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.