Saturday, 21 October 2017

Dictaphone (1907)

Original Dictaphone, early 20th century
Created 1907

One hundred and ten years ago we were beginning to see the first signs of office automation. That year brought us not only the Photostat machine but also saw the creation of the Dictaphone Company.

For millennials, Dictaphone made machines that you could dictate speech to, typically so that it could be typed up by a personal assistant. The word “Dictaphone” became generic, although the trademark was actually created by a spin-off of Columbia Records.

Although the type of machine most often called a “Dictaphone” will tend to be a mini cassette recorder, back in 1907 Dictaphone machines used a waxed cylinder which was by then almost obsolete, having been out-competed by vinyl discs. The big advantage of a waxed cylinder over a disc was that it could be re-used, assuming you had a special machine to shave the top layer of wax off.

Of course these days we expect that even leaders of nations do their own typing, but back in the early 20th Century those leaders (usually men) would delegate such tasks to their secretaries (usually women). Thankfully in the early 20th such sexist archetypes are a thing of the past.

The original Dictaphone machines were huge, but technology (especially cassette tapes) made them smaller and smaller. So small that eventually the brand vanished after a series of takeovers and divestments. Today the Dictaphone where it is largely relegated to speech-to-text systems aimed at corporations and hospitals, and is owned by speech applications specialists Nuance Communications.
Post-war Dictaphone advertisement

You can still buy dictating machines, some even call themselves “Dictaphones” because somewhere along the way the trademark became genericised (as with the Photostat) but you can’t actually buy new Dictaphone Dictaphones. Original early twentieth-century machines belong in a museum, but post war models are often available for collectors of office ephemera for less than €200 or so.

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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

NSU Ro80 (1967)

Launched October 1967

Sometimes leaps forward in automotive technology come from unexpected directions. In October 1967 the rather niche German manufacturer NSU was the one to shock people with the launch of the radical Ro80 saloon.

In the post-year wars, NSU had followed other European manufacturers in making small family cars before branching out into sports cars, including the NSU Spider which was the world’s first production car powered by a Wankel rotary engine. The Spider was a conventional-looking two-seater though, and it didn’t even hint as to what was to come.

When launched, the Ro80 was quite unlike anything else on the market. Like the Spider, it came wth a Wankel rotary engine, in this case capable of producing 115 PS in a car weighing less than 1300 kg.  But that was hidden beneath the remarkable exterior, which is what grabbed everyone’s attention.

The wedge-shaped design gave the Ro80 very slippery aerodynamics, and the huge glasshouse on top gave excellent visibility. It also featured front-wheel drive, an automatic clutch, all-round independent suspension and all-round disc brakes, with rack and pinion power steering. In terms of features, the Ro80 was very much ahead of its time.

The heart of the car was the Wankel rotary engine – it was very smooth, compact and light which reduced the overall weight of the car and allowed a more aerodynamic design. But it was also hugely unreliable with critical design flaws… and those flaws killed off NSU.


NSU had worked with Mazda to develop rotary engines for cars, but where NSU had poorly designed apex seals Mazda did not. Mazda went on to produce a range of reliable Wankel-powered cars up to 2012, ending with the Mazda RX8. NSU on the other hand went bankrupt and was bought up by Volkswagen who folded NSU into their new Audi brand.

Later “Audi” Ro80s were more reliable, but the damage was done.  An attempt to make a version of the Ro80 with a more conventional engine (called the K70) but this was not very successful. Production of the Ro80 ended in 1977, but the Neckarsulm assembly plant moved to building Audi models which it still does today.

The Ro80 was considered a disaster at the time, but the design and feature set were hugely influential, especially on Audi who incorporated many of the design themes that it set. The brilliant designer Claus Luthe worked for the VW/Audi group for a while and then moved to BMW where he created classic designs such as the E30 revision of the 3-series. Tragically he was convicted of killing his own son in 1990 and was jailed for manslaughter. He died in 2008.

Today the NSU Ro80 is a very rare car, with only a few dozen on the road in the UK and an overall production run of about 37,000 worldwide. Typical prices seem to be around £10000 for one in working order, but of course that engine is hardly worry-free. Perhaps this is one to be admired at a car show or museum, rather than something to own...

Monday, 16 October 2017

ASUS Eee PC 701 (2007)

ASUS Eee PC (2007)
Launched October 2007

Ten years ago we were seeing a big leap forward in the capabilities of smartphones, which was great if you wanted to see the world through a tiny little screen. If you wanted something larger, the choice was usually some sort of expensive laptop. Tablets as we know them today didn’t yet exist, with Nokia’s niche Internet Tablet only coming in with a 4.1” screen.

In October 2007, Taiwanese manufacturer ASUS came up with their solution to the smartphone/laptop gap with the ASUS Eee PC 701. A tiny laptop with a 7” 800 x 480 display, the eee 701 also came with a 4GB solid state hard disk, 512MB of memory and a 900 MHz Intel Celeron processor. It also had a built in WiFi adaptor, Ethernet port, sound and a microphone, three USB 2.0 ports, an MMC/SD card reader and one available PCI Express Mini Card inside (another one was used by the WiFi adapter). The operating system was either Xandros Linux, although Windows XP became available later.

All of these features came for a very low price of £169 in the UK, which was a good deal cheaper than the Nokia 810 and probably a lot more practical. It was a very small device, about the size of a hardback book… which of course led to quite a cramped keyboard. Also, it wasn’t the most powerful machine in the world but Xandros ran just fine on it (or you could install another version of Linux if you wanted).

The Eee was dubbed a “netbook” – primarily designed to accessing the web and email rather than games or heavily-computational apps – and it became a huge success.  In the UK, the Eee was sold through Research Machines who had launched the equally ground-breaking 380Z thirty years earlier.

Despite selling in large numbers, the Eee and rival netbooks struggled against the iPad and Android tablets that came out a few years later, eventually dropping out of production. However, ASUS still make similar devices based on Google’s Chromebook specifications which are equally inexpensive.

These days, pre-owned Eee PC 701 machines can be had for around £30 to £50, although you might struggle to find a contemporary operating system to run on them.

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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Digital VAX-11/780 (1977)

VAX 11/780
Launched October 1977

1977 was a significant year for technology, with the launch of several different brands of microcomputer, games consoles, laser printers and even smart watches. Some new launches seemed less ground-breaking but were perhaps just as important, and the Digital VAX was one such product.

Digital Equipment Corporation (usually shorted to “Digital” or “DEC”) had been a disruptive pioneer in the “small” minicomputer market from the 1950s onwards, best known for their PDP range including the popular 16-bit PDP-11 which was instrumental in the development of Unix.

Time marches on, and by the late 1970s the PDP range was looking tired. So, in October 1977 DEC launched the first of their VAX range, the VAX-11/780. Somewhat backward compatible with the PDP-11, the VAX introduced a 32-bit architecture and virtual memory addressing.

The VAX was designed to be easy to program, and along with it was launched the new VAX-11/VMS operating system which was thoroughly up-to-date in a 1970s sort of way. DEC also had its own version of Unix called ULTRIX and eventually BSD Unix became available too. This made the VAX-11 range the computer of choice for many corporations and universities.

The “minicomputer” name given to this type of machine is unfamiliar today, and given the huge bulk of the VAX-11/780 it seems ridiculous. However, the VAX was “mini” compared to the vast mainframes that IBM offered, and all you would need for an 11/780 was a suitably air-conditioned room with a three-phase power supply rather than a dedicated building. Later VAX-11 models could run off a standard plug. Having that much power and flexibility in a relatively compact computer added to the appeal.

Crucially, these were multi-user computer systems. Dozens or even hundreds of people could connect to a single VAX, and those VAXes could be networked together. Files could be shared securely and applications could be run, typically using a dumb terminal such as a VT52.

The preferred operating system for VAXes was VMS, and this too was a significant step forward. An extremely stable OS, VMS became the choice of businesses that didn’t want downtime. Because DEC controlled both the hardware and software, it made it much easier to make sure everything worked together. Potentially you could run a VAX/VMS system for years without downtime unless you wanted to upgrade the OS or run a standalone backup.

VMS became a significant inspiration for Microsoft’s Windows NT platform, used by every modern version of Windows. This is no coincidence, as Dave Cutler was a technical lead on both OSes (later moving to help develop Microsoft’s Azure platform). In the smaller systems market, NT is the only effective opposition to Unix-derived systems such as Linux, Android and iOS.

The VAX line was very popular, and over the years the range expanded to include small MicroVAX systems all the way up to supercomputers. Hugely popular at first, the VAX suffered as the minicomputer market decline in the face of business PCs, which eventually led to DEC being taken over by Compaq, who in run were taken over by HP. Although the last VAX computer was built in 2005, the operating system (now called OpenVMS) was ported to DEC’s Alpha platform, then Intel Itanium with a port to x86 in the works. HP still promote OpenVMS for running mission critical applications.

The VAX-11/780 is hardly a collectable item today due to its sheer size, and most second-hand bits of VAX hardware are probably bought by people keeping ancient installations running. But you don’t have to look far to see the influence of VMS – the architecture of any modern Windows PC is certainly a nod in that direction.

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Research Machines 380Z (1977)

Research Machines 380Z
Launched October 1977

1977 was the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, with the stateside launch of the Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80 plus the 8-bit Atari VCS games console. But the US didn’t have it all to themselves, and in October 1977 the UK saw the launch of the Research Machines 380Z (or RM or RML 380Z for short).

Aimed primarily at the education market rather than home or business users, the 380Z was a massive beast even for 1977. Built like a tank, the enormous metal case was designed to be rack-mountable, but the external keyboard was also a big metallic lump too.

The name itself should give a clue that the 380Z was based around the Z80 CPU. The enormous case it came in reflected the wealth of expansion options beyond that – floppy disks, hard disks, video cards, interface cards and memory modules could be slotted in, make the 380Z a hugely powerful computer. In fact, the 380Z didn’t even have a motherboard as all components were on a card, which made it easy to modify or repair.

Although originally housed in a light blue case, the 380Z quickly evolved into the imposing black case that became very common in schools. Even when rivals such as the BBC or ZX Spectrum started to appear, the 380Z remained a serious computer for serious work – one that could do things that other (and it has to be said – cheaper) computers could not. The 380Z could run the business-standard CP/M operating system, but it wasn’t really marketed as a business computer. Just to prove its scientific and educational leanings, the computer was actually stylised as the 380Ƶ with a stroke on the "Z" to make it looks less like a "2".

Fully-loaded, the 380Z would cost over £3200 (almost the price of two basic Ford Fiestas) with the very basic models coming in at just under £1000 (about half the price of the aforementioned Fiesta). It was certainly an expensive system, but Research Machines also eventually created the diskless LINK 480Z which could use the 380Z as a file server, which was extremely advanced for the time.

Having found a profitable niche, RM went on to produce the Nimbus range of somewhat-PC compatibles, and after that it concentrated on PCs sold to the education market. RM finally dropped out of the hardware business in 2014 but it still exists today as a service provider to education.

These days 380Zs are a rare find on the second hand market, if you can find one they seem to be a few hundred pounds each. Due to the robust nature of their construction, there’s a very good chance that it will still work though.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Nokia N810 (2007)

Launched October 2007

Back in 2007, Nokia was happy designing elegant but technically limited feature phones, and although they did have a flagship smartphone with the N95, rivals Apple were stealing the show with their own way of doing things.

But away from Nokia’s mobile phone division, another project had been working on a series of what they called “Internet Tablets”, launching the 770 in 2005 then the improved N800 in early 2007. The Nokia N810 was the third-generation device, launched in October 2007 and it started to show some real promise.

Although the N810 looks very much like a modern smartphone, this wasn’t a phone at all. A tiny Linux computer with WiFi and an then impressive 4.1” 800 x 480 pixel display it certainly shared a lot a characteristics with a modern mobile, but this had no cellular connectivity and was being sold as a rival to small form factor computers.

Running the Maemo operating system, the N810 was running a version of Linux developed especially for touchscreen devices. The 128MB of RAM and 400MHz processor isn’t much by today’s standards, but it was equivalent to what was in the first-generation iPhone. Unlike the original iPhone, you could download applications onto the N810 (or even compile your own).

It appealed to a very different type of customer than the iPhone – N810 users had a tendency to be established Linux users, gadget freaks or technologists. This relatively small community did help to drive things forward, but progress was slow. It took another two years to evolve the Maemo platform into a smartphone with the Nokia N900 which ultimately was not the commercial success it needed to be.

I’ve written about Maemo many times, but I’ll say it again – Maemo was Nokia’s best hope to move away from the restrictions of Symbian and come up with a smart device good enough for the second decade of the twenty-first century. Fundamentally, Maemo was every bit as capable as Android or iOS because it was based on essentially the same Unix-derived platform. With enough resources behind it, there was a good chance that it would have succeeded but in the end Nokia missed a vital opportunity and suffered for it.

Today the N810 is an interesting relic of what could have been, with prices today ranging from about €50 to several hundred depending on condition, although it isn’t a particularly common device.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Samsung / Bang & Olufsen Serenta (2007)

Launched October 2007

One of the oddest looking – and possibly coolest – mobile phones ever, the Serenata was a joint effort between Samsung and Bang & Olufsen, and it created a handset that was quite unlike almost anything else.

B&O and Samsung had been here before, with the radical and exceptionally expensive Serene launched in 2005. The Serene was clever in many ways, but it had some severe technical limitations. The Serenata (launched two years later) was probably the phone that the Serene should always have been, but the market had moved on since then.

The Serenata copied the Serene by having the display on the bottom (so it didn’t get greasy when making a phone call), but here there was a rotary control for the phone – very much like the iPod. Where the Serene surprisingly lacked music playback features, the Serenata was a proper digital media player with 4GB of storage. 3G data was added, but the Serenata did not come with a camera.

Because this as a B&O device, it came with a variety of stylish accessories. It was also extremely expensive at €800, and despite all the cleverness the launch of the iPhone had changed the expectations of consumers. For all its stylish and esoteric charm, the Serenata’s features looked dated compared to what Apple was doing.

Although both the Serenata and Serene caused a stir when launched, neither were a sales success. A year after the launch of the Serenate, B&O shuttered their phone business along with several other product lines. But, as with many other rare and unusual phones the Serenata remains quite collectible with good examples selling for around €400 to €500.