Wednesday, April 28, 2021

TI-99/4A Play-and-Display

I grew up in NW Indiana outside Chicago in a city called Hammond. It was a gray industrial place, but I remember the oak trees and the snug working-class houses. My parents were married a couple of years when they moved out of their apartment just over the Illinois border into my childhood home. They were kids of the early 70s and didn’t have a lot of cash. My dad worked as a technician at a small electrical engineering firm on the North Side. It was a small outfit that did contract work for larger companies. Being a young man with a family at home, a computer was an unaffordable luxury. However, doing odd-jobs for my grandfather and delivering pizzas in the evenings and weekends, he was able to save up for a computer. I guess he really wanted an Apple II, but it was too expensive. However, the TI was reasonably priced due to the price wars with Commodore. With the TI he could add accessories later on. In the end he had saved up for a PEB, monitor, modem, the whole nine yards.

He passed away in ’85 at the age of 28 in a car accident. I was 5 at the time. My memory of the TI stops after that. No one in the house really was into computers and it was moved into my bedroom. In the end it just gathered dust. I didn’t want to use it because I missed my dad. Eventually, it was packed into boxes and put in the basement with his oscilloscope and other computer stuff. After a respectable interval, my mother sold everything to a young guy who was studying EE at Perdue Calumet.

As I got older I regretted that the TI was gone. That computer meant a lot to my father and he worked hard to save to get it. So, this year I decided to find a good example and dedicate a space in my office to recreate what I remember of that vintage computer. I specifically wanted to have a nice display for the unit and a way to keep all the associated items in one place. The 99 uses cartridges for many programs so having storage for that would be helpful.

I mulled over the idea for some time, did some sketches, and came up with an eye-catching design:

TinkerCad is a great!

The body of the shelf is made of 3/4" baltic birch plywood fastened with pocket screws. There is a single moveable shelf that holds the user manual and programming guides. I put a basket in the lower space to hold cables, the remote controls, and other pieces that need to be safely stowed. The picture blow does not show the basket, but trust me, it's necessary to keep the cables and components organized.

Early in the design I wanted a large, orange TI logo. The early cartridges all sport this color and I wanted to have it part of the look. The plywood is painted in a color called Web Gray (Sherwin-Williams) and the edges of the plywood are finished with a clear butcher block finish. Partly because I wanted the layers of the plywood to show through and partly because I had a can of it in my paint cabinet. There's also another piece of furniture in the room that has a similar look.

Not having a monitor or a spare TV I decided to use one of those cheap backup camera displays. They are native RCA and the price was right. I was even able to drive it off the 12v line coming form the video port. I think there is some noise on the signal, but for my purpose (casual use at best) it was just fine. There would be room on the back panel area to mount a small flat panel TV and I might do that in the future.

Retro computing, like typewriter collecting, is really an exercise in storage. Finding places to store these large devices can quickly overwhelm a display space and veer into Collyer Brothers territory. With a display like this I must keep the collection within strict confines and my family is very appreciative of that.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Offworld Communication

Sometimes you get lucky. I was lucky when I found this calculator:

I was excited by this find. You don't find many of these in the calculator bins at thrift stores because the internet has made them famous. They are easy to get, but not for $3.00. The 11C (from the Voyager series) was a mid-range RPN programmable scientific. This one was made around 1987 and while used, it is clean and works really well.

I have another Voyager series calculator, but it's the more common (and still manufactured) 12C Financial. The 12C is a hard calculator to like because of late-stage capitalism, but the 11C is filled with scientific goodness. Sine? Check. Statistical analysis? Check. Programming? Check. This little gem has it all.

As I was enjoying playing around with these marvelous buttons, I started thinking about the back of these little wonders. Why the back? The back is covered with information engraved on an aluminum sheet. The back serves as a cheat sheet of sorts; offering guidance on how to program the device, common error codes, battery size and orientation. It's delightfully empty of words instead relying on the dual universal language; images and math. I took the time to search through the manual to understand it and make this information graphic:

Fun right? Maybe not exactly fun for the people who relied on this calculator to make rockets, vaccines, or nuclear power plants. While I'm not a practitioner of the hard sciences myself, I do respect and understand the importance of science and mathematics in the history of human thought and appreciate the beauty and aesthetic nature of this type of communication.

Not much older than myself, these two spacecraft have been flying through the expanse for over 40 years. Millions of miles away from this planet and our sun, this probe just keeps traveling. Unless it's destroyed by an interstellar collision or pick up by another civilization, it will silently keep traveling.

Like the back of the HP11C there is a cheat sheet on this spacecraft in the shape of a golden record. Most of the interest in the golden record centers around the content of the golden record. While interesting, I think that the cover of the record is even more intriguing. How do you communicate with someone using images and math? The committee that created the visual/auditory anthology on the record created this:

The hope that a far future people can understand the cover and its instructions is almost an act of faith.

The cover and the contents of the record says more about us as humans than it could ever say to a distant people. Sagan likened the record as a note in a bottle. It may reach far distant shores or it may be lost in the vast unknown. Both are possible, but we hope the bottle lands none-the-less. We know that the record is there. We know that the information lives on. We know that something of ourselves is out there. It's as romantic and artistic a view of space travel as we are likely to get from scientists. (Unrelated, send poets and artists into space, not just scientists.) 

If Voyager is a message in a bottle what is the back of the HP11C Voyager? Is it a Swiss Army Knife? Is it a message in a bottle?

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Parts from the Future

Back in July of 2020 I got a call from Bill Wahl of Mesa Typewriter Exchange to let me know that the IBM Selectric I dropped off was done. There have been a few of these iron giants in my collection from time to time, but this one is the one I keep. While not particularly pretty (Like Teds blue-key beauty), it’s clean and a good size. Sadly, it had developed a bad case of Selectric thumping and was giving me some problem with the ribbon advance mechanism. This one uses the carbon ribbons. Both of these repairs are not in my bailiwick so to Bill it went.

Bill replaced the cycle clutch pulley gear with a new non-broken one. For anyone who has ever owned a thunking Selectric, you know that it’s a matter of time until this part breaks. Age is the culprit. Time is not kind to the plastic and it becomes brittle. Sometimes you can repair them with epoxy and binding wire, but replacement is the only guaranteed option for trouble-free typing.

With all the OEM parts used up or aging and cracking on their own, modern manufacturing processes can breath new life into these typewriters. Bill gave me a small tour of the two types of replacement pulleys available today. One is CNC milled aluminum and the other is 3D printed.

In the picture above, you can see the CNC milled aluminum example (top) and the 3D printed one below. The original cracked part is brown. Having used the aluminum parts initially, Bill prefers the 3D printed ones; they are less noisy.

Both of the replacements pulleys need a donor arbor to mount them properly. The new pulley feels like sintered nylon to me, but it might be another material. Regardless there is a heft to this replacement part that makes it feel like a quality item. With only dozens of these parts in working typewriters the longevity is still an open question, but based on how mine works and sounds I think it works well and if something happens another one can be printed.

The promise of rapid prototyping and the 3D printing makes it possible to keep our old typewriters running.  It only takes someone who knows what they are doing and cares enough about our magical writing machines to help keep them humming along sans thump.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Wheelwriter Wheels

Looking back at the archive for this blog, I don't think this typewriter ever made its way into a post. That's odd because I've had it for a long time and it does get used on occasion. I did post about a typewriter that used the same mechanism, but I was apathetic about it. That Wheelwriter had a host of bells and whistles that made it fun to use. I liked the memory function where you could store several pages of text and have it spit them out on demand. 

This typewriter, however, is much more modest. The Personal Wheelwriter 2 has many of the features of the other Wheelwriters including bulking spring keys, auto centering text, spell check, and interchangeable type wheels. Those typewheels/daisywheels are the subject of this post.

I keep my wheels in a metal drawer on the cart that holds the Wheelwriter.

There's some other stuff in there too.

Each wheel has the typeface printed on it along with pitch information. PS wheels are for proportionally spaced Wheelwriters which this one is no. Being made of plastic I don't know how rugged the wheels are, but golf balls for the Selectric are also made of plastic and those last a long time.

A cursory look at printwheels on a major online auction site shows many wheels available, but the prices are not what I would be willing to pay. 

This is my current wheel list with sample type in Rev. Munk format (sans sentence):

That Courier 15 is tiny!

If you open the hood you see that these typewriters were manufactured by Lexmark for IBM. This is also true for Model M keyboards of the same vintage. The dark history of what happened in Lexington is best saved for another post. 

This typewriter was a donation from a secretary (now retired) at Alhambra. Janet was her name and this was her departed mother's typewriter. She was, from what I remember, an active participant in her church and a regular contributor to the Sunday bulletin. Not pictured is a paper support arm that slid into the vented slots in the back. The one that I have is broken and just falls out. It's of limited use anyway.

I dust this typewriter off for form-filling. It does the work admirably. I love how you set the margins; just a button press.

A great typewriter if you have a stash of ribbons (I am down to my last two).

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Vintage Technolog Book Club: King of the Seven Dwarfs

The computers that dominate vintage computing are the ones that loomed large in our youth; Apple //, Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, TI 99/4a. Much like typewriters, these old machines exert a romantic pull. Collectors call these classic computers, but like any technological advancement, the home computers of the late 70s and early 80s represent just a single point in the continuum of computing. 

The book that I just finished has nothing to do with this classical age of computing, but calls back to an earlier mythical time iron giants. Homer R. Oldfield's King of the Seven Dwarfs chronicles the haphazard and lurching attempt by General Electric to become the number two computer manufacturer and a real source of competition to IBM. Who willingly seeks out second place? GE.

What's up with the Seven Dwarves? It's a reference to IBM (Snow White) and the seven other major computer manufacturers at the time: Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Honeywell, RCA, and General Electric.

Fig 1.Ralph Cordiner

In the mid 1950s, under the direction of General Electric president Ralph Cordiner, General Electric was the platonic idea of a modern American technology conglomerate. GE's research laboratory had just created artificial diamonds and GE products were everywhere; radios, televisions, kitchen appliances. However, GE was not involved in computers. They made vacuum tubes used in all the great computers of the era, but they were a manufacturing company. IBM was the best computer (and marketing) company in the world. In Cordiner's mind GE would never compete with IBM in the office equipment business.

Fig 2. ERMA 

Oldfield 's book begins the story with his personal involvement in entering a bid for Bank of America's ERMA computer system. The ERMA (Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting) system was developed by Stanford Research Institute for the Bank of America starting in the early 50s as an attempt to modernize and computerize check sorting and account reconciliation. It was a significant project with an equally significant computer attached. 24 separate companies entered bids to build this machine and the contracted 32 identical systems installed in branches of BofA across the country. Oldfield devotes a significant portion of the book to this part of the GE story because the antipathy that Cordiner felt toward business computing made the development of this product a minor miracle.

Oldfield recounts this history from his personal experience, but adopts the role of a third person limited narrator. This hackneyed attempt at literary distance is hard to read. Additionally, the dialogue that Oldfield uses to progress the historical account is cliched and sometimes painfully embarassing. The dramatization in dialogue and narration diminishes when Oldfield leaves departs GE. Interestingly, the pulls of his family and especially his wife's mental health, is a compelling secondary plot that would make for an interesting novel set agains the high-technology of the sun-belt.

What Oldfield lacks in literary skill, he more than makes up for with content. The depth of knowledge is significant and the book drives into the personalities and decisions that caused GE to become a computer history also-ran. 

My fascination with this book comes from the local color. GE, early on, decided to place the headquarters for the Computer Department in Phoenix. In 1956 computer experts and hopefuls crossed the nation to arrive in Phoenix. GE's investment in computers in Arizona was significant and made no lasting impact on the landscape of this city. You would think that the only early competitor to IBM would merit some historical remembrance. The manner of GE's entry and abrupt exit of the computer market (being sold to Bull in 1970) turned the GE office parks scattered across the valley into Honeywells and Bulls.

A post like this wouldn't be complete without a few artifacts that I have been able to scrounge up. Being the spiritual home of the GE Computer Department, you might still find hints and faded references to the company. One such example is this token form the 1961 Computer Department National Sales Meeting held at the Superstition Ho in Apache Junction. 

The event is surprisingly well-documented including pictures and a special opening by Ronald Reagan and a lovely set of yearbook-style photos of the entire Computer Department (including the father of director Steven Spielberg).

The last object is perhaps my favorite:

I can imagine that on the last day of work Kathy (The name written in sharpie on the bottom) decided to slip this three-hole punch into her box of belongings and left GE for good. Was it in the 1970s when GE Phoenix was taken over by Bull? Was it her favorite three-hole punch? Why the orange? Can you believe this isn't the first one of these I've seen around here?

In the end, I do not regret reading this book. There aren't many of these primary source documents left in the world of early computing history especially about a company that failed so spectacularly. However, this story hardly ends there. There's Datanet and Dartmouth and Basic and Multics and Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie and Unix and...