Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

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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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.

The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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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.

Interplay's cancelled RPG, Meantime

November 18th, 2019 10:26 AM
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I spend more time consuming game news than I do playing games, which means I learn a lot about games well before they're released. Alas, not all games that are reported to be in development ultimately enjoy a public debut. From Scalebound on the Xbox One to StarCraft: Ghost on the Nintendo 64 to SimCity on the Apple IIGS, games that are more than a concept and are anticipated by fans nonetheless get axed for a variety of reasons: too complex a development process, insufficient budget, or too late in a platform's lifespan.

Still, I was surprised to find an early Apple II game on GameRant's list of "10 Canceled RPG Games You Never Knew Existed". As I haven't played many role-playing games in the last twenty years, I found GameRant's list to be aptly named: I hadn't heard of a single one of these titles.

But one of them, Meantime, I feel like I should have:

Following 1988's Wasteland, Interplay (again) wanted to publish a follow-up, and Meantime was put into development for the Apple II. The game was deep into development when a couple of detrimental things occurred. For one, key player Liz Danforth left the team. For another, the team realized that the Apple II was declining in relevance and sales. The team attempted to port the progress over to the MS-DOS, but lead Bill Dugan lost morale upon seeing the incredible graphics of Ultima VII. Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.

Wikipedia has an entire page about the game, elaborating that Meantime was to be set in the same universe as Wasteland, also by Interplay, but with a plot more akin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure:

The basic premise was that the player would travel through time, and recruit famous historical figures to the player's party. For example, Amelia Earhart joins the party when she is rescued from a Japanese prison camp, and Wernher von Braun does when he is helped to escape the Soviets at the end of World War II. Each character would also have a particular specialty; Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, would have an expert fencing skill. The party would attempt to repair damage caused by a similar party of time-traveling villains, attempting to alter the course of history by influencing events.

Will we ever see a hint of what the game might've been, like we did with SimCity GS? In short, no. Not only does the website JustAdventure.com state that no screenshots of the game exist, but it gets worse, according to Wikipedia:

When Interplay finally did create their spiritual successor to Wasteland, Fallout, none of the Meantime code was used and the only Meantime designer involved in the creation of Fallout was Mark O'Green. No copies of the source code are believed to currently exist.

And yet the Wasteland universe persists: Wasteland 3 was announced just last week as being released on May 19, 2020.

Maybe Interplay will harken back to its lost heritage in an Easter egg still to come.

Apple II in Six, SIx, Six

October 28th, 2019 4:41 AM
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While recently touring the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded just how influential Christianity has been on classical art. The Bible must be the most inspirational and reinterpreted book in history, as evidenced by the many paintings hanging in the Rijksmuseum galleries.

With the Apple II being just as important to the development of personal computers, I shouldn't be surprised that it and Christianity should intersect to make history.

In 1984, six-year-old music band DeGarmo & Key released the record Communication. On this LP was the single "Six, Six, Six", for which they produced this music video featuring Satan using the Apple II as a medium to seduce a young man.

Upon first viewing, I found the premise rather objectionable. The Apple II as a tool the Devil? A Commodore 64 would've been more believable. Also, who loads random software into their computer without knowing where it's from?? Then I remembered that viruses were scarce 35 years ago, and their ability to infect other programs was limited by the nature of floppy disks. As someone who was always hungry for the latest and greatest games, I probably would've inserted any floppy that promised a modicum of entertainment.

Good thing that kid was of a similar mindset, as otherwise we wouldn't have this fascinating music video to analyze. I see in it many motifs that were later repeated in other movies about games, computers, and wish fulfillment. As in the movie Shazam, a powerful figure offers teenagers untold power by first tempting them with great evil. Similar to "The Bishop of Battle", the main character is pulled into the game. Like in The Matrix, anyone in this virtual world could be an agent of the enemy. And ultimately, just like Jumanji, the cursed game is discarded by the hero, only to be found by a new, unsuspecting victim.

But these are not the reasons the music video made history. According to Wikipedia:

DeGarmo & Key were the first American Christian group to have a music video appear on MTV …The original video for the song "Six, Six, Six" was one of a number of videos that MTV pulled from rotation due to violent content. The purge was a public reaction to the U.S. Senate hearings on sex and violence in music. MTV had misinterpreted the song "Six, Six, Six" as an anti-Christian statement. According to industry news reports at the time, MTV executive Sandra Sparrow was unaware that DeGarmo & Key were a Christian band when she included the video in a list of videos to be excised. MTV allowed DeGarmo & Key to submit a re-edited version, which was placed back into rotation. Removed from the re-edited video was a short scene of a man representing the Antichrist being set on fire.

I'm not familiar with those particular Senate hearings, though they're similar to the ones I researched for my thesis on moral panics: when a new form of media or entertainment appears, adults blame it for juvenile delinquency — similar to how the Apple II is depicted here.

The resulting edited, "tamer" music video, which retains the Apple II's role in full, is here:

Whichever the version, this wasn't the Apple II's last appearance in a music video — but it's surely the first time it appeared in a banned music video!

(Hat tip to Randy Brandt!)

Jean Armour Polly put computers in libraries

October 21st, 2019 7:00 AM
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Last month, the Internet Hall of Fame inducted a new class. Among its members was Jean Armour Polly, who pioneered free Internet access in public libraries.

And she did so with an Apple II, according to Syracuse.com. While the Internet and the Apple II were not exactly contemporaries, Polly was an advocate for computers in libraries well before they were put online.

It was 1981 and this was groundbreaking. They set up the computer, a black Apple 2 Plus, in a spot where everyone could use it. The American Legion raised money to buy the printer. At the time, Liverpool was one of two libraries in the country with a computer, said Polly, a Syracuse University alumna.

That's not Polly's only contribution to computer literacy and Internet lore: she also popularized the term "surfing" for Internet activity.

While Polly popularized the phrase, she didn't coin it. The first use of "surfing the Internet" was by Mark McCahill on the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher on February 25, 1992:

There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack.

I'm a big fan of public libraries, making weekly visits to mine to get free movies, books, and video games (and to look for Apple II software). While I haven't needed to use a library's computers, I realize that making this resource available to the community is an invaluable service with a high return on investment.

Our thanks to Polly for being among those who got the ball rolling with an Apple II Plus!

(Hat tip to Andy Molloy)