Category: 1980s

Microsoft Windows/386

This week I’m going to indulge myself with some extremely nerdy PC history.  Find a comfortable chair because this is going to take awhile.

This is a sealed copy of Windows/386 which I purchased on eBay recently.  Windows/386 was a version of Windows 2 released in late 1987 that was able to multitask DOS applications on a 386.

W386_Front

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Windows/386.  It’s possible you may have seen this over-the-top 12 minute marketing film that Microsoft created for Windows/386 where a businesswoman uses the multitasking power of Windows/386 (and 80s fashions) to save the day.

I had really only heard of Windows 2 in the context of books written later like Windows for Dummies that basically said “don’t bother with Windows 2, buy Windows 3”.

If you’re wondering what Windows 2 looked like, here’s a close up of that screenshot on the front of the box:

W386_Front_Screen_Close

I started collecting boxed software around the same time that I started buying the old Macintoshes in the late 1990s.  One of the first copies of Windows I found at a thrift store was this sealed copy of Windows 3.1 I found amongst the toys and board games at the old State Road Goodwill 10-15 years ago.  Apparently I paid $3.00 for it.

W386_Win_3_1

At the time I bought it because I loved the way the front of the Windows 3.1 box looks.  It’s still my favorite OS box.

Now, Windows 3.1 in a box is not hard to find.  In fact, I also have an open box copy of Windows 3.1.  But, Windows 3.0 is much harder to find in a thrift store.  I recently found a copy of Windows 3.0’s disks and manuals without the box at the 2013 Cuyahoga Falls Hamfest and shortly after that I bought a sealed copy on eBay.  I’ve never seen any Microsoft OSes older than Windows 3.1 “in the wild” just hanging around in a thrift store.

Windows 2.0 is even harder to find than Windows 3.0.  Up until I bought this copy on eBay I had never seen it in person.

I was inspired to buy this copy of Windows/386 (which as you can imagine is a bit pricey) because I’ve been reading Andrew Schulman’s really fascinating (and some say controversial) book Unauthorized Windows 95, which I found for a few bucks on ABEBooks.com.

W386_Unauthorized_Windows_95

So what does a book about Windows 95 have to do with Windows/386 which came out years before?  This is the point where this post is going to get extensively nerdy.

Let me begin by showing you the back of the Windows/386 box:

W386_Rear_Full

The description on the back of this box is glorious.  This is one of the most horribly tortured chimeras of Microsoft marketing and technical jargon I’ve ever seen.  But, by decoding this mess you can learn an enormous amount about what was going on with the PC in 1987-1989.

Here it is typed out so that it’s easier to read:

Microsoft Windows/386
Presentation Manager

Integrate the next generation of Windows applications and existing DOS applications using multi-tasking Microsoft Windows/386.  it’s the one graphical environment that gives you a standard path to OS/2, the operating system of the future.

Microsoft Windows/386 turns your 80386-based personal computer into a multi-tasking virtual machine.  You can run any number of Microsoft Windows applications and existing DOS applications at the same time, limited only by the memory in your system.  Each DOS application gets it’s own 640K “8086” environment to run in and will run in the background regardless of what else is running.  And each DOS application can run in a window or use the full screen.

Your future is secure with Microsoft Windows/386 because once you learn its standard user interface, you’ll be well on your way to knowing how to use all the new graphical applications developed for Windows, even those developed for OS/2.

  • Enhanced support for DOS applications–cut and paste selected data between Microsoft Windows applications and existing DOS applications.
  • Full multi-tasking virtual machine environment–both DOS and Windows applications run concurrently in their own 640K memory space.
  • Consistent with OS/2 presentation manager including overlapping windows and enhanced keyboard and mouse controls.
  • Emulation of expanded memory specifications–no special hardware needed.
  • Supports memory-resident applications.
  • Compatible with programs written under Microsoft Windows versions 1 and 2.
  • Supports Intel 80287 and 80387 math coprocessors.
  • Includes a wide range of desktop applications, including Microsoft Windows Write and Microsoft Windows Paint.

You can probably make out a few important themes here.

The first is that in 1987 it’s very exciting to be able to multitask DOS applications (today we seem to have lost the hyphen in multi-task).

Second, is that for some reason, even though you just bought Windows/386, Microsoft would really rather you buy OS/2.  Usually the back of an expensive thing’s box is trying to stroke your ego and make you feel real smart for buying this expensive thing.  Here, oddly, they’re saying you’re smart for buying this thing because then you’ll be ready to buy the next thing.

Third, they’re really eager to tell you that they are able to multitask DOS applications through the magic of virtual machines.

All of these things are really about memory and the nightmare that was the 640K “barrier” created by the 8086/8088 and DOS and what had to happen to get around the barrier.

The 8086 was a 16-bit processor (along with it’s cheaper version the 8088).  Processor “bit-ness” is a complicated subject but in general it means that the 8086 operated on numbers that were 16-bits long.  The 8086 was designed to address (i.e. talk to) up to 1MB of RAM.  1 MB of RAM has 20-bit memory addresses so Intel came up with a technique where they added together two 16-bit numbers in a way that came up with a 20-bit memory address.

Here’s a diagram from page 25 of Peter Norton’s 1985 book Programmer’s Guide to the IBM PC that shows how they did it:

W386_8086_Memory_Norton

This method of dealing with memory addresses was a central part of how every DOS program worked.  This became known as Real Mode.

DOS was an operating system for the 8086 microprocessor, so it too operated in Real Mode.

IBM decided to use some of the memory addresses to talk to ROM chips, graphics card memory, and other things so that the memory addresses that could actually be connected to real RAM were limited to 640K.  That’s where the so-called “barrier” came from.

Windows 1.0 was an attempt to create an “Operating Environment” that still ran in Real Mode where programmers could create graphical applications.  As you can imagine, Windows 1 was held back by the limited amount of memory available in Real Mode and the lack of built in multitasking features in the 8086.

In general, when you’re building a multitasking processor you want several things.  One thing you want is a timer that the operating system can set inside the CPU.  That way a program gets a set block of time in which to do some processing before the timer goes off and the CPU wakes up the OS and the OS checks if the program needs more time or if another program should get it instead.

These are the basic building blocks of task switching.  If the CPU switches fast enough it can appear to a human being that their CPU that can only do one thing at a time is actually running multiple programs at once. In reality the programs are all getting bits of time given to them by the operating system in which to execute.

Another thing you want is a sort of built in security system in the CPU that separates the programs from the OS so that the OS is in charge if the computer and can juggle these programs.  Ideally you want it to be so that when the program needs to do something important (like say, putting a pixel on the screen or writing a file to the disk) it has to ask the OS to do that thing for the program.

That way multiple programs asking for important things at once don’t interfere with each other.  The OS becomes like a traffic light at major intersection that prevents cars from running into each other.  If a program tries to get the CPU to do something only the OS should do, the CPU should stop it.

Those are both things that Intel built into the 80286, their followup CPU to the 8086.  The 286 was built for multitasking and it was built to talk to up to 16MB of RAM.  These multitasking features were called Protected Mode.

This would have been great except Protected Mode was incompatible with Real Mode.  That method by which Real Mode came up with memory addresses in that diagram above did not exist in Protected Mode.  It used a different method.  You could not simply load up a Real Mode program (like all DOS programs at the time) into Protected Mode.

Fortunately, the 286 could also pretend to be a fast 8086 operating in Real Mode.  But you also couldn’t switch between the two in an elegant way.

So when people brought home their expensive new IBM PC AT’s with 286 CPUs in late 1984 they were mostly running them in Real Mode, running DOS applications.

What was needed was a new Protected Mode operating system and new Protected Mode programs to really use the multitasking Protected Mode on the 286.

This is why in 1985 IBM and Microsoft decided to create OS/2 (aka Operating System/2) with was a protected mode operating system for the 80286.  They also came up with a way where OS/2 could run a single DOS application at a time by fooling the 286 into switching between Protected Mode and Real Mode in a way Intel had not really intended.  Running DOS applications on OS/2 version 1 got a reputation for being slow and terrible.

OS/2 was a large undertaking and while it was announced in April 1987 and version 1.0 was released in December 1987, it wasn’t really complete.  OS/2 1.0 did not come with a graphical interface at all.  That would not come until OS/2 1.1 in October 1988.

By the way, OS/2 1.1 called it’s graphical interface the Presentation Manager, which is why Windows/386 is also calling itself a presentation manager.

W386_Rear_Top

So, now we have two messes.  The first mess is the “640K barrier” that limited the PC platform.  The second mess was the fact that the 286 could not multitask DOS applications.

So, let’s say it’s 1987 and you have a pile of very expensive, serious DOS applications.

W386_DOS_Apps

A pile of very expensive, serious DOS applications.

Are you happy with OS/2?  Do you really want to have to replace all of your applications with new Protected Mode versions?  Or, would you rather have something that could just multitask the pile of applications you have now?

Meanwhile, Intel released the successor to the 286, the 80386 in late 1985 and by late 1986 you could buy one in outrageously expensive PCs like the Compaq Deskpro 386 .  Here Intel finally set the groundwork to clean up both messes.

W386_Rear_For_Deskpro

The 386 was now a 32-bit processor and could address up to 4GB of RAM.  The 286’s protected mode was enhanced to become 32-bit Protected Mode in the 386.  It also contained a Memory Management Unit, which breaks memory up into pages that can be swapped out to disk if necessary.  This is the technique called virtual memory.  As you can imagine this is very useful for multitasking programs.

W386_For_386

With the 386 a PC contained most of the hardware features that allowed expensive mainframe and mini-computers the ability to multitask large programs but it would need a new operating system to take advantage of them.

There were ways for new programs that ran on DOS to use the new features in the 386.  If you ever ran Doom on DOS you saw a bunch of text gobbledegook fly past before the game loaded.  Part of what it was doing was loading a program called a DOS Extender that was basically a sort of mini-OS that let Doom’s 32-bit Protected Mode code talk to Real Mode DOS.

But, running old DOS programs needed something else.  In order to finally solve the 8086 and DOS’s memory mess, Intel borrowed a trick from the mainframe world: virtual machines.

In order to explain what a virtual machine is here is a modern example:

W386_Virtual_Machine

That’s Super Mario Bros., which was an NES game from 1985.  But it’s running on a Nintendo 3DS from 2011 rather than an NES from 1985.  The game thinks it’s running on an NES, but in reality it’s running on a piece of software called a virtual machine that just looks like an NES to the game but is really a different machine entirely.

What Intel did with the 386 was to build in a new mode called Virtual 8086 Mode (aka V86 Mode) that created 8086 virtual machines. V86 mode was really a version of Protected Mode modified so that the Memory Management Unit would take care of handling the different methods of dealing with memory addresses.

W386_VM_Quote

A 386 could create multiple virtual machines running in V86 Mode.  In order to do this Intel said a software vendor would have to supply a program called a Virtual Machine Monitor, or VMM, which was actually a small 32-bit Protected Mode operating system that would manage the virtual machines.  The VMM was really in charge of the computer.  A program running in a V86 virtual machine thought it was talking to DOS but in reality the VMM was deciding to let it talk to a copy of DOS.  The VMM is like the 3DS’s Virtual Console is my example above.

W386_Rear_Screen_V96_Quote

This is where Windows/386 comes in.  Windows/386 was the first Microsoft operating system to contain Microsoft’s VMM.  In fact, the whole thing ran inside of virtual machines that were really controlled by the VMM.  So, there was one virtual machine that contained a copy of Windows 2 that ran Windows programs and then as many other virtual machines as DOS programs you needed to run.

There was other software that contained VMMs that let you run multiple DOS applications.  You can read about some of them in this February 1989 Infoworld article.  But the raison d’être for Windows/386 was that it ran graphical Windows applications too.

In these screenshots from the Windows/386 box notice how some applications have the garish yellow bar with drop down menus and others do not.  The windows with the menus are Windows applications and the ones without are DOS applications and they’re all shown living in harmony together.

W386_Rear_Close_Screen

Where has all the jargon gone? How about this box! LOL.

You can see how this came dangerously close to dooming OS/2 already in 1987.  Why buy a new OS that couldn’t run the applications you own now very well when there’s an alternative?

At the time however, in 1987, Microsoft and IBM were spending oodles on developing OS/2, and this is why you see such tortured marketing language on the Windows/386 box.  They still really wanted to get you into a real Protected Mode OS.

The big problem for Windows/386 was that at the time very few people had 386s.  When Windows/386 came out the Deskpro 386/20 (the 20MHz update to the original Deskpro 386) listed at $7,499 and went for a lot more when you added a larger hard disk and a better graphics card.  Most people and businesses were still buying 286s, which is why IBM and Microsoft continued to bet on OS/2.

The other problem for Windows/386 was that people were not enthused about Windows 2 applications.  Back in 1987-1989 Microsoft was not yet dominant.

W386_Windows_Apps

Windows/386 and two Microsoft applications that ran on Windows 2.

The most notable Windows 2 application was Excel, but for the most part people were sticking with DOS applications they knew and loved like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.

But, Windows/386 was just the first VMM-based OS from Microsoft.  This is where we come to that Unauthorized Windows 95 book.

Unauthorized Windows 95 is all about what the VMM did in Windows 3.0 through Windows 95.  Windows 3.0, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows ME all were based on the VMM I described above.  You may not have heard of Windows/386 but you most certainly have heard of Windows 95.

W386_VMM_OSes

Windows/386, Windows 3.0, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 were all based on the VMM.

Windows 3.0 changed everything in 1990.  It moved Windows into the 286’s Protected Mode and if you ran it on a 386 it also run under the VMM which allowed you to multitask DOS applications.  Suddenly peopled wanted to use Windows applications and sales took off.  Suddenly there was no need for OS/2.

Windows 3.0 basically killed OS/2 as the successor to DOS and led to the breakup of the joint development deal Microsoft had with IBM.  Windows 3.0 is what made Microsoft the dominant beast that people remember today.

The ultimate expression of Microsoft’s power over the PC market was Windows 95.  When Microsoft said “jump” everyone jumped to Windows 95.

W386_Win95

When Windows 95 came out a lot of people wondered what exactly it was.  Was it a real Protected Mode operating system?  Was DOS still in there somewhere?  Microsoft said it was 32-bit…Was it really?

The answers to these questions are contained within the 500+ pages of Unauthorized Windows 95.  Basically, DOS existed in Windows 95 as a servant controlled by the VMM used for compatibility with DOS applications and drivers.  By Windows 95 the VMM became modular and whole pieces of DOS could be replaced with newer Protected Mode code.  It was true that the whole OS was not 32-bit, but the most important part, the VMM was definitely 32-bit.

In a real way, the seeds of Windows 95 started in 1987 with Windows/386.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you.  I collect this stuff because I love tying together the strings of history attached to these old objects.  Normal service with continue next week.

W386_Side

Realistic CD-1000

This is the Realistic CD-1000 CD player that I found just this past Tuesday at Village Thrift.

RCD_Front

This is the first time I’ve found an item and posted it to the blog in the same week.  When I saw this in the electronics section at Village Thrift I could tell it was pretty old from the styling, but when I saw the August 1984 manufacture date I knew I had something really special on my hands.

RCD_Rear

Checking the 1985 Radio Shack catalog confirmed what I suspected: The CD-1000 is the very first CD player that Radio Shack sold.  Given my already discussed fondness for Radio Shack and Realistic I had to have it.

The problem was that the price was marked “3.00 As Is”.  If Village says something is as-is, most likely it plain doesn’t work.  But, for $3, I’m willing to take a chance.

When I got it home it became apparent what the problem was: While the player would turn on, the CD drawer refused to open.

I opened up the case to see if I could spot anything obviously amiss inside.  The first thing I noticed was that there was a CD-R disc that must have been stuck inside the machine when it was donated that had slipped out of the drawer and was sitting among the electronics.  After removing the CD-R I tried watching the CD drawer try to open with the case open.  All I heard was a motor try to turn but nothing moved.

RCD_Inside_Overview

Next, I took it to my father.  He quickly discovered that the belt that goes between a motor and that white, round piece in the bottom center of the picture above was broken.

We then proceeded to remove the drawer assembly from the unit to get a better look.  That involved unplugging all of the connections between the drawer and the main board.

RCD_Repair_1

Eventually we got the drawer assembly out of the unit.  My father manually turned the round white piece and we discovered how the drawer works.  As you would expect, first the drawer pulls in.  What was really curious was seeing the little platform on the center of the drawer move.

RCD_Drawer_Empty

See that raised platform where you place the disc?  It works like an elevator that places the disc onto the drive spindle.  Then the white plastic piece with the “Danger!…” sticker on it moves downward and clamps the disc in place.  All of this was driven by that single white round piece with the broken belt.

The next day, my father took the drive assembly to Philcap Electronics where they took some measurements and sold him a replacement belt for $3.

After he installed the new belt and reconnected all of the wires the CD player worked!  I’m personally somewhat shocked that nothing else was broken on this thing but that belt.  In researching this unit you find people talking about problems with distorted sound and the laser failing, but my player seems to work perfectly after the belt repair.

RCD_Drawer_Open

The thing about CD players that is a blessing and a curse is that to a close approximation they basically all sound the same.  I had heard though, that the very earliest CD players had some nasty filtering in their early DACs that might be audible.  Personally, it sounded to great to my ears.  That got me curious about what all of those chips were inside the CD-1000.

The first thing I found was that this player was probably designed for Tandy by Hitachi.  Most of the chips inside are Hitachi chips.  I stumbled upon this French website about another, much more flashy early CD player, the Hitachi DA-1000 that shows the chips it had inside of it.

RCD_Hitachi_Chips

Notice that both players used the MB15529 chip.  Those two other chips next to it also look similar.  The description of those chips is in French, but Google Translate tells me that the MB15529 decodes the bitstream into frames and the HD60901H does error conversion.  Basically, these chips are the digital portion after the drive reads the bits and before the DAC turns them into analog sound.

The DAC used in the Realistic player is a 16-bit Burr Brown PCM53JP-V DAC.

RCD_PCM53JP-V

It sounds like this was a common chip in pro audio equipment in the 1980s.  It also looks like they’re even still in demand today to repair old gear.  The Burr Brown DAC is probably why this unit sounds so good today.

From what I can gather the first generation of CD players like the famous Sony CDP-101 was from 1982-1983.  By 1984-1985 when my CD-1000 debuted the hardware was settling down a bit.

This raises an interesting point about the CD-1000.  Even at the time, this was an austere player.  The design was pretty low-key compared to something like that over-the-top Hitachi DA-1000 I linked to above.  The CD-1000 had no headphone input, no remote control, and a basic (but beautiful) display.  On the other hand, the CD-1000 debuted at $400 which was probably more affordable than most players at the time.  And yet, Radio Shack and Hitachi did not skimp on components, since the guts look comparable to the DA-1000.

RCD_Buttons

It’s interesting to see how the designers of the CD-1000 dealt with things that are commonplace today.  For example, there is no next track button.  What you do instead is hold play and press the fast forward or rewind button to skip a track.  If you just hit the fast forward or rewind buttons it seeks rather than skipping.  If you want to skip to track 12 you have to hit the 1 button, then the 2 button, and then press Play.

RCD_Display_On

The display is a simple affair with lovely, bright florescent digits.

Listening to a CD player for the first time in 1984 must have been amazing.  The 1980s were a time of electronic novelties.  There were portable TVs, personal computers, various type of home video like Beta, VHS and LaserDisc, huge early cellular phones, etc.  But, none of them could hold a candle to the shockingly great sound of a Compact Disc.   No pops, no scratches, no tape hiss.  Just clean sound with amazing dynamic range.  Some of the pro-CD propaganda from that era was nonsense, such as how the discs were indestructible, but the promise of clean sound was true.  The Compact Disc was the ultimate 1980s novelty.

Today, as people re-embrace vinyl we forget the lesson the CD player taught us: Analog is tyranny.  That is to say that in analog audio there’s always some noise, always some distortion and all you can do is spend more money to minimize it.  That’s awful, when you think about it.  You can whine all you want about the loveliness of analog audio but what it meant was that a select few who could afford expensive hi-fi systems got to listen to great sound and everyone else got less than that.  Yes, you can have a great record player that minimizes surface noise and produces spine-tingling sound, but if you can’t make it affordable and give it to the masses, what’s the point of that?

So, if you walked into a Radio Shack in late 1984 and were blown away listening to a CD-1000 for the first time you were hearing not a $5000 turntable but a $400 component you were much more likely to be able to afford.

I can appreciate that album artwork looks much, much better on an LP dust jacket.  Fundamentally I think that’s why vinyl is coming back into fashion now.  It’s the beautiful artwork.  There’s also a readily understandable beauty to watching a vinyl disc spin with music coming out.

But we too often forget the beauty of digital audio.  It wasn’t until I watched this fantastic video from Xiph.org (YouTube link if your browser doesn’t support WebM) about the common misconceptions about how digital audio works that I realized how fortunate we are to have had the CD and 16-bit/44.1KHz PCM digital audio.  The most surprising thing about the video is how Monty explains that human ears don’t really need anything better than 16/44 because 16/44 can reproduce any frequency we can hear.  I had always assumed that more bits and more samples would mean better audio, but that’s not the case.  Given two sampled points at a 44.1KHz sample rate there is only a single waveform that fits those points that is within the range of human hearing.  The 16-bit sample depth already produces a dynamic range that exceeds the range of our ear’s sensitivity and a noise floor that is inaudible.  We will never need anything greater than 16/44 with the speaker technology we possess today and the ears we will always possess.

The compact disc was unwittingly the last physical consumer electronics audio format.  The depth of the 16/44 format meant that there will never be another format that sounds better to most people.  For playback, there’s no need to go further.

RCD_Drawer_Close

More importantly though, by pressing hundreds of millions of discs full of unencrypted 16/44 PCM, the industry laid the groundwork for the future.  Bits are inherently portable.  Get those bits off of the CD and they can go anywhere and be physically stored in a drive of any size.

What’s killing the CD now is the tyranny of space.  Storing discs takes up space.  Players take up space.  With digital the beauty is that the music is in the bits, and not the physical medium (which is how digital defeated analog in the first place).  You can make digital storage basically as small as you want.  But the polycarbonate disc never matter in the first place.  What mattered are the bits.  And they are likely to live forever.

RCD_Zonoscope

A CD player from the 1980s with an album that badly wishes it was from the 1980s.

Lego 6395 Victory Lap Raceway

This is the Victory Lap Raceway from Lego, which first appeared in the 1988 catalog.  This isn’t an electronic item but it is one of my proudest thrift store finds.

VLR_Front

Before Abbey Ann’s moved to the Tallmadge Circle they had two stores next to each other on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls, across the street from Acme.  The first store, called Abbey Ann’s #1 was located on the first floor of an old two story building with an apartment on the second floor.  It was a series of cramped spaces with low ceilings and it was filled to the brim with all manner of thrift store items.  I remember especially being on the lookout for Sega CD games in the display case by the cash register.  Next door in a much larger one story building was Abbey Ann’s #2.

Today the site of Abbey Ann’s #1 is a parking lot while store #2 has become a different furniture consignment shop called Pieces.

Unlike the cramped spaces of Abbey Ann’s #1, store #2 had much more floor space and a large front window that made it ideal for selling larger items of furniture.  They also had large sections for household items, records, and electronics so we visited often.  There was a section for toys and books along the left wall that more often then not was crammed in behind some furniture or appliances.

Most of the time the toy section was just old board games so I didn’t pay very close attention to that area.  But, one day, among the piles of board games was this Lego set.

This was remarkable to me for two reasons.

First, I can’t stress how rare it is for Lego to show up at thrift stores.  I’m not sure if people just keep their Lego for their children or if they mostly sell it at garage sales, but even buckets of unsorted Lego are rare at thrift stores around here.

Second, this set would have been 10-15 years old by the time I found it, still in the box.  The box is a bit beat up and unsealed but it’s clear that all of the original contents are still there sealed in their bags.

VLR_Bags_Close

Because the Victory Lap Raceway debuted in 1988 it was also in the 1989 catalog.

The 1989 Lego catalog holds a special place in my heart.  Something must have happened in 1989 where my parents decided that I had outgrown Duplo and grown into regular Lego.  That year through a combination of birthday and Christmas gifts I got the entire 1989 Lego Pirates line up, which had debuted that year.

For me, Lego was not just a toy it was the toy.  You could add parts to a set.  I didn’t like that my Black Seas Barracuda had only one deck, so I added another one.  You could take a set apart and transform the parts into something else.  I remember looking at the unique octagonal windows of the Stardefender 200 and imagining them to be the nose of a B-29.

I spent a lot of time looking at the 1989 Lego catalog.  I probably still recognize every set in it.  When I found that beat up box at Abbey Ann’s #2 I immediately recognized Victory Lap Raceway as one of the sets that I has known so dearly from the catalog, but never owned.  I also knew it was one of the more expensive sets in 1989.

I must have spent a lot of time in the Lego aisle at Toys R Us looking at all of the sets lined up in their distinctive yellow boxes.  The low and mid-range priced sets just had the yellow box.  But, you could tell the big, expensive sets because they came in large boxes with a lid that opened to reveal the set’s unique pieces suspended in see-through trays.

VLR_Inside

VLR_Inside_Left

The inside of the lid was filled with gorgeous zoomed in images of the different parts of the set.

VLR_Inside_Full

VLR_Inside_Close_2

The front of the box always had a gorgeous picture of the set in action and the large red Lego logo in the right corner and a yellow “Legoland” stripe telling you which theme or “system” the set belonged to.

VLR_Lego_Stripe

The rear of the box had examples of other models you could build with the same pieces.

VLR_Reverse

The name of the set was always written in black, bold sans-serif type on the long edges of the box while the short edges had action scenes from other angles.

VLR_Top

VLR_Side

I remember when I was a child looking at the 1989 catalog thinking that the Victory Lap Raceway was somewhat silly because it was just part of a racetrack.  The Black Seas Barracuda, for example, was clearly a whole ship.

In the intervening years between 1989 and when I found this set Lego went through some lean years with their set designs.  They started using fewer pieces and making the models look chunkier.  There was a point in time in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I though they were really doing a disservice to their fans by watering down their models so much.

VLR_Inside_Text

That period of time made me really appreciate this set and all of its little details.  Sure, there’s not too much structure, but what is there is very well done.  The stairs are made of individual pieces rather than just a single stair piece.  The decks of the grandstand walkways are made with gorgeous long flat pieces.  There appear to be no decals: All of those Shell logos and car numbers are actually on the bricks.  The way the motion picture camera travels on those flat rail pieces is brilliant.  This was Lego at it’s best.

VLR_Inside_Close

I’ve thought about building it.  The problem is that it’s not the sort of set that’s easily displayed or stored.  Since it has a lot of little bits that could easily get lost it seems more prudent to keep it all together in the box.

Having something like this, still in the box is incredibly special to me.  It’s like having a little piece of my childhood still there, waiting.

VLR_Side_Title

Quadboard by Quadram

QB_Whole_Board_Front

I found this Quadboard at the Abbey Ann’s off the Circle in Tallmadge sometime last year.  It was sitting on their counter in a pile of items that had just came in.

When I saw it I immediately recognized that it was some sort of old RAM upgrade (from the ordered banks of DRAM chips on the left side of the board) but when I looked closer I impressed with how just how old it was.  As third party add-ons for IBM PC hardware goes, this is almost as early as it gets.

QB_Board_Bottom

I suspect this is one of those instances where the original owner replaced the older Quadboard with the newer model and the old one ended up in the newer one’s box with the newer one’s documentation.

QB_Board_Box

The box and the documentation is for a 384K Quadboard from 1984 (with six banks of nine 64 kilobit DRAM chips) but the card inside is labeled 1982 and only had four banks of nine chips.  Also notice how the picture on the box has two connectors for ribbons but the card I have only has one.

QB_Box_Zoom

QB_Manuals

In doing some research about the Quadboard it looks like in 1982 Quadram sold several models all with the same number of DRAM chip sockets but with different number of chips installed.   The one I have seems to be the high end of the original Quadboard line which means it’s fully populated with 256K RAM.  If you had one of the cheaper models you could install more chips yourself as long as you added a whole bank at a time.

I believe the leftmost of the two sets of DIP switches on the top of the board are how you tell it how much RAM the PC has on the motherboard (so it knows what address to start with) and how much RAM is installed on the Quadboard.

Incidentally the reason that four banks of nine 64 kilobit memory chips equals 256K is that the 9th chip in each bank is used for parity checking, like on the IBM PC’s motherboard.

QB_DRAM_Close_Angle

The Quadboard is interesting because from it you can learn a lot about the state of hardware in the early days of the PC.

The original IBM PC was well known to be an open architecture and expandable because of its five expansion slots. What is less well known is that you basically needed to use at least two or three slots in order to use the machine.

Other than a keyboard connector (and a rarely used and later removed cassette recorder port) the PC had almost no peripherals on the motherboard.  In order to use a monitor or a disk drive or a printer, or a connect to an external modem you needed cards that supported these things.

In the simplest configuration using IBM’s hardware you could use a disk controller card and a monochrome display adapter (that came with a printer port) and the machine would be usable with only two cards.  But, you didn’t have a serial port.  Because the display adapter for a color monitor didn’t have a printer port you were looking at using three of the precious expansion slots just to be able to use the machine with a color monitor.

If you wanted to add something simple, like a clock that remembered the time when the PC was off, you we’re going to need to burn one of the few remaining slots.  You could easily run out of slots and your expandable IBM PC would be a lot less expandable.  As a result, expansion board manufacturers like Quadram started selling boards with multiple functions crammed on one board.

QB_Box_Rear

This Quadboard gives your PC a battery-backed real time clock, a serial port, a parallel port, and a RAM upgrade on a single board.  I would imagine that because of the expense of the RAM, the reason you bought the Quadboard was for the memory upgrade aspect of the board.

The IBM PC models being sold in 1982 only came with up to 64K of RAM.  In 1983 a later PC model came with a whopping 256K RAM and the XT started with 256K.  If you want more RAM then upgrades consisted of an 8-bit ISA board like the Quadboard.

In the early 1980s RAM was expensive.  According to this ad in Infoworld a fully populated 256K Quadboard like this one cost $995 in 1982.

QB_DRAM_Close

An often overlooked aspect of the early history of personal computers is how important the cost of RAM was.  In 1977 when Atari introduced the Atari 2600, they could only afford to put 128 bytes of memory in it.

The reason why the Macintosh in last week’s entry was released in January 1984 with only 128KB of memory was that Apple had a limited amount of space on the board for RAM.  They either had to wait for the next generation of higher capacity RAM chips to fit more RAM in the same space (and add $1000 more to the cost of a machine that was already $2495) or send it out the door with only 128K memory, knowing that would limit the machine’s potential.  But hey, real artists ship.

So, it must have been a huge deal for whoever bought this Quadboard in 1982 to be adding 256KB into their PC.

What would someone have gained at the time by adding 256K to their PC?  You have to remember that unlike the period from about 1990 to 2005 or so when it seemed that your PC was obsolete after 2-3 years the period from 1981 from 1990 was very different.

Once the basic platform had been established of a PC with an 8088 processor and MS-DOS it sort of stuck that way for almost 10 years.  When subsequent processors like the 286 and 386 came out most popular software largely used them as fast 8088s and didn’t take that much advantage of their new capabilities.  It wasn’t really until 1990 and Windows 3.0 that the needs of graphics and multitasking finally forced the platform to move forward, which obsoleted the 8088 and 8086.

From 1981 to 1990 you probably wanted a full 640KB memory in your PC but if you didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world.

For example, in 1987 the popular dBase III Plus only required a PC with 256KB RAM, though it recommended 384KB.

Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.2 from 1989, which was considered a pretty heavy application at the time, wanted at least 320KB memory, though they recommended 512KB.

Even a pretty serious game like 1986’s Starflight from Electronic Arts just asked for 256KB.

So, someone dropping a grand on 256KB memory in 1982 was keeping their PC from the scrap heap through about 1989.  That’s pretty good value for their money.

On the other hand, the owner probably wanted more and that’s why this 256KB Quadboard ended up in the box of the 1984 model that accommodated even more memory.

QB_Quality_Logo

References:

If you, like me have a bizarre fascination with the early days of PC hardware, these old books can be very informative.

PC’s From Scratch
by Corey Sandler, Tom Badgett, and Wade Stallings
Published by Bantam Computer Books 1990

The PC Upgrader’s Manual
by Gilbert Held
Published by John Wiley & Sons 1988

Apple Macintosh

This is my original Apple Macintosh (aka the Macintosh 128K) from 1984.  I believe I bought it somewhere around 1998-2000 at the old State Road Shopping Center Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.  Unfortunately it only worked for a short time after I found it but in that time I had a lot of fun with it.  I keep it around today as a piece of history.

Mac128_Full

This is it.  Model M0001.  The original Macintosh.  The machine with the Ridley Scott 1984 commercial.  More has probably been written, said, and filmed about this computer than any other in history.

You can identify an original 1984 Macintosh among other classic Macs by the way that the rear name badge just says “Macintosh” and the way that the front of the computer just has an Apple logo and no model name.

Mac128_NameplateMac128_M0001

The original Macintosh did not have a hard drive.  It ran from 400K 3.5in floppy disks.  I found this Macintosh with the mouse and keyboard (minus the letter Z) but with no disks, which created a problem.  I made some posts on the old RoadRunner newsgroups and found some local Mac nerds to help me out.  One of them a disk that had been formatted 400K with an significantly old System and copies of MacWrite and MacPaint, which is basically what you would have received in the box in 1984.  To my amazement, we found that the old Macintosh worked.  Compared to the Apple II, the crisp black and white image was a revelation.

Through some research I found sites like mac512.com that (at that time) had a lot of old software available to download, assuming you had a Mac that could write the 400K floppy format.  My mother and I made a trip to a local Kinkos that had late model Power Macinitosh towers (probably Power Macintosh 9500 or 9600s) that still had floppy drives.  We spent about an hour or so filling up a few floppies with old games like Shufflepuck, Kung Fu and Stunt Copter.

Later I came to realize that this Macintosh had been upgraded to about the specs of a Macintosh 512K with 0.5MB RAM, an option which Wikipedia says cost $995 back in the day.

This Macintosh was the first Macintosh of any type I owned and the first Apple product I had owned since my grandfather gave us his Apple IIe.  Oddly enough, the later Macs I found at thrift stores or acquired used I found in roughly the order they came out: a Macintosh Plus, a Macintosh SE, a Macintosh Classic II, a Macintosh LC III, a Quadra 700, a Quadra 605, a Performa 630CD, a PowerBook 190cs, the PowerBook G3, and most recently an eMac and a 2010 Mac Mini.

The Macintosh Plus (which in many ways was the machine the Macintosh 128K should have been) gave me a good education into what the Macintosh experience would have been in the mid-to-late 80s.

While I am fascinated in these machines as old computers I’m still a PC guy at heart.  It’s just that these are the opportunities that have presented themselves.  If the thrift stores had been full of Deskpros or PS/2s I would be writing about them here too.

Since this old Macintosh no longer works, it gives me a good opportunity to talk about the way it looks.

Mac128_IIe_Comp

You can see the visual similarity between the Apple IIe (introduced in 1983) and the Macintosh with the beige plastic and the beveled edges.  Growing up with an Apple IIe, I have a fondness for the beige style that Apple did so well in the mid 1980s.  I have said before that I like my 80s stereo equipment to have the angular silver appearance of a DeLorean.  Well, I want my 80s computer equipment to have the beige plastic look of the Apple Macintosh and the Apple IIe.

Mac128_Front_Detail

I adore the beveling around the floppy disk drive especially.  That’s the way a floppy drive should look.  It just looks important.

The way the mouse looks roughly like the Macintosh, with the mouse button mirroring the monitor and the Apple logo in roughly the same place is stunningly cute.

Mac128_Mouse_TopMac128_Mouse_Bottom

I really dig the color Apple logos on the front and back of the Macintosh.  Bring back the color Apple!

Mac128_Front_Badge

One of the things that puzzles me about this machine is: If you had paid $2495 for one of these things in 1984 would you have been happy with it?

We’ve all been told that this is the machine that like Prometheus bringing fire to man, brought the Graphical User Interface to the common person.

The reality is that this was a seriously compromised computer when it was launched.  The 400K floppies were too small.  The 128K RAM was way, way too small for the kind of graphical programs that were expected to be built for it.  The single built-in floppy drive and the limited amount of RAM led to horror stories where the simple action of copying a disk took multiple disk swaps.  It also lacked a dedicated port to add an external hard drive.

Mac128_Rear_Conn

The Macintosh Plus, introduced in 1986, corrected these flaws by coming with at least 1MB RAM, an 800K floppy drive, and a SCSI port for adding an external hard disk.  The Macintosh SE in 1987 added an option of an internal hard disk or a second floppy drive.  So, if you had bought this machine in 1984 you were probably looking longingly at the Plus and SE which had the same screen and same CPU, but corrected the glaring flaws in the original design.

Additionally, would you have been happy with the software selection?  The Mac would have come with the brilliant MacWrite and MacPaint, but after that was there other quality software to buy?  It seems like the first few years of Macintosh software were a bit tortured.  Meanwhile Apple II and IBM PC owners were cheerfully drowning in great software.

I’m sure the first two things people thought of when they saw a Macintosh back then was: This is amazing but 1) Can I have it with color? 2) Can I have a bigger screen.

Maybe this is just my “future” bias talking here but anytime I’ve tried to write anything on the 9in screen classic Macintoshes have I’ve felt visually cramped.

If you were the kind of computing enthusiast with a quick trigger finger for novel technology that was probably the kind of person who bought a Mac in 1984, what did you think of the Amiga in 1985?  Granted the Amiga had a less elegant GUI than the Macintosh but it came with an emphasis on color and multimedia while your Mac was staring back at you in crisp but dull black and white.  Apple would not add a Macintosh with color capability to the lineup until the stratospherically expensive (but eminently open) Macintosh II in 1987.

I think you have to keep in mind what the ownership experience was really like when you appreciate the historical importance of this machine.

The original Macintosh is a terrific monument to one of the best technological moments of the 1980s.  Seeing one with it’s crisp and cheery screen must have stunned people who were knew computers as boxes that spit out glowing green text in a black void.  This was the 1980s vision of the future.

Mac128_Front

Realistic TV-100

You have have noticed the zoomed-in image of the Realistic TV-100 Stereo TV Receiver acting as my blog “mascot” in the header.

TV100_Front

I chose the Realistic TV-100 to represent this blog for a number of reasons.  It’s a fantastic looking piece of mid-1980s audio equipment.  It’s also a classic representative of Radio Shack’s Realistic brand.  I have fond memories of visiting the Radio Shack at State Road Shopping Center as a kid back when Radio Shack was still an important electronics store.  Basically everything about Radio Shack from the 1980s and 1990s like their house brands Realistic, Archer, Optimus and for some reason those distinctive shiny green Extra Life batteries is a childhood nostalgia trip for me.  The TV-100 represents a lost era, which you’ll find is a common theme on this blog.

TV100_Model

Therefore it’s time to give this lovely looking but slightly odd bird it’s day in the sun.

As this October 1985 ad in Popular Mechanics explains the original purpose of the TV-100 was to add MTS stereo and SAP capabilities to existing TVs.  “Many stations are already broadcasting in stereo…all the time.  Come in and discover the added dimension of stereo TV.”

TV100_Rear

The idea was that you plugged your TV antenna into the antenna inputs on the TV-100 and then attached cables from the VHF and UHF outputs on the TV-100 to the antenna inputs on your TV.  I believe at that point the TV-100 became your TV tuner.  You could then attach speakers directly to the TV-100 because it has an integrated amplifier or you could attach it to your stereo with the Tape Out.

TV100_Front_Buttons

The brilliant part of the TV-100 is that it also has an Aux input, which means that you can use it on it’s own as a small amplifier.  Today, following the analog TV end times the MTS decoding functions are useless but sometimes you just need a small amplifier.   The TV-100 was often sold with two magnetically shielded Minimus-2.5 speakers as seen in the Popular Mechanics ad, and together they are perfect for these situations.

TV100_Minimus2_5_SideTV100_Minimus2_5_Rear

At some point, I believe it may have been in the late 1980s, my grandfather gave my father a TV-100 and the two Minimus-2.5 speakers.  My father also purchased another TV-100 at a thrift store.

When I was a teenager I couldn’t have a TV in my room but I did have one of the TV-100s so I listened to over-the-air TV.  I have fond memories of listening to ER and SNL, trying to imagine the pictures in my head.

Somewhere along the way we got rid of the two TV-100s but my father kept the speakers.

Recently I saw this TV-100 at the Goodwill on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls and had to have it.  I reunited it with the two speakers and now I have the complete set once again.

It’s not the greatest sounding amplifier in the world and it’s not particularly loud but when you just want to improve the sound of a small TV it does fine.

Today my TV-100 sits in my classic gaming nook on top of my Laserdisc player and below a circa-2005 Toshiba CRT TV with the Minimus-2.5 speakers.

TV100_Blade_Runner_LD

Los Angeles 2019.

Aside from it’s utility I appreciate the way the TV-100 looks.  It represents the best of a transition period that was happening to stereos in the 1980s.  Stereos of the 1970s often had a silver face and a large, lit radio tuning dial like the TV-100 but unlike it often had wood paneled sides and larger switches.  It seems like they were all trying to look like ham radio transceivers.

About the time the TV-100 debuted in 1985 receivers started to become computer controlled and began eliminating the tuning dials and switches in favor of digital displays and more flat, computer-like buttons.

My mother’s Akai AA-R22 is a good example of this styling.

TV100_Akai_AA-R22_Front

My parents’ old nursery room has great wallpaper.

By the late 1980s, of course, receivers started going all black which for the most part, they remain until this day.  Generally, the more a piece of stereo equipment looks like a DeLorean DMC-12 (silver, angular), the better with me.  Chunky black monoliths are boring.

So, for the TV-100 to be silver and fully analog (in it’s operation and appearance) makes it an interesting mid-80s transition piece.  There’s also something majestic about the well-proportioned analog-ness of the TV-100.

TV100_Side

The size of the tuning dial in comparison with the turning and volume knobs and the rest of the unit is pleasing to the eye.  Somehow this diminutive, somewhat esoteric add-on unit found deep within the Radio Shack catalog (1985, page 104) turned out to be a work of art.

Casio TV-1000

Casio_1000_Front

We’ve all become accustomed to “the smartphone stare”.  You know, when someone is hunched over their smartphone, oblivious to the world around them, bathed in the glow of their smartphone’s screen.  I admit, I can be found in this state several times on the average day.

The magic of the “smartphone stare” is the magic of the personal electronics revolution:  It’s the way that an electronic device can be made small enough that you can use it without sitting down.  You don’t need a room in your house for it and you don’t need any special furniture.  You just pull it out of your pocket and commune with a piece of electronics.  When a piece of electronics can come with you anywhere you go and can be used at practically any time it becomes something more intimate.

The “smartphone stare” might seem like a recent phenomenon, but videogame enthusiasts will recall that for them it basically started in 1989 with the Game Boy and Tetris, which for many people was the first really killer portable gaming experience.

But, even before the Game Boy a handful of early adopters could be found basked in the glow of their handheld TVs.

I have a particular affection for the various attempts to make a usable handheld TV in the 1980s.  For one, I love the 80s styling.  They’re like little jewel boxes of 80s chic.  For another, these devices are relatively easy to find and even easier to store.  Also, these devices were pushing the boundaries of what was possible technologically, and I respect that.  Finally, I’m fascinated by how at the time these were esoteric luxury devices and today they are basically semiconductor trash.

Of the vintage handheld TVs I own the Casio TV-1000 is my favorite. This was one of Casio’s first attempts to make a color LCD handheld TV.

I found it at the Village Discount on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls with its original box, instructions, and warranty card.

Casio_1000_Box_Front

Casio_1000_Box_Top

Casio_1000_Package_Open

While it does have a backlight it also has an interesting feature where you can open up this door in the back to allow light in, as a way to conserve battery power.

Casio_1000_Back_Open

The part that folds down there is actually the battery compartment, which is smart because it gives that section some heft to weight the set while it’s folded down. The interesting thing is that with that part open you can see the innards of the backlight diffuser, which is located at the bottom of that angled transparent section, and how it’s meant to distribute light across the screen evenly.

Image quality, as one would expect from a mid-1980s passive LCD is atrocious.  My understanding is that the TV-1000 was an attempt to produce a more affordable color micro TV than it’s contemporaries the Epson ET-10 and the Seiko T-102 and as a result it uses a passive LCD rather than an active LCD.  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a passive LCD screen that was ever any good.

Here I am trying to tune in one of the last low-power analog TV stations in the area, WAOH-LP (oddly enough, they were showing a black and white program).

Casio_1000_Screen_TV

Casio_1000_Screen_TV_2

Notice the onscreen blue bar on the side with the red hash mark on the right side of the display.  In order to tune the TV-1000 you would select VHF or UHF and then press the up or down channel button once so that it would start scanning for a channel.  The red mark shows what channel it’s currently tuned to.  The scanning process makes it difficult to tune in a marginal station because often it will scan right past.  I would vastly prefer a manual tuning knob like the CRT Sony Watchman sets from the same era.  But I suppose at the time this type of tuning seemed more high tech.

The TV-1000 also has a standard RCA 1/8th inch AV input, which is useful in the post analog TV doomsday.  Use red/right for video and white/left for audio.

Casio_1000_Controls_Side

Casio_1000_Screen_SMW_2

Here is Super Mario World on my Yobo FC Twin (which I shall discuss in the future).  As you can see, the TV-1000’s color reproduction is awful, but that’s the reality of mid-80s passive LCDs.  The sound however, is loud and crisp.

Casio_1000_Back_Label

Right now the TV-1000 is the only 1980s-vintage LCD handheld TV I own, but I’m always on the lookout for others.  I do, however, have several micro CRT handheld TVs from the 1980s:  A functional Sony Watchman FD-10A, a functional Sony Watchman FD-30A, and a non-functional Panasonic TR-1010P.