Archive for December, 2019

Apple II at The Strong Museum of Play

December 30th, 2019 12:00 PM
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I love visiting computer museums, be it the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California; the Living Computers: Museum & Labs of Seattle, Washington; or the InfoAge Museum of Wall Township, New Jersey. But the only museum I've visited repeatedly is The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. I stopped by there twice in 2011, just a year after the museum expanded to include the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. As a former member of the gaming press, I've been able to donate a variety of video game rarities to the ICHEG.

This past weekend marked my third visit to The Strong, and as always, I was drawn to its Apple II artifacts. The history of gaming exhibit is diverse, if not comprehensive, and includes names and equipment familiar to retrocomputing enthusiasts. Several new artifacts had been added since my last visit eight years ago, including the original Apple II computers of Bill Budge and John Romero, as seen in these photos.

While other computers made multiple appearances, including the TRS-80, the Apple II is the only machine I saw in triplicate. While The Strong often inadvertently snubs the Apple II in its annual nominations to the World Video Game Hall of Fame, it's great to see the institution give the computer — and its developers — the recognition they deserve.

For my photos from the Women in Games exhibit, visit the Juiced.GS website. For yet more Strong photos, visit Gamebits!

Woz works Christmas

December 23rd, 2019 10:28 AM
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Filed under History, Steve Wozniak;
2 comments.

Christmas is this week, and whether or not you have friends and family to spend it with, ideally you're not spending it with co-workers: the holidays are a vacation from our day jobs, if any.

Unless you're Steve Wozniak.

Forty-two years ago, Woz spent Christmas developing the a 5.25" floppy disk drive for the Apple II. It was 1977 — Apple's first year in business — and the first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to be held in Las Vegas was just a week or two away. For Woz, there would be no yule logs or holiday shopping or Christmas lights or Christmas vacation — only floppy toil.

Woz's labor paid off, as the resulting Disk II drive propelled the success of the Apple II. "It cost just $140 in components, but sold for $595", reports Cult of Mac — that's $552 and $2,347 in 2019 dollars. Yet it was still "the cheapest floppy disk system ever sold up to that point", states Wikipedia.

CC BY-SA 3.0 All About Apple


Like a Jelly of the Month Club subscription, Woz's work is the gift that keeps on giving. Disks produced for the Apple II floppy drive continue to be imaged to this day, ensuring that classic software is preserved for Christmases to come.

Jimmy Grewal's Dubai collection

December 16th, 2019 10:32 PM
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There are Apple II collections all around the world — most densely in the United States, but also in Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, and more.

Now we can add one more global destination to that list: the United Arab Emirates.

Reporter Cody Combs of The National (the UAE's premier news source) recently profiled Jimmy Grewal, a former Microsoft employee who now serves as executive director of a maritime technology company in Dubai. He's collected nearly a hundred Apple desktops, laptops, and PDAs, including an Apple-1 and eleven Apple II computers. One of them can be seen — and overlooked — in this video.

Fortunately, the article itself does not overlook our favorite Apple, mentioning:

As he points toward what first appears to be yet another Apple II, he explains why it’s different. “This is actually one of the rarest computers I have because it doesn’t have any vents,” he says, pointing out the completely solid casing in contrast to the other Apple II in the room with small gaps to allow for air flow.

Jimmy is active on Twitter and YouTube; the latter includes a video documentary of his Apple-1 restoration.

While Grewal's collection is not open to the public, he is planning for the day when these artifacts can be housed somewhere that everyone can enjoy them. On that day, add Dubai to your international retrocomputing itinerary.

The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

The Apple II powering the Lenin Museum

December 2nd, 2019 1:50 PM
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While the Apple II enjoyed broad success in the United States, it was not widely available in many other geographic regions due to distribution and trade regulations. Russia. Instead, the USSR had the Agat, a 6502-based computer with limited compatibility with the Apple II. Any actual Apple II computers in Russia are more likely to be found in museums as part of modern exhibits about historical computers.

So imagine my surprise when Apple II recently turned up in Russia's Lenin Museum, but not as a recent addition: it's been there for decades, powering one of their long-running installations. The software is the Electrosonic System 4000 (ES4000), which was once also used at the United Kingdom's National Science and Media Museum. When the Lenin Museum's curators discovered the ES4000, they recognized its potential for their institution. But:

Soviet law barred them from trading directly with foreign companies, and Agat-7, a Soviet Apple II clone, was unlikely to do the job. It required an external card to run software made in the West, and its 60-pin slots would not fit the 50-pin cards used by the ES4000… That meant the company would need to bring their own Apple computers to the Soviet Union.

To get around Soviet regulations, the deal was signed with a specialized economic body, Technointorg, and carried over through Beech Compix, a British front for the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Foreign staff traveled to the USSR, too—but Cascade, a Russian company, took credit for their job, seemingly to preserve the impression that Soviet technology could not be beat.

The Apple II that the museum procured 32 years ago continues to run the exhibit to this day.

A remote control for the Lenin Museum's Apple II.

Photo by Yuri Litvinenko of Atlas Obscura.

Yuri Litvinenko's story at Atlas Obscura continues to detail Apple's official efforts to penetrate the Russian market with the Macintosh. Given the failure of that initiative, this Apple II remains one of the few Apple II computers to have made its way to the USSR in the computer's original lifespan.