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...

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Blue Chance

Accident. Fluke. Good luck. Fortuity. Providence.

It has been a long time since I've added a new typewriter to this collection. I've been operating based on a one-out-one-in system. Very recently a friend was visiting a thrift store (in a lull between Covid-19 waves) and found this blue beauty:

$25. Are there even typewriter deals like that left?

I've been looking for a 50s smooth colored Royal for a long time. You have your pinks and reds. Those are very popular, but there is something Western in this color. I think of broad, open skies on a sunny Arizona day. I see the color of turquoise jewelry. I see the subtle blue in the hazy far away mountains. 

This is uncleaned and in original condition. 

Every typewriter collector--every collector--has those rare moments where all the stars align and you find that special thing.

Collecting is as much serendipity as it is sagacity. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Elsi Mate EL-8048 Soro-cal

So I am sure that you always wondered if there was a calculator that combined both a calculator and a Japanese abacus called a soroban? Well, wonder no more because that object definitely exists.

It's a strange chimera, but this calculator was made for a short time and exclusively for the Japanese market from the late 1970s to early 1980s. The legend states that some Japanese calculator users would check answers from digital calculators on a soroban.

Multiplication on a soroban can be difficult and a calculator might be a nice addition.

This particular model, the Elsi Mate EL-8048, was released in January of 1979. There were just four models in the total line; EL-8148 (19 beads), the EL-808, the EL-428, and the EL-429 (solar). The EL-8048 is my favorite because of the pencil-holder.

The calculator part is not particularly accurate.  It fails a one-divide-by-nine-multiply-by-nine test with an answer of 0.9999999. An accurate calculator would return a one. The soroban part is incredibly accurate.

This example is in good shape. The bottom is a little scratched.

Is that serial number right? 147? Also is this an abacus with a calculator or a calculator with an abacus. Sharp is drawing a line in the sand with this information badge.

This is the type of object that I love. It comes from a strange liminal time when one way of thinking was trying to exist with another way of thinking. Isn't it a charming thing?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Royal's Computer

Royal is one of my favorite typewriter brands. I have all the greats; No. 10, HH, FP, tons of portables. They may not be the prettiest typewriters, but they are very numerous. Did you know that Royal also dipped their toes into computer technology? It's true, but the world of office typewriters and data technology is was not too much of a departure for the largest typewriter company ever. The story is long and complicated and I hope to share some things I learned about this computer.

The Beginning

Not surprisingly, Royal didn't make this typewriter computer themselves. Dr. Stan Frankel working for Librascope of Glendale, CA designed the computer. Librascope manufactured it and presented it at the Automation Show and Computer Clinic show in Chicago.

Paul Kane, in the story to the right , looks like he is not enjoying the Holiday activities.

I can only imagine that Royal sent their VP of R&D (E. H. Dreher) and Senior Project Engineer (I. S. Lerner) to the show with the mission of finding a computer for Royal McBee. They saw this computer from a small engineering outfit owned by a large defense contractor and designed by a little-known computer pioneer. The negotiations are lost to history, but in the end Royal McBee made a move that secured the LGP-30 as a part of the Royal product line.

General Precision and Royal would form a new company called Royal Precision and General Precision's Librascope subsidiary would make the computers. (I want to say that Royal Precision is the best name for a computer company ever devised by the mind of man.) Royal would handle the marketing and sales and develop peripherals for the computer. GPE/Librascope would make the computers and create software. Having recently acquired the Robotyper, Royal had some interesting technology and patents to work with sop peripherals made sense. In addition, Royal had hundreds of sales offices and a sales force that was experienced in getting machines into business settings.

Robotypers worked by having ghostly triplet secretaries marked for death typing on spectral typewriters.

Royal McBee transferred Librascope application engineers to their payroll and started training people how to code for the new computer.

One of the Application Engineers (and programming school instructors) was a man called Mel Kaye who would later go down in computer computer folklore in The Story of Mel.

The Machine

Royal's computer by the standards of the time was better than a desk calculator, but not as good as some of the big iron starting to become available. It was a small (desk-sized) general purpose 32-bit (sort-of) word binary computer.

White sock alert!
As with all old computers, the specifications are amazingly meager:

Type:General purpose, electronic, digital, single address, fixed binary point, fractional, stored program
Number Base:2 (binary)
Word Length:9 decimal digits plus sign (30 binary bits plus sign bit and spacer bit)
Mode of Operation:Serial (Settle in with a cup of tea!)
Memory:Magnetic drum, 4096 words, 3 one word recalculating registers.
Clock Frequency:120 KC (0.00012 GHz is my math correct?)
Access Time:2 ms. minimum, 17 ms. maximum
Transfer Time:1 ms. minimum, 17 ms. maximum
Addition Time:.26 ms. excluding access time
Multiplication or Division Time:17 ms. excluding access time
Input-Output:Paper tape or electric typewriter
Size:Depth - 26", Length - 44", Height - 33"
Weight Uncrated:740 lbs
Cooling System:Internal forced air blower
Heat Dissipation:5000 B.T.U. /hr.
Power Requirement:115-volt, 60-cycle, single phase, 13 ampere alternating current
Number of Tubes:113
Number of Diodes:1350

These specifications come from the LGP-30 Programming Manual.

To save money on memory, this computer used a magnetic drum for RAM. It's akin to using your disk for swap, but in this case it was all swap!
Schematic of LGP-30 drum
Magnetic drum memory was slow, but with optimization the Librascope boffins were able to get the latency down from 17(microseconds) to 2 microseconds through the careful arrangement of data on the drum. We are all very spoiled with our fast computers, but 2ms seems pretty fast to me. On another note, I don't know what that drum sounded like spinning at 3700 rpm, but I bet it was loud. 

For input/output Librascope used a Friden Flexowriter. I think the overall aesthetics would have been helped with a Royal, but the Flexowriter was common terminal for early computers.

It wasn't much in the way of a computer, but for many colleges and engineering firms it offered the possibility of owning a computer versus renting one from IBM. IBM had notoriously strict lease agreements that would charge a user for anything outside the lease agreement. Big IBMs had panel meters that counted the number of hours in operation. In other words, if you leased a computer for 8 hours a day, any use beyond that 8 hours would incur a fee. Sure, IBM was the name in computers, but cost can definitely be a motivator. In the end, over 500 of these computers were sold.

In this post, I only scratched the surface of this old Royal computer. There is folklore (as mentioned earlier), emulation, and restoration and I plan on taking a deeper dive into this amazing piece of computer history.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Magic Margin on Gopher

The "Old Gadget" part of Magic Margin is a bit of a potpourri. There isn't just one project I am working on and old and gadget are very much up to my discretion. Recently I have taken a trip down memory lane and been playing around with Gopher. I actually remember Gopher because of AzTec.

In the very early 90s, getting online was an expensive prospect for my lower-income family. We couldn't afford Compuserve or Prodigy. Instead, a friend of mine turned me onto a local Freenet called AzTec hosted at ASU. It was a free service where you could dial up to their bank of 2400 baud modems and connect with other computer users.

There was the regular BBS-type stuff on there. Clubs, organizations, and meetings were discussed in community bulletin boards. You had email through Pine or something else. I remember that my email address was -- just typing that takes me back! There was one way to go father afield than our local community; Lynx.

Lynx, of course, is a text-based web browser. I still use it to this day. It's a great tool to have and a fun way to make even the oldest computer part of the internet experience. Being text-based it worked better 20 years ago. Modern CCS and graphic-heavy web pages are notoriously text-limited and make for a poor experience in text-only mode. Interestingly, typecasts are not readable in Lynx. This effectively keeps the prying eyes of Big Brother at bay. (We may want to revisit this for those who are visually impaired.) It's one of the best browsers out there. In addition to being a powerful web browser, it also is a pretty good Gopher client.

Gopher is a unique way to access text on the internet. I think there is a charm about it. It's simple to understand. Most human-readable content is text (although you can use images). The file-folder concept is a departure from the web's interconnected threads. It feels like those early days of computers.

With this memory, I decided to set up my own Gopher hole. I read a few tutorials and decided to use Pygopherd on a Raspberry Pi. I used a popular dynamic DNS service to reroute the traffic to a subdomain of Magic Margin and within a few hours I had a Gopher server running next to my tiki mug collection.

If you have Lynx or another Gopher tool, you can check out the link at:


There's not much there, but what is there is just for Gopher. It's Gopher premium content!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Vintage Computer Round-Up?

Is anyone out there interested in an Arizona version of a vintage computer festival? There are some old machines that are getting so old, they might hold as much interest in the popular mind as typewriters. If you are interested or keen in being involved in this kind of project (Vintage Computer Round-Up?) let me know in the form below.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Typewriter, Women, and 1950s Royal Sexism

Historians generally agree that the typewriter was a net positive for women in the workplace,

but these bits of "advice" from Royal certainly clang today. My favorite is the unabashed pleasure she is expected to show at the ringing of a margin bell.