How I learned to love fuzzy displays and chunky pixels...
Greetings Armchair Arcade readers, time for Part #2 of The Retro Repair Adventures. Back in Part #1 I gave you a rose-colored introduction to my own VIC-20 machine, and showed a smattering of the various bits and bobs of VIC gaming history which I've managed to hold onto for 30+ years now.
This time, keep your propeller-beanies and geek-goggles screwed on tight, and warm up your soldering irons, because we're diving in for a close encounter with the VIC-20 hardware. For those of you who've ever wondered what electronic magic powered the first computer model to sell more than one million units, read on for a peek inside the machine, it's design, and the nitty-gritty details of repairing a 30+ year-old computer.
How to do "The Shatner Rub"...
Hello my fellow Armchair Arcadians! It's good to be back. Didn't mean to be gone so long again, but hey, Life happens. This time, I'm putting on my "Engineer Hat" (with the mandatory pocket-protector), and taking you on a Retro-Repair Adventure. In this first installment, we'll be delving into my own computing, programming, and gaming past. I'll take it easy to begin with, by giving you a close look at my very own, very beloved, and very much malfunctioning Commodore VIC-20. (We'll get to the nitty-gritty details of the electronics repair in my next posting.)
|Hello everyone, welcome to my second article on learning the fine art of programming. In my last article I listed a goodly number of possible options for learning to program with BASIC. Some were old, some were new, some are decidedly cool, and some were ridiculous. Some were (and are) extremely good development tools--capable of being used to create commercial quality software. There are also many other options which I left out of the mix.
Previously, I covered the highlights of what each one offered, and provided enough links for you to do some more research on your own. (You did go out and research some of those, didn't you?? I mean, if you're serious about wanting to program, then a little effort into research and experimentation can't be a huge hurdle. If it IS, you really need to re-think your future career.)
Hello again everyone! This time I want to talk about something very near and dear to my own heart (and wallet): Programming. Specifically, Game Programming. I wanted to address the questions which young gamers always seem to ask, when they first seriously consider the idea of becoming a game programmer... "How do I get started? What language/tool/IDE/program should I download?"
As I've managed to make a pretty good living as an applications and systems-level programmer for nearly 20 years now, and since I've been programming either professionally or as a hobby for over 35 years, I think I'm grey-haired enough to have developed a reasonable opinion on the matter.
So, do you think today's computing landscape of desktops, laptops, notebooks, smart phones, tablet computers, and netbooks - among other designations - is confusing? Imagine a computing landscape with no particular point of reference outside of mainframes and terminals. That's exactly what it was like in the world of personal computing from the mid-1970's to the start of the 1980's. The terms "laptop" and "notebook" were still several years away, with "portable" computers describing those systems you carried about like an overstuffed suitcase and ran off of AC power (like the Osborne 1 , Compaq Portable , or the Commodore SX-64 ), a form factor many of us more accurately refer to today as "transportable" computers.
In any case, continuing along the same line of thinking started with my blog post, "Do you know what and when the first recognizable modern day personal computer with BASIC was?", or my related segment on Armchair Arcade Radio - Episode 1 (and with which I will pursue a somewhat similar theme in Episode 2), I thought I would describe how the 1979 book by noted writer Steve Ditlea, Simple Guide to Home Computers, classified the personal computing landscape of that time.
First off, in Part I, Home Computer Fundamentals, under Chapter 1, The Home Computer Revolution, it calls the Altair 8800, the "world's first home computer". In Part II, Choosing a Home Computer, and specifically Chapter 7, it starts off with "Programmable Video Games" (which is the name of the chapter). The systems he designates as programmable video games (and in the last part of the chapter refers to them as "starter units") are the "Odyssey2 Computer Video Game System", the "Bally Professional Arcade", "Cybervision 2001", and the "VideoBrain". Ditlea calls the Odyssey2 a "price breakthrough", though it's arguable to me if the North American version of the Odyssey2 ever really qualified as a computer in the traditional sense. It does in fact offer a very nice Computer Programming cartridge - which is mentioned in the book - but never any ability to save your output. If it qualifies under that scenario, then the BASIC Programming cartridge for the Atari 2600 would also make that console a computer, albeit even more primitive than what was offered on the Odyssey2. At least in the case of the Atari 2600, though, Spectravideo did eventually come through in 1983 with the CompuMate add-on, which not only added a keyboard and a reasonable BASIC, but the ability to save your data to tape.
Armchair Arcade is proud to present its first official episode of Armchair Arcade Radio! This episode, hosted by Matt Barton, features material from each member of AA's staff: Bill Loguidice, Mark Vergeer, Christina Loguidice, and Chris Kennedy. Enjoy the episode and don't forget to tell all your retro computing and gaming friends! Stay tuned to Armchair Arcade for future episodes.
Based on a lively discussion over at AtariAge, I finally have what appears to be independent confirmation of what and when the first recognizable modern day personal computer with the BASIC programming language was. For purposes of definition, "first recognizable modern day personal computer" means a pre-assembled (non-kit) computer with a built-in display output (typically to a monitor early on and later to a TV) and full keyboard. The BASIC part means having some type of operating system with BASIC commands, preferably (though not required to be) in ROM. Now, we all know the holy trinity of 1977, the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80, which were released (meaning not just announced, but actually available to buy and, more importantly, use) in that magical year, in that order, and each of which set the standard for all others to follow. Logic would dictate then that the first computer to fit our definition would be the Apple II. However, as the French would say au contraire mon frere. After some total misses were brought up, one computer in particular began to generate some legitimate consideration, the Processor Technology SOL-20 (SOL 20; NOTE: Though apparently far less popular, the reduced feature-set SOL 10 was also available). Unfortunately, there is a criminal lack of historical information related to both the company and the computer, so pinning down a release date for the pre-assembled version was difficult (as was customary for the time, kit versions were available--even the Apple II could be bought as a kit, though the Commodore PET and TRS-80 could not). While I've been able to briefly handle a fully operational SOL-20 in the past, due to its high cost on today's open market (easily north of $400 with often questionable functionality), I've been unable to acquire one, so my first-hand knowledge of the system is decidedly limited.
AtariAge user "desiv", was the first to find this article, which is a report from a gentleman who had a computer store at the time and pretty much pegged a general availability of 1976 for the SOL-20. Not satisfied with this single account (for one thing, there were a few mis-remembrances in there, like saying the SOL-20 was never sold as a kit), I decided to end the debate (if only primarily with myself) once and for all by checking my personal library's materials for another contemporary perspective. Luckily, I found one.
According to my copy of Owning Your Home Computer (The Complete Illustrated Guide) (1980) by Robert L. Perry, on page 49, "About the same time [mid-1975], Robert Marsh, a computer engineer, founded Processor Technology, which marketed the first computer complete with keyboard and video screen--SOL, the first personal computer deserving the name." and "Except for the first version of the Processor Technology personal computer, called SOL, there was no complete home computer at the beginning of 1977." Then he goes on to talk about the usual suspects, Commodore PET, Apple II, TRS-80, Exidy Sorcerer and Ohio Scientific Challenger, as being introduced that year (of course actual availability is a different issue).
He mentions another challenger a bit later, the Polymorphic 8800, which was introduced in 1976, which contained connections for a video monitor and a cassette recorder (as well as BASIC in ROM). Unfortunately, you had to add your own keyboard, which disqualifies it. He then talks a bit more about the SOL 20, "The first computer a hobbyist could simply turn on and use was the Processor Technology SOL 20. It had its own keyboard, an audio cassette interface, a complete video processor that used numbers and letters (in upper and lower case...), both kinds of input/output ports (serial and parallel), and an internal power supply. It had neither switches nor blinking lights on a complicated-looking front panel. It did have an internal operating system fixed in its memory, which allowed a user to simply plug it to a video monitor and use it. [description of an operating system] Yet the SOL, too, was too complicated for the average user. A buyer still had to know computer programming to use it." So, while BASIC was not in ROM (just a "simple" operating system was), it was apparently readily available on paper tape and cassette (see more info, here, here, and here (the latter of which points to BASIC availability no later than circa January 1977, still well before the Apple II's actual release)).
Perry then devotes some time to the second generation of kit computers, like the RCA Cosmac Elf II, and Heathkit H-8. Then, towards the end of page 54, he starts in with the TRS-80, leads into the PET, talks about the Apple I and II, the Ohio Scientific Challenger, the Compucolor 8001, and the Exidy Sorcerer (which he says, correctly, was introduced in the Spring of 1978).
On another note, he devotes Chapter 5 to "The Newest Home Computers", which, given sufficient publishing lead time for this 1980 book, would have placed most of these releases between 1978 - 1979, which falls in line with what we already know well (of course, some, like the Mattel Keyboard Component, were only ANNOUNCED at this time and would still be some time away). These systems include: Sinclair ZX80, APF Imagination Machine, Interact Model One, Mattel Intellivision (with Keyboard Component), TI-99/4 (not the 4A), Bally Professional Arcade, and HP-85.
On a final note, in Chapter 6, "The Handiest Home Computers", he discusses the TRS-80, Commodore PET, Apple II/III, Ohio Scientific Challenger series, Compucolor II, Exidy Sorcerer, and the Atari 400/800. Definitely a good book, and definitely an end to the "mystery". Nevertheless, if you want all of the usual qualifiers above and BASIC to reside in ROM, you're still looking at the Apple II, which was released in June 1977.
Any thoughts out there to the contrary?
While I've done a few of these informally since the last one, the C-128DCR, which was number 6, I decided to continue the numbering from there since I wasn't going to do anything special at the moment with this other than take a series of photos. The Bally Home Library Computer or Bally Professional Arcade (and several other names over its lifetime), better known by its informal nickname, the Bally Astrocade, was a videogame console released in 1978 with the promise of future computer capabilities. While the full-blown add-ons never made it out from its two parent companies (Bally would give up on the system within a few years and a new company would form as Astrovision, but also never had much success with the technology), the first of two cassette interfaces was released in 1978, which ran at 300-baud. This 300-baud interface consisted of a beefy book, cartridge and interface cables that hooked into the accessory jack and the system's control port number 3 (it had four controller ports). You could then type in programs on the system's 24 calculator-style keys. Yes, people actually programmed on that!
1978 - Mmm. Coding basic text games on our Apple II+. Plus I could make a cool string of wine goblets run up the side of the screen.
10 PRINT "Y"
20 PRINT "I"
30 GOTO 10
1980 - The folks bring home an Atari 2600. Love blooms. The games I remember most from this time are Pac Man, Space Invaders, Berzerk, Swordquest: Earthworld, and Combat. Like many people I've talked to, you always had to have one friend with an Intellivision and one with a ColecoVision so that everyone could play every system. :)