Saturday, 7 May 2022

Orbitel TPU 901 (1992)

Launched May 1992

Early mobile phones were terrible things. Not only were they big and clunky, but the old analogue networks that they ran on had terrible call quality, poor reliability and were very insecure. These early technologies such as AMPS, TACS and NMT became retrospectively known as “1G” – these days often forgotten and unloved.

By 1992 these 1G networks had been around for a decade or so and their weaknesses were becoming obvious. The market was ripe for something better, and in 1992 the world’s first 2G GSM networks came online. These digital networks had better call quality, security and required a smaller slice of the radio spectrum, and the first certified GSM phone to be available was the Orbitel TPU 901.

Orbitel TPU 901

A bulky device even by the standards of the time, the 901 had a handset connected to the base station via a curly cord and it weighed a whopping 2.1 kilos. It wasn’t a big seller – smaller and cheaper GSM phones were not far off – but the Orbitel TPU 901 does have the distinction of receiving the world’s first SMS text message with the words “Merry Christmas” sent in December the same year.

Orbitel was a British-based joint venture between Racal (who owned Vodafone) and Plessey which eventually ended up in the hands of Ericsson and effectively vanished in the noughties. Today the TPU 901 (and the car-mounted TPU 900) should still work on 900MHz GSM networks, if you ever managed to get your hands on one.

Orbitel TPU 901
Orbitel TPU 901

Of course, the 901 was the first of many GSM phones on the market, more memorably the Motorola International 3200 launched later in 1992 with a memorable brick-like design that summed up the era perfectly. About a million others followed, but the Orbitel TPU 901 – largely forgotten today – was the very first.

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
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Thursday, 28 April 2022

Raspberry Pi (2012)

Available April 2012

Single board computers were common in the early days of microcomputers, with the KIM-1 offering a relatively low-cost way of playing with the then-new 6502 CPU and later devices such as the Acorn System 1 made it cheaper still. But single board computers appealed most to hobbyists, and as technology developed so did microcomputers, eventually evolving into complete systems that were easier for novices to use.

Original Raspberry Pi Model B
Original Raspberry Pi Model B

As the decades rolled on, the amount of computing power that could be squeezed into a board computer grew. First came Arduino, a series of open source board computers that could be used for microcontrollers. A few years later, TI came up with the BeagleBoard which was a general purpose computer on a single board. But perhaps the best know modern single board computer is the Raspberry Pi, shipping to customers in April 2012.

Unlike some other designs, the Pi was a complete system on a compact board. With built-in USB, video and networking ports all that was required was a memory card with an operating system and a monitor, keyboard, mouse and power supply. These are all pretty common peripherals, and in most cases Pi users could just re-purpose old equipment used elsewhere. The Pi didn’t come with a case so a cottage industry started up making them, all of this echoing the rather do-it-yourself approach of the original Apple I.

The first Raspberry Pi models were announced in February 2012, coming to market in April the same year. Like the BBC Micro, there were two launch models of the Pi – A and B. B was the most popular, based around a Broadcom chipset that included an ARM CPU, RAM and all of the other silicon needed on a single chip. But perhaps the biggest breakthrough was the price – this complete computer system cost just $25 or the local equivalent for the simplest model.

Coincidentally, the ARM CPU in the Pi was originally designed by Acorn, whose experience with the 6502 (starting with the Acorn System 1 board computer) inspired them to create an inexpensive, simple but very fast processor based on similar principles.

The target market was initially education – instead of expensive laptops, students could simply plug their own Pi into a PSU, monitor, network socket, mouse and keyboard and do whatever they wanted with it. The easily swappable memory card meant that different configurations could be experimented with easily. But the appeal turned out to be far greater, everyone from hobbyists to engineers wanted to play with one and the Pi became a significant success. Raspberry Pi devices can be seen in almost any application from controllers to servers, often performing tasks as well as machines costing hundreds of times as much.

A decade on, the Raspberry Pi is still going strong. Later models offered more ports, a faster processor and more memory and even cheaper models such as the Pi Zero and Pi Pico slotted into the range below the fully-featured Pi. A wide range of peripherals are available for almost any application, and OS support has grown from Linux-only to include Windows 10 IoT and even a version of RISC OS (originally designed for the very first ARM-based computer, the Archimedes).

Raspberry Pi emulating a DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11
Raspberry Pi emulating a DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11

Millions of devices and a decade later, the Pi has proved to be an antidote to the anodyne world of modern personal computing. The Pi helped to re-ignite some of the early hacker ethic of early micros and taught a new generation that what they could do with a computer was only limited by their imagination. Not too shabby for just $25.

Image credits:
osde8info via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0
Wolfgang Stief via Flickr – CC0

Saturday, 23 April 2022

GRiD Compass (1982)

Released April 1982

Even though practical microcomputers had only been around for a few years by 1982, there was a growing market for portable devices such as the Kaypro II which offered all the computing power you probably needed in a luggable package.

Back then people accepted that a portable computer would weigh something like 13 kg and come in a huge case. Practically speaking you’d typically carry it between a desk and car. Unlike modern “laptop” computers, most portables of the early 1980s would possibly break your knees if you tried to use them on the sofa.

GRiD Compass
GRiD Compass

The first practical laptop computer is widely considered to be the GRiD Compass. A clamshell on the front of the device held a 320 x 240 pixel electroluminescent display and a keyboard in a format instantly recognisable today. Although the display was relatively small, it was sharp and clear compared to early LCD panels and the limited resolution was actually pretty competitive with most computers of the time.

Inside was an Intel 8086 CPU with an 8087 maths coprocessor, but this was no DOS-compatible computer. Instead the Compass ran a proprietary OS called GRID-OS which was menu-driven and quite friendly. One novelty was storage – the Compass used magnetic bubble memory giving 340Kb of non-volatile storage. Most production systems also included a modem, and an IEEE interface bus was standard. The lightweight but strong magnesium alloy case contributed to the relatively light weight of around 5 kg.

This was a highly advanced machine, and it came with a substantial price tag starting at $8500 in 1982 money which is around $25,000 today. OK, it is possible to spend more than that on a computer today (a high-end Mac Pro can cost $60,000 or more) but that was nearly six times the price of the Kaypro and to be honest it couldn’t do as much for a typical end user.

Where it did find a niche was in government sales. The tough but lightweight design lent itself well to military applications, and the Compass was also certified for use on board the Space Shuttle. Large corporations were drawn to it as a practical and highly portable device, but few found their way to private users due to the high price.

GRiD Compass running a spreadsheet
GRiD Compass running a spreadsheet

This was the first in line of several GRiD systems, and on top of healthy sales they also owned a patent for several of the elements of the clamshell design, meaning that other laptop manufacturers had to pay GRiD a fee for each system built. GRiD was taken over by Tandy in 1988 followed by a management buyout in 1993 which moved the company from California to the UK. The company – now called GRiD Defence Systems – still makes ruggedized laptops and other hardware.

The Compass set the pattern for all modern laptop designs, years before they became commonplace. Today first-generation GRiD Compass systems are very rare and you can expect to pay between £5000 to £10000 for a working system.

Image credits:
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Niall Kennedy via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)

Introduced April 1982

If you were a British child of the 1980s, the chances were that you possessed one of the holy trinity of the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 or the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. A rivalry leading to many playground arguments, these three machines duked it out for years with no clear winner.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Out of the three, the cheapest and most popular (for a while) was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Sinclair’s follow-on to the ultra-low-cost ZX81 launched the year before, the Spectrum added rudimentary but usable colour, graphics and sound in a package with either 16kB or more desirably 48Kb of RAM in a stylish package – all at a very attractive price.

Like the ZX81, the Spectrum was based on a Z80 processor. But where the ZX81 struggled to do anything due to its clever-but-simple design, the Spectrum was highly competitive with the new generation of early 1980s home computers.

It wasn’t a big machine – roughly the size of a sheet of A5 paper and weighing around 550 grams – but Rick Dickinson’s industrial design consisting of a black case, grey keys and the 1980s-on-a-stick rainbow flash on the corner looked far more impressive than the competition. Those keys were something else though – each one performed up to six functions in the Spectrum’s capable BASIC environment, but the strange rubberiness of the keys felt like touching dead flesh.

The multifunction keys bear some examination. All the BASIC keywords were assigned to a key which would activate depending on context, or with the CAPS SHIFT and SYMBOL SHIFT keys. This layout was first seen on the ZX80 and while it reduced errors and made programming more accessible, it was becoming more fiddly as the version of BASIC evolved. The Spectrum’s version of BASIC was pretty sophisticated – not as good as the one in the BBC but better than the Commodore 64. Budding programmers took to the Spectrum and coded furiously from their bedrooms.

As standard the Spectrum loaded and save programs to a cassette, which was quite slow. Video output was to a domestic TV set, so the Spectrum could easily plug into what you probably already had in the house. The desirable 48Kb version cost just £175 at the time (equivalent to around £650 today) but you really didn’t need anything else if you had a TV and cassette recorder.

Like the BBC, the Spectrum could address only 64Kb of memory. The ROM was simpler than the BBC, taking up just 16Kb which left up to 48Kb of RAM available. The Spectrum’s curious colour graphics mode didn’t eat up much memory either, meaning that there was quite a decent amount of RAM available for programs, something that the BBC struggled with.

The colour graphics were rather strange. The 256 x 192 pixel resolution could display up to 15 colours, but you could only have one foreground (INK) and one background (PAPER) could in each 32x24 pixel character grid. This made it tricky to code colour games (for example) but it was very memory efficient. Sound output was fairly simple with a one channel output, but it was good enough for most purposes.

Like the ZX81 and ZX80, and edge connector on the back of the machine allowed access to pretty much all hardware functions. Sinclair’s official accessories on launch included a tiny thermal printer and the ZX Microdrive, which was a high-speed tape cartridge which was plagued with delays. Popular third-party addons included the Kempston Micro Electronics joystick interface but also various adapters for disk drives, speech, serial and parallel ports and perhaps most important a variety of aftermarket keyboards that improved on the Spectrum’s unpleasant chicklet affair.

Spectrum with daisy-chained ZX Microdrives and sound enhancements
Spectrum with daisy-chained ZX Microdrives and sound enhancements

The Spectrum was an enormous success - the combination of pricing, features and the brand recognition of the “Sinclair” name were key factors. Success bred success with huge variety of games and other applications along with hardware enhancements coming to market. Few competitors had a fraction of the third-party support that the Spectrum did.

1982 and 1983 were probably the peak years for the home computer market in the UK. Sinclair found itself up against increasing competition from less well-known machines which were often better (though rarely cheaper). In 1984 the Spectrum+ was launched, essentially a 48K Spectrum in a Sinclair QL-style case. A 128Kb version dubbed the Spectrum 128 was launched the year after, using memory paging to break the 64Kb limit. In 1986 Sinclair found itself in difficulties and was bought by Amstrad who styled new models after their popular CPC range leading to the Spectrum +2 with an integrated cassette recorder in 1986 and the Spectrum +3 which included a built-in 3” floppy disk drive, launched in 1987. This +3 was the ultimate development of the Spectrum platform, capable of running CP/M but it wasn’t 100% hardware compatible with the original which caused problems. The last Spectrum models in production were the +2B and +3B which were basically hardware fixes of previous versions, production ended in 1992 giving the Spectrum platform an impressive ten year lifespan.

ZX Spectrum +3 with 128Kb RAM and a 3" floppy drive
ZX Spectrum +3 with 128Kb RAM and a 3" floppy drive

In addition to the official Sinclair version, licensed and unlicensed clones proliferated – notably licensed variants made Timex in the US and Europe, and a huge number of bootleg clones in Eastern Europe and South America into the 1990s. In the 2010s there were several attempts to recreate the Spectrum with modern technology, perhaps most significantly with the ZX Spectrum Next.

Despite the success of the Spectrum in the market, ultimately it was something of a dead end – even though fondness for the platform lingers on four decades later. However, the significance of the Spectrum was profound in the markets it succeeded in: this low-cost, easy-to-use and versatile device inspired a generation of programmers and computer enthusiasts, many of whom went on to carve careers out in the IT industry. This simple but effective machine not only help to shape lives, but also whole economies. Not bad for a cheap computer with a nasty rubber keyboard.

Image credits:
Bill Bertram via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.5
ccwoodcock via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0
ccwoodcock via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Nokia 3510 (2002)

Introduced March 2002

It is sometimes said that there are only two things that would survive a nuclear war: cockroaches and old Nokia phones. The Nokia 3510 – launched in 2002 – has the potential to be something that a future cockroach civilisation would unearth and worship as some type of cockroach god.

Maybe in this future roach utopia the 3510 might find itself in an epic Godzilla vs Kong battle with the legendary Nokia 3310, but the 3510 takes the indestructible design of the 3310 including the funky changeable Xpress-on covers and adds polyphonic ringtones, bigger screen, GPRS and a WAP browser. Indeed, the 3510 was once of the very first popular consumer phones to offer GPRS.

Sober or funky, the Nokia 3510 had interchangeable covers
Sober or funky, the Nokia 3510 had interchangeable covers

Like the 3310, the 3510 could survive a direct strike from a Tsar Bomba – but it couldn’t quite wrestle the roach god crown from the 3310. But a few months later the 3510i arrived, adding not only a colour screen but also support for Java games. The bugs raised temples in its honour.

Although the 3510 (and 3510i) are primitive by modern standards, they form part of the golden age of mobile phone design where every new handset looked different and new technologies were being introduced at a rapid rate, here with colour screens and Java but also including cameras, Bluetooth, media players, expandable memory and so much more.

XpressOn covers allowed a high degree of personalisation with the 3510i
XpressOn covers allowed a high degree of personalisation with the 3510i

If you fancy a retro Nokia like this then you’ll be pleased to know that they are as cheap as chips, buy enough of them and you could even make a Nokia Stonehenge for future cockroach archaeologists to puzzle over.

Image credits: Nokia

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Kaypro II (1982)

Introduced March 1982

A few years after the introduction of the first generation of practical microcomputers, manufacturers started to look at the possibility of having a computer that you could take anywhere rather than have tied to a desk. Perhaps the best known of this first generation of “luggable” microcomputers was the Osborne 1, launched in 1981.

The Osborne had plenty of limitations, not least the tiny screen. The market was ready for something better, and something better certainly turned up with the Kaypro II. It was designed by a company called (at the time) Non-Linear Systems (or just “NLS”), who up until this point had made lab equipment. NLS knew how to make reliable, rugged and portable electronics and they turned this expertise to a microcomputer.

A Kaypro II with several other vintage portables
A Kaypro II with several other vintage portables

Running the de-facto standard CP/M operating system and running on a 2.5MHz Z80 CPU with 64Kb of RAM and dual floppy disks, the Kaypro II had highly competitive specs for the era. Built into the high-quality painted aluminium case was a pin sharp 9 inch display which you could comfortably use all the time. The keyboard was also a high-quality design and it clipped firmly into place on the case making a practical if somewhat hefty 13 kilogram computer.

It wasn’t just the hardware that made the computer competitive. The Kaypro II was bundled with an office suite from Perfect Software that included a wordprocessor, spreadsheet and database, plus a version of BASIC that could be compiled into CP/M .com programs. Eventually the bundled programs included the class-leading WordStar wordprocessor and SuperCalc spreadsheet. The bundled software theoretically cost many hundreds of dollars, making the Kaypro II seem more of a bargain. If what you wanted wasn't in the box, then there was a wide range of business and home software available, including the legendary Zork.

Please give this Kaypro II a home
Please give this Kaypro II a home

This was a high-quality, reliable, well-designed and inexpensive product and it became quite a success. If you took one home from the store there really wasn’t much you needed to do except plug a few cables in. Everything else was in the box, making this an extremely consumer friendly-product.

It ended up as a popular tool with writers. Arthur C Clarke had one, as did Jerry Pournelle. Although it was always a bit of a niche system, the Kaypro II was enough of a success to make NLS a major player in the early 1980s market.

Curiously, there was never a Kaypro I as such. Aping the rival Apple II, NLS decided on making their first commercial machine another “II”. In 1983 it was followed by the improved Kaypro IV and Kaypro 10 (with a 10Mb hard disk), then in 1984 followed the Kaypro 4 and Kaypro 2X which were confusingly named, and if you thought that was confusing another Kaypro 2 followed in 1985 and the Kaypro 1 in 1986 (because why the heck not call it the “1”). All those Kaypro machines ran CP/M, it took until 1985 for Kaypro (as it changed its name to) to come up with a PC-compatible system with the Kaypro PC and the Kaypro 286i, which was the world’s first AT-compatible system. Kaypro also adapted their luggable boxes with the MS-DOS capable Kaypro 4 Plus 88 and Kaypro 16. Kaypro even managed an early MS-DOS laptop with the slightly peculiar Kaypro 2000 and the qurkly and deeply unreliable CP/M Kaypro Robie. Somewhere along the line NLS changed its name to “Kaypro” as well.

Kaypro went from boom to bust quite quickly. The II was launched after the IBM PC but before it became really popular. It took four years for Kaypro to come up with their own PC, by which time the rapidly-evolving market had moved on. Despite soldiering on for a few years, Kaypro went bankrupt in 1992.

As with almost all microcomputer companies of the era, the success of Kaypro was relatively short-lived. However, they were the first company to come up with a practical and affordable portable computer, furthermore one that required very little work to get it fully operational, with a high-quality build and smart looks. The Kaypro II undoubtedly influence other computer designs of the same and next generation.

Today the Kaypro CP/M portables are somewhat collectable, although many have become separated from the floppy disks that held the software. Most available systems are in the US but some can be found in Europe, but expect to pay several hundred pounds

Image credits:
Diaper via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Daniel Boulet via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunday, 13 March 2022

LINC (1962)

First delivered in March 1962

The LINC – short for Laboratory INstrument Computer - was one of the world's very first minicomputers, helping to break the computer out of the corporate machine room and making it available to individual departments, labs and (at a stretch) homes.

Designed at MIT for academic work, most LINC machines were built by Digital Equipment Corporation, who were based in Massachusetts as is MIT. By 1962, DEC had already launched the PDP-1 (another candidate for the world’s first minicomputer) but the LINC was considerably cheaper and more compact.

Based on a 12-bit architecture, one innovation with the LINC was the tape drive (the LINCtape) which could store up to 400Kb and allowed a slow but reliable form of random access storage (somewhat like a very slow disk drive). The LINCtape evolved into DECtape, a common feature on DEC’s PDP line.

Digibarn's LINC system
Digibarn's LINC system

A small CRT could be used for output, and a rather clunky keyboard from Soroban Engineering (responsible for many computer keyboard of the same period) allowed input. Additional output could be made to a teletype, and the LINC could also be controlled by a set of rotary knobs which were essentially a precursor (pun intended) to the mouse.

The key application for the LINC was interfacing with lab equipment through the inbuilt A-to-D (analogue to digital) and D-to-A interfaces. This made the LINC a successful lab machine, although only 50 were built so it didn’t exactly change the world.

LINC exhibit at the Computer History Museum, California
LINC exhibit at the Computer History Museum, California

Significantly though, the LINC may be the world’s first home computer. Programmer Mary Allen Wilkes had a LINC system installed in her home, something that would be unfeasible with the 730kg PDP-1. It would take another 15 years or so before home computers became something that you could just go to the local electronics store to buy..

The LINC architecture grew into the PDP-5, PDP-8, PDP-12 and DECmate well into the 1970s. In the end though, the 16-bit PDP-11 and 32-bit VAX architecture (which were unrelated) moved things forward from there.

Image credits:
Jonathan Assink via Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0
Don DeBold via Flickr – CC BY 2.0