Thursday, 29 July 2021

IBM Selectric (1961) and IBM Datamaster (1981)

Introduced July 1961 and July 1981

Remember typewriters? You know, the obsolete technology that existed before the obsolete technology called word processors? Somewhere after people wrote stuff down by hand? No? Oh well, the IBM Selectric probably isn’t for you.

By 1961, typewriters were clunky, slow and inflexible… but businesses everywhere relied on them. IBM had a different vision of what a typewriter could be, and the Selectric was much more feature rich than most of the machines on the market at the time.

Early IBM Selectric Typewriter
Early IBM Selectric Typewriter

One obvious different was the print head – instead of having an individual arm with each letter laid out in a complex mechanical arrangement, the Selectric had a “golf ball” print head which would rotate to find the letter you wanted. On the Selectric, the head moved from left to right rather than the paper moving from right to left. Crucially, if the operator wanted to change the font they would just stop typing and swap in a different print head.

A quite complex electromechanical arrangement made all this work, and to get the best out of the Selectric required either experience or training. But it was faster, more reliable and more flexible than traditional devices and IBM took a large share of the business market.

New versions with more features followed, although the Selectric units were incompatible with each other. Some had correcting ribbons, wordprocessing features and even local storage. Variants of the Selectric could be used as computer printers. By the time the brand was retired in 1986, IBM had sold more than 13 million Selectric devices.

20 years further on, IBM found itself on the cusp of a larger revolution. Business computers had been getting smaller, more powerful and – crucially – cheaper, which was becoming a possible threat for IBM’s large computer business.

IBM wanted its own microcomputer and had started working on creating a unit based on an Intel processor, which was a major design break for IBM who had previously used their own PALM CPUs in their machines. The results of this unconventional effort by IBM is probably not the computer that first springs to mind – the IBM PC – but instead the IBM System/23 Datamaster.

IBM Datamaster
IBM Datamaster

The Datamaster used many of the same or similar elements that would be seen in the PC, including the Intel CPU, expansion bus and keyboard. Instead of the PC’s now-familiar modular design, the Datamaster was an all-in-one box (not dissimilar to the original Mac) designed to be set up by people with no technical experience. It was also IBM’s cheapest computer to date.

Unfortunately for the Datamaster, it had been stuck in development hell and took a very long time to come to market. As it was being readied for launch, the team behind it were also finalising the IBM PC which was launched the very next month. The PC had learned many lessons from the Datamaster, keeping what was good and throwing out what wasn’t. The PC changed the world, the Datamaster found modest sales in die-hard IBM shops.

The Selectric was arguably the ultimate electric typewriter, and while the Datamaster wasn’t the ultimate microcomputer it paved the way for what arguably evolved into one. Both devices are quite collectable, although the Datamaster is much rarer than the Selectric. Out of the two, the Selectric might still be of more practical use... and your children may well never have seen anything quite like a typewriter before.

Image credits:
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Steve Lodefink via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



Monday, 26 July 2021

Donkey Kong (1981)

Introduced July 1981

Donkey Kong was the arcade game that established Nintendo as a success in the North American market – introducing two of their most iconic characters in the process. But unlike many other games from the golden age of arcades, the development story for Donkey Kong begins in failure.

Donkey Kong detail
Donkey Kong detail

In 1980, Nintendo had attempted to break into the US with a game called Radar Scope which was a 3D space shoot-‘em-up with some advanced graphics for the time. 3000 machines were built and shipped to the States, but sales were poor and 2000 of the cabinets were unsold, prompting a financial crisis for Nintendo.

Donkey Kong was developed initially as a way to reuse the existing cabinets. Instead of a space-based game, this was a platform game where an Italian plumber attempts to climb to the top of the level while being bombarded by barrels thrown down by a primate.

The names of these characters? If you hadn’t guessed, they were Mario and Donkey Kong. Unusually for a game of the time, the characters came first and the game followed after. This process eventually meant that Nintendo had a cast of digital stars they could put into their own games which helped them grow in popularity even more.

Nintendo reworked the logic board from the original Radar Scope game, Donkey Kong had simpler hardware requirement than the shoot-‘em-up, it still possessed colourful graphics, sound effects and music all powered by a Z80 CPU. It wasn’t hard to port it to the booming microcomputer marketplace, and licensed and unlicensed clones were soon everywhere.

Donkey Kong arcade machine
Donkey Kong arcade machine

As well as direct sequels (many of which were based on the same hardware) a whole range of Nintendo games built on the characters and added many more. Mario in particular went on to star in what is probably the most successful video game franchise ever including Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart and many others. Donkey Kong starred in Donkey Kong Country and many other games, often crossing over with Mario.

It’s quite possible that if Nintendo hadn’t been sitting on a couple of thousand Radar Scope machines that such a novel concept might not have been risked. As it was, the descendants of the original Donkey Kong game gave Nintendo a unique edge in the future… which turned out to be not just shoot-‘em-ups after all.

Image credits:
Wordshore via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Microsiervos via Flickr – CC BY 2.0


Monday, 19 July 2021

Ericsson T68 (2001)

Introduced July 2001

By the middle of 2001 the golden age of mobile phone design was beginning. New features were added to phones rapidly, and every handset managed to look very different from rivals. The next few years would see a wave of innovation – but for Ericsson, 2001 was also its swansong as a mobile phone brand.

Ericsson had produced a range of successful (and mostly very compact) phones but was losing money on the operation in a big way. Despite this, Ericsson continued to launch great new products and the Ericsson T68m (usually referred to as just the “T68”) was one of them. A diminutive 84 gram device, it packed in more features than rivals to create a very desirable handset.

This Ericsson T68m has seen better days
This Ericsson T68m has seen better days

One of the main selling points was Bluetooth – one of the first phones to feature this technology. It also had a colour screen, tri-band GSM, GPRS packet data, a WAP browser, predictive text, a bitmap editor and a bunch of included games. A camera – the MCA-25 CommuniCam – was available as a clip-on extra, again making it one of the first phones to feature that particular technology.

Not long after the launch of the T68, Ericsson merged their mobile phone business with Sony to create Sony Ericsson. The T68 received a slight cosmetic makeover and had a software update to become the Sony Ericsson T68i, the first phone to carry that branding. Eventually the camera add-on became a standard accessory, helping to popularise the idea of cameraphones.

Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam
Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam

When it eventually arrived, the replacement for the T68 was the stylish T610 and there was a successful run of handsets after that. Today, used prices for the T68i and T68m are pretty healthy with really good ones selling for £100 or more, although sub-£50 is more common. The Communicam camera add-on is available as new old stock from £50 or more, all pretty healthy for a 20 year old feature phone..

Image credits:
The Norwegian Telecom Musuem via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Renault 4 (1961)

Introduced July 1961

One of world’s most successful single models of car, the Renault 4 sold over eight million units in 33 years of production. It was an enduring success, utilising several technologies which were novel in the 1960s but commonplace in later years.

Although the Renault 4 is shaped like a small station wagon or estate car, it was actually the world’s first mass-produced hatchback. It was also front-wheel drive, at a time when almost everything else on the road was rear wheel drive. Indeed, the engine was in the front as well when rear-engined cars were still a thing.

Renault 4
Renault 4


The design was modern by early 1960s standards, and the target market was people who up until then had been buying the Citro├źn 2CV. Despite the rival 2CV having been introduced in 1948, it was still a strong seller due to its practicality and simplicity. However, the Renault 4 offered more power, more comfort and lower maintenance costs.

Unlike modern cars, the Renault 4 is built on an independent chassis with the body being placed on top. The chassis provided all the structural strength, allowing more windows and thinner pillars in the car itself giving better visibility. A range of engines were available – the smallest was in the Renault 3 (fundamentally the same car as the Renault 4), giving 22 horsepower. The Renault 4 had up to 32 horsepower. The rival 2CV thrashed around on just 12 horsepower at the time.

It was a practical car, and comfortable too. Although it maybe lacked the charm of the 2CV, it went on to be a massive sales success worldwide. Licence-built versions of the Renault 4 were made in such diverse countries as Argentina, Ireland, Morocco, Australia, Mexico and Yugoslavia. There was a popular van ("fourgonnette") version, plus a pickup and dozens of quirky custom versions made by converters and enthusiasts.

Renault 4 fourgonnette
Renault 4 fourgonnette

After the Renault 4’s launch came a host of other front-wheel drive hatchbacks, both from Renault and other manufacturers. The 4 lingered on though, with French production going on until 1992 (and until 1994 in Slovenia). Eventually it was replaced with the first-generation Twingo which successfully built upon the 4’s design philosophy – becoming a modern classic in its own right.

Today the Renault 4 is a rare sight on British roads – much rarer than the rival 2CV – with prices starting at just a few thousand pounds for a slice of Gallic charm. 

Image credits:
Spline Splinson via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0
Gzzz via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0