection). The WiFi works well even at City Tech, which has one of the most cantankerous wireless networks I’ve encountered. At home, I use it on my lap to browse while watching TV.

The X230 is snappy and quick despite its age. Of course, the SSD and ample RAM support increased input/output for the older CPU. Chrome, LibreOffice, and Windows Explorer respond without hesitation. It easily plays downloaded Solo: A Star Wars Story 1080p trailers in VLC, too.

With the included 6 cell 45N1022 battery, it runs for several hours (this is a used battery, so its capacity might be lower than one that is brand new). I purchased a 9 cell 45N1175 battery, which I’m testing out now. With the 6 cell battery, it is just shy of 3 pounds, and with the 9 cell battery is a little over 3 pounds. I’m hoping that between the two of them that I can get plenty of work done on the go without being tethered to a power outlet.

Future tests include running World of Warcraft and watching full length movies. The display’s viewing angles could be better, but I’m willing to accept them as they are as I can adjust the brightness and display gamma easily using keyboard shortcuts and the Intel Display Adapter software to minimize its poorer display quality as compared to the latest HiDPI displays available now.

I’m tickled to use the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 as my main laptop. Now, I can say that I’m a proud ThinkPad owner instead of a zealous Apple user.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve included more photos of the X230.

If you’re considering a new computer, I would, based on this and my other vintage computing experiences, suggest that you consider trading up for a used or refurbished machine. Getting a used computer keeps that computer out of a landfill or being destroyed for its rare metals, and it might be an opportunity to try out a computer that you might have missed on its first time around.

Retrocomputing at City Tech

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In addition to working on a book review today, I created a new OpenLab site for Retrocomputing at City Tech. In addition to recording how I use vintage computers in the classroom and in research, the new OpenLab site contains a catalog of my vintage computing archive. I populated this catalog with most of the hardware, but I plan to granulize it further and create a catalog of my software. This, of course, will take time. At least there is a place for me to record these things now within the auspices of the work that I do at City Tech. I updated my previous Retrocomputing Lab page on this site with a link to the updated site on OpenLab.

Before Cyberpunk: Science Fiction and Early Personal Computing (for the 13th City Tech Poster Session)

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For the New York City College of Technology, CUNY’s 13th Annual Research Poster Session, I created the poster embedded above to illustrate my current research on pre-cyberpunk science fiction (SF) about computing and personal computing. The poster discusses my focus and provides a timeline with SF about computing matched with key technological innovations that made the personal computing revolution in the late-1970s possible.

What I am interested in is the fact that William Gibson’s “cyberspace” captured the popular imagination about the metaphorical place where computing, processing, navigating, interacting, and communicating occurs, but some of the very good SF about computing that predates Gibson’s coining the term cyberspace failed to leave an indelible impression. Certainly, these stories were read and circulated, but the reach of their images and metaphors seem to have been limited in scope as compared to Gibson’s writing.

One of the ideas that I have had since creating the poster is that the idea of hidden computing or outlaw computing is something central to Vernor Vinge’s “True Names.” This, of course, features large in Gibson’s fictions, and it is the image that I am looking for in other SF of this transitional era.

At the poster session, I will carry my Raspberry Pi-based touchscreen-computer-in-a-Suntory-box-from-Japan to demonstrate the idea of hidden computing. I will post a step-by-step instruction post soon about assembling the Raspberry Pi-based computer and offer some additional thoughts about how I would like to use them in my technical communication classes.

In this post, I want to provide some of my notes and links to relevant resources as a record of the initial research that I did in preparation of this poster. It is my hope that it might lead to conversations and collaborations in the future.

 

Fiction Sources

Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” (1946): Home computers connected to a large scale network. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but a significant work that needs mentioning.]

Isaac Asimov’s “The Fun They Had” (1951): Children discovering a print book are agog at what it represents while their classroom/desktop teaching computers flash mathematical fractions at them. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but another important work in this genealogy.]

Poul Anderson’s “Kings Who Die” (1962): Human-computer interface, according to Asimov and Greenberg in The Great SF Stories #24, “one of the first stories to address this question” (69).

Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964): Also published as Counterfeit World. Adapted as Welt am Draht/World on a Wire (1973). Simulated reality for artificial beings programmed to believe (except in the case of one character) that they are real and living in the “real world.”

Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970): A crew in a disabled spacecraft while awhile their remaining lives in a computer generated virtual world.

John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975): Computer programming and hacking. First use of the term “worm” to describe a type of self-propagating computer program set loose on the computer network. Protagonist as outlaw.

[Five year gap during the personal computing revolution. Were the SF writers playing with their new personal computers?]

John M. Ford’s Web of Angels (1980): The “Web” is a communication and computing network connecting humanity. “Webspinners” are an elite group of programmers who can manipulate the Web in unique and unexpected ways. Protagonist as outlaw.

Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” (1981): Computing power hidden from view of a watchful government–literally under the floor boards. Early MMORPG/virtual reality experience of what was later called cyberspace. Protagonist as outlaw.

Damien Broderick’s The Judas Mandala (1982): First SF to use the terms “virtual reality” and “virtual matrix.” Protagonist as conspirator/outlaw?

 

Nonfiction Sources

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2000. Print.

Ferro, David L. and Eric G. Swedin. Eds. Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Kay, Alan C. “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” ACM ’72 Proceedings of the ACM Annual Conference – Volume 1. New York: ACM, 1972. n.p. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Mowshowitz, Abbe. Inside Information: Computers in Fiction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977. Print.

Murphy, Graham J. and Sherryl Vint. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Slusser, George Edgar and TA Shippey. Eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Print.

Stableford, Brian. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Timeline of Computer History. Computer History Museum, 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge: MIT, 1980. Print.

 

 

Retrocomputing at City Tech: Vintage Computers Organized on New Shelves

My Retrocomputing Office Space
My Retrocomputing Office Space

Thanks to City Tech’s Stanley Kaplan, I now have a substantial new collection of early personal computers including IBM PCs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, a Commodore PET, Texas Instruments TI-99s, ATARI 800, and a number of other computers and peripherals in my office in Namm 520. Some of the smaller items are locked in my filing cabinet, but as you can see from the photos included in this post, I have the larger items arranged around my desk and on a new set of Edsal steel shelves that I purchased on Amazon.com. Now, I have to make some additional room for a large, removable magnetic disk from a TRIAD Computer System (c. late-1970s~early-1980s, the drive that reads this disk was about the size of a washing machine) and an Apple Macintosh Centris 650, which I shipped to myself from Brunswick when I recently visited my parents. In the coming months, I will catalog these machines, see what works, and plan how to use them (research, pedagogy, and exhibits). If you have older computers, disks, or user manuals and would like to donate them for use in my research and teaching, please drop me a line at dynamicsubspace at gmail dot com.

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Radio Shack Color Computer 3s, Zenith Data System, Odyssey, TRS-80, and PET Printer.

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TRS-80, Texas Instruments TI-99s, and Toshiba Laptop.

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Victor Computer and TRS-80.

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Commodore 64s, TRS-80, and Various Floppy Disk Drives.

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IBM PC, IBM PCxt, Kaypro, and AT&T Desktop.

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ATARI 800 and Compaq Portable PC sans case.

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Pentium 233 MHz PC, i7 PC, i7 Dell (office standard issue), and Commodore PET.

Second Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab: Power Macintosh 8500

Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.
Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.

When I met with Georgia Tech Library Archives’ Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to donate three vintage computers (a Dell Dimension 4100, Apple Performa 550, and Apple iMac) and other computing hardware a week and a half ago, I noticed that they had room for one more computer, so I pitched them the idea of my making another donation to fill the gap between the Performa 550’s 68030 processor and the iMac’s G3 processor:  an Apple Power Macintosh 8500/120. They agreed to accept, so I set about preparing the computer for them.

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My Power Macintosh 8500 was in very good shape, but like many vintage computers with persistent clocks, it needed a new lithium battery.

To replace the Power Macintosh 8500's on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.
To replace the Power Macintosh 8500’s on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.

I replaced the battery, installed Mac OS 7.5.5, a number of different software titles (including Apple’s Plaintalk Speech Recognition–I threw in a Plaintalk powered microphone, Project X/Hot Sauce, and Cyberdog). I discovered that the plastic inside the case did not age well. The PowerMac 8500 has a lot of plastic components that are held together with flexible tabs or clips. When I applied a small amoung of pressure on the tip of these clips to release them, most of them would break. Luckily, the case ties together very well, so I only had to piece some parts back together with clear tape (the power button/light assembly) and metal duct tape (one drive plate cover on the front of the case). To help dissipate heat, I  added a rear slot fan made by Antec.

I made a video demoing the finalized system, which I’m including embedded below (I apologize for the flicker, but my digital camera doesn’t have enough adjustment features to match the refresh rate on the Apple 14″ Color Display).

In addition to the Power Macintosh 8500, I gave the Archives a box full of software and late-1990s/early-2000s video games for Macintosh. These might help facilitate more connections around campus (Computer Science, Media Studies, and Game Studies).

As I’m leaving soon for City Tech, I believe that we can do more together in our work with vintage computing. I floated the idea of a symposium, conference, or some other kind of connected project. Also, from what little I have learned so far, there’s a lot of investment and interest in computer technology in NYC (and Brooklyn in particular). I am looking forward to making new connections with others studying retrocomputing and New Media. I know that many opportunities await.

Inaugural Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab

Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of making the first donation of three computers to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, which is launching its own Retrocomputing Lab for scholars and students to use. The Georgia Tech Library Archives is already well-known for its significant Georgia Tech Science Fiction Collection and other holdings.

I met with Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to setup the three computers and talk about each machine’s provenance and current operation. We set the computers up on the right side as you enter the Georgia Tech Library Archives. This is a temporary location as the Archives makes plans for their use in Archives for the time being and possibly more in the future as part of the on-going Georgia Tech Library renovation project.

Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

From my personal collection–which I am having to cull before moving to Brooklyn for my new job at City Tech, I donated three computers: an Apple Performa 550 (1994), Apple iMac (1999), and Dell Dimension 4100 (2001). Before donating the computers, I refurbished each to be in as factory-fresh condition as possible.

For the Peforma 550, I installed a PDS ethernet NIC and replaced the SCSI hard drive with one that was less noisy than its original one. Then, I installed Mac OS 7.6.1 and some software including the AfterDark Star Trek: The Next Generation screensaver and ClarisWorks, and utilities for working with files and disk images.

For the slot-loading, DV iMac, I replaced the motherboard battery and performed a fresh install of Mac OS 9.2.1. The optical drive suffers from a weak ejection mechanism. I made sure that the bottom plastic bezel fit properly, but reseated it had no effect on improving the drive’s ability to eject discs correctly. I warned the librarians about this, and recommended buying an external, Firewire optical drive and using the paperclip ejection method in the meantime.

Dell Dimension 4100.
Dell Dimension 4100.

For the Dell Dimension 4100, I installed a 3Com NIC donated by Mark Warbington. I installed Windows 98 Second Edition and painstakingly installed the drivers for the components in the Dell (this was a laborious process, because despite having the Service Tag number, some recommended drivers did not work on all of the components).

I provided two sets of speakers–one for the Performa 550 (it’s internal speakers had stopped working about a year ago) and one for the Dell Dimension 4100. In the event of future hardware problems, I gave them spare AGP video cards, optical drives, a 3.5″ floppy disk drive.

Also, I gave them some spare motherboards, controller cards, and hard drives that might be useful for displays in the Library.

The Georgia Tech Library Archives have big plans for making digital archival work and learning an integral component of what they do. If you have functional and working computer hardware or software, you should consider donating it to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, or if you have technical skills for working on older hardware and software, you can donate your expertise and time, too. Contact Jody and Wendy by email or phone here: Georgia Tech Library Archives contact information here.

UPDATE: I made these four Google Glass videos while working on the iMac DV:

Lego Building Experiments with Google Glass, Thoughts on Its Potential for Interdisciplinary Humanities Research

Since I received my Google Glass last week, I have been learning how to wear and use it. Ultimately, I want to incorporate Glass into my Retrocomputing Lab research workflow. I am interested in the experience of using computer hardware and software (something that I have been interested in for a long time and wrote about as an undergraduate), so Glass will provide a way of capturing some of my phenomenal experience–perspective, vision, and sound. I can provide oral commentary of my haptic and olfactic experiences (yes, computers have unique smells–something that helps store/recall memories and emotions) while also recording thoughts, memories, and asides that enrich my shared video experience. As one component of the digital humanities, I want to create an archive of my raw research of working with computers and their software that others can use, draw inspiration from, or comment on through their own research, writing, and teaching.

For the work that I do in my personal Retrocomputing Lab, I will use Glass as one more tool among a variety of other technologies that enable my research. Glass will add another data layer–itself richly textured and layered with audio/video/Internet/software capabilities–to the research that I do. Due to the ease of sharing images and video in real time, I can immediately make my in-process research available on YouTube, Twitter, and here on dynamicsubspace.net. Furthermore, my research will be useable by others–hobbyists, students, and other researchers in many interdisciplinary fields. Glass will join my non-real time distribution of data on paper, computer written notes (though, I could make these freely viewable in realtime on say, Google Drive), and published research.

Finally, I am interested in the mixing of old and new technologies. Glass meets its ancestors in the IBM PC and Macintosh. Glassware meets DOS, Windows 3.1, and System 7. I want to explore how the intermingling of these technologies leads to new insights, connections, and elaborations. While I am only speculating, I strongly believe that Glass and similar wearable computing technologies will elevate the outcomes and knowledge produced in humanities research–conceptualized as interdisciplinary like mine or not.

The videos included in this post were tests of the manually extended video recording feature. They don’t involve the Retrocomputing Lab, because how I want to use Glass to record my work will involve more and different kinds of planning. I used what I had at hand to test out Glass’ video capabilities included below.

Glass Video from Apr 22, 2014, Lego Build of The Batman Tumbler 30300 Polybag

Glass Video from Apr 24, 2014, Target Exclusive Lego 30215 Legolas Greenleaf Polybag

Retrocomputing Lab Page Launch

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Over the weekend, I launched a new page under the “Research” menu on DynamicSubspace.net for my Retrocomputing Lab.

I use the Retrocomputing Lab’s hardware and software resources in my continuing research on human-computer interaction, human-computer experiences, and human-computer co-influence. So far, its primary focus is on the shift from the pre-Internet, early-1990s to the post-Internet, late-1990s and early-2000s.

During that time, technological and cultural production seems to accelerate. Imagine all of the stories yet to be recovered from that time. How do we untangling of the long shadow of that time from the innovations and disruptions of the present passing into future?

The computer hardware includes Macs and PCs. There are laptops and desktops. There are different add-on cards and peripherals to enhance and change experiences. There are 3.5″ floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. There are many different kinds of software ranging from games to interactive encyclopedias to operating systems to word processors. There are different motherboards that can be swapped out in various computer cases (AT and ATX). The machines can be temperamental, but each configuration reveals its own indelible soul (for lack of a better word, but it is a word that I quite like in this context).

My research focuses on reading on screens, depictions of electronic-facilitated reading, and the cognitive effects of reading on screens (of course, there are a multitude of screens and interfaces–a worthy complication) as opposed to other forms of non-digital media (and their multitude).

The Retrocomputing Lab continues to grow and new research possibilities abound. If you are interested in collaborating on a project with Retrocomputing Lab resources, drop me a line at jason dot ellis at lmc dot gatech dot edu.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Past Technology, the Altair 8800, Sept 28, 2004

This is the eleventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In the next few Recovered Writing posts, I will present my major assignments from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

In this essay assignment, we were tasked with exploring an example of a past technology. I chose to write about the Altair 8800–the first personal computer. Coincidentally, I am re-watching Robert X. Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds, which discusses and demonstrates the Altair 8800 in the first episode.

I enjoyed writing this essay, because it was one of the  first that permitted me to combine words and images (thinking about WOVEN). I had done this before on webpages, but not in an essay that I would hand in to my professor.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC 3314 – Technologies of Representation

September 28, 2004

Artifact from the Past – The Altair 8800

The Altair 8800 (image from Computer Closet).
The Altair 8800 (image from Computer Closet).

The Artifact

The Altair 8800 is credited as the first personal computer.  H. Edward Roberts invented the Altair 8800 after being approached by the magazine, Popular Electronics, to build a kit computer that could be sold through the magazine.  It utilized a central processing unit microprocessor and a bus that “signals and power traveled from one part of the machine to another on” (Ceruzzi 228).  When it was introduced in 1975 by Roberts’ company, MITS, you could purchase an Altair as a kit for $397 or assembled for $498.

Description

The exterior of the Altair 8800 is a steel enclosure.  The front faceplate is black and it has two rows of lights and two rows of flip switches.  Each of the lights and switches are labeled.  The back had an opening for cooling and the power plug connector.

The first Altair 8800 included a very small amount of computer memory (256 bytes–not kilobytes).  Also, when the computer was turned off, anything in the computer memory was lost.  This means that each time you used the Altair 8800 you had to input the program you were going to use and any data that the program was going to work with.  The input was handled through flipping of different switches on the faceplate.  The lights indicated the status of computer during input and the lights would later reveal the output of the program that was laboriously entered.  If the power went out during the programming of the Altair 8800, the program was lost and would have to be reentered when power was restored.

In a sense, the Altair 8800 was as self-contained as a modern day iMac.  The difference being that teletypes and display technology was prohibitively expensive for the computer hobbyist.  When the hobbyist had completed the construction of the Altair there was only the Altair 8800 in its steel enclosure and a power cord that plugged into a wall outlet.  Input and output was handled through the lights and switches on the face plate.

The inside of the Altair contained the electronics of the faceplate, the open bus, a CPU card, a memory card, and the power supply.  The open bus and the CPU chosen for the Altair 8800 are what ignited the possibility for the upcoming personal computer boom.

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The interior of the Altair 8800. Bottom left to top right: power supply, open bus with CPU and memory cards installed, and front control panel (image from Computer Closet).

            The open bus (also called S-100) was unique in that it was a board that was attached to the bottom of the inside of the enclosure that had four card connectors on it.  The open bus allowed for expansion possibilities and it was an open architecture which meant that others could build cards that would work in anyone’s Altair 8800.  Additionally, others could copy the open bus architecture so that they could build their own branded computer system that would use parts that were interchangeable with the Altair 8800 and other “clones.”

The S-100 bus (image from Computer Closet).
The S-100 bus (image from Computer Closet).

The Altair 8800 used Intel’s latest microprocessor, the 8080.  The 8080 distinguished itself from the older Intel microprocessor, the 8008, because “it had more instructions and was faster and more capable than the 8008” (Ceruzzi 228).  The 8080 required fewer supporting chips than the 8008 to make a functional system, it could address more memory than the 8008, and it used the “main memory for the stack, which permitted essentially unlimited levels of subroutines instead of the 8008’s seven levels” (Ceruzzi 228).  The 8080 was the first microprocessor powerful enough to run this early iteration of the personal computer.

The Intel 8080 CPU (image from CPU World).
The Intel 8080 CPU (image from CPU World).

The white chip in the middle of this CPU card is the Intel 8080 CPU (image from Computer Closet).
The white chip in the middle of this CPU card is the Intel 8080 CPU (image from Computer Closet).

Social Significance

The Altair 8800 was a hobbyist computer.  The kit that one could buy for about $400 was a box full of individual components that had to be skillfully soldiered and connected together.  MITS did offer a pre-built Altair 8800, but even a completed Altair entailed a good deal of expertise to make it do anything.  This first model handled all input and output through the lights and switches on the front panel.  The “front panel of switches…controlled the contents of internal registers, and small lights [indicated] the presence of a binary one or zero” (Ceruzzi 228).  This was lightyears away from MS-DOS and it was even further away from the GUI of the Macintosh, but it was able to do calculations on data by using programmed instructions.  The representation of the program was stored (temporarily, while the power was on) in an integrated circuit.  The output was displayed in a series of lights in the same location where the program and data were entered earlier.  The output was given in the same format in which it was received, through binary code (i.e., ones and zeros).  Input required encoding into binary and output required decoding from binary into results that the computer user could more concretely understand.  The computer user had to have command of the the encoding and decoding process in order to use the Altair.

Example Altair 8800 program written out (image from old-computers.com).
Example Altair 8800 program written out (image from old-computers.com).

The Altair 8800 operating.  Note the lights (image from Computer Closet).
The Altair 8800 operating. Note the lights (image from Computer Closet).

The open bus allowed others to follow in MITS footsteps in building a computer that was similar in design to the Altair 8800.  Also, hobbyists and other companies could build add-in cards that would interface with any computer based around the S-100 open bus that the Altair employed.  This meant that an aftermarket industry was created for the Altair and its clones.  More electrical components, memory chips, circuit boards, lead soldier, and etching materials would be sold and used in the creation of these add-on products.  More research and development took place both on the hobbyist’s workbench and in corporate research labs.  Some creations were sold as a final product whereas others would have been talked about at user group meetings or published as “how-to” guides in magazines like Popular Electronics.  A dynamic cycle of innovation was introduced to the personal computer that had not been present before.  This is what led to the personal computer becoming something different than an elitist computing device.  The critical mass was building for what led to the first Apple computer and the IBM PC.

Within this creative cycle was Roberts’ choice to use the Intel 8080 microprocessor.  Intel had been selling this microprocessor for $360.00 if ordered in small quantities.  MITS was able to buy them from Intel for $75.00 each.  If MITS had not been able to secure this low price, the Altair would have failed because of its much higher cost.  Because MITS was able to buy these processors for the lower price they were able to sell the Altair to customers for a price that they were willing and able to pay.  When the Altair took off, this meant that each one had an Intel 8080 CPU in the kit.  This meant that Intel started selling a lot more of these new microprocessors that, up until that time, they really didn’t know how to market.  Intel began to see that microprocessors weren’t just for expensive, business computers, but they were also for smaller, personal computers.  When Intel saw that there was a demand they began to further develop and diversify the microprocessor line over time.  Later, other companies began to adopt the S-100 bus.  This meant that other companies were buying Intel’s microprocessor to use in those computers.  Every computer had to have a CPU and at the time these particular computers had to have an Intel microprocessor.  Then other companies, such as AMD, reversed engineered the Intel 8080 microprocessor and began selling their own model that was functionally identical to Intel’s offering.  Money was being made and more innovation and work was taking place as a result.

Along with all of this building, research, and development new construction methods had to be developed and new distribution networks had to be employed.  The Altair was designed to be built at home by the buyer, but MITS also offered a pre-built turn-key system.  MITS did not anticipate the demand and customers quickly had to endure up to a one year wait for their Altair computer.  MITS (and others) learned from these delays.  Also, new buying and distribution channels had to be established.  MITS was buying microprocessors from Intel.  The many other components had to be purchased from other companies and distributors.  Parts had to be ordered and processed in order to send out kits and turn-key systems to customers.  Additionally, Intel had to be prepared to have microprocessors ready to sell to MITS and other companies.  When demand rose for the Altair it would have impacted each company that supplied the individual pieces that comprised the finished product.  Ordering systems, packing, and shipping had to be arranged to get the Altair from their headquarters to the customer’s home.  This involved materials for shipping, personnel, and the logistics of order processing.

MITS tried to market the Altair 8800 as a business computing solution after they saw how popular it was.  This was made easier when teletype, CRT displays, disk drives, punch card rolls, and other computing technology was developed for the Altair and S-100 bus systems. Businesses liked easier interaction with the computer and dependable memory storage.  These business systems were not very successful because there was no “killer app” for the platform at that time.  MITS changed hands several times until its last remnant disappeared.

Business version of the Altair advertisement (image from The Virtual Altair Museum).
Business version of the Altair advertisement (image from The Virtual Altair Museum).

The Altair 8800 began the desktop computing revolution.  Initially it was very complicated and elitist.  The very first kits had to be built and used by persons that were skilled in electronics and computer science.  The hardware had to be constructed from individual elements and then software had to be devised that would run on this built-from-scratch computer.  The Altair became more user friendly over time.  The aftermarket, MITS, and the clone manufacturers wanted to attract more customers.  The potential customers formed a triangle with the most knowledgeable at the peak with a gradation of less knowledgeable customers toward the bottom.  The early adopters of the Altair were at the top of this triangle but their numbers were few.  This meant that new computers with new input and output and new features had to be devised that would entice the greater number of potential computer users to want to buy their product.  This cycle continues to this day in the personal computer market.  Apple, Microsoft, Sony, HP, and many other companies continually work at making something feature rich, but easier and easier to use.  Note the utopian artwork below that was used for an early Altair advertisement.  It recalls Soviet artwork, utopian imagery, and an Altair on every desk.  The Altair was going to offer a leveling of the computing playing field so that all could take part in the use of computers.

Early MITS advertisement for the Altair (image from The Virtual Altair Museum).
Early MITS advertisement for the Altair (image from The Virtual Altair Museum).

Along with this cycle there are those persons who are intrigued by the new technology and they learn more about it on their own or through school.  This bolsters the book industry that may sell computer programming or electrical engineering books (or today, the plethora of “Dummies” guides).  Schools began to introduce computers into the classroom.  At first, it was strictly computer science and programming classes.  Later, computers were added for other things such as graphic design, CAD, and word processing.  Universities saw more computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering majors.  These universities added more professors, classroom space, and equipment to compensate for this demand.  State and federal spending was sought to cover some of these expenses.  Private enterprise was also asked to help through different kinds of agreements that would assist the business while helping the school’s students in need of projects and equipment.  This work done by school research could in turn help the businesses with their products that will be sold on the open market.

The Altair 8800 introduced computer enthusiasts to the possibility of working with digital information on their desktop.  Time sharing on large mainframes and minicomputers was still the primary interaction people had with computers in business and in schools.  With the flip of switches and the monitoring of lights, one could work problems and evaluate data at home or in the office.  There were early games, calculating problems, logarithms, and other numerical manipulation.  The early adopters questioned what other things could be manipulated with a personal computer.  With the introduction of new input and output systems, the list expanded a great deal because human-computer interaction became easier with the connection of a CRT monitor and a keyboard or punch card reader.  Also, the binary code and bits of information that were only ones and zero to the computer could be made to represent abstractions rather than mere numbers.

The Altair 8800 was the pebble that began rolling down the snow covered mountain (figuratively and literally of the user base).  The concept of the personal computer gained mass and momentum that could not be stopped.  The development of the first microprocessor based personal computer created new networks and new demands that were met by computer enthusiasts, students, researchers, and business people.

Works Cited

“Altair 8800.”  Old-Computers.com.  October 6, 2004.  October 6, 2004

<http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=62&gt;.

Ceruzzi, Paul E.  A History of Modern Computing.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:

The MIT Press, 1998.

“MITS Altair 8800.”  Computer Closet.  June 28, 1999.  October 6, 2004 <http://www.computercloset.org/MITSAltair8800.htm&gt;.

Sanderson, William Thomas.  The Virtual Altair Museum.  April 28, 2004.

October 6, 2004 <http://www.virtualaltair.com/&gt;.

Shvets, Gennadry.  “Intel 8080 Family.”  CPU World.  2003.  October 6, 2004      <http://www.cpu-world.com/CPUs/8080/&gt;.