As you may have gathered already from reading this blog, I buy a lot of things at thrift stores. But, conversely, I also don’t buy a lot of things at thrift stores. My Dad and I usually do a thrift store run three or four times a week and it’s rare that I buy something interesting enough to write about on the blog. Many times I just come back with a book or two. Stumbling across something interesting enough to write about on the blog is an uncommon and happy occasion.
Other times though, I’ll see something that was interesting but that I decided for various reasons not to buy, Recently I decided to start documenting these things with my iPhone. Keep in mind that taking photos of items in thrift stores is not easy. I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself and often the lighting is very bad. These are not pictures that are up to normal Electric Thrift levels of clarity and composition.
This Bang & Olufsen Beogram 2400 turntable was a real surprise to find nestled within the serpentine labyrinth that is the Abbey Ann’s off of Tallmadge Circle. You can often find stereo equipment at that Abbey Ann’s but this was a cut above their usual offerings.
What this had going for it was that is a striking European early-1970s design. It was in the original box, including the cartridge, the Styrofoam packing material and the instructions. I adore the look of European electronics so this sort of thing is right up my alley.
There were two problems here. First, I think the price was a bit steep, though Abbey Ann’s is known to negotiate quite a bit. The second problem was that all of the glue on this thing had decided to dry up and much of the trim was coming off. It’s a bit hard to see in this photo but the wood-grain on the front was just hanging off. The little metal plate on the top of the end of the tone arm was coming off as well. The dust cover was getting stuck on something and would not close correctly.
I think if this has been one of B&O’s linear tracking Beograms I would have bought it in this condition. However, I’m already backed up on conventional turntables and this B&O looked like it was going to be trouble so I took these photos and moved on.
A few weeks later this 1980s JVC boombox showed up at that same Abbey Ann’s
This tugged at my heartstrings a bit because my Dad had a similar (probably slightly more recent, because it was black) JVC boombox in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I fondly remember making recordings with my brother using the built in microphone and tape recorder. My Dad had originally bought that JVC boombox because it got shortwave, like this one.
Despite all of the 80s electronics I buy, I haven’t yet gotten into boomboxes. I think I’m mainly waiting for one that’s in nice condition and fully functional.
Any time I’m looking at something with a tape player I’m worried about the condition of the mechanism. There are so many mechanical parts, including belts, that can deteriorate. I remembered that eventually the tape mechanism in my Dad’s 80s JVC boombox broke and I wasn’t really in the mood to spend even $10-$15 to find out if this boombox had any of the myriad of problems that tape decks can develop.
Those tape issues were also the first thing I thought of when I saw this Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck that showed up at the State Road Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.
I’ve wanted a reel-to-reel for a while now and this one is gorgeous in a mid-1970s silver and wood-grain way.
There were three problems here. The first is that reel-to-reels are notoriously troublesome. I believe one of the more notable moments of my Dad’s thrift store shopping career was when a reel-to-reel he purchased started smoking when he brought it home and turned it on.
The second problem was that while this is a great looking item it lacks two features I want to see in a reel-to-reel: Four channel output and some sort of exotic noise reduction like Dolby A or DBX. To me, the appeal of a reel-to-reel should be it’s exoticism compared to the common cassette deck and having fancy noise reduction should be part of the fun.
The third problem was that Goodwill wanted $50 for this thing. Sometimes I really question the pricing of some of this stuff I’ve seen at thrift stores lately. Asking $50 for something that’s for all intents not tested and sold “as-is” is not cool.
Coin collectors have a pricing theory that works like this: The price of a coin starts with the worth of the metal (copper, silver, gold, etc) and then you add a “numismatic premium” for the rarity of the coin and the condition of the coin.
I like to think that electronics at thrift stores should work in the opposite way. You start with what a sort of idea of what the thing should be worth and then subtract a “broken-ness risk premium” for the possibility that the thing is incomplete or broken.
$50 is a fair price to pay for a fully operational, totally complete (minus instructions and packaging) reel-to-reel. But it fails to take into account my risk in buying a potentially broken item.
This Memorex S-VHS deck from the same State Road Goodwill was the first S-VHS deck I has ever seen at a thrift store.
It was in pretty bad shape and my same concern with the tape mechanisms on the boombox and the reel-too-reel applied here as well.
There was also a front panel door missing. This looked like a lot more trouble than it was worth, whatever price they had on it.
Completeness is also a common reason I don’t buy some things.
This strange thing was at the Village Thrift on State Road a few months ago. I didn’t know what it was at first. Maybe some sort of TV?
When I turned it around and read the label things became clear.
This was some sort of pen-based tablet PC input device, like a poor man’s Wacom Cintiq.
I have learned from an experience with a Wacom Intuos (which I someday may write about) that you should never buy a pen-based tablet of any type without the pen because finding a suitable pen can be very expensive.
Completeness was also the reason I didn’t buy this Sony Mavica camera.
Comparatively early digital cameras are an area I’ve wanted to start collecting, so I was happy to see this Mavica show up at the Midway Plaza Goodwill. Unfortunately, the very proprietary looking battery (Sony, natch) was missing. I looked for a place where I could at least plug in an AC adapter. Then, I realized that there was this notch cut out of the area around the battery door with a little spring loaded door. it seems like rather than having an AC adapter this model had a thing that went into the battery compartment with a cord coming out of it (hence the little spring-loaded door) that acted as the AC adapter. Another piece of proprietary crap I would have to pay shipping for on eBay. Not worth it.
The Cuyahoga County Hamfest was on September 22nd and I went not knowing what to expect. Last year was somewhat of a disappointment. Partly that was because it rained and a lot of the outdoor vendors didn’t seem to mind how wet a lot of neat looking electronics were getting and partly it was because I didn’t come back with an impressive doodad (though I did buy an old copy of Lotus 1-2-3 you may have spotted in the Windows/386 entry).
This year the weather was more agreeable and the items for sale were more exciting. There was a table of what seem to be radios and radio components from the 1920s and 1930s.
There was this Yamaha M-60 power amp.
There was this pair of exotic looking Acoustic Research M2 speakers, which are the big brothers of the M1s that my Dad bought in the 1990s. Today the M1s grace my living room.
There was this Pioneer CLD-D504 Laserdisc player from the heyday of LaserDisc player technology in the mid-1990s.
But, I didn’t buy any of those things. Hamfests are strange places to go shopping because you have to make split-second decisions. There really isn’t time to do research. There’s usually not AC power available for testing (as there would be in even the most spartan thrift store). There are multitudes of other people with nerdy interests walking by who at only moment could buy the thing you’re thinking about. If you see something you like you have to very quickly weigh all of the variables and decide if you want to buy it.
Sometimes I’m in the mood to drop $60 on a LaserDisc player. That day I was not. If I was going to buy a substantial piece of audio or video equipment, I wanted it to be dirt cheap.
My Dad and I rounded a corner in the indoor portion of the Hamfest and sitting on a crowded table amongst a lot of serious ham gear was a Pioneer PL-L70 linear tracking turntable. I inquired about the price and they wanted $10. Bingo. It took about 30 seconds for me to decide to buy it.
I’ve wanted an linear tracking turntable for awhile because of their association with the 1980s. While they weren’t invented in the 80s there was a sudden proliferation of them in the the 80s when designers saw them as a way they could make a record player look high tech.
There was a moment in the early 1980s when the minimalist, silver look that European manufacturers like Wega and Bang and Olufsen had pursued in the 70s was combined with the burgeoning Japanese penchant for electronic wizardry and created the “80s look”. I like to describe the look as “if the Delorean DMC-12 was a stereo”.
Manufacturers decided that the 1970s look of wood paneling and numerous knobs needed to go in favor of a look that emphasized sharp angles, push-buttons, and computer/microcontroller driven gimmicks. Linear tracking turntables satisfied those urges.
In a linear tracking turntable the tonearm is straight and is mounted on a mechanism that moves it in a straight line across the radius of the record rather than in an arc, as on a traditional turntable. Hence, linear tracking.
Because the tonearm on a linear tracker is shorter and is located further back than on a traditional record player designers could slope the front of the dust cover which gives many of these turntables a sleek, aerodynamic look.
If I had my pick I would choose a Technics SL-10, the king of Japanese manufactured 80s linear tracking tables, but those are difficult to find and they go for hundreds of dollars on eBay. This Pioneer was $10 and said LINEAR TRACKING in large, geometric sans-serif type on the lid (is that Eurostile?). What’s not to love? Sold.
The most surprising thing about this PL-L70 is that despite being almost 30 years old and having a complicated mechanism that’s necessary to drive the tonearm everything about this thing seems to work. I had totally expected this turntable to have been priced at a mere $10 because it had numerous faults but I can’t find anything wrong with it other than a few scuffs on the dust cover. Either this record player has had more than $10 worth of maintenance over the years or its lived a very lucky life. Maybe this was one of those situations where the seller’s wife told him he couldn’t bring it home from the sale?
According to this Audiokarma post about Pioneer’s date codes a serial number starting with FA means that this PL-L70 was made in January 1985.
The PL-L70’s two biggest 80s selling points are two microcontroller-based gimmicks: The tonearm is controlled by servos and has an optical sensor that reads the gaps between tracks on the record so that you can do things like press a button to skip to track 4.
You should be able to see the sensor there at the end of the tonearm. There’s a little label on the head shell that says “OMS” for Optical Music Sensor. I have tried it and shockingly, this actually works.
On the front of the turntable you have the standard Start/Stop button that’s required on automatic turntables as well as a button to lower the or raise the tonearm. There’s also the buttons that are necessary on a linear tracker to manually move the tonearm left or right.
Inside on the plinth you have the standard speed selector control and a selector for the sensitivity of the optical sensor.
When you press Start/Stop the player uses the sensor to sense the size of the record and then find the beginning of the groove. It moves back and forth once to make sure it’s found the position and then lowers the tonearm.
To the left of the buttons to manually position the tonearm are the buttons that let you select a track, or program a series of tracks via the optical sensor.
The PL-L70’s optical sensor gimmick instantly reminded me of another Pioneer turntable I once knew, and one of the main reasons why I’m so infatuated with 80s electronics.
Sometime in the mid-1990s (probably 1995) my grandparents in the Cleveland area downsized from their suburban house to a condo in a high rise. They got rid of a lot of stuff and gave my family the stereo system my grandfather had bought around 1983. I had fond memories of the day years before when my other grandfather had shipped us his Apple IIe so an occurrence like this where a family member gave us cool hand-me-downs was a Red Letter day in my childhood.
My grandpa’s stereo system consisted of an Akai AA-R22 receiver (which was pictured in the Realistic TV-100 entry), an Akai cassette deck, and a Pioneer PL-88F turntable and two EPI speakers. The speakers were sadly rotted but everything else worked. The cassette deck was fairly mundane but the receiver and turntable were silver-era 80s beauties.
The AA-R22 has done yeoman’s work in various rooms of my parents’ house and today is attached to my mother’s desktop PC. But at the end of the day a stereo receiver with enchanting display is still pretty much like every other stereo receiver.
The PL-88F turntable, on the other hand, was something else. A record player with a drawer? What sorcery was this?
The PL-88F was born into an era that craved novelty in mass-market hifi equipment. It was designed to solve one of the classic usability problems of turntables: where do you put the thing? The vast majority of audio components like receivers, cassette decks, CD players, VCRs, LaserDisc players, and even an equalizer (if you want to see blinking lights and feel important) can be stacked neatly on shelves. You may want to do some thinking about heat dissipation and weight when you figure out which order to stack them in, but for the most part you just stack them. They’re all shaped like boxes and they fit nicely in a small amount of space, like under the TV or in one of those oh-so-80s multiple shelved A/V racks.
Your turntable, on the other hand, has a lid that needs to open. You can’t put anything on top of it and you need a large amount of clearance above the turntable to open the lid. Most turntables take up the same amount of space as a CRT television of the same width because of the lid.
That is, unless you have a Pioneer PL-88F, or another turntable that puts the platter on a sliding drawer that moves in and out of an enclosure that you are free to stack things on. Somewhere, an audiophile just got the shivers because they want their platters to be heavy and well sprung from a solid plinth and a sliding drawer probably compromises that. But darn it, the PL-88F is just incredibly cool looking.
The designers of the PL-88F wanted you to be able to play records while the drawer was enclosed inside of the player so they gave the tonearm an optical sensor that (in theory) was supposed to read the gaps between tracks. That way you could press a button an skip to say, track 3 or even program a series of tracks you wanted to hear (assuming they were all on the same side of the record), much like a CD player. The PL-88F was not a linear tracker but tonearm did have a motor that would move it to the correct track. Unlike the PL-L70 (which had the benefit of being a model year or two after the PL-88F), the optical sensor on the PL-88F never really worked for us.
The AA-R22 and the PL-88F left an indelible mark on me regarding 80s aesthetics. I love the silver, push-button, “computer-ized” look of these things.
Sadly, the mechanism that moved the drawer in the PL-88F began malfunctioning in the early 2000s and my Dad trashed it. But, before that the PL-88F taught me an important lesson about vinyl.
One day in about 1999 or 2000 we had bought a CED player at the (now sadly late) Fifth Avenue Flea Market and I watched Rocky off of what was effectively a record. My interest piqued about the CED’s audio counterpart, the vinyl record because I had always thought of the record as an obsolete anachronism.
Most of my childhood memories about playing music (especially Paul Simon’s Graceland and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science) are about cassettes. I think this might be because my Dad’s Realistic cassette deck was located on a lower shelf that I could reach as a child and the record player (needing a lot of space for opening the dust cover) was located much higher. The turntable also seemed delicate and easy to break, so I stayed away from it.
That evening after watching Rocky we setup the Pioneer PL-88F in my bedroom and I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1982 Concert in Central Park on a pair of Sennheiser headphones. That was my first important vinyl experience.
It was at that point that I understood that vinyl was something I needed to pay attention to. The PL-88F was soon followed by a succession of thrift store turntable finds (at the tail end of when good turntables were showing up at thrift stores) that included a Micro Seiki DD-20 and a Thorens TD-160. I also started accumulating vinyl and I listened to great music like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Since then my interest in vinyl has waxed and waned. Simultaneously, vinyl is fun and vinyl is a pain in the ass. There are a myriad of ways that a record can become deranged. I have a copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland where the second half of The Boy in the Bubble is marred by sizzling highs. That stuff will drive you insane. Every time you play a record you are damaging it in some small way and that seems perverse. And, if you forgot to clean the stylus or you for got to clean the record or the stylus has become excessively worn you could be doing even greater damage to the record.
Honestly, the experience of using the PL-L70 made me appreciate even more it’s mid-1980s contemporary the Realistic CD-1000. The Compact Disc put an end to all so much of vinyl’s obtuse nonsense.
On the other hand, vinyl is the only music format you can watch and that gives it a great air of wonder. If you ever really want to deeply consider the nature of sensory experience, watch as a tiny stylus drags through a microscopic groove at 33 1/3rd RPM while rich sound booms out of your speakers. That sound is in there, somewhere hidden in those grooves. Suddenly the nature of scale starts to have meaning.
I once had the experience of watching the video output of a Sony PCM adapter do it’s magic of recording digital sound as an analog video signal on a videotape and while that was similar, it wasn’t physical, right in front of your eyes like a record player is. There are some recordings, like Genesis’s Invisible Touch, that seem to just make more sense when you can watch the record spinning around. That seems silly to me, but that’s how I feel.
Because of all the various annoyances of weight, size, and other inconveniences I don’t think that vinyl will ever (or can ever) be my primary method of listening to music, but it’s a great thing to have on the side (much like my interest in LaserDisc).
Beginning in 2004 or so, while I was at college I got very seriously interested in indie music. After I graduated I suddenly had the time and money to go to a lot of indie rock concerts and record stores. No concert is complete without a trip to the merch table and I would often buy an LP because I already owned all of the CDs of the bands I was interested enough in seeing.
As a result, I have I accumulated a small collection of treasured favorites from the indie rock era.
That copy of St. Vincent’s Marry Me on the top of the pile is actually one of my most treasured possessions. I bought it at the merch table after the St. Vincent show at the Wexner Center in Columbus in February, 2008 and Annie Clark was kind enough to sign it for me.
You may have noticed that some of the albums in that pile are still unopened. At the time I was very interested in buying mementos from shows but less interested in the hassle of playing the actual records. However, it presently seems a waste for all of this lovely vinyl to go unplayed, and that’s why I was interested in another turntable. I think it’s fair to say that the PL-L70 has reintroduced me to vinyl. I just bought that vinyl copy of Zonoscope from Amazon. I might even invest in a decent preamp.
This is my Panasonic Senior Partner a “luggable” portable MS-DOS computer from the mid-1980s.
All buttoned up like this, you might wonder if it’s some sort of old video camera case.
When you open it up and plug in the keyboard, it becomes apparent that this is actually a very old PC…A very old PC that works.
I found this Senior Partner in the Fall of 2011 at Village Thrift and it’s probably one of my proudest thrift store finds of the last 5 or so years. It’s become an incredibly rare experience to find 1980s PC hardware at thrift stores and it blows my mind that this one is still in working order.
As PC hardware goes, this is almost as basic as it gets. You have an 8088, a monochrome CRT monitor (with a DB-9 connector for color RGB on the back), a serial port, a parallel and two 5.25″ disk drives. There’s no hard drive. There’s no built-in clock. This machine predates mice on the PC by several years (unless you used a serial mouse). The only “luxury” is that this machine has is 512K RAM and a built in thermal printer hidden under a flap on the top of the computer. I suspect the computer’s name derives from the fact that with a built-in printer this machine could be considered a portable office for mid-1980s businesspeople.
But, there’s no battery. This is not a mobile machine. It’s a machine you lugged from place to place where you had a place to sit it down and AC power available to plug into.
The keyboard doubles a a cover to enclose the monitor and floppy drives.
When you detach the keyboard you have to pull the retractable keyboard cable out it’s hiding place below the “Panasonic Sr. Partner” label to the left of the CRT and attach it to the connector that hides under a cap on the keyboard.
There are also little lifts you can pull out from the keyboard to place it at a comfortable angle.
As the name entails this was a machine its designers intended for business users. The monochrome CRT is extremely crisp for word processing and spreadsheets. When (before the paper ran out) I fired up an old copy of Print Shop the thermal printer gladly printed with no additional setup.
One could imagine some business travelers in a hotel room preparing for a meeting the next day huddled around the tiny green screen furiously printing curled up thermal printed documents…Almost.
Consider the fact that this thing is 35 pounds. Imagine lugging that around an airport. There’s a good reason why the luggable form factor that began with the Osbourne and the Kaypro luggables and continued with the famous Compaq Portable was a technological dead end. The Senior Partner is even larger than the Macintosh despite that machine having a larger screen not actually being intended to be luggable.
The reason for this, as I understand it is that luggables were just normal PC components with all of their heft and hungry power consumption, wedged into an unorthodox case that happened to have a handle. The engineering advances that needed to happen to make portable computers into “laptops” happened later in the PC realm (though certainly the Grid Compass and a few others were showing the way even when the Senior Partner was on store shelves).
As an antique though, this thing is fantastic. The Senior Partner is a self-contained retro-computing party.
Easy to setup and quick to put away when you’re done. When it goes back on the shelf you can easily stack stuff on it’s hard shell.
And simply as an object it looks fantastic. Sure, it does not look (or act) like the glorious 80s vision of the future embodied in the brilliant Macintosh and Macintosh SE designs. There’s no Snow White timelessness here. But, what the Senior Partner does look like is the offspring between a Mission Control command console and an armored personnel carrier. You have no doubt as to which floppy drive is which because there are huge thick drive letters printed beneath the drives. The huge embossed “Panasonic” name looks like what you see on the back of a pick up truck. This machine looks serious in a way that I just adore.
Nothing says retro quite like a brilliant glowing green CRT screen.
When you’re sitting with a machine like this you feel a closeness to technology that is unlike using a computer today. When you use a modern computer you are swathed in warm colors and pictures designed to make you feel comfortable. You can quickly switch between multiple programs or browser tabs. There are a million things saying “use me”.
On a machine like the Senior Partner you basically have one thing in front you. You have one program with a handful of options so it demands concentration, but the high contrast of the screen makes it easier to concentrate because only the program is glowing and all else is empty darkness. This is the cyberspace equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber.
The closest thing I can compare that feeling to is using an e-Ink Kindle.
I suspect that this machine spent a lot of it’s life “buttoned up” and that accounts for what great shape it’s in today. Despite being almost 30 years old it seems like a missing pad on the “bottom” side that faces downward then the machine is laying handle side up and a few scuffs are the only things wrong with it. There was little opportunity for dust to get into the keyboard and the disk drives. I also suspect that this machine may not have gotten that much use in general considering the lack of burn-in on the monitor.
As a retro-computing machine, it is not perfect. For one thing I have no idea how to get inside of the machine, or if that is even a good idea. On the one hand, generally if a machine has a CRT I don’t want to get inside of it. On the other hand, I can’t find an obvious way to replace the printer paper and I wonder if they just intended you to open the case for that. The back of the machine has what looks to be where an indication of an internal expansion slot, which would be more evidence that you are intended to be able to safely get inside of the machine.
Having only a monochrome screen, no hard drive, only 512K RAM, and no joystick port makes this less than ideal to play many old games or some of the more prominent software I’ve collected. As you can imagine finding software for a PC with 512K RAM, no hard drive, and only 5.25″ floppies might be an issue.
However, I’ve had some good luck in this area.
When I first bought this machine I remembered that in my parent’s attic I had saved the 5.25″ floppies from an Epson 286 we had gotten as a hand-me-down from my aunt in Cleveland in 1995. When we had discarded the Epson I had made sure to save the 5.25″ MS-DOS boot and installation disks as well as some educational programs, including the immortal classics The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.
This meant that when we brought the Senior Partner home from Village Thrift I had a working DOS startup disk and a few programs so I had the bare minimum needed to see the machine working.
Several months later I found this insane lot of 5.25″ PC games on ShopGoodwill. I think I paid $16.25 for this lot including ShopGoodwill’s usually exorbitant shipping cost. What I received is a treasury of late 80s/early 90s PC games.
Here are just a few of the games in that box.
Many of these games require hard disk installation but several, like Ultima I (which we saw running on the Senior Partner in the Commodore 1084 post) and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are perfectly at home running on an early floppy-only PC. It turns out that many games from the late 1980s basically assumed a PC with 384K-512K RAM so they run just fine on the Senior Partner.
Finally, last year my uncle gave me his old PC and the Commodore monitor I mentioned previously. Along with that was his box of 5.25″ disks that went with the PC.
The best thing in the box was a disk labeled IBM DOS 3.2.
The Epson MS-DOS 3.30 disk I had been using was fine for booting the machine but because it was only indented as a minimal OS to be used to install the other disks it was missing several important utilities like CHKDSK. With my uncle’s DOS 3.2 disk I could finally confirm how much memory the machine had.
There was also a disk labeled Lotus 1-2-3, which I had badly wanted to see running on a vintage machine.
There was a time when this screen was a common as the Google homepage to computer users.
Using this machine also taught me a lot about MS-DOS. Today DOS is remembered as a difficult monster of an OS; cold to use and brutal to configure. Some of that is true. Some of that was Apple advertising crud. But I think a lot of that image of MS-DOS came from the time after about 1988 until the release of Windows 95 (and even a little after) when so many odd tricks had to be crammed into DOS so that it could use more than 640K memory and use new hardware like sound cards that were not supported without strange autoexec.cfg and config.sys changes. The nonsense you had to go through to use the hardware in your PC had was truly insulting.
However, in the earlier period the Senior Partner belongs to DOS seems almost tame. You change directories. You list the files in a directory. You run a program. You change drives. You format a disk. It almost seems quaint compared to the ordeals that people had using DOS later. DOS was clearly meant for a machine like the Senior Partner; this was its heyday. After that point it slowly turned into a curmudgeonly antique.
I remember reading DOS for Dummies and seeing all of these commands the author basically told you you shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I wondered what had happened for these commands to have been put into the OS and never taken out in the intervening years. These were things for configuring serial ports and display modes that made made sense on machines like the Senior Partner in the 1980s but were increasingly less relevant as time wore on. The large group of people who first encountered PCs in the early 90s ran headfirst into this confusing period where DOS was a geological dig of successive eras stacked on top of each other.
To use a machine as old as the Senior Partner seems quaint not just because of it’s age but because it’s so old that DOS actually makes sense.
I mentioned last week how much I loved going to the library as a child. These days rather than going to the library I tend to buy used books from thrift stores and used book stores.
I used to look at thrift store book sections with disdain because they were mostly filled with romance novels, out-of-date political books, self-help guides from the 70s, and other forms of useless drivel.
But, what I came to realize is that there’s always a diamond in the rough and considering how much rough thrift stores tend to have, the rate of finding diamonds is pretty high. The beauty of it is that because these books tend to be so cheap you can really indulge your curiosity without feeling like you’re throwing away money.
Sometimes I’ll buy a book because I know nothing about the subject matter.
Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch
I was at the Goodwill on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls recently when I found this 1989 coffee table book about Ekiben, the Japanese tradition of creating special Bento box lunches for sale at train stations so that people can eat them on the trains.
I can’t imagine a similar book about American airline food, can you?
Other times I will buy a book because I am very familiar with the subject matter or I’m collecting books on a specific subject. Ever since my parents bought me the Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft as a child I’ve been interested in collecting books about spaceflight, including books by or about astronauts.
We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race
I think I found this copy of We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Tom Stafford (co-written with space writer Michael Cassutt) at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.
Among the Apollo astronauts Tom Stafford is somewhat forgotten because he didn’t walk on the Moon and until I read We Have Capture I didn’t realize how much of an impact Stafford had made. After flying on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9 , Stafford commanded the Apollo 10 mission, which was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. He and Gene Cernan descended in the Lunar Module to about 47,000 feet above the Moon’s surface before testing the Lunar Module’s ability to abort during landing.
However, the most interesting part of Stafford’s career came after the Moon landings. In 1971 was sent as a US representative to the funeral for the cosmonauts who died on the Soyuz 11 flight. Later he would command the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the flight that is depicted in the jacket image. ASTP is somewhat forgotten today but in a historic moment of the Cold War in 1975 the final US Apollo flight docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in order to demonstrate international cooperation. What’s fascinating is that in the 25 years after ASTP Stafford continued to act as an adviser for NASA and helped to shepherd the Shuttle-Mir flights and the transformation of the failed Space Station Freedom project into the joint US-Russian-European-Japanese International Space Station project. In many ways the most interesting parts of the book have to do with Stafford’s techno-bureaucrat functions on that ground more than what he did in space.
Incidentally, I hope someday a space writer like Michael Cassutt, Andrew Chaikin or Dwayne Day writes a book-length history of the origins of the International Space Station (ISS). From what I understand there were some unique political, diplomatic, and engineering challenges that were overcome to create the ISS.
The best writer to tell that story may be William Burrows, author of books including Deep Black and Exploring Space.
Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond
I found this copy of Exploring Space at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron. This is a funny book because to look at the cover this looks like your standard “spaceflight is so great” kind of hagiography that’s common among books about spaceflight. In Exploring Space from 1990, Burrows actually takes a more critical approach.
I don’t think Burrows dislikes us spending money on exploring space. Rather, he’s unhappy, perhaps even disgusted with the way we’ve gone about doing it. The history of spaceflight is rife with good ideas that were poorly executed repeatedly before the engineers got them right (JPL’s early flights in the Pioneer, Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor series) , good ideas that we spent way too much money on before they were finally executed right (Viking and Voyager) and questionable ideas that were forced to be realized because of political pressure (like the Space Shuttle). The bizarre way that we fund spaceflight through political kabuki lends itself to these kinds of costly messes. I suspect that if Burrows were writing Exploring Space today he would be more sympathetic to NASA’s cost controlled Discovery program, very unhappy with the James Webb Space Telescope, and seething with rage about the forthcoming SLS launch vehicle.
An interesting example of when spaceflight vision and reality collide is well illustrated by…
Challenge of the Stars: A Forecast of the Future Exploration of the Universe
This thin coffee-table sized volume is another book I found at the Waterloo Road Goodwill. I remember that I spotted it right after one of the book’s authors, the English astronomer and television presenter Patrick Moore, had died late last year.
Much like The Compact Disc Book, I mentioned last week, the fun of Challenge of the Stars is seeing if what they predicted would occur that has occurred and what has not occurred. One thing they got right was the “Grand Tour” of the solar system that became the Voyager 1 and 2 probes.
This stunning illustration of a proposed docking between a Soviet Soyuz and the US’s Skylab space station (note the Apollo CSM waiting in the distance). This idea was turned down in favor of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project flight that Tom Stafford flew.
What really caught my eye though, was the section on space stations and a manned Mars landing.
On the bottom left is one of the earlier proposals for the Space Shuttle. Rather than the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters we bacame so fami,iar with, this earlier proposal used a liquid-fueled booster that would fly back to the launch site and land rather than being discarded like the External Tank.
The real prize though, is the photo on the opposite page. Here’s a closer view.
Other than the fact that this is a beautiful piece of art, there’s quite a bit of political history attached to this image. This was produced for a study that Von Braun’s group at Marshall Spaceflight Center conducted in 1969 about what to do after Apollo.
That blunt-nosed craft in the middle of the image with the three cylinders with the USA insignia on them are Von Braun’s idea for a manned-Mars exploration ship. The three USA-labeled cylinders are actually nuclear powered rockets. Here a space shuttle is delivering a fuel shipment to the craft while it’s being assembled in orbit nearby a space station. What you’re seeing envisioned here would have taken dozens of Saturn V launches to get into orbit.
On a later page is an illustration of what the Mars Excursion Module, Von Braun’s Mars lander, would have looked like sitting on Mars. Note that it’s basically a giant-sized Apollo command module.
The excellent False Steps blog goes into more detail but essentially this outrageously expensive proposal was laughed out of the room in Washington. One of the reasons we got the Space Shuttle after Apollo was that the Space Shuttle was seen as more cost effective than Apollo, and into this atmosphere NASA’s spacecraft designers at Marshall were tilting at windmills rather than proposing a more cost-effective alternative to the Shuttle.
It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been though, had Von Braun’s Mars mission proposal been accepted by Nixon. In fact…
Voyage, by Stephen Baxter is a science fiction novel that explores an alternate history where a version of Von Braun’s proposal was actually carried out and the United States landed on Mars in 1986.
I believe I found this paperback at Last Exit Books in Kent.
Voyage is a real treat for spaceflight fans because it goes into immense detail about the trials and tribulations of the political squabbling, engineering feats, test flight mishaps, and other nerd candy that lead up to the Mars landing. Clearly Baxter studied the various Mars mission proposals from the late-1960s and early 1970s carefully because many of the details from Von Braun’s plan, like upgrade versions of the Saturn V and the NERVA nuclear rocket project make their way into Voyage. He also takes cues from real life as well. For example, rather than the Challenger disaster, a gruesome mishap occurs with on a NERVA rocket test flight. Rather than the ASTP mission flying, the Soviets are invited to a US Skylab-style station orbiting the Moon. If you’re a space nerd at all, Voyage is going to be right up your alley.
Sometimes I stumble onto neat space memorabilia in unexpected places.
Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD
I was at the Kent/Ravenna Goodwill a few weeks ago browsing at the DVDs and suddenly I see a DVD that says Atlas V AV-003 on the side.
I expect to see Atlas V rocket serial numbers the on the NASASpaceflight.com forums, not on something at Goodwill.
The Atlas V is a launch vehicle originally developed by Lockheed Martin and currently built and operated by the United Launch Alliance. You might remember the original Atlas rocket that began as an ICBM in the 1950s, flew astronauts during the Mercury program in the early 1960s, and became a workhorse for launching satellites and space probes well into the 1990s. Since then, the Atlas name has become a sort of brand name for the Atlas rocket family. The current Atlas V has design heritage that goes back to the Titan and Atlas-Centaur rockets and uses a first stage booster engine built by the Russians.
This is the Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD. AV-003 refers to the serial number of the rocket, so this DVD documents the launch of the third Atlas V in 2003.
At first I was a bit disappointed in this DVD because it seemed to be full of standard marketing video drivel and over-produced launch video crud. That is until I found the menu where they let you watch every camera that was covering the launch. There are the cameras you expect to see: cameras on the pad and tracking cameras that track the rocket from afar.
But then there are cameras mounted on the first and second stages. I’ve seen these used on launch videos before, but I had never had the chance to just watch the raw footage with no commentary or editing.
Here is a view on the first stage looking downward as one of the solid rocket boosters separates.
And there it goes tumbling away.
This camera is looking upward as the payload fairing (aka the nose cone) separates after the rocket has gotten far enough out of the atmosphere that it can shed the weight of the fairing.
This is from the same camera looking upwards after the first stage has shut down and the second stage, a Centaur upper-stage, has started and speeds away from the dead booster.
I have no idea how a DVD like this made it’s way to the Kent Goodwill, but it made my day when I found it.
This is my Yamaha CDV-1100 LaserDisc player that I bought in May at Time Traveler, a record store on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls.
At the end of my post on the Pioneer LD-V2000 I said that I was looking for another LaserDisc player that had digital audio capability if the price was right. At Time Traveler I came upon two LaserDisc players: a Pioneer CLD-S201 priced at $40 and this Yamaha CDV-1100 priced at $20. The Pioneer had it’s remote while the Yamaha didn’t. The LaserDisc conventional wisdom says to always go with the Pioneer.
However, the CLD-S201 just looks boring to me. It has that boring look that so many pieces of early 90s audio and video equipment have. One of the parts of this hobby of collecting obsolete electronics that I adore is that you can collect based on “coolness” rather than specs or features. In 1992, the CLD-S201 would have been the right thing to buy. But I’m not in 1992.
The Yamaha CDV-1100, on the other hand has a bit more late-80s styling. I have an affinity for Yamaha stuff, especially 1980s Yamaha stuff, ever since I found a Yamaha DSP-1 and it’s associated 4-channel power amplifier at the old Abbey Ann’s #1 years and years ago.
But the main thing that attracted me to the CDV-1100 was that wonderful CD-Video logo on the front of the player and how it brought back fond memories of The Compact Disc Book.
When I was a child my mother instilled in me a love of books and public libraries. She would visit Taylor Memorial Public Library (now Cuyahoga Falls Public Library) on a regular basis. Sometimes I would go with her and other times I would ask her to find me books on a specific subject. There were certain books I was fascinated with that I would take out over and over. One of these books was a 1987 introduction to the CD called The Compact Disc Book by Bryan Brewer and Edd Key (how can you forget a book by a guy named Edd?).
Today when you Google The Compact Disc Book what you find is a post on the site Awful Library Books where librarians make fun of obsolete, out-of-date books that get culled from library collections.
Much of the book was right on. The parts about how digital audio worked, how the data on a CD is encoded in pits and lands, and how CDs are manufactured are still relevant today.
However, the real fun part of books like this is the vision of the future they articulate. Even as I was reading the book in the mid-1990s the vision of the future the authors envisioned had not quite come to pass. The pages about how CD-ROM was going to revolutionize the world (complete with a priceless picture of a giant external CD-ROM drive attached to an IBM PC AT) were on the mark but the sections promising that CD-Interactive (CD-I) and a mysterious format I had not heard of called CD-V were going to revolutionize the living room clearly had not happened.
The reason I’m so into LaserDisc today? That page, right there. The idea that the ubiquitous CD was actually part of a family of disc standards that had been patched together fascinated me. I was aware that 12in LaserDiscs had movies on them but I had never seen an 8in LaserDisc or 5.25in CD-Video disc. I was especially taken with the idea that somewhere out there were gold CDs with video on them.
This Vine video I did with the Yamaha CDV-1100 and the various disc sizes is my tribute to that photo in The Compact Disc Book.
Earlier in the book there’s a section that explains the LaserDisc format and it’s relationship with CD Audio and CD Video.
The pièce de résistance was this vision of what the “living-room of the future” would look like.
In the future we will all have giant 4:3 flat screen TVs and “omni-disc” players for all sizes of LaserDiscs (though, I have to admit I do have a 40in flats screen and my PS3 does play many things…).
So, as I’m standing there in Time Traveler I was thinking about that book. I was thinking how both the Pioneer and the Yamaha both would basically be considered “Omni-Disc” players by the definition of The Compact Disc Book, but that the Yamaha was actually emblazoned with the CD-Video logo, was actually from the 1980s, and was $20 cheaper.
So I bought the Yamaha.
Unfortunately I also violated the cardinal rule of buying used electronics: Always try the thing in the store. I was so enamored with having one of the players that the book was talking about that I didn’t bother to test it in the store.
When we got it home we discovered that, much like the Realistic CD-1000, the belt responsible for opening and closing the drawer were totally shot as well as the belt responsible for moving the laser assembly.
My Dad offered to try to fix the CDV-1100, like he had the Realistic CD-1000, but that he wouldn’t have the time to do it for several weeks.
So, while I waited, I kind of went nuts on eBay. I started looking for a gold CD-V disc, like the book had described. It seems that people collect these now and many of them go for $30 and up. That was a little too rich for my blood, especially since I didn’t know if the Yamaha player I would need to play them worked. Fortunately, I found the CD-V disc from David Bowie’s Sound and Vision boxed set with the Ashes to Ashes video on it for a more reasonable price.
I finally had a gold disc in my hands. And, as the book said, there is an inner groove with CD Audio on it and an outer groove with LaserDisc video on it.
While searching for CD-V discs, by chance, I stumbled upon the remote for the CDV-1100 I was missing!
Like the player itself, this remote was emblazoned with the CD-Video logo. It resembles the remote for my DSP-1 in shape and layout. Where the DSP-1’s remote has “DSP” in it’s bottom right-hand corner, this remote has “CDV”, which is really nice symmetry across the product lines.
Next, I found the service manual for the CDV-1100.
The service manual is very, very cool.
It has the stuff you would expect, like a labeled internal diagram of all of the player’s guts and disassembly instructions.
But it also has instructions for a technician to calibrate the player with an oscilloscope.
Finally in order to refresh my old memories, I bought the copy of The Compact Disc Book I was showing you from AbeBooks.com.
Someone must have used the original receipt as a bookmark, because it was sitting inside the book!
It looks like the book was purchased at Tower Books on 1/22/89! I love it when things have the original receipt with them.
Meanwhile, my dad replaced the belts on the CDV-1100, which involved trips to two electronics parts shops in the Akron area because places don’t stock old belts like the used to.
What he found after he put everything back together was while the player works, and plays discs beautifully, it sometimes has trouble detecting that a disc is in the machine.
There are lights on the front of the machine that indicate what type of disc is in the machine.
Sometimes when you put a full-sized LaserDisc in, it refuses to see the disc. You can tell that it first checks for a 12in disc. If it finds it, the LD light lights up. If it doesn’t find it, there’s a click and then it starts looking for a smaller 5.25in disc. If it doesn’t find that either there’s another click and the player just sits there. Sporadically, you put in a 12in disc, get the two clicks, and the player refuses to play.
Oddly enough, I have found that if you turn on the player and put in a 5.25in disc, it’s detected almost all of the time. If you then take out the 5.25in disc and put in a 12in disc, there is a far greater chance of it being detected.
The service manual unfortunately doesn’t give any details as to how the disc detection process works. I have a feeling there’s some mechanical device that detects the disc size so that the player knows how to deal with the different size spindle holes between 3in/5.25in CD disc and 8in/12in LaserDiscs.
The good news is that if the player detects the disc then it plays beautifully. Here’s the Ashes to Ashes video on that Bowie CD-Video disc.
One of the neat features of the CDV-1100 are the different on-screen displays you get depending on what type of disc it’s playing.
When you turn the player on, you get this lovely, oh-so 1980s white text on blue background title screen.
If you put in a disc with CD Audio on it, such as a 3in CD Single, a normal CD, or a CD-Video disc, you get this screen that shows you how many tracks of audio and video the disc has and the total time.
While playing a CD the information about track time and track number you would usually get from a display on the player instead is shown on-screen.
If you put in a LaserDisc, you get a screen that tells you the disc size, format (CAV or CLV), and which side you have in the player.
We’re spoiled in the post-DVD world of elaborate on-screen menus but considering the primitive state of on-screen graphics in those days, this must have been very impressive in 1989.
When it’s working, this is a very cool piece of late-1980s home entertainment equipment. Like the Compact Disc Book promised this is an “omni-disc” player that basically played every type of Compact Disc/LaserDisc they sold in 1989.
The tray has indentations for 3in CD Singles, normal 5.25in CDs and CD-Video discs, 8in/20cm LaserDiscs, and full-sized 12in/30cm LaserDiscs. The player can play both the digital audio and analog audio tracks on LaserDiscs.
I would love to be able to use this player as my “daily driver” LaserDisc player, replacing the LD-V2000, but I’m not sure about the reliability. Even so, I’m very glad I bought it since I now have a player that was a part of the promised future laid out out in The Compact Disc Book.
This is my Commodore 1084 monitor, which I believe was made sometime around 1987.
About two years ago an aunt and uncle that live nearby heard that I was looking for old computers and offered me my uncle’s first computer. When we got it out of their basement I found that he was giving me a Mitsuba-badged XT clone, as well as the monitor that had remained attached to it for over 20 years.
I was kind of shocked to find out the monitor was a Commodore! That was not a name I expected to see on a monitor connected to a PC.
The Commodore 1084 is an unassuming looking thing. I have to admit when my uncle first pulled it out of his basement, I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to see something really cool like an IBM 5130 Personal Computer Color Display Monitor. The Commodore 1084, on the other hand looks like any one of a myriad of generic composite monitors you may have seen in the 1980s or come upon in a school that kept it’s Apple IIs well into the 1990s.
Oh how wrong I was to be disappointed about the 1084. From what I gather this is actually a legendary monitor among Commodore aficionados. It looks remarkably generic looking until you look at the connections on the back.
What makes the Commodore 1084 legendary? Let’s take a closer look at those video connections on the left.
At first glance that looks like a standard cluster of a yellow composite video RCA input and two white and red RCA audio inputs next to two strange and proprietary DIN connectors.
But that’s wrong. The little switch to the left that’s labeled CVBS and LCA clues you into the real story.
Several of Commodore’s products such as the Commodore 64 supported a video signal that used two RCA connectors for Luminance (aka Luma) and Chroma. This is electrically identical to S-Video, which uses a more familiar small DIN connector. LCA stands for Luma, Chroma, and Audio. When the little switch is in the up position the yellow plug is for Luma and the Red plug is for Chroma.
The 1084 has an amplifier and a generous speaker built into it’s left side so the white connector is a standard mono audio input.
When the switch is in the down position the yellow becomes a standard composite video input and the white input is used for mono audio.
So, just in that cluster of three RCA plugs we can see that the monitor supports two major video standards of the time: composite and S-Video. That’s already much more interesting than one of those generic composite monitors.
So what’s TTL RGB? That’s what my uncle had his PC plugged into, via an adapter cable that went from the DB-9 CGA connector to the DIN connector on the 1084.
Yes, this monitor supports CGA (and by extension, some EGA modes). That’s interesting because unlike the analog VGA we’re all very familiar with, CGA basically sent very primitive digital signals to a monitor where, for example, the Red channel was either ON or OFF (rather than a varying intensity) depending on the color that was being sent. There have to be guts inside of the monitor to turn the TTL signals into video.
The second DIN connector is apparently for Linear RGB, which was an analog RGB standard supported on the Amiga, though, I don’t have an Amiga available to test that.
One of the controls on the front panel switches between the RGB DIN inputs at the RCA composite/S-Video inputs.
If you want to use composite, the front switch must be in CVBS and the rear switch must be in CVBS. If you want to use S-Video, the front switch stays in CVBS and the rear switch is set to LCA. If you want to use the TTL RGB for CGA, the front switch just needs to be in RGB. That seems a bit kludgy but you get used to it.
So, what is fascinating to me is that this unassuming monitor supports at least four of the major video standards of the time (and maybe more because I see some discussion that there was an adapter make the Apple IIgs work with the 1084). This makes sense because in this time period Commodore was selling Commodore 64s, Amigas, and PC clones and it was sensible for them to have a single monitor that worked with all of their products.
I’ve been spending a lot of time researching Apple products of the 1980s and this sort of blows my mind. At the same time as Commodore was selling the 1084 Apple had several video standards going for the Macintosh, Apple IIgs, and Apple IIe/Apple IIc and did not sell a single monitor that worked across their whole product line.
Now, to be fair, this is not a multisync monitor. All of these video standards that the 1084 supports have a common scan frequency. So, for example all of the standard this monitor support have a 15.75 KHz horizontal scan frequency and could never support the Macintosh II’s 35 KHz horizontal scan frequency.
Just to see for myself how well this monitor supports different standards, I cobbled together a little demonstration with some of the computers I have laying around. Keep in mind that taking photos of CRT monitors is a bit of a crapshoot.
First, an Apple IIe on the composite input.
Here are some scenes from the Apple IIe’s famous “Apple Presents…Apple” demo and tutorial disk. The Apple II’s color composite support was always a bit of a hack, and that’s why you’re seeing the odd green color fringing on the otherwise white onscreen keyboard. But, the orange carrots look fine.
The memorable scrolling Apple logo looks nice and colorful. That banding is an artifact from taking the picture.
Here is a Commodore 64 on LCA/S-Video.
First, the famous Commodore 64 “64K RAM System” boot screen.
That classic blue has never been bluer.
This title screen from Alien Syndrome looks fantastic and the accompanying audio that blares out of the 1084’s mono speaker is the bee’s knees.
The GEOS demo disk looks beautiful as well.
The kind of detail that you get from a Commodore 64 on S-Video just blows away the Apple IIe.
Finally, CGA. Now, I have to say that CGA is an abomination and one of the worst things that ever happened to the PC. CGA and it’s awful color pallet set back PC gaming for years. But to prove it can be done, here is the Ultima I title screen in all of it’s purple and teal CGA glory.
Confusingly, I’m using the Apple IIe as a stand here for the 1084. The PC is actually a Panasonic Senior Partner “luggable” 8088-based PC clone (that will undoubtedly be featured in a future post).
Here’s what Ultima I gameplay looks like in CGA….Yuck, but not the monitor’s fault.
After compiling this demonstration, I’m very impressed. It may not be as pleasant looking as one of Apple’s Snow White-era monitors but the Commodore 1084 is a computer collector’s dream in terms of versatility.
To the extent that it’s possible for a pocket calculator to be legendary, that’s what the HP-12C is. When it turned 30 in 2011, it was covered in the Wall Street Journal and on major blogs like Technorati. HP even posted a celebratory video on YouTube entitled HP 12c Calculator — Then & Now. Despite the fact that it was first released in 1981 (the same year as the IBM PC) it’s still being sold today. You can buy one new at Amazon, or from Staples, or OfficeDepot, or Walmart and the price you will pay is not what I would call cheap.
I don’t actually have much use for a financial calculator but I bought this HP-12C for two reasons: First, because a Reverse Polish Notation calculator seemed like a great nerd novelty item and second because it’s a classic of early 1980s technology.
Today the vast majority of pocket calculators and small desktop calculators you see are extremely cheap commodity crap. But, there was a time when a calculator was a prized possession, probably the most advanced piece of technology a person owned. The HP-12C is one of the last remnants of that era.
The HP-12C is a member of a line of calculators that HP created for different professions in the early 1980s including the HP-10C, HP-11C, and HP-15C scientific calculators and the HP-16C programmer’s calculator. The HP-12C apparently has endured because finance professionals loved their portability and reliability of the HP12-C and required newcomers to learn how to use them.
Unlike most calculators the HP-12C uses Reverse Polish Notation (RPN). In order to add two numbers you do not type 2 + 4 and press =. Instead, you press 2 and then press Enter. Then you press 4 then you hit the + button and your two numbers are added together and 6 shows up on the screen. You enter the numbers first and then the operation. Why would you want a calculator that works like this?
It’s best if I let this page at HP’s site about RPN explain the difference:
Believe it or not, the process of using RPN is similar to the way you learned math. If you think about it, you have to modify the way you learned math in order to use an algebraic mode calculator.
Here’s an example
Or (3+5) / (7+6) = x
Algebraic method: Add 3+5=8. Write down the answer or store it in memory. Add 7+6=13. Now enter the 8 from the first answer and then divide it by entering the second answer to get x=0.62.
RPN method: Touch 3 then the ENTER key. Touch 5 then the + key. Touch 7, and then ENTER. Touch 6 then the + key. Note that the answer to the second sum is displayed. Now here’s the magic part. Touch the divide key and the calculator gives the answer, 0.62.
Algebraic: 13 strokes, not counting the effort to write down or memorize the first answer while you calculated the second answer.
RPN: 9 strokes, and no need to write anything down.
The beauty of this is that in RPN the order of operations is explicit. As computer science buffs are aware, RPN works on a stack. Basically each new number you put in is pushing down a new entry on the stack and each operation is popping off numbers from the stack in a last-in, first out order.
The tricky bit to imagine in that example above is that each time you enter numbers, the stack is being pushed down. So 3 is pushed into the stack and then 5 is pushed into the stack and then + pops them off the stack and then pushes the answer 8 back onto the stack. Then 7 is pushed onto the stack, 6 is pushed onto the stack and they’re added together to make 13, which is pushed back onto the stack. At this point the stack looks like this:
As a result, when the divide button is pressed 13 and 8 are popped off of the stack and 8 is divided by 13 giving us 0.62. Because there’s a stack there’s a fairly sophisticated memory function basically built in.
The HP-12C is actually a small computer. Unlike most pocket calculators which have a relatively primitive fixed-function calculator IC there is actually a CPU inside of an HP-12C. When you push a button the calculator is actually loading a tiny program into the CPU.
The HP-12C and the other members of the HP-10C line all used the same CPU, referred to as Voyager, with different code assigned to the different buttons on each model.
The HP-12C is actually programmable. That is to say that it has what we would today call a macro language where you can store up to 99 lines of operations and recall them at a button press.
Because it is programmable there are honest-to-goodness games (warning: PDF) people have written for this pocket calculator. You have to key them in one line of code at a time, like old BASIC programs on early home computers.
On the back of the HP-12C is this sort of quick explanation of some of the calculator’s functions. The fact they’re written in gold lettering, and that there’s a ton of information contained in them that’s somewhat hard to decipher reminds me a bit of the pictograms on the Voyager Golden Record.
The gist of these things is that the programs trigger by those buttons are capable of some sophisticated data conversions, like finding the number of days between two dates. Additionally there are five special registers (basically memories) for Time Value of Money financial calculations called n, i, PV, PMT, and FV. A wide variety of financial calculations can be done by entering numbers into those registers and running the little programs on them.
If this serial number decoding explanation is correct then my HP-12C was made in the United States during the 43rd week of 1988.
As you would expect from a consumer electronics device that has been made for three decades, there have been several revisions of the HP-12C over time. Suffice to say that over the years they have kept the button arrangement and external appearance the same but re-arranged the innards several times.
According to this site, the HP-12C originally had two chips: a CPU chip and a ROM/RAM/Display Driver chip. By the 28XX series like mine the two chips had been merged into a single chip where the Voyager CPU chip also contained the other chip’s functionality.
Interestingly, if you buy an HP-12C today what you get is outwardly nearly identical but very different inside that the older one I have. The old Voyager CPU has been replaced with an ARM-based CPU. ARM CPU cores have been famously used in everything from the Game Boy Advance to the iPhone and Android devices. They’re ideal for situations where you need a CPU that uses a tiny amount of power for a specific task.
In the HP-12C, I believe what they’ve done is created an emulator that uses the ARM CPU to faithfully reproduce the functionality of the old CPU, but with faster execution speed.
These newer HP-12Cs can be identified visually by the fact that they now have two button batteries that go in horizontally, rather than three that face vertically.