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...

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.