Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts tagged History

For your information, this column’s name refers to the apocryphal chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. The idea is that for people who were extremely conservative, living in so-called interesting times would be terrible. For the curious, here’s a site about the origins of this saying.

But I myself simply love living in these interesting times. For instance, when I started out in this business, I worked with an IBM1401 with the huge amount of 4000 memory positions… and I say huge, because every bit (a ferrite core) was visible to the naked eye! Today, only 34 years later, my laptop has exactly 268435.5 times as much memory, takes up a much smaller space, for about 1/1000 the cost… and besides, it’s just mine. I won’t even mention speed! But of course, I’d like it to be even smaller… and faster… and cheaper… who knows, even an implant? 🙄

A decade after my dinosaur wrangler days, the first microcomputers appeared – my first, in 1977, was an Apple II – together with Byte Magazine, where the latest industy news were published. Soon after, the first Brazilian manufacturers came on the scene, and I promptly went to work for one of them – probably the first outside São Paulo (Brazil’s largest city and industrial hub), a company called Quartzil Informática. The queer name came from the company’s beginnings as a quartz oscillator manufacturer, in Montes Claros (MG), inside an area subsidized by the government.

The company’s first product was the QI-800, an 8-bit computer based on the Zilog Z80A (which still is the world’s best-selling microprocessor), running Digital Research’s CP/M-80 operating system, the standard of that time. It came on the market around the end of 1982, if I recall correctly.

To the right of the screen it had an 8-inch (eight!) Shugart SA800 diskette drive, and in the second cabinet, up to three more drives could be mounted. Every diskette could hold an amazing 243K, and the drive’s spindle motor was powered by 110 VAC! Internally, the system used the IMSAI‘s S-100 Bus, which later became the IEEE-696 Standard. As this bus used expensive 100-pin connectors, they used the kludge of buying two 44-pin connectors and cutting out, from the boards, the 12 central pins (which happily were not vitally important). The boards were large but specialized; one held the CPU, another one the video controller, another one the RAM, and so forth… there were 6 or 7 boards altogether.

The remaining specs were not impressive. The QI-800 had 64K of RAM and an 8K EPROM. There were dozens of other companies building almost exactly the same equipment. One advantage would have been the recently-launched hard drive (or Winchester, as they were called at the time); a Brazilian factory was beginning to assemble 5 and 10 MB (yes, megabytes!) hard drives, but so far as I remember, none was ever sold with this system. The price was astronomical, something like US$4,000.

Sales of the QI-800 were not very satisfactory, and they decided to develop a splashy and revolutionary (but at the same time economical and flexible) system. This new system, the QI-900, will be discussed in the next installment; it was the first Brazilian computer with movable windows, menus, preemptive multitasking, and operating system in EPROM.

(clique aqui para ler este artigo em português)

The Mac turns 20!

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Yesterday, January 24, the Mac turned 20.

Chris Hanson shows how the price point is the same. Rather than just repost his table, here’s mostly the same info with increases added:

In 1984 In 2004 Increase
Macintosh 128 Power Macintosh G5 A lot!
8 MHz 68000 2 GHz PowerPC 970 (two) 512x
128KB RAM 512MB RAM 4096x
400KB floppy 700MB CDRW/4.3GB DVD 1792x
No hard disk 160GB hard disk infinite
9-inch black and white display (512×342 pixels) 17-inch LCD color display (1280×1024 pixels) 7.48x
21.375K screen RAM, shared 64MB screen RAM, dedicated/td> 3066x
230.4Kbps LocalTalk 1Gbps Ethernet 4551x
One mouse button (it’s all you need) One mouse button (it’s all you need) 1x
$2495 (1984 dollars) $2533 (1984 dollars) 1.015x

Meanwhile, Andy Hertzfeld and the rest of the original Mac gang are collaborating to write the definite, unsurpassable Mac Folklore website. Not to be missed by any Mac fan! It even has a RSS feed ! (Thanks to “Daring Fireball” John Gruber for the link.)


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This is too good to pass up even in my currently busy state.

Boing Boing points at a Scientific American article and an astounding webpage about the Curta, the world’s first mechanical pocket calculator.

I remember seeing this marvel advertised in Scientific American in the late 60’s and even holding one in my hands a little later – I don’t remember who owned it, but it was an extremely sexy piece of machinery. The 17″ PowerBook of its day. Just turning the crank and seeing/hearing/feeling all the little internal gears purring and the numbers clicking into place was geek heaven.

There’s also an extremely interesting interview with Curt Herzstark, the inventor of the device (it’s a 67-page PDF file).

Unfortunately I couldn’t afford the Curta at that time – it cost US$125, if I recall correctly, and there were serious shipping charges and import duties on top of that. I had to content myself with a Faber-Castell duplex slide rule (pictured at top left on the linked page), which was capable of 4 or 5 significant digits and saw me all the way through engineering school. And, from a practical standpoint, did more complex calculations too.

Soon after that, in the early 70s, electronic calculators came up and both the Curta and slide rules became obsolete. I still have my slide rule here nearby, but I regret not having bought a Curta somehow… a specimen in good condition is worth more than US$1000.

Here’s a new installment in my Interesting Times column.

It’s the first part of a two-part article about the QI-900 computer which I designed in the middle 1980’s. It had moveable windows, menus, and preemptive multithreading. Even so, it already was obsolete when it came out…

How is it possible to design a highly advanced computer that was aready obsolete at launch? See how I managed to achieve this…

This story took place after the end of the QI-800 project, still at Quartzil Informática, as I reported in my first post.

In early 1983 we started thinking about what to do after the QI-800, which was a quite run-of-the-mil system; just one more 8-bit computer running Digital Research’s CP/M-80. The Brazilian market was still quite diverse and nobody had any idea how information processing would develop.

We had many meetings about this. Everybody agreed that we had to follow some American standard, to avoid a proprietary solution. But which? The Apple II was still a market leader but wasn’t a good fit for business users. Quartzil didn’t want to enter the domestic Apple II market – there already were a dozen Brazilian clones of the Apple II, and there was a hidden demand for “office” computers for larger companies. The Apple III was considered too large and complex to copy, and didn’t seem to sell well. The IBM PC 5150 was too limited, and there was some fear of IBM, which was the only American manufacturer with a sizable presence in Brazil.

Our main reference was Byte Magazine, not only because it brought the latest news, but it also had ads with reference prices. We subscribed to the Jameco Catalog and every month waited anxiously for it – our main interest were RAM prices and the availability of new, larger-capacity RAMs and EPROMs. I recall that the Z80 processor which we’d used in the QI-800 sold for about US$3.00 at that time. I just checked the current price and it’s US$1.99.

For some time we considered making a flexible computer… the motherboard would take care of peripherals and there would be CPU plug-in boards for different architectures. The user could plug in a Z80 board to run CP/M, or another board to be Apple II-compatible, or whatever. We soon killed the idea; the board connectors would be too expensive, every CPU board would need its own RAM, and we would have to write separate software for every CPU. And to accommodate future 16-bit CPUs all support chips (buffers, transceivers, and so forth) would have to be duplicated from the start.

My personal idea was to clone the recently-released Apple Lisa. Byte’s description of the graphical user interface was fascinating and I had no doubts that this would be the future of computing. But unfortunately the price – US$9,995.00 – was prohibitive, even for importing one machine for disassembly; and the prices of the M68000 CPU and support chips at Jameco were very high, too. Therefore I failed to make my case, and the more conservative directors opted for continued use of the Z80 architecture. The name of the new system – QI-900 – was about the only unanimity.

A team was hired to study the large company market – the companies that focused on processing large quantities of data in their IBM mainframes. Of course their conclusion was that the main market would be for so-called “data entry systems”. These companies were interested in replacing their hundreds of IBM 029 keypunch machines. These were expensive, complex and noisy electromechanical machines and demanded constant preventive maintenance and trained operators.

IBM already was trying to replace the keypunches with their IBM 3270 video terminals. Few people, today, can evaluate the influence of this product – today there’s still a huge market for companies that sell 3270 emulators, or provide 3270 maintenance and support. You can walk into any bank in Brazil and find that most PCs are running such an emulator. It was a huge, complex desktop system, with green characters on a dark background, displaying 25 or 26 lines of 80 characters (punch cards also had 80 character columns). The display terminal itself was connected to the mainframe by a communications controller that was the size of a small refrigerator and used proprietary IBM cabling and protocols, mostly the BSC-3 protocol. Everything was implemented in hardware… there were dozens of printed-circuit boards, huge power supplies, and it was very expensive.

Everybody knew that a properly programmed microcomputer would be able to stand in for a IBM 3270 terminal for a tenth of the cost… and probably for even less. The main obstacle would be reverse-engineering BSC-3 and the IBM communication interface. We therefore decided to build a CP/M microcomputer with special interfaces and 3270 emulation software. (A few months after this decision, IBM launched a special model of the PC 5150 with exactly this feature, but I think it never was sold in Brazil.)

This decision profoundly affected the QI-900 keyboard layout, which looked like this:

It was the largest and most complex keyboard of any Brazilian computer at the time, adopting the IBM 3270 keyboard layout – the rationale was that data entry operators would already be familiar with it. The famous “programmed function” keys (PF1 to PF12) first appeared on the 3270. Several of the keys didn’t make any sense on a microcomputer and after some hard lobbying I was allowed to use them for other functions.

What other functions? Well, the most interesting ones are on the left… look what we have up there: “Desfaz”(Undo), “Corta”(Cut), “Copia”(Copy), “Inser”(Paste). I tried to put “Cola” (literally, “glue”) for “Paste” but nobody would have understood it at that time. And lower down, a “QI” key (equivalent to the Apple II and Mac “Apple” key) and a key with a window icon! Where did that come from?

The answer is that my dream of doing something with windows and menus hadn’t died, and with the debut of the first Macintosh in January 1984, the dream was renewed. The magazines discussed the Macintosh way in great detail, and some months later, when Quartzil sent me to attend NCC – the “National Computer Conference”, at the time the world’s largest – I seized the opportunity to buy and bring back in my luggage a Mac 128K with an external drive (400K) and an ImageWriter matrix printer. (This trip is worth an article in itself…)

My studies paid off: as soon as I laid hands on a Mac, still at the conference itself, I already knew how to use it. I was extremely impressed with the richness of the graphical user interface and the operating system’s consistency, and during the trip back I already considered how to incorporate some of that into the QI-900 project. My demonstrations for the directors were quite convincing, and I got authorization to do what I wanted – mostly because I figured out a way to do it without too many hardware changes. Unfortunately it was impossible to include a mouse, however; the Z80 was too slow for a fully graphical interface, and we hadn’t the mechanical know-how to build a mouse. Well, enough suspense, here’s the final result: the QI-900 had menus:

…and moveable windows:

…and, even better than the original Macintosh, it had preemptive multitasking – or rather, multithreading inside the same application.

In the next post I’ll explain some implementation details and why the QI-900 was already obsolete when born.

(clique aqui para ler este artigo em português)

Must have been that bug I picked up in Paris. After several days of running around and feeling too tired in the evenings to post anything here – or anywhere, for that matter – I finally found time and energy to write something new. It’s a new installment in the Interesting Times series, and I hope to post the English translation later tonight. Meanwhile, the Portuguese version can be read here.

Update: Here’s the English version. I can’t resist quoting this little bit of dialog:

(Embratel was the government’s telecomm monopoly)

(sometime in 1992, trying to lease an Internet connection)

Me: “I want an Internet connection.”

Embratel Salesman: “OK. I suggest a 2400 or 9600 link, the price will be X cents per packet. That’s 20% of what it costs to send a TELEX. Isn’t that revolutionary?”

Me: “A packet means how many Kbytes?”

Embratel Salesman: “What? It’s 64 bytes per packet!”

Me: “And if a user decides to download a larger file, say, 500 Kbytes? It’ll cost hundreds of dollars!”

Embratel Salesman: “Don’t worry, that will never happen!”

The English translation of the first installment of my Interesting Times column is up. I’m starting out with some stories about the early Brazilian computer industry.

The column itself (in Portuguese) is for the new edition of MacMagazine, the premier Brazilian Macintosh news site. New installments will appear somewhat irregularly, but I’ll try to write at least a couple every month. You can subscribe to RSS feeds in English or Portuguese. Suggestions or questions are always welcome; post them here or, if you prefer, at this MacMagazine Forum topic.

Just before our trip to Buenos Aires I read Wired‘s report on artificial diamonds: The New Diamond Age. I remember, as a child, reading about the failed efforts to make large diamonds; however, very small diamond and boron nitride crystals were coming into use as industrial abrasives. It’s a gripping story.

At the airport on the way back I picked up the print version of Wired 11.09, which has that as a cover article (starting at page 096); with a great cover photo, yet. As an aside, Wired is the only print magazine I still buy every month, down from about 30 magazines a decade ago – not only is all the interesting stuff on the net, but the mass (or perhaps mess) of old magazines was becoming too large to handle. However, I still find interesting things in the print version – strange and/or great advertisements, for instance.

Paging through the magazine reminded me of many other things besides my boyhood fascination with weird industrial processes. For instance, on page 025, Josh McHugh exhorts Sony to buy Apple; a little over 19 years ago, flying to California on my first US trip, I read in the paper that Apple should be acquired by General Electric. Emphasis has shifted, however; now, Apple is regarded as so good that it should be bought by a larger company; then, Apple was “beleaguered” and should be bought to avoid closing down. Hmm…

On page 040, the “Jargon Watch” section mentions the new term “bright”, about which I’d written previously. Coming home, #4 of the “The Brights’ Bulletin” was in my e-mail.

On pages 044/045, there’s an ad for the Mazda RX-8 sports car. Mazda is the sole remaining car manufacturer to use Dr. Felix Wankel‘s rotary Wankel engine, whose development I’d followed assiduously in the same magazine that reported on the invention of boron nitride. That was in 1958, if memory serves.

1958 also was when I first read a translation of Bulwer-Lytton’s “Last Days of Pompeii”. Despite the turgid prose, I was impressed by the description of Greek customs. And sure enough, on page 049, Wired reports on the efforts to build a complete 3D computer model of the Pompeii ruins.

Starting on page 076, Wired has it usual tech toys review section, albeit in a new layout. They kept the Splurge/Best Buy/Overrated format, though; and on page 077, the PowerBook G4 appears. It’s the first time I actually bought something rated as “splurge”, and even before it appeared in Wired… 😉

On page 081, one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling, writes about “Freedom’s Dark Side”. Of course, Sterling was on the cover of Wired 1.01 – I think I have a nearly complete set of issues, by the way – and also was present on the Buenos Aires trip, as I took two of his books with me: the 1988 “Islands in the Net” and the 1998 “Distraction”.

“Island in the Net” is still a gripping read but oddly quaint and old-fashioned in a futuristic way; the “Net” mentioned in the title means the international phone and TV networks; I think there’s some passing mention of e-mail. On the other hand, Third World-based “data havens” and “data pirates” feature prominently, the latter selling bootleg copies of audio and video, as well as lists of addresses for marketeers and illegally obtained personal data. While I was posting this, I happened upon James Lilek‘s article Why the Record Industry Doesn’t Stand a Chance, commenting on the activities of the EarthStation 5 music pirates, operating in the Jenin refugee camp on the Palestinian West Bank. Wow.

Finally, on page 147 there’s one my favorite Wired features, “Artifacts from the Future”. This one shows a “Melanoma Removal Gel”. As I’m just back from an appointment with my dermatologist, I’m very happy to report that none of my assorted moles, spots or other skin markings are melanomas… she also assured me that the recurring scales and fissures on my fingers weren’t psoriasis but rather the milder, and more easily controlled, Dyshidrosis. Whew.

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