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