Previously on Electric Thrift I mentioned that I passed on buying a Sony Mavica at Goodwill because it was missing the power supply and proprietary batteries. I’m very glad I didn’t buy that camera because shortly after that I found an even older digital camera!
The oldest digital camera I can remember seeing was the Apple QuickTake 100 my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Bennett used in about 1995. The second oldest digital camera I’ve ever seen is this Epson PhotoPC I recently found at Village Thrift.
Village Thrift has a “showcase” which is a section of supposedly more expensive items positioned on shelves behind a counter so that you have to ask the cashier to take a closer look. This creates a dilemma because often times it can take awhile to get the attention of the cashier. You have to really want to see an item in the showcase to justify waiting but the items are kept too far away to get a good enough look to really get interested in them.
I had seen the PhotoPC box back there for several weeks and never grasped the age of the thing. Luckily there’s this place where the showcase’s counter ends and sometimes items spill over from the showcases’s rear shelves onto the normal, more accessible shelves. That’s when I finally go a close look at the box and realized this was a digital camera box with screenshots from Windows 3.1! “Copyright 1995 Epson America, Inc.” This is a survivor from the digital camera Jurassic period.
We tend to think of digital cameras as springing into existence as luxury objects in the late 90s, hitting their prime in the 2000s as people realized the utility of getting photos online and becoming ubiquitous after 2007 as the cheap ones were integrated into smartphones and tablets and the more expensive DSLRs overtook their film counterparts.
According to digicamhistory.com this was among the first digital cameras under $500. You can see how they needed to make the camera extremely simple to meet that price. Even though other contemporary digital cameras like the QuickTake 100 had LCD screens, the Epson PhotoPC has none. There’s just a conventional viewfinder. As a result, you can’t review photos you’ve taken on the camera itself, you have to connect to a PC. There is however, a button that deletes the last photo taken. Additionally, because there’s no screen you have just a tiny LCD display to tell you how the battery is doing, if the flash is on, how many shots you’ve taken, and how many shots you have left.
This is an esoteric analogy but the Epson PhotoPC reminds me of the Ryan Fireball: That was a bizarre Navy fighter aircraft with both a piston engine and a jet; the PhotoPC is a cheap 90s auto focus point-and-shoot camera that just happens to be digital. They’re both weird artifacts of a transitional time.
When you do connect the PhotoPC to a PC to look at the photos, you’re connecting with a serial cable because this camera predates USB. For that matter, it also predates Compact Flash. There’s 1MB flash memory built into the camera and an slot to add an additional 4MB of flash on a proprietary “PhotoSpan” memory module. My camera has an empty expansion slot so the built-in 1MB of flash holds a mere sixteen 640×480 photos.
My parents old Dell Pentium III (which you may recall from the Voodoo 2 post) runs Windows 98 so I installed the EasyPhoto software, hooked up the serial cable and pulled some pictures off of the PhotoPC. I can tell you that pulling photos off of this thing via serial cable is a lot like watching paint dry. I watched the progress bar snail it’s way across the screen and was pleased when it got to 100%…when I realized that was just for one photo. One 640×480 photo. If you’ve got a full camera with 16 photos to transfer you might as well go make yourself a sandwich and catch an inning of the ballgame while that transfers.
However, when you think about the PhotoPC in context even this molasses pace would have seemed Earth-shattering in 1996. Imagine you were one of the people venturing out onto the Internet back then. If you wanted to post a digital photo to a website or attach it to an email you would have to either:
- Take a roll of photos on a film camera, have them developed, then scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.
- Take photos with a Polaroid camera, scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.
I’ve done enough scanning to know that that would be immensely time consuming. Once you had a digital camera, even a barebones one such as the PhotoPC you could almost go straight from taking a photo to getting it on the Internet.
Not only that but you could take 16 photos, spend 15-20 minutes transferring them to the PC, wipe the camera and take another 16 photos, over and over. Sure, this would be no good on your trip to the Grand Canyon but if you were having a family reunion at your house or another scenario where you’re close to a PC this would have seemed miraculous.
So, what do photos taken with the Epson PhotoPC look like? A lot like the photos I remember seeing on the Internet in the late 90s: A bit fuzzy. Strange color artifacts. Not great focus.
Keep in mind that in 1996 you’d be lucky to have been running 800×600 at 32bit color on your monitor. Back then, 640×480 images were serious business.
The wonderful thing about finding this camera is how it is so utterly an artifact of the past but also totally tied to today. The PhotoPC was one of rat-like mammals that scurried amongst the film dinosaurs. A film camera and my iPad are of two totally different eras, but the PhotoPC and my iPad are clearly distant but related ancestors.
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.
This is my VideoLabs ScholasticCam desktop video camera from 1999, a sort of TV camera on a goose-neck mount that based on it’s name seems to have been intended for classroom use.
Oddball stuff like this is why I love the Village Thrift on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls. At other thrift stores you’re lucky to get a smattering of mundane electronics like old TVs and VCRs. At Village, they do have an electronics section but they also have another section that’s just a long set of shelves full off everything imaginable: Housewares, videogames, cookware, audiobooks, sporting goods, board games. medical supplies, etc. On a typical trip to Village Thrift my Dad and I will scrutinize these shelves several times because lost in the piles can be real gems.
The ScholasticCam is one of those things that you see out of the corner of your eye and think “What is that?”
When I spotted this thing I was hoping it was a web cam that magnified so that you could capture close up images of small objects on a PC. It turns out that it’s a bit too early for that. It’s actually a tiny TV camera attached to S-Video and Composite outputs.
The box implies that you can use it as a web cam but when you read the fine print it says in order to use it like that you need a video capture device on your computer, which they do not supply.
On the other side of the box it looks like VideoLabs sold a line of similar cameras for other purposes. I would love to have the model that attaches to a microscope.
At first it looks like the ScholasticCam does not have any obvious controls. The base has nothing whatsoever other than a connector for the power/video-out dongle and the VideoLabs logo.
There’s a power button and indicator light on the camera.
What’s not immediately obvious is how to focus the camera. See that cone-shaped thing at the bottom of the camera? That twists for focus. It feels a little too free and loose when it turns. I would prefer something a bit more smooth and firm.
One problem I noticed is that focusing the camera inevitably bumps it slightly out of position. You end up having to very delicately twist the focus while watching your video source to see how you’re doing. It seems like twisting in one direction and looking in another leads to more camera bumping.
To it’s credit, the ScholasticCam is built like a tank. The base is well weighted so that you can bend the neck very far without it having balance issues.
I was very curious to see what this camera’s pictures looked like on a computer. I don’t have any modern video capture equipment but I do have this Dazzle Digital Video Creator USB (circa 2000) that I found at the Midway Plaza Goodwill in Akron (it’s a pretty safe bet it will show up in a future blog entry).
The Dazzle, like many PC peripherals of it’s day, does not have drivers for modern versions of Windows (Vista, 7 and 8). I had to pull out the old Gateway Pentium 4 I used in college to fire up Windows XP and install the Dazzle’s drivers. I quickly discovered that with the Dazzle the image doesn’t update on screen at full speed. You can output to a TV and see a 30-fps view of what you are capturing, but I was too lazy to hook that up. So, making fine adjustments to the ScholasticCam while watching in 5-fps on the computer screen was a bit of a pain.
The Dazzle is sitting on top of the Gateway mini-tower and the ScholasticCam is sitting on the table with some objects I want to look at.
The first time I tried hooking up the ScholasticCam and the Dazzle to the Gateway it was at night and I quickly found that the lamp I had on in this room was not providing enough illumination for the ScholasticCam. So I improvised with a little LED light with legs.
The next day I moved into the living room so that I could try some images under daylight.
This 2012 Hawaii Volcanoes America the Beautiful Quarter presents a difficult target to image. Keep in mind that this is connected via S-Video (which is alright, but not great) through a low-grade video capture device and JPEG compressed. This is under the artificial lighting at night. As I said before, focusing was difficult because every time you focus you bump the camera.
There are a lot of strange color aberrations and much of the detail on the eruption was been lost.
This image taken with daylight is a little better. At least you can see the eruption.
One of the problems is that large focus cone ring on the ScholasticCam does not do you any favors for lighting. It would be better if it had a built-in lamp on the camera.
Here’s another coin, a 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar. First, under artificial lighting.
We see more of those color aberrations but the details are good. And now, under daylight.
The colors are bit better under daylight. But, the color fidelity on this camera, and the resolution it outputs at makes everything look like it’s being taken underwater by a submarine.
Something else I noticed is a spherical aberration in the lens. This TextelFX² chip is clearly supposed to be square.
This Intel 486 chip is also supposed to be square.
I spent some time trying to focus this image of the serial number on the bottom of this Apple Desktop Bus Mouse for some time and I thing I got a good example of what a properly focused image looks like.
Honestly, it seems like my iPad gets better images than this.
Now, it could be that without having the manual to this thing, I’m not giving the ScholasticCam a fair shake. It also could be that this camera is not intended for taking such close up images. But it seems like this well built and obviously highly engineered camera from the late-1990s has been thoroughly outclassed since then. It also reminds me that phone camera tech was producing images of similar quality to this just a few years ago. It makes you appreciate how far CCD technology has come.