Archive for the ‘Computer History’ Category

Helping Aaron – A Vintage Computer Adventure

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

This article was originally written for and published at Philly 2600 on December 23rd, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

It’s rare that I get overwhelmed. I’m not talking about stress or anything like that. It’s rare that my senses get overwhelmed, specifically my sense of sight. This past Saturday, that sense became overloaded.

I’ve known Aaron for a little while now. We met online somehow in 2012, and while I don’t remember the exact details, I think he started following me on Twitter and things went on from there after I followed him back and we started replying to each other’s tweets. We quickly figured out that we lived pretty close to  one another, which I found humorous considering we were both into archiving and preservation. Who would think that I’d be geographically this close to another person who idles in the #archiveteam IRC channel, online headquarters for the team dedicated to rescuing any and everything in the way of data? Aaron and I hit it off pretty well, and we eventually ended up meeting (somewhat unexpectedly) at Pumpcon 2013. Later, I ran into him again at the BSides Delaware conference and shortly thereafter he started coming to the Philly 2600 meetings which I’ve been frequenting for some time.

About two weeks ago, Aaron approached me via an online message and asked if I would like to go through some old computers at a local nonprofit he is on the Board of Directors for, NTR. NTR is in itself a fantastic organization which provides both refurbished computers (done in-house from donations) and hands-on computer training to low-income Philadelphia residents. If you are employed by or know a company in the area that is retiring their current fleet of workstations, consider donating the old machines to NTR. And, if they ultimately cannot use the machines, they will ensure that they are recycled in an environmentally safe fashion.

Aaron thought that I would be the right guy to help out. Being someone that preserves old technology, rescues it from unknown fate, and is a general enthusiast about it, I couldn’t resist the urge to come out and see what I could uncover. The details I got about what I was to do left a lot to my imagination. I got a location, we  settled on a time, and I was told to wear clothes I wouldn’t mind getting dirty and bring a set of work gloves. Hardhats would be provided.

The dirt and grime never bother me. Just what I would be working with, I didn’t know. But, I was excited nonetheless and on the morning of Saturday I walked on over to NTR and met Aaron out front. The building we would go on to enter was the former site of the hackerspace The Hacktory before they moved to a larger location. The building itself is a big old warehouse that is much larger inside than it looks from the street. The parking lot to the side is encased with giant stone walls almost as high as the building itself and easily fits a dozen cars without having anybody blocked in. Aaron tells me that the building has also been declared a historical site, meaning they can’t do a lot of modification to it directly, but they do keep it nicely maintained.

As Aaron lifts one of the giant metal doors encased in the building’s western wall, I get my first look into NTR. He shows me bins of donated computer equipment: smaller stuff like peripherals lovingly stacked in re-purposed milk crates and small amounts of desktop computers stacked together up the side of the two-story wall. I get a tour of all the classrooms, a look into the computer thrift store they run out of the same building, and dozens of other rooms and hallways that wind around the giant space, separated by heavy opaque sliding doors. Eventually we make our way into the main computer storage area where there are pallets upon pallets of donated machines on giant shelves that Aaron points out to me with a flashlight. It’s dark in this part of the building.

We then go up to the second floor to see Stan, who is the Executive Director Emeritus of the organization, having initially been the Executive Director starting in 1980 and taken on the Emeritus title more recently. Stan himself is energetic and charismatic and goes on to tell me about how he set up a community information store on South Street in the 1970′s as we head down to where we came in to the building to the relatively new looking wooden steps that will lead to the area that Aaron and I will be looking through for the next few hours. Aaron later explains that much like me, Stan has been collecting and preserving technology and computer history, though he has been doing it for considerably longer. Some of his collection is also mixed in with the stuff we will be digging through.

I put on my gloves and snag a hardhat out of milk crate on a shelf by the stairs before Aaron and myself head up. The stairs are steep and don’t seem to be spaced consistently. You feel like you could fall down them easily but the railing is firm enough to keep you steady. As we make it to the top, I peer into the sea of computers which I will be acquainting myself with, lit by a pair of metal lamps that are clipped on to the wide beams of the underside of the roof – an afterthought in this 40×20 foot space.

A shot behind me after I made my way off the stairs

A shot behind me after I made my way off the stairs

I quickly realize I can’t stand up all the way and have to hunch over, but that isn’t nearly as assaulting as the dust that comes out from seemingly everywhere and permeates through the air thick like smoke. Aaron walks slowly forward with his flashlight in hand and I follow close behind as he points out different areas of the space. We see newer stuff like a few Dell servers and stacks of Intel-based PCs at first but as we go further in we take more steps back in time. Aaron shines his light on a pile of all-in-one Macs before going further to the more interesting artifacts. On the left are some more modern machines, followed by boxes upon boxes of various documents, computers, and peripherals. I see Kaypros with Commodores with IBM clones and crazy displays for systems I can’t even fathom. There are tons of Macs, a few Mac clones, Apple ][s, and some old portable computers the size of suitcases. There are bags of electronics: half finished projects from decades before, muddled in with 8-bit personal computers, a pile of Sun workstations, and boxes of 5.25" floppy disks. On the right side are more Macs: G5s, G3s, a dozen classic Macs, some older desktops and a seemingly endless collection of obscure monitors and terminals to other systems. This is where we start.

A view of the left side

A view of the left side

A claustrophobic shot of the beginnings of the right side

A claustrophobic shot of the beginnings of the right side

We navigate down the narrow path separating the space straight through the middle and get acquainted with the Mac area. We line up rows of milk crates and start digging, sorting along the way. Put the classic Macs here, put modems in this bin, mice in that bin, terminals over here, MIPS-based hardware over there. We sort and sort and sort, moving the heavy machines slowly as we work another path into the mess. The day was a cold one, but we quickly discarded our jackets as we carried hardware along the narrow aisle we carved out; we were warm enough simply moving back and forth, ducking beneath low hanging beams and swiveling around waist-high stacks that created our own personal obstacle course. As we went, we stopped to appreciate anything interesting we happened to find. Almost immediately we come across a monitor for a NeXTcube (though we didn’t find the cube itself) and we dug up other odd monitors and software packages and interesting little add-on boards that most people have probably long forget. We pooled our expertise and our energy and sorted in a long sprint.

After we cleared a new path

After we cleared a new path

Cleared path continued

Cleared path continued

Aaron told me that a lot of this stuff will ultimately be cleared out. The newer stuff didn’t necessarily belong there and could be assimilated downstairs or recycled while the less valuable systems would be readily sold at their retail store. Some of the rarer pieces would be donated to museums or sold to enthusiasts and collectors who appreciate them to  ensure their longevity. I hope when the time comes I might fit into this last group. The amount of history in this room is simply breathtaking.

View from the far corner

View from the far corner

After a brief break, we pushed back against the section we were using for trash so we had more room to sort. Ultimately, we successfully cleared space more terminals and bins upon bins of manuals – hard copies are always under-appreciated. We then moved around, more slowly, to some of the more obscure hardware – testing a few things as we went. More time in this stretch was just spent digging as opposed to organizing. We wanted to see what was in some of the giant boxes at the bottoms of the stacks. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. Who knows what would be tucked away? We sorted through some IBM clones, found an Amiga 2500, a Wang Terminal, a Vector Monitor, a Silicon Graphics Indy, a whole mess of Kaypros and some more interesting items like a computer for those with disabilities and a strange keyboard or computer that neither of us could quite figure out. Down below us, people were trickling in for a computer class in one of the many rooms. “Who here has internet access at home?” I heard an instructor ask before I accidentally knocked over a PowerPC Mac. Hopefully they didn’t mind the noise.

Delta Data IV "Cherry." Keyboard or 8-bit computer?

Delta Data IV “Cherry.” Keyboard or 8-bit computer?

SGI Indy

SGI Indy

Stack of Altos 580's on some Kaypros next to a Commodore 128

Stack of Altos 580′s on some Kaypros next to a Commodore 128

We finally succumbed to the tech and called it quits for the day. We got a good idea of what was up in the area and talked about the next steps which are likely to be inventorying and testing (though there can probably be some more organization in the meantime). The space itself serves as a fantastic time capsule and it is a breath of fresh air to know that some of the stuff in there is just in there – and in good condition. However, there is much to be done and many more hours to devote to make sure everything is handled properly.

As we rounded out the end of our excavation, we threw down the hardhats and unhanded the once-clean work gloves before walking around the corner for a cup of coffee. As we took our first steps away from the building, I felt a sense of accomplishment. We were archaeologists returning from our first day at an excavation. We uncovered some great finds, having fun along the way.

With any luck, I’ll be asked back. There’s a lot to go through and I can’t help but think that there’s more I can offer. Never before had I been able to lay my hands on some classic pieces of hardware that I had only read about, and it was quite an experience being able to put the pieces together.

Univac / Sperry Rand keyboard

Univac / Sperry Rand keyboard

“Age means nothing today,” Stan told me earlier that morning. “In this day and age, things are moving so fast.” I can’t say that I disagree, but I consider myself lucky to have the experience and knowledge under my belt when it comes to vintage computers.

And with any hope, I can keep expanding it.

 

 

A shot of the left side from out path in the Mac section

A shot of the left side from out path in the Mac section

Another shot of the left side

Another shot of the left side

Some newer Intel-based PCs

Some newer Intel-based PCs

More of the Mac area

More of the Mac area

Newer computers tucked away

Newer computers tucked away

More Macs, pink note states that this Mac was the second produced

More Macs, pink note states that this Mac was the second produced

Sun workstations, Macs, Apples, old laptops

Sun workstations, Macs, Apples, old laptops

RadioShack diskettes. Think the warranty is still good?

RadioShack diskettes. Think the warranty is still good?

5.25" diskettes

5.25″ diskettes

Close-up of the Altos 580's

Close-up of the Altos 580′s

A lone Kaypro II

A lone Kaypro II

Wang terminal

Wang terminal

A Tandy and a terminal

A Tandy and a terminal

The Amiga 2500 and an Apple monitor

The Amiga 2500 and an Apple monitor

Unknown brand keyboard

Unknown brand keyboard

Vector display

Vector display

Timex personal computer

Timex personal computer

Another Kaypro II and a Kaypro 10

Another Kaypro II and a Kaypro 10

Hacker Zines

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I have many projects. Too many, one might argue. Either way, they exist and I enjoy doing them.

For a long time, I’ve had something of a collection of magazines that I usually refrain from talking about simply because it doesn’t come up a lot in normal conversation. A few months ago when it was announced that Nintendo Power was halting production, someone told me that the cover of the last issue was a throwback to the very first issue from 1988. I was asked if I had the first issue (people tend to wonder just how much old stuff I have) and I do. Here’s a picture of it.

Nintendo Power #1

Nintendo Power #1

What you don’t see in this picture is the rest of my magazines. I have a lot. Hundreds. Most of them are video game magazines from the 1990′s and I’ve been accumulating them for over ten years. That isn’t to say that these sum up my entire collection. I have an almost complete run of 2600, six or seven years of Wired, a few dozen issues of MAD Magazine from the 1970′s bundled away, 10 or so issues of High Times from the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, and a few years of some more modern things. Besides those, I have a few other random magazines here and there and most likely some I’ve forgotten.

Magazine Shelf

Magazine Shelf

While I have a few current subscriptions, I’ve recently re-opened my magazine obsession. Why now? I don’t really know, but it was bound to happen. Every once in a while you get one of those “I should really do that, wouldn’t that be great?” ideas and they really start to stack up. One or two of those ideas end up toppling off the pile sooner or later and you just run with them. This particular idea started with Blacklisted! 411.

If you haven’t heard of Blacklisted! 411, I don’t hold it against you. If you know what 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is, then think of Blacklisted! 411 as a lower budget version of that. If you don’t know what 2600 is, it’s the most popular and longest running independent print hacker magazine. Blacklisted! has something of an interesting past. There are a lot of politics involving the magazine that are still something of a hot issue even for people today. There’s no doubt that it left a sour taste in the mouths of many. To briefly go through things, the zine started as a cheap black and white publication in the early 90′s. Initially monthly, the magazine switched to a quarterly release schedule to allow for more articles per issue (mirroring 2600 in this regard). Many criticized the quality of the articles and the publication in general, but it had a loyal group of fans and writers. In the mid 1990′s, the magazine up and disappeared (angering many) and reappeared in the early 2000′s. Throughout the life of Blacklisted!, a lot of people claim to have been treated unfairly by it and promised compensation for their articles which they never received  I wasn’t there, and I don’t know all the details for sure. Defending nor attacking the magazine are not my goals either way.

Issues of 2600

Issues of 2600

For as long as I had known about 2600, I had also known about Blacklisted!. While I could easily get back issues of 2600 through their website, Blacklisted! was far more elusive as it went out of print. I was less likely to come across old issues out at book sales or flea markets when compared to something more popular like Wired. So, I forgot about it for a while and chalked it up to a boat that I had missed.

Fast forward to now. I’ve decided to take it upon myself to start gobbling up every issue of Blacklisted! 411 ever produced. Normally when you see someone take on a pie-in-the-sky task like collecting all of something from scratch you dismiss them with an “oh, that’s nice” and pat them on the head while taking bets on how quickly they tire of the project and go home. I already know it’s not something that will happen overnight, and will probably take years if I’m ever able to complete it at all. It’s a bit of a turn-key project either way, so it’s not much of a hassle. Initially,  I set up some aggregation online to see if any issues go up for sale, at most I might dig through a few more bins at the punk rock flea market. It’s something of a slow burn.

Blacklisted! 411

Blacklisted! 411

As I started doing research on Blacklisted! I came upon a few other hacker or hacker-related magazines that went into print. For example, I discovered Mondo 2000 (and its other incarnations), bOING bOING, THUD, Grey Areas, Binary Revolution,  and more. These were also low-number interdependent physical magazines that lived a short life of usually fewer than 20 issues. So, I expanded my scope. If I can find them for the right price, I’ll snatch these up as well. Are there more out there? Probably (And please, let me know what I missed). I can’t get to everything, but I have a pretty good idea of what print zines we had just by asking around.

IMG_0735

Mondo 2000

IMG_0737

Gray Areas

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bOING bOING

IMG_0739

THUD & Binary Revolution

You may raise the issue of me going after physical magazines exclusively. Where’s the love for the electronic zines? While I do have a fondness for ezines, I don’t consider them nearly as endangered a species as the print-only zines. While an electronic zine may have been copied hundreds of thousands of times with little effort, when a physical magazine goes out of print it can only slip further into obscurity. Some copies get mistreated and trashed, while others are packed away and forgotten. These are the ones I want to save. Right now at least.

So the next logical question is what am I doing with all of these magazines? While I admit that I do get a nice warm, fuzzy feeling from physical magazines, I have bigger plans than simple self-satisfaction. Scanning is the name of the game. I’m currently in the process of scanning in all these old issues I’ve already found, compiling each issue into a single document, and uploading the documents online to share with everyone. Through this whole scanning process, I’ve already learned a lot. Enough to write something on it actually, but it would fare better as its own article. My scanning workflow works well enough to actually yield results, which you can check out here and here. If you want to check out my overall progress on how I’m doing with all the zines I hope to find, you can visit this page. You might notice that in some cases, I’ve found magazines already scanned by people. These are few and far between, but save me a little work considering they are usually of good quality.

While my scanner might be slow and I might be busy, I’m happy to say that the wheels are in motion. Things would probably move a little faster if I had a more portable scanner, but for the time being I’m keeping things slow and steady. That all said, if you have some of these magazines and feel like donating to the cause, I’ll serve as a home for your wayward magazines (and I’m probably a decent alternative to the trash if anything). If you feel like scanning, you can contribute that way as well. The Anarchivism wiki linked above is editable if you create an account.

So as I’m picking up older magazines, I’m also starting to focus on newer ones. Consider something like Bitcoin Magazine. An independent publication about a decentralized digital currency? Who knows how much longer this will stick around. It’s important to apply a little foresight for things like this. Otherwise, who knows what you’ll be able to get your hands on down the line. Luckily, many current publications have bridged the digital divide and offer both physical and electronic copies. Other magazines are now entirely based online. Still, there are those holdouts that are only available on paper. These are what I’m after. These are what I want to save before time runs out.

 

Get Lamp (Really, go get it!)

Monday, October 25th, 2010

A few months ago, I mentioned Get Lamp in a post about Kickstarter involving Jason Scott. For those of you who don’t know, Jason Scott is probably one of my favorite people. Not to sound creepy or anything, but this guy is really awesome. My first brush with the world of Jason Scott came through one of his many websites, textfiles.com. When did I find it? I don’t remember. Why did I find it? I don’t remember that either. The site revolves around BBS data: text files from pre-internet, ANSI, door games, shareware, and much more from a long lost subculture. Without the efforts of Jason and others like him, a whole era in the history of computing could have been lost to the world.

If anyone knows me, they know I like it old. So the pairing of myself and this website provided hours and hours (probably days and days considering my use of dial-up at the time) of entertainment. Only after discovering this website did I find out that Jason also produced an appropriate documentary, BBS: The Documentary. I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the page for it, I thought spending $40 was completely ludicrous. If you consider that I was about 14 at the time of finding it, this doesn’t seem like a strange thought. After my Bittorrent skills improved, and I found out that the documentary had been released through this medium, I was more than happy to spend a day watching all eight parts back to back. Shortly thereafter, I bought myself a hard copy, and it has been a staple of my DVD collection ever since.

I watched that documentary over and over, and in the meantime Jason was busy. Over the next five years, he gave numerous presentations at hacker conferences, organized Blockparty (a demoscene con), started a widely popular twitter profile for his cat, founded archiveteam and spearheaded a project to preserve geocities, and more recently released his second film, Get Lamp.

Get Lamp is a film about interactive fiction. If you ever read one of those “choose your own adventure” books, you get the idea. Interactive fiction is not limited to the paper world, and shows up in the earliest of computer games from the 1970s. Without interactive fiction, who knows where we would be technologically, considering how the ever-growing development of computers mirrors the interest of people wanting to hunker down and play video games.

The documentary itself is well done and well presented. As soon as you open the package, you will know you are in for a treat. The artwork on the case is beautiful, the discs are nicely pressed, and the collectible coin included with the set is an interesting little addition to the whole experience whether you are a numismatist or not. The film plays out smoothly and is quick to capture the viewer. Though it is not as long as his previous film, you experience an equally engrossing movie, and have plenty of interactive features and extras to keep you coming back as you look to squeeze every glorious bit of content from the discs.

If there is not enough content to keep you occupied, it is likely that Jason will one day release the entirety of the interviews online, unedited. How can I make such a strange prediction? He did it before with his previous film. You might one day see hours of material from a guy that ultimately had a 20 second spot in the final cut, but whether or not this content will actually come to surface is anyone’s guess as of this moment.

If you haven’t been able to tell already, I consider Jason Scott a bit of a personal hero, and I know he has reached others in the same way. Without textfiles.com, I may never have been lead down the path that made me form the IPTV Archive or any number of projects that I’ve found myself involved in throughout the years. Now that Get Lamp is done, there is the question about what the next step is for Jason Scott. He is currently touring and screening his new film, but what could follow is anyone’s guess. Maybe he will pick up on his previously announced third film Arcade, or dive into the backlog of things to archive.

Whatever he does do, you can be sure it is going to be worth noticing.

Flea Market Find – Lineman’s Handset

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I recently purchased a blue lineman’s handset for $12. It is quite an interesting piece of hardware. At first glance, it looks like a standard handset, but upon further review there are characteristics that set it apart. On the back of the handset is a rotary dial used for dialing numbers, a hook to connect it to the belt, and two test leads with alligator clips. The alligator clips have a piercing spike in them to connect to insulated wires. No stripping is necessary. On the side of the phone, there is a switch that can go between TALK and MON. MON in this case stands for monitor. There is also a nice “Bell System Property – Not for sale” engraving.

I brought the handset home and plugged it in. I had the switch on TALK and instantly heard a dial tone. I decided to call my cellphone, and entered the number (which can take a bit of time using a rotary dial). I got connected and heard my voice mail message. I decided to try to use my old Radioshack tone dialer next. I punched in the number on my tone dialer, and held it up to the handset. I hit the dial button on the dialer, and heard the tones through the earpiece of the handset, but the tones did not register on the handset itself, and the number wasn’t called.

Next, I flipped the switch on the handset to MON mode. At first, I didn’t hear anything on the line. I hooked up a standard phone nearby, and picked up the handset of that phone. My lineman’s handset instantly had a dial tone, and was monitoring the line. The MON setting also turns off the microphone in the handset, so there are no slip-ups when monitoring.

Other than the cool factor, there are a few things I can do with it. I could use it as a house phone, though it does not have its own ringer. I could also do some wire tapping, but that is illegal. It is not a very practical piece of hardware, but it certainly does hold my attention. Maybe the web will end up lending me some ideas of what I could do with it.

Wizzywig Volume Two

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Ever since January of this year, I have been waiting for the second book in the Wizzywig series to be ready for distribution. The first volume, subtitled “Phreak” follows a young kid named Kevin Phenicle who goes by the handle Boingthump. Let me say, this isn’t some drab piece of writing you would find in the discount bin at your local book outlet. These are graphic novels, containing anything but a boring story about some kiddie hacker acting out a stereotype. This first book I read about Boingthump was a definite, and somewhat unexpected, treat. The bulk of the story was composed of little snippets of this character’s doings. From his first experience with blueboxing to social engineering pizza, the story is rife with creative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of an anykid in the golden age of phreaking. Suffice it to say I was impressed by just how much fact went into the story, and was curious to see where it would go… or where it would take me.

cover1-296x3001

Fast forward to November. I stumbled across Ed Piskor’s website after forgetting about it for a little while. I found out that the second book had been completed and was ready for purchase, so I quickly snagged myself a copy, which arrived in the mail quickly after my purchase. Upon reading the book, I was happy to see much of the same structure as was present in the first. The story bounced back and forth between present day (Kevin has been incarcerated) and his younger days when he started experimenting with computers, and became immersed in a new, exciting, and scary world found through his phone lines.

cover-295x3001

The story found in these books is not your cookie cutter hacker epic. Take your Hackers, your Die Hard 4, your Swordfish, and throw them out the window. Ed takes careful attention to detail, nothing here is a stretch of the imagination and you can see he has done his homework in the creation of these novels. Reading along, you’ll be able to see all he has done simply by what is alluded to. No Hollywood garbage trying to make hacking seem glamorous or news stories spewing out tales that this underground world is full of all kinds of dangerous people who can make a computer explode. Ed gives the honest, gritty perspective the genre has hardly ever been represented by.

pg_015pdf1-297x3001

Summing things up, I don’t know anyone who is showing the world of phreak/hack culture in this fashion. Ed has truely honed his craft, and the fact that he himself is only an admirer of this culture, and not a participant only ampliphies his qualities. If you liked the first one, you probably already have the second, and are waiting patiently for the third and fourth. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the wagon yet, you can purchase both books directly from Ed at his website. There are also previews of both of the books, so you can read a few panels before deciding.

Also, I happen to be “in” the second installment as an angry fellow on page 10.

wizzy1

Neptune – It doesn’t exist

Saturday, March 31st, 2007

I recently ushered in spring break yesterday by installing an operating system that doesn’t exist. The infamous Windows Neptune. Somewhere between Windows 2K and Windows Me, there was this humble little operating system. I got a hold of the 5111 build and I am certainly not disappointed. Despite the tiring install, and a few driver errors in the beginning, its been running solid as a rock. I have no idea what I’m gonna do with it. The computer that I had it on used to be my little web server project, so I’m gonna see how Apache holds up on it soon. If you have any idea for it, leave a comment, I open to stuff.