Monday, 11 January 2021

Commodore VIC-20 (1981)

Launched January 1981

Microcomputers had been on a rollercoaster ride since the launch of the holy trinity of the Commodore PET, Apple II and Tandy TRS-80 in 1977. These early computers were expensive and limited in capabilities, so take-up was somewhat limited – especially in the home. But if there was one machine that finally brought the micro into living rooms and bedrooms all over the world, it was probably the Commodore VIC-20.

Commodore VIC-20

Selling more than a million units in its first year of production, the VIC-20 was based on the familiar (and Commodore-owned) MOS Technology 6502 CPU combined with a graphics-and-sound chip called the VIC which MOS had designed but had yet to find a market for.

Graphics were a fairly blocky 176 x 184 pixels in a maximum of 16 colours, with a fairly ungainly text resolution of 22 x 23 characters (at a time when business computers would have up to 80 columns)
Sound was a slightly more impressive three channels plus a noise generator. A tiny 5Kb of RAM left just 3.5Kb for BASIC applications, but it could be expanded to 32Kb.

BASIC itself was a cut-down version of the one in the PET – a smaller codebase was needed because of the limited ROM and RAM in the VIC-20. Unfortunately this meant that the VIC-20 lacked any commands to control graphics or sound in BASIC which had to be done through a series of POKES and PEEKS. The later VIC Super Expander cartridge helped, but BASIC programs written using it could only be used by people owning the expander cartridge.

Everything was packaged in an attractive and durable single box costing a shade less than $300 which would need to be connected to a domestic TV set (via an external modulator) or composite video monitor… which wasn’t included in the price. Nor included was the almost-essential “datasette” cassette drive needed for storage, but even taking all this into consideration the price was a steal compared to the previous generation of computers. And in a bare-minimum configuration you could use the family TV and a software cartridge plugged into the back.

It was an expandable system – floppy disks and joysticks being a common option, but the built-in serial port and CBM-488 bus allowed a variety of other add-ons including the sub-$100 VICMODEM which sold over a million units.

VIC-20 plus peripherals

About a year-and-a-half later, the VIC-20’s successor was launched – the Commodore 64. Almost identical in exterior design, the C64 was a much more complex and expensive beast. The VIC continued to be sold alongside the C64, by the time it was discontinued in January 1985 (four years after launch) it was priced at less than $100.

The VIC-20 cemented Commodore as one of the key players in the early 80s microcomputer market, but of course that position wouldn’t last. Today a Commodore VIC-20 in very good condition can sell for up to £400, the VIC-compatible floppy disk units are much in demand and can also sell for hundreds of pounds. Alternatively, the Linux-based THEC64 includes a VIC-20 emulation mode in convincing replica hardware for much less.

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY 4.0
Marcin Wichary / MagentaGreen via Wikimedia Commons -  CC-BY-2.0

Monday, 28 December 2020

2020: things that didn’t quite make the cut

This year we’ve covered gadgets and inventions from the 1800s and up. But there are plenty of other things that had anniversaries this year that we didn’t mention.

One of the most important inventions debuted in 1810 – the tin can. A key product of the industrial revolution, the tin can answered many of the millennia-old questions about how to preserve foodstuffs. More reliable and palatable than salting, drying, pickling and a variety of other methods this humble tin can meant food security for growing populations in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Also hailing from the nineteenth century was celluloid, a versatile class of materials that were pioneered in billiard balls in 1870, and then found their way into many other products from toys to films. However, celluloid’s habit of bursting into flames means that it is rarely used as a material today.

Canned food in a store in Hong Kong, Easter brooch with celluloid flowers

Somewhat related to celluloid is cellophane, a lightweight and flexible material that lent its properties to Scotch Tape, introduced in 1930. Also from 1930 – and perhaps a little bit more edible – is the Hostess Twinkie cake bar. Allegedly, Twinkies last forever – but eat a decade-old box at your own risk.

Vintage scotch tape container, Twinkie cake bars

Fast forward to 1960 and the white heat of technology forges something even more high-tech than sticky tape and cake bars, with the laser. Don’t ask me to explain how these things work, they just do. Pew pew.

Visible lasers being demonstrated

People who remember the home computers of the 1980s probably remember the Commodore VIC-20 – but it had an immediate predecessor in the shape of the VIC-1001 which was sold successfully in Japan only. The main difference between the two is that the VIC-1001 supports Japanese Katakana characters.

Commodore VIC-1001

By 1990 of course things were really getting more advanced. The Sega Game Gear was an 8-bit handheld console that carved a significant market for itself. Another 8-bit games machine, the Commodore 64 Games System (or simply the C64GS) was a more traditional console based closely on the legendary Commodore 64 home computer. The C64GS held great promise with the potential of a huge games library, but it failed to deliver in a spectacular way.

Sega Game Gear, Commodore 64 Games System

In the same year, the Macintosh Classic breathed a bit more life into a familiar format at a sub-$1000 price point, but the 68000 processor was getting a bit long in the tooth by then. More powerful, but three times the cost, was the 68030-based Macintosh IIsi which was much more forward-looking.

Apple Macintosh Classic, Macintosh IIsi

Handheld gadgets continued to develop, and in 2000 the Sharp J-SH04 was launched in Japan which was the world’s first recognisable camera phone, with a rear-facing 0.11 megapixel camera. It wasn’t great, but it set a pattern that other early camera phones improved on.  

Sharp J-SH04

That’s it for 2020, a difficult year for many people. Let’s hope that 2021 will be better. A big shout out to all those key workers, healthcare professionals and everybody trying to be socially responsible (or even just managing to keep themselves sane) this year. 

Image credits:
Canned food in a store in Hong Kong: Bairgae Daishou 33826 via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Easter brooch with celluloid flowers: Pinke via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Vintage scotch tape container: Improbcat via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
Twinkie cake bars: Photog Bill via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Visible lasers being demonstrated: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons – Public domain
Commodore VIC-1001: Thomas Conté via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sega Game Gear: James Case via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Commodore 64 Games System: Thomas Conté via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0
Macintosh Classic: Christian Brockmann via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Macintosh IIsi: Benoît Prieur via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Sharp J-SH04: Morio via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Zork I (1980)

Introduced December 1980

Although early microcomputers came in all sorts of different and incompatible varieties, they had a few things in common. Specifically, they didn’t have much in the way of memory and if they had graphics capabilities they were pretty rudimentary. Early computer games therefore required a bit of imagination, and one great example of where this was the case if the Zork series of text adventures from Infocom.

Zork running on an ADM31 terminal
Zork running on an ADM31 terminal

Originally designed as a follow-on from the 1970s “Colossal Cave” adventure, Zork (in those days just called “Dungeon”) was developed for the DEC PDP-10 (a 36-bit minicomputer system) and was written in a version of LISP called MDL. Computers like these tended to have a relatively large amount of memory and decent hard disk storage, so the game itself grew quite large and complex. And just like Colossal Cave, Dungeon was very popular amongst people with access to the expensive computing equipment required to run it.

The next step by the authors – Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels – was to port the game (now called “Zork”) to the ever-expanding range of microcomputers on offer. Some compromises had to be made due to the small amount of memory these machines had, and the original minicomputer game was rewritten into three episodes.

The creators formed a company to market the game called Infocom, and set about the challenge of rewriting the game. The approach was a novel one for the time – the Zork game itself was written in its own language called “ZIL”, which ran in a virtual environment called a “Z Machine”. This meant that the game (and others based on the same technology) could be easily ported to any compatible platform that had a Z Machine coded for it. Infocom partnered with the distributors of VisiCalc to sell the game, and by 1980 it was ready for the wider world.

You could call the finished product either an adventure game or a piece of interactive fiction. Rich text descriptions, clever natural-language parsing and complex gameplay made Zork a compelling proposition. The player starts in a field next to a white house, which turns out to be the gateway to an underground layer full of treasure and monsters – including the infamous “Grue” who would kill the adventurer if they wandered around in the dark. By solving a series of puzzles, mazes and other challenges, the player could bring all the treasure back to a cabinet in the house and thus win the game.

Sharp-eyed people may notice that this Kaypro II is accompanied by the Amiga version of Zork I
Sharp-eyed people may notice that this Kaypro II is accompanied by the Amiga version of Zork I

Sales were good, and as word got around – and the software was ported to more devices – the popularity began to grow throughout the 1980s. Zork II & III were released in 1982 and a wide variety of other games were released in the ZIL platform, including 1984’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” designed in conjunction with Douglas Adams. As a novel twist, some of these games included “feelies” which were physical objects in the box that would form part of the puzzles in the games.

Even as rivals tried to come up with graphical adventures, Infocom’s position remained very strong. But Infocom wanted to move beyond being just a games company, and in 1985 they launched a novel database product called Cornerstone. It wasn’t a success and Infocom was taken over by Activision, which ensured the short-term survival of the company… but in the end Activision didn’t really understand the Infocom brand and by the end of the 1980s development of text adventures had ceased, although there was a brief renaissance in the mid-1990s when several Infocom games compilations were released.

Because of the portable nature of the game, it’s possible to play Zork online for free. Be warned though – you may find that once you start, you won’t be able to stop playing until you’ve solved it all.

Image credits:
CyberHades via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Marcin Wichary via Flickr - CC BY 2.0


Saturday, 28 November 2020

Atari Battlezone (1980)

Introduced November 1980

Displays on early computer systems – and arcade games – tended to be divided into two categories. Most used a series of dots created line-by-line, like a domestic TV set – these were raster scan devices. But you don’t have to create a picture like that with an old-style cathode ray tube (CRT), you can draw lines from point-to-point too – these are vector devices.

Atari’s Lunar Lander and Asteroids games used vector displays to create cool space-age graphics, modelled in part on the look and feel of Spacewar! on the PDP-1 decades earlier. The next stage for Atari was an impressive evolution of vector graphics, with Battlezone.

Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone
Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone

Launched in November 1980, Atari’s Battlezone was set firmly on the ground. Instead of a spaceship, the player controlled a tank with two controllers that pushed backwards and forwards. Push both forwards, and the tank moved forwards, you would go backwards if both were pushed backwards, and to turn you would push one back and one forwards. A button on one of the controllers fired a shell towards enemy tanks prowling around the landscape, or faster super tanks, UFOs or missiles.

The gameplay was fairly straightforward, but the graphics set it apart. In the standard versions, the player would look through a periscope with a lens in it and some painted on artwork, to simulate a real tank. What they saw was a flat plane with an occasional enemy, distant mountains and a live volcano, a crescent moon and random geometric shapes scattered around which could act either as cover or as obstacles. The wire-frame vector graphics, given a primitive but compelling 3D experience.

The enemy often wasn’t visible at all, except for being on radar. A frantic swing around to find the opposing tank would often be too late to avoid an incoming round. Unseen objects could block escape routes, or alternatively save your bacon and block an attack. All the time, the mountains beckoned in the distance. Could you ever reach them? All sorts of rumours and myths abounded, sadly untrue.

Battlezone machine with periscope
Battlezone machine with periscope

The game was a huge hit, but the periscope remained one of the most divisive parts. Although it added to the feel of the game, you had to be able to reach it and it wasn’t always the most hygienic thing to press your face into. Some later versions removed the periscope which made the game more accessible.

Battlezone also had official ports to most of the popular systems of the early 1980s, include the Apple II, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit machines and the Atari ST. Unofficial versions and games inspired by Battlezone proliferated across every  platform you can think of and are still popular today. Vintage machines seem rare, with prices in the US being around $5000, but if you want a more modern (and compact) VR experience you could try something like the PlayStation 4 version.

Image credits:
Gamerscore Blog via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0
Russell Bernice via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Berzerk (1980)

 Launched November 1980

The golden age of arcade games features many classic games that are still fondly remembered and played today, but one that has been somewhat forgotten is Berzerk, launched by Stern Electronics in November 1980.

The basic gameplay of Berzerk was that the player was trapped in a series of mazes and had to shoot robots who were themselves shooting back. An indestructible enemy called Otto would turn up. Getting shot by a robot, walking into a robot, being too close to a robot that was shot, bumping into the electrified walls or being caught by Otto would all result in death. The player does have the option of escaping to another one of the thousands of possible rooms to fight again.


Although the gameplay was novel, what really made Berzerk stand out was speech synthesis. Although the game itself was powered by the popular Zilog Z80 processor (clocked at 2.5MHz), the speech was provided by a TSI S14001A chip that had originally been designed for a talking calculator. The games used speech to attract players with “coin detected in pocket” and then chattered and taunted the player throughout the game.

Berzerk was a hit – gaining some notoriety along the way – and was successfully ported to Atari and Vectrex gaming consoles. Stern followed up with a successful partnership with bringing Konami games to US markets, but by the mid-1980s the bottom dropped out of the market in a huge crash that took Stern with it.

Ports and conversions of Berzerk exist to this day and aren’t hard to find, but collecting arcade machines themselves is a bit of a niche hobby. We found an original cabinet in the US for $1200, which is not much compared to some better known games.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of Berzerk was that it helped to kick start voice synthesis, although it took decades for this to became good enough to use all the time. Stern themselves were resurrected as a brand in 1999 when the assets of Sega’s pinball operations were spin off, and Stern Pinball make machines to this day.

Image credit:
The Pop Culture Geek Network via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990)

 Introduced November 1990 (Japan)

The best-selling 16-bit gaming console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or just “SNES”) ruled the roost in the early 1990s, despite an epic battle with the Sega Mega Drive. Relatively late to the market, one of the key reasons for the success of the SNES was better games and good marketing.

Nintendo SNES (PAL Version)

Models varied throughout the world with different cases between North America, Japan and Europe with imcompatible cartridge slots and region locking in both hardware and software. In Japan the console was called the “Super Famicom”. At its heart was an unusual 16-bit development of the venerable 6502 processor called the Ricoh 5A22 – the previous generation Nintendo Entertainment System used another 6502 derivative, this time the Ricoh 2A03.

A wide range of colour graphics modes, an impressive audio subsystem called S-SMP (made by Sony) and ergonomically designed controllers made the SNES a capable hardware platform. But with games consoles, that’s just one of the ingredients you need for success.

What the SNES did have was games... lots of games. Super Mario, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, SimCity and many more games were available. Many games were only available on Nintendo platforms, some (such as Mortal Kombat) were available of several. Nintendo did insist of elements of graphic violence being removed from games, which made them more family-friendly but ultimately probably lost them sales.

Depending on market, the SNES was around for about a decade and sold an astonishing 49 million units compared to the Mega Drive’s 32 million or so. A few revisions were made to the hardware, along with quite a lot of hardware expansions that had a limited audience, but ultimately the success of the SNES continued well into the 32-bit console era.

There’s a healthy retro gaming community around the SNES – used units are inexpensive, although game cartridges – especially rare ones – can be worth much more that the systems themselves. In 2017, Nintendo released the Super NES Classic Edition – a modern take on the classic console. There are also emulators and other reimagined versions out there – even after 30 years, the SNES still has the power to captivate gamers.

Image credit: JCD1981NL via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 3.0

Saturday, 7 November 2020

DEC PDP-1 (1960)

First unit shipped November 1960

In 1960, the Massachusetts firm Digital Equipment Corporation (typically known as “DEC” or just “Digital”) was just three years old. Founded by two ex-MIT engineers, DEC’s earliest products were small computing modules on cards that could be used in labs, the design of which was based on work originally done at MIT.

The company advanced quickly, and in 1959 it announced a minicomputer based on these modules, which they called the PDP-1. “PDP” stood for “Programmable Data Processor” – according to legend this was because DEC was afraid that IBM might sue if they called it a “computer”, but in reality it seems that this approach was because computer companies were regarded as high-risk for investors, where lab equipment companies were less so.


Although clever and flexible in approach, the modules still consisted of individual transistors and other components soldered to a board. This meant that the overall system was quite large (weighing hundreds of kilograms). It was 36-bit computer with the equivalent of just 9.2Kb of memory, mass storage was provided by paper tape and output could be to a printer or weird circular CRT that had basically been transplanted from a radar system.

Prices started at $130,000 for a basic system (around a million dollars today) which made it a feasible purchase for well-funded labs, universities and tech-oriented companies. It was essentially a single-user system until the development of timesharing OSes such as the one from BBN. As a comparison, an IBM 7090 mainframe computer of the same era cost around $2.9 million ($20 million today), and although the PDP-1 was much less powerful it was much more flexible and it could be programmed to do things that were impossible on a tightly buttoned-down mainframe.

Things that you couldn’t do on a mainframe but could do on a PDP-1 included playing synthesised music and a key early video game – Spacewar!. A precursor of much later video games such as Asteroids, the game used the Type 30 vector display of the PDP-1 to show two opposing spacecraft fighting each other around the gravitational field of a sun. The Type 30’s long persistent phosphor added to the space-age gameplay and of course it became a major reason for people to book time on their department’s PDP-1 for (ahem) “research”.


DEC were still a fledgling company, and although the PDP-1 was a success it only shipped 53 units. However, just five years later DEC was growing quickly and the 12-bit PDP-8 launched in 1965 shipped an astonishing 50,000 units over its lifetime, and five years after that the 16-bit PDP-11 eventually shipped 600,000 units. As an aside, DEC also made 36-bit and 32-bit computers in the 60s and 70s, to add to the confusion.

The architecture used in the PDP-1 turned out to be a dead end, ending in 1970 with the PDP-15. However, it helped start a revolution in small-scale computing which – after nearly two decades – allowed everybody who wanted one to have a computer on their desk. Unfortunately for DEC, they never could successfully transition from minis to micros, but that is another story.

Image credits:
M.Hawksey via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Kenneth Lu via Flickr – CC BY 2.0