IBM ACS System: A Pioneering Supercomputer Project of the 1960’s

At noon on Thursday, February 18, 2010, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA is hosting a talk titled “IBM ACS System: A Pioneering Supercomputer Project of the 1960’s”. They’ll even buy you lunch! A free lunch and a slice of computing history, what could be better?

Vintage IBM Photos from the 1960s

Zane Healy forwarded on a link to a nice set of 1960s computing photos. Check out the pictures of the gargantuan prototype CRT terminals!

The CRT and raster graphics have become such a pervasive aspect of personal computers since the 1980s. Its easy to forget that there was a time when only character data was used to interact with computers. Most of that interaction was remote and distant via batch processing. You submitted a job as a deck of cards and got a paper printout of the results of running your job. Interactive timesharing systems introduced in the 1960s changed all that and made interaction with the computer a personal experience. First vector and later raster graphics display systems introduced a new level of interaction with the computer through images instead of text. Bitmapped raster graphics is now commonplace on even the cheapest of throway cell phones.

From Voodoo to GeForce

MaximumPC has an article giving the history of the PC video cards from the 90s through today, starting with the S3 Virge from 1995 and ending with the GeForce GTX 295 in 2009.

How DEC Failed to Enter the PC Market: A 1982 Documentary has an interesting post about DEC’s attempt to enter the PC market:

This is an promotional film produced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) documents their attempt to enter the PC market in 1982. DEC owned a major chunk of the mini-computer market and to their credit they got the idea that the PC was the wave of the future and they knew they had to compete.

Huge Warehouse of Vintage Computing Gear

Check out hachti’s gallery A few impressions from Kiel for a peek at a large stash of vintage computing gear in Kiel, Germany. Apparently they need to downsize this huge collection into a smaller permanent exhibit. There are some early Tektronix storage scope graphics terminals showcased there, among other things.

Remanufacturing PDP-7 Switch Handles

Mike Ross’s CoreStore Photos

CoreStore Photos

Mike Ross’s vintage computer collection is indeed something to drool over. He has one item I highly covet: an Evans & Sutherland vector drawing system! I’m guessing its a PS/390 from the picture. I have the base unit in my collection but I’m missing the peripherals (tablet, dials, keyboard, mouse) and matching monitor. Take the time to browse around his collection!

DEC GIGI Terminal

The DEC GIGI terminal is basically a microcomputer. It could display color graphics renderings using an escape code sequence DEC developed called ReGIS. The GIGI wasn’t nearly as popular as some of DEC’s other terminals like the VT-100 and the LA-36. The GIGI was introduced in the early 1980s.


Documentation on bitsavers

Control Data Cyber 910

The CDC Cyber 910 is a relabelled SGI Personal Iris. If you are familiar with the cabinet design of the Personal Iris, this is pretty obvious despite the CDC branding.

Terak Graphics Computer System

The Terak Graphics Computer System is an early graphics workstation built around the DEC LSI-11 microprocessor.

From Terak

The Terak was manufactured in Scottsdale, Arizona in the late 1970s. The graphics system consists of a memory mapped frame buffer of 320×200 pixels with video scanout circuitry. In many ways, the Terak was the precursor to the graphical unix workstation that became dominant in the 1980s.

Documentation on bitsavers

Tektronix 4170 Local Graphics Processor

I recently acquired a Tektronix 4170 Local Graphics Processor and 4108 terminal from ebay. Here are some photos of the 4170 and 4108 on Picasa. The 4170 was introduced in 1984 by Tektronix.

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Creating Panoramas with hugin

I recently learned about hugin, an open source tool for creating panorama images from a series of still photos.

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Tektronix 4010, 4051, and 4114 and Apollo DN10000 Join The Collection

I met a fellow computer collector in Boulder over the past weekend. He brought me four items of interest to my collection of vintage computer graphics gear: three Tektronix terminals (models 4010, 4051 and 4114) and an Apollo DN10000 workstation. All of these machines are “project” machines, which is just a nice way of saying there’s some sort of problem with all of them. That made them a little cheaper than they would otherwise be, but all of these machines are in the “hard to find” category for vintage computer graphics gear.

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A Tale of Two Shippers

I have been purchasing vintage computer equipment with the ultimate goal of building a computer graphics museum here in Salt Lake City.  When purchasing stuff like this, you occasionally need to use a 3rd party who will pick up your equipment from a remote auction site, pack it, and ship it to you.  More often than not, when you need such a 3rd party service you need to send your equipment by freight.

I had previously used Craters and Freighters in order to have my equipment packed and shipped to me.  The first time was when I purchased a large 3D graphics terminal, the Whizzard 1645 by Megatek (1984).  The terminal was located in Dallas, Texas and would need to be carefully packaged and freight shipped.  It included the original 19″ monitor which made the unit large, bulky, heavy and fragile all at the same time.  They packed everything into a “cardboard crate”, which is a custom sturdy triple walled cardboard crate that they construct on top of a wooden pallet.  The terminal was cushioned with plenty of styrofoam to cushion the monitor and protect it from the occasionally protruding nail or whatnot when things are shipped by freight rather than a carrier like UPS or Federal Express.  The unit arrived in wonderful condition and in a timely manner.

So when I purchased a lot of 19 Tektronix 4105 and Tektronix 4205 graphics terminals from an auction site, Craters and Freighters was the first company that came to mind for shipping.  They lovingly wrapped each terminal in bubble wrap, put each one in an appropriately sized box with plenty of packing peanuts for cushioning.  The boxes were stacked and shrink wrapped onto pallets and freight shipped to me in Salt Lake City, Utah from Hayward, California.  They arrived in perfect condition and in a prompt fashion.

So once again I was out haunting the auction sites looking for items for my computer graphics museum.  This time I stumbled upon an auction that looked like they were liquidating equipment from a television station that had gone under: Abekas digital video recorders, video routing and switching equipment, and some SGI workstations including an Onyx with InfiniteReality 2 graphics and the Sirius Digital Video option.  I won the Onyx and its associated Sirius Digital Video breakout box.  Unfortunately for me, the equipment was located in Reading, Pennsylvania and I needed to get it shipped practically across the entire country — a journey of approximately 2100 miles.  So I started looking around for shippers.  The nearest Craters and Freighters office appeared to be over 100 miles from the auction location.  The auction site had sent me an automatic form mail referring me to a shipping agent called CTS.  I had never heard of them before, but browsing their web site indicated that they provided the same services as Craters and Freighters.

Unfortunately for me, while they provided the same services, the quality of service wasn’t anywhere near the same as Craters and Freighters.  First, they had difficulty taking my order.  I had requested two quotes: one for packing two items for ground shipment and a second for packing and shipping the Onyx by freight.  I received a single email message quoting me a total amount.  Each time that I communicated with Craters and Freighters, I had always talked with the same person regarding my shipment.  However, each time that I called or emailed CTS, I seemed to get a different person and each time they insisted they were the right person to talk with for my shipment.  Because the plastic skins on an Onyx are somewhat fragile, I requested that the Onyx be sufficiently padded to avoid damage to the skins during shipment.  With the details seemingly worked out, I paid the shipping fee and the item was shipped.

What arrived was quite a disappointment compared to my previous experiences with Craters and Freighters.  The pallet that CTS constructed appeared to be made from weak scrap lumber instead of new, sturdy pieces of lumber as Craters and Freighters had done.  Instead of putting padding around the entire Onyx, there was only a single thing piece of styrofoam placed on top.  Instead of packing the two items separately for ground shipment, they had included it in the freight shipment without asking me if this was acceptable or even telling me that they had done so until after the pallet was already shipped by freight.  Because no cushioning was placed between the Onyx, the Sirius Digital Video breakout box and the Octane workstation in the bundle, the Octane workstation case was quite scratched up.  The picture of the Octane on the auction web site showed no such scratches whatsoever — the scratches had all been incurred during shipping.  The whole bundle was attached to the pallet only by shrink wrap placed around the bundle; no strapping had been used to secure the items to the pallet.  The pallet itself was so weak that it practically fell apart as the unit was lifted onto the loading dock by the delivery men.

It so happens that I had purchased another Onyx with Infinite Reality graphics earlier and had it delivered just days earlier to the same location.  This Onyx had been packed by the seller and shipped by freight from San Diego, California.  The seller in this case knew how to package these units for shipment with care.  The unit had been surrounded by styrofoam on all sides, secured to the pallet by a vinyl strap and then enclosed in more styrofoam and cardboard to create a sturdy enclosure around the whole unit.  The pallet was constructed from sturdy new lumber.  This told me that it wasn’t hard to package these units carefully for shipment and have them arrive in good condition.  You just had to be paying attention.

Recently I purchased some more SGI hardware from an auction site.  This time its going to be less expensive for me to take a trip out to pick up the equipment and transport it back to Salt Lake City myself by renting a commercial truck.  However, once again the auction site sent me a form letter from CTS telling me how they could ship my items for me.  Given how poor my experience was with CTS before — they had confused my order, changed the terms I requested on my quote without telling me and poorly packed my items for shipment — I certainly wasn’t going to use them again and I told them as much.  What I received back was a snarky reply about how I was going to regret not using them instead of the competition.  This is just another example of their unprofessional behavior that shows why I wouldn’t use them again.

If you ever need to send something by freight and it needs to be packaged and handled with care, I would strongly recommend Craters and Freighters and recommend that you avoid CTS.

BitSavers New Documents RSS Feed

BitSavers is a repository of documentation and software for “vintage computers”.  New manuals and documentation are being contributed to BitSavers all the time.  The archive contains lots of documentation on common vintage computers like the PDP-11 as well as obscure items like the AN/FSQ-7, the computer used in the SAGE air defense system.

Unfortunately, the only way to find out when new files were placed on the archive was to periodically browse the What’s New file and check for interesting items.  The what’s new file is just a simple text file with one line per entry for the files that have been added.  There have been a couple times where new things showed up on BitSavers that were of interest to me and I didn’t realize it until much later.  The solution is to create an RSS feed that shows new documents, with links to the documents and a description extracted from the what’s new file.

An RSS feed is just a text file in XML format that is updated periodically.  To generate one for the bitsavers document archive, I wrote a perl script that executes once an hour, gets the What’s New file and parses out the 50 most recent entries.  These entries are used to contruct an RSS XML file with links back to the documents on bitsavers.  The root folder for the documents is the name of the company issuing the document and makes a natural category for each RSS item.  The additional directory structure between the root folder and the document can also tell you information such as which model of computer the document describes.  The document path is used to construct the title of each item.

The perl script that does all this is only 51 lines long and makes use of the LWP::Simple and XML::RSS modules to fetch the what’s new file and create the RSS file, respectively.  Its a nice example of a simple script that leverages other perl modules to do something simply.  This should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with perl, since it is a scripting language designed for manipulating text files.  Its also a nice example of how a little bit of programming can enhance a resource on a remote web site even without any special access to the web site itself.

BitSavers RSS Feed