Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

A VisiCalc time capsule

June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
by
Filed under History;
no comments yet.

When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

Unlocking the time capsule.

The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

(Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)

An adventure in Rocky's Boots

April 22nd, 2019 1:04 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, History;
2 comments.

My reputation as any workplace's resident (and only) Apple II expert began at my first salaried job as a high-school teacher. I'd often annoy the computer-science teacher, Ms. Lang, by extolling the virtues of BASIC as a programming language (she preferred Scheme); and when I had to substitute for her for a day, I taught her students how to use VisiCalc, as detailed in a Juiced.GS article.

One day, that same teacher came to me for help. She'd recently come back from a conference with a copy of an old Apple II program used to teach programming logic using circuits and gates — could I boot it in my emulator so she could assess its usefulness to her class? I'd never heard the game, but as soon as it started, I gasped. "This is the work of Warren Robinett!"

In Rocky's Boots, players control a simple square as it navigates single-screen rooms, picking up items by colliding with them and transporting them through exits. Sword-like arrows guide the player from room to room.

It was the exact same design and interface as a game I'd grown up with: Adventure on the Atari 2600. Using a joystick and a single button, I'd guided that square on expeditions to distant castles, raiding their treasure while dodging and defeating terrifying, duck-like dragons, all while hoping not to be abducted by a random bat. Adventure's place was cemented not just in my memory but also in history for featuring the first-ever Easter egg: a hidden room with the developer's name, Warren Robinett.

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room.

It was thanks to that Easter egg that I knew who must be responsible for Rocky's Boots. It's rare for a developer to have such an identifiable style, but when I saw Rocky's Boots, I knew it had to be, if not the same developer, then at least the same engine. I'd never researched Robinett's portfolio beyond that historical Atari 2600 game; until that moment in my high school office, I didn't realize Robinett had adapted his work to any other platform. But in a video demoing the 1982 eudcational title, Robinett describes it: "It uses some of the same ideas from the Adventure game for Atari: A network of interlinked screens, objects that you could pick up…"

I haven't played Rocky's Boots since that day in 2005, but it recently become easier to explore this educational curiosity, thanks to the work of 4am:

My thanks to 4am for preserving this classic, to Robinett for developing it, and to Karen Lang for introducing me to it. Now go try it yourself and enjoy this adventure on the Apple II!

Retailing the Apple II

December 31st, 2018 2:29 PM
by
Filed under History;
Comments Off on Retailing the Apple II

There's a lot to say about the history of the Apple II — and, thanks to writers like Steve Weyhrich, much of it has already been said. Some of it even originates in my own backyard, such as the creation of genre-defining software titles VisiCalc in Zork, which happened right in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to MIT and Harvard.

But what about the local names that don't make the history books? Especially retailers? They're the ones who directly made computers available to the masses, equipping homes and offices with these new inventions. What was it like to be one of those early salespeople who had to convince customers of the utility of a machine that was entirely without precedent?

That's a bigger question than can be answered in a humble weekly blog post — but it's one that's brought to mind after stumbling across this photo, taken exactly forty years ago last month:

B&W photo of businessman in store holding Apple II peripheral

I originally found this photo published with this caption:

Joel Skolnick computer store manager in Cambridge, Mass., displays a memory board of one of the many functions an Apple II computer can do which is shown on screen. November 15, 1978 (AP Photo / David Tenenbaum).

That's not a very descriptive title: "computer store manager". But it turns out Mr. Skolnick is still alive and well in the area, and a quick visit to his LinkedIn profile reveals that he was the vice president of finance for a business called… Computer Store. Huh.

The history of Apple II retail is a potential Juiced.GS article in the making, and one for which Mr. Skolnick would certainly be a primary source. In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Computer Store of four decades ago.

Negotiating deals at KansasFest

November 26th, 2018 3:36 PM
by
Filed under History, Musings;
Comments Off on Negotiating deals at KansasFest

It's Cyber Monday, and Juiced.GS is selling Sophistication & Simplicity, Dr. Steve Weyhrich's definitive history of the Apple II. I sang this book's praises upon its December 2013 release, even going so far as to shoot an unboxing video:

What brought this book to the Juiced.GS store five years later is a random confluence of events. This past summer marked my 21st time attending KansasFest, the annual Apple II expo held in Kansas City. But for the first time in over a decade, my traditional roommate of Andy Molloy was not in attendance. I asked Steve Weyhrich if I could crash in his dorm room instead.

It was during one evening of cohabitation that my roommate and I got to chatting, the conversation wandering among all aspects of the Apple II community. What I discovered that evening was that not only had Steve received a few complimentary copies of his book, as every author is owed; he also had several dozen extra copies in storage.

If this had come to light 4–5 years ago, I would not have been in a position to do anything about it. But in the last three years, Juiced.GS has become a publisher and reseller for other Apple II entities, such as The Byte Works and Kelvin Sherlock. When I asked Steve if he'd be interested in being the third person to engage in such a collaboration by allowing Juiced.GS to distribute his book, he happily agreed.

What followed were months of emails between Steve, me, publisher Variant Press, the Juiced.GS staff, and other parties. The result was our ability to bring autographed copies of this book to Juiced.GS customers at an all-time low price — all because Steve and I were KansasFest roommates.

The Apple II community at large has long benefitted from the fruits of KansasFest, with collaborative products such as Marinetti having been born there. I'm delighted that Steve and I are the latest instrument of such happenstance.

Apple II in flight

November 12th, 2018 10:50 AM
by
Filed under History;
2 comments.

Once upon a time, before airlines had Wi-Fi, commercial flights were a disconnected oasis where passengers could not be reached by the outside world. It was the perfect time to put away the laptops and catch up on books, magazines, or even handheld games.

Now our computers are with us on every flight — a trend begun in 1983 by Jack McCornack, who put an Apple II on his ultralight aircraft.

"No brakes, no license, no parachute… What is there in this barebones aircraft to hang on to for even the least sense of security? It was designed with the help of an Apple II," writes Melissa Milich in Softalk Volume 3, Issue 5 (Jan 1983).

Jack McCornack of Pterodactyl in flight

Most of the article details how McCornack uses VisiCalc and Apple Writer to run his aviation company, much like any entrepreneur or businessperson might. But on page 125 is a sidebar in which Milich dives into the details of the above photo:

That's an Apple II Plus, monitor, disk drive, and Apple Juice power supply bolted to a wooden mount with foot-long bolts and protective pads. On the two-seater Pterodactyl pictured, the Apple sits where the passenger normally would. The control stick for the canard and winglets is managed with the right hand while the pilot reaches over with the left hand to type on the keyboard.

This sidebar is a fascinating look at the early integration between aviation and digital technology — not only to provide data that pilots and on-ground personnel can use to make decisions, but to actually control the flight mechanics themselves:

In a normal plane, ailerons are controlled by the stick and the rudders are controlled by foot pedals… McCornack is working toward a version of the two-seater in which you can control ailerons with a joystick hooked to the Apple. The computer would control servo motors that activate the ailerons.

Going for a theme, this same issue of Softalk has a similar article on pages 48–54: David Hunter's piece "Exec SubLogic: On Course and Flying High". It's a meandering piece about Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, two other entrepreneurs who developed the early flight simulator A2-FS1 Flight Simulator (and, later, Night Mission Pinball).

SubLogic had many other innovations in development. Decades before Steel Battalion, they envisioned more complex interaction and input devices:

Not just another joystick, this multiplexed, seven-channel contraption will give a more realistic aspect to the flight simulator, possibly including foot pedals, a steering wheel, a separate throttle, and other features.

Softalk was a great magazine, and this issue in particular was a fun look at the Apple II in flight.

(Hat tip to Paulo Alves via Garrett Meiers, with help from Laine Nooney)

Without Me You're Nothing

September 17th, 2018 11:11 AM
by
Filed under History;
1 comment.

The spice must flow… as must the electrons. After Frank Herbert wrote the seminal science-fiction novel Dune in 1965, he shifted his sights from the far future to the near future, with the goal of demystifying a new technological arrival: the personal computer. The non-fiction result was Without Me You're Nothing: The Essential Guide to Home Computers.

Written by Herbert with assistance from Max Barnard, "a computer professional who handles both machines and programming and who designed Herbert's own home system", the book is a platform-agnostic guide to the basic functions of computer hardware, software, and programming. For example, the book breaks down the foreign vocabulary of information technology into more familiar concepts. Terms such as "input", "output", "CPU", and "memory" are instead referred to as "information", "action", "switching", and "storage", respectively. "Use the funny words if you must," says Herbert.

Without Me You're Nothing (is that Herbert talking to the computer — or to the readers?) was published in 1980 in hardcover (ISBN 0671412876) and a year later in paperback (ISBN 0671439642), both of which are readily available from libraries, Amazon.com, and eBay. Another paperback edition was released under the name The Home Computer Handbook in 1981 (ISBN 057503050X) and 1985 (ISBN 0450056317). These computer books form two of the six non-fiction books Herbert wrote in his lifetime.

Despite the multiple editions, I had never heard of this book until a friend introduced me to it. I was astonished that a science fiction author would branch out to something so practical and no-nonsense. William Touponce, author of the 1988 book Frank Herbert, made the connection:

[Herbert's] dominant intellectual impulse was not to mystify or set himself up as a prophet, but the opposite – to turn what powers of analysis he had (and they were considerable) over to his audience. And this impulse is as manifest in Dune… as it is in his computer book, Without Me You're Nothing.

Being nonspecific about what computers the reader uses, the book makes little to no reference about the Apple II specifically. The exception is a black-and-white photo of the Apple II opening Chapter 3: Meet Your New Machine — followed immediately by a photo of the Atari 400.

Of additional historical reference value are Appendix D, which includes the names and mailing addresses of the era's computer magazines (Byte in Peterborough, NH; Digital Design in Brookline, MA; ROM of Hampton, CT); and Appendix E: Microcomputer Accessories and Manufacturers, listing everything from Apple (770 Welch Road in Palo Alto) to Data General Corp (Southborough, MA) to Radio Shack (Fort Worth, TX).

I haven't read the book in-depth — to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Dune — but it's nonetheless a fascinating artifact of how early computers were perceived and deciphered by early users, grounding even someone accustomed to looking among the stars.