Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Don Lancaster

I heard that Don Lancaster passed away on June 7th in Mesa. Strangely, I had been leafing through one of his books a few days before --The TV Typewriter Cookbook--thinking about a long-term project. I was looking for his site and I couldn't remember the URL so the search came back with the news. There have been a fair number of posts about Don Lancaster; all in the last few days. From the comments you begin to understand that hobbyists and enthusiasts loved his cookbooks. These texts opened up CMOS, and TTL, and hardware design to a huge audience of tinkerers and makers. It's easy to see that he was a formative teacher and mentor for a generation of hackers.

Polymaths walk among us resisting the urge to specialize. Don Lancaster's passions included day hikes, blogging, prehistoric desert canal systems, Post Script, and more. I've always found him to be an interesting character and one of the charming desert weirdos that make a home in this harsh landscape.

Check out Don's website

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Apple IIc

The restored Apple //c mentioned below.

When did thes place become a retrocumputing blog? I don't know. Somewhere between IBM Selectrics and watches. Even though I am not a computer teacher, I spend most of my days around computers. If you didn't kow I teach Photography now. It was a natural transition (for me) from my life as an English/Yearbook journalism teacher to Photograpy.

For me all hobbies are cyclical.

Retrocomuting is something I did when retrocomuters were just junk. Join me in the mid 1990s.

Being a copmputer hobbyist was fun back then. Roughly 10 years removed from the computer revoltion, modern devices were so advanced that old stuff --the Apples II, Macintoshes, Commodores 64--were plentiful junk. Thrift stores were filled with strange computers that just didn't catch on; piled up and sold pfor pennies for 

The mecca of thrifting in Phoenix was a store call Chic and Cheap on Indian School Rd. and 7th Ave. It was a huge place that smelled heavily of cinnamon air freshner, but has some amazing old computer junk. I remember finding an Apple Lisa 2/10 on a shelf for $15. I did buy it and many years later I gave it to a family member. I hope he still has it.

I decided to start collecting at a time when they were cheap and plentiful. That's not the case now. Go on the usual auction sites and they are expensive. OR you are buying junk that you have to fix. I used to be a contender. Here's a little list of all the machines I remember having:

Commodore: Commodore 62, VIC 20, Amiga 500

Apple: IIe, ///, IIc, IIgs (Woz), Lisa, Mac 128k, 512k, 512ke, Plus, SE, SE/30, Mac II

I'm sure that I will remember more as time goes on, but most of them are gone. I still have the SE. I have a Classic from somewhere. That's about it. I can't recall where it all went. Really, it doesn't matter. However, I wanted to get back into retrocoumputing becasue of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.

WITWICS was one of my favorite games circa 1984. We had it at school, but the computer at home was a TI99/4a and it definitely wasn't going to get a port. When my father passed the family computer went into a closet and was forgotten. I had always hoped that I would get around to writing a version of the game for the TI. I was young and hoped to make something that would make my dead dad proud. Life and tough memories got in the way and I was interested in other aspects of computers, amateur radio, photography, etc.

History became legend, legend became myth and my retrocomputing passed out of all knowledge. Until, when chance came, I bought a new TI99/4a. My plans for a WITWICS clone came bubbling up and I knew that I wanted to work on that for a while.

But I wanted to playthe original game on vintage hardware to inspire my new version for the TI99/4a. 

I needed an Apple II, but I wanted a //c for storage purposes.

To the internet! I found they were all very expensive. After hunting a while I found a rough looking example for a reasonable price (with a powersupply) and ordered it. What ensued is another story for another time, but in all honesty there was Retrobright-ing involved.

In the end I had a machine that could play the first version of WITWICS and do the research for my port to the '99. Will it ever get done? I don't know. It's a big project and the journey is really the destination &c. &c.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Waterbury Carriage Clock Repeater

I am in the process of doing a clean and restoration o this clock, but I wanted to have a quick-to-access semi-permanent place to post the pictures. I'll probably post updates as I work on it.


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

I've Always Been a Time Guy

Timeophile? Is that a thing? Can you like time like people like murder mysteries, cups of tea, and typewriters? If you do, does that make you a watch person?

I've been plumbing the depths of clocks, watches, and watch repair recently. Specifically, trying my hand at some repairs. I was able to get this Elgin 18s pocket watch to run nicely and keep time +4 seconds a day. 

Why, yes! That is a 3-d printed casing cushion. 

It's given me some confidence to try other timepieces. I'm working on an old Raketa now and I plan to move onto a Longines in short order. Never spending too much on these, I am having fun and staying out of trouble which is the purpose of a hobby.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Busy As A Bee-Hive

It's trite and a little annoying to say that back in my day, the internet was an encyclopedia. Not only does that bon mot betray a fundamental lack of understanding, it would prove that I'm not that funny. Regardless, back in my day the internet was an encyclopedia. I loved the encyclopedia with a zeal that is reserved for the internet today. I would pour over the outdated World Book set that my grandfather bought when he had a young family.

Encyclopedia sets were a sign of mid-century prosperity. Your family could own the SUM KNOWLEGE OF THE WORLD. It wasn't called the World Book for nothing.

Much of the advertising of the time posited the encyclopedia set as a preparatory tool for the future. Typewriter advertisements of the same period and flavor made the argument that a new typewriter would ensure success for your children. That success was, of course, purely financial because at $1600 (adjusted for inflation) the encyclopedia wasn't cheap.

Open to a page and you could find an article about pretty much anything. To a kid in northwest Indiana, it was really a world book; the sum of all knowledge. I loved to look at the title page for each volume because there was a little area that showed the progression of the letter from the Egyptian hieroglyph, the Greek letter, and to the Roman alphabet. Information covered every page. The special pages were my favorite; fold out maps, color plates of "Costumes of the World",  and the layer-by-layer visible man printed on acetate sheets .

Today, the internet is my World Book and I was trying to do a deep dive on these things:

If you think they look like old-timey ceramic insulators in cobalt blue, you would be correct. They are old-timey insulators in cobalt blue. These kind of bee-hive insulators were common with electric hobbyist in the first half of the 20th century. If I was to look up insulators in the old World Book there wouldn't be an entry for them. There might be a reference to insulators in the entry for electricity, but the granularity of the internet is its best quality. If you look hard enough you will find something that will point you in the right direction. 

A few minutes of my time revealed a number of sites dedicated to people who love antique electric insulators:

As fans of typewriters, I think we are well past the point of shock at discovering that the internet is filled with wonderfully esoteric digital communities supporting unusual hobbies. Deep in the archives of NIA, there are digital copies of "Old Familiar Strains", a newsletter for collectors of antenna insulators and related items. The October 1997 edition of the newsletter covers Birnbach ceramic isolators and there is even some clip art namely:

However, the insulators that I have are blue, not white or brown. Still, they are the same kind. The World Book internet helped me find out more about these little ceramic doodads. What am I going to do with them? I am glad that you asked.

Let me take you to a more electrifying time: 1929! That year was a sea change for amateur radio (also called ham radio of which I am a practitioner under the callsign KC7RZR). Two years earlier, in 1927, the Radiotelegraph Act set up a federal radio commission. In the winter of that same year, 72 countries gathered in Washington DC for the International Radiotelegraph Conference and hammered out an agreement that would finally regulate the radio spectrum. Ham radio operators would have to clean up their act and leave behind the unregulated world of early radio and embrace 1929-style radio.

QST, a hobbyist magazine of the ARRL, covered the deadline frequently and offered plans for 1929 compliant transmitters. So many of these builds were breadboard (as in make from a breadboard) because commercial amateur radio equipment is a oxymoron. These early hams were supposed to build a transmitter and that is what I am doing.

In my quest to build a TNT transmitter, I've started collecting the parts. I have quite a few to go, but I thought I would share this unusual item and hobby.

How common are these be-hive insulators? Not common enough for the antique radio enthusiast. There are no new manufacturers, but I have a trick up my sleeve and it includes my love of hobbyist ceramics...

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.