I was an Electrical Engineering student at Ohio State in 1975 when the Altair 8800 was announced. The emerging microprocessor industry encouraged me to specialize in digital electronics and microprocessors in my BSEE program, which I completed in 1976. As a student I co-founded the first computer club in Ohio in 1975. I worked in both the microcomputer and mainframe industries over the years at Ohio State, Eastman Kodak, DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.), and as a contract programmer/engineer for Computer Task Group. I worked with DEC mainframes and minis as well as with various microcomputers as a grad student in Computer Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Following that I ran a DEC KA-10 and later a KS-10 system for Ohio State. I've also programed Multibus graphics cards for medical imaging.
I was an engineer for TMSI in Ann Arbor, MI in the early 1980's. They produced products around the Heath H-89 Z80 computer, including a dual processor Z80/8086 card (yes, not an 8088 but an 8086). Their senior engineer, Lee Hart, and I have been good friends for many years: in 2005 he still has interests in the Z80 and Heath communities. I consider the H-89 to be a superior computer product, past and present; there are many Heath enthusiasts today who still agree with that proposition. The subsequent Heath Z-120 computer series (generally referred to as the Z-100 for the S-100/IEEE-696 bus) was largly bought by the government: they continue to inject them into the surplus world and so even today there is a trickle of these workhorse S-100 machines available. (They are so reliable and available, that it is hard to make money providing parts: they don't break and most owners has spares!)
In Ann Arbor MI while at TMSI, I briefly worked for one of Ted Nelson's "Project Xanadu" groups, led by Roger Gregory at that time. (I did some hardware support, and a bit of contract network programming.) Nelson and his Xanadu project have not recieved the respect they deserve as pioneers of today's Web. Ted is at least credited for creating the term "hypertext", preceeded only by Vannevar Bush's more general notions of active documents in the 1940's. Xanadu proposed a Web-like server/client architecture, hyperlinked documents, with a graphical interface, in the late 1970's - before the Internet was public, before any Web browser was written. Their architecture was much more advanced than today's Web environment: links were BI-DIRECTIONAL, not one way, and had mechanisms for showing revisions and for payments to authors, editors and from readers. This would have resolved issues of copyright and payments which in 2005 are now so obvious. But it was ahead of its time and the technology needed was just not in place, so public or private funding was too difficult to obtain.
My initial role in the S-100 world was to collect and resell old S-100 cards, manuals and systems, which I did in the 1980's. In 1992 I authored a series of S-100 articles in the privately published "The Computer Journal", a magazine of the late 1980s into the early 1990's. It was popular to take the name of a product line, so I called myself "Dr. S-100". I wrote about the features of the S-100 bus and on how to repair, diagnose, and program some of S-100 cards of the previous era. I've collected those articles and at some point I'll republish them, as I retained copyright and the publishing magazine no longer offers them as reprints. I will also add my two S-100 articles from "The Z-Letter", another private magazine of the era.
My articles, and the early dial-up email of the era, gave me access to the world of S-100 users and collectors. So I decided to share my accumulated archives of now-defunct S-100 computer companies as a copy service with those old and new owners of S-100 type computers. Since then I've recieved even more documenation and provided it to these clients, creating probably the largest archive of original S-100 paper manuals in the world. With the expansion of the Internet in the mid-1990's I was able to do this around the world at minimal expense, a true "cottage" Internet company. But by 2004, Internet bandwidth and storage became almost free; scanners, computers and even CD writers are practically free. So a few individuals and companies simply digitized ALL their S-100 documents, and offered them for free download on their sites - gutting my business and the financial support it gave me for that work. Like other Internet companies, my business was disintermediated by simple trading or giveaways directly between ndividuals - and the fact that my "content" was now easily duplicated.
As for S-100 systems, they have become more popular thanks to the Internet. S-100 boards are sold daily at Web auctions; I've already said there are many sites with information and original docs and software online. Many people feel that these old 8-bit systems still have something to offer today's computing "explorers" as these systems are well-documented and straightforward in operation and design. There are also people and companies who continue to use this technology, either from necessity or from nostalgia, who still need support and equipment. And there are enthusiasts who, for various reasons, have new interests in old computers; they have acquired one but don't know what the next step is.
In the late 90's I noticed that universities and corporations were discarding older Apple Macintosh computers in large numbers. From my S-100 experiences I saw yet another round of computer collecting and reselling ahead. In this case, I saw old Mac hardware as the service I could provide. I've sold old Macs since 1997 via my simple Web site, and as time goes on it is the OLDEST Macs that garner the most interest. As with the S-100 world, my customers appreciate the availability of parts and accessories for their older Macs. My previous old computer experiences inform me as I provide another generation of computer users with yet another generation of old computers. However, by year 2004, I see that most Mac users have migrated to OS X, a UNIX/BSD type operating system, and the newest Macs. But just as with S-100 systems, there are enthusiasts and traditional Mac users who still need old systems and parts, so my modest Mac business continues.
Similar to my commercial Mac interests, I also accumulated older Sun and SGI computers and offered those for sale. Again, my customers are mostly collectors, individual enthusiasts, and the occasional industrial user who has applications dependent on these old systems. In 2005, personal interest in these systems has declined to just the older enthusiasts, and supplies are starting to dry up. On the other hand, the rise in eBay from the mid-00's created a huge venue for individuals and NEW small companies to buy and sell these items.
There was a similar rise and fall in electronic test equipment in the 1990's through the mid 00's. Early in the 90's, companies downsized and released a lot of test equipment which was eagerly snapped up. But as time went on and engineering declined in the United States, there was less interest. Also new, faster, cheaper equipment competed with the old; even as new technology became cheaper, ultimately disposable, and unrepairable and unmodifiable. Many people now just buy modules, widgets, or kits rather than design their own. "Test equipment" itself is itself becoming obsolete: if you can't hook it to a computer, it's considered useless!
In the 21st century, I'll spend more time developing content on my sites, documenting technology history and on developing technology myself as I did a few decades ago. One clue to my upcoming work is in the 2005 purchase of my own domain name: retrotechnology.com. The name represents the reuse of old technology - materials, methods, tools - for modern or classic use. My domain home page shows the range of retro-technology of interest to me.
An example of my interests in development is my recent work in amateur astronomy. I became an amateur astronomer in the early 1990's when I moved to New Jersey. In 2004-2006, I joined a group of Amateur Telescope Makers (ATM's) who met with Gordon Waite on the NJ shore. Gordon allowed us to use his mirror workshop and provide advice and materials. I dug out my old almost-finished 8-inch-diameter mirror and completed it there, and made another mirror from scratch. Check out my work on figuring an 8-inch mirror; and my work on making an 8-inch mirror from start. Here are details on my amateur astronomy interests.
Another interest I have is to preserve 1970's computing history. Since the so-called "25th anniversary of the IBM-PC" in 2006, I've noticed that most of today's "personal computing" histories begin with that computer from 1981. But that was several years after the MITS Altair 8800 (among others) kicked off a revolutionary development of microcomputers used by individuals, technologists and business people. Their efforts laid the foundations of modern personal computing; IBM simply grabbed an existing market. CP/M was the software foundation for much of modern personal computing and was dominant in the 1970's and beyond.
I've created a whole Web section about the early days of CP/M and what led to, and followed, its creation by Dr. Gary Kildall in 1975.
Copyright © 2007 Herb Johnson
New Jersey, USA
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Most recent revision May 04 2007
Copyright © 2007 Herb Johnson