Upgrading a “Lost Art”

This article is the written transcript of the podcast audio found at: http://www.vintagevolts.com/podcast/Vintage_Volts_Episode_5.mp3

In today’s world of instant and rapid communications, the Amateur Radio Service (HAM radio) is losing its appeal amongst the latest generation of people. A member of that generation might even go so far as to wonder why people who are licensed HAM radio operators would even continue to bother with the service. I first got my HAM radio license in 1987. Believe me, I would be lying if I didn’t think about the possible downfall of HAM radio from time to time. But recent accomplishments during the 4th of July weekend of 2014 were sort of a watershed moment for me, at least as it concerns my history as an Amateur Radio (HAM) license holder.

In HAM radio, people progress through levels of proficiency via specialized testing. An upgrade to the next step in class requires the operator to achieve 74% or better in a test comprised of 35 questions dealing with rules, procedures, and technical proficiency. The highest class of license uses a 50 question test. HAMs who pass the upgrade tests are granted additional operating privileges, like additional authorized frequencies, various modes of operation (CW, voice, and data), and additional power levels for transmitting (up to 1500 watts in many cases). Compare that kind of transmitting power to the 1/2 watt public FRS, or even the 4 watt CB radio limits!

When I got my license, there were five license classes. Along with the written testing requirement for each class, there was also the requirement to understand and decipher morse code (CW) transmissions at an increasingly higher speed, indicated at Words Per Minute (WPM). Here is a quick breakdown of the license classes by name and by CW speed requirements:

  • Novice (very limited privileges), 5 WPM
  • Technician (first ‘useful’, but somewhat limited, license class), 5 WPM
  • General (granted broad range of usage), 13 WPM
  • Advanced (adds more frequencies to General), 13 WPM
  • Extra (top step which adds more frequencies to Advanced), 20 WPM

The highest license any HAM operator can earn is Extra, which grants all privileges and uses as defined in the FCC Part 97 rules which govern the Amateur Radio Service. As you can see, there was quite a lot of testing to be done to earn that class. There were five written tests and three code speed tests. Once you passed a code speed test, you did not need to take that speed test again for the next license level if the WPM requirement didn’t go up (Novice to Technician, General to Advanced).

I started out with a Novice license like everyone else back in those days, but I did not have a lot of money for equipment, nor space to run large antennas to make use of the frequencies I was privileged to use. The more common frequency band, called “2 Meter”, was reserved for use by Technician class or higher. Less than two months later, I tested for Technician and passed it with flying colors, mostly because I was already a two-way radio operator in the Army and I had the technical skills to pass the test.

Once I earned my Technician license, my progression through the ranks of the hobby stagnated for me. This was partly because I was able to buy a compact radio, cheap, to use the popular 2 Meter band (which was all that I felt I needed), and partly because I somehow had trouble deciphering morse code at the required 13 WPM for the next level. Think of the 2-meter band as the “CB radio” band of the hobby. It’s extremely popular and versatile for mobile and vehicle communications. However, more power can be used than in CB radio and you can reach many more people in any given area. Also, to really take advantage of the operating privileges granted to the higher classes, you would need relatively expensive equipment and plenty of backyard space to string up the required antenna(s).

For my entire HAM career, there was always “something” which prevented me from making the most of the hobby. Specifically, it was space and money. I could not afford additional equipment to make use of extended privileges, and I did not have a suitable area to set up antennas. What I did do to put my license to use was buy a mobile two-way radio, which is about the size of a CB radio, and install it in my car. With this setup, I could talk to other HAM radio operators during my commute to and from work. My commute(s) have averaged 30 minutes each way, which was plenty of time to do a little “rag chewing” (talking). That was perfectly fine for me for over 25 years.

During that time, in the early 1990′s, the FCC dropped the code speed requirement for the Technician license class. While opinions differ on the reasons, most believe that it was done to promote participation in the Amateur Radio Service. I’ll agree that the morse code requirement seemed a bit antiquated, but it also was hard for some people who are unable to comprehend or distinguish the patterns associated with morse code.

The Technician class became the “No-code Tech” class in the vernacular and those with Technician licenses and having passed the 5 WPM morse code tests (like me) were designated “Tech Plus.” The difference between the two pertains to the authorized operating frequencies. No-code Tech could NOT use any of the frequencies and modes on frequencies below 30MHz. Those frequency bands are referred to as “HF bands” (or “shortwave” in laymen terms), and are typically used to communicate around the world with big antennas in the backyard.

No-code Tech operators were allowed to use the popular 2-meter band. I witnessed the growing number of operators shortly after the FCC change. My Dad was even compelled to get his license and get into the hobby. He now has a better radio rig in his car than I have in mine and actively uses it! I also remember the detractors. These would usually be those HAMs who have been Extra (or other higher) class for a while and felt others should still have to go through the same testing rigors they went through to get started in the hobby. I was neutral on the idea. But I welcomed it because it helped increase popularity in the hobby, and provided more people to talk to!

Kenwood TS-520

Even in the early 1990′s, I dreamed of earning my Extra class license someday. But it was a “back burner” task because I still needed the proper equipment AND space to take advantage of the privileges. In 2002, I acquired an older, but suitable, HF radio. A fellow HAM saw a Kenwood TS-520 radio sitting in a trash pile at his neighbor’s house and saved it from a horrible demise. He tried getting it to run. It powered up, didn’t make sparks or anything (luckily), and seemed to work, but he could not pick up any signals. Since he already had much better equipment for himself to do the same thing the TS-520 could do, he gave it to me. After a little bit of research, I discovered a wire jumper was missing and after I replaced it, I was able to receive all sorts of signals after connecting a long wire antenna to it. Now I have what I need to take advantage of the higher class privileges!

But I couldn’t really use it because almost all of the frequency bands the radio worked on were out of my Tech Plus operating privileges. That is, except for one band, called “10-meters”, and is in the range of 28 to 28.5MHZ. That is NOT a very large space of frequencies. It’s also one of the noisiest and troublesome bands. I could use it, but only when the atmospheric conditions are “just right”, and most likely at nighttime when they get that way. So in a sense, I was “prevented” from using it. I could also use many of the other HF bands, but in CW, communicating via morse code. It’s a useable mode of operation, but one that I wasn’t particularly fond of using. I did test the transmitter part of the TS-520 (on a frequency I was authorized to use) and verified that it does transmit. But still, I had to pass a 13 WPM code test to be able to upgrade my license to the next class, General. I had no doubts that I could pass the written tests for any of the higher operating classes with the required study, but I still had trouble deciphering the higher code speeds.

Also note that in 1999, the FCC deprecated Novice, Tech-Plus, and Advanced. This left the following operating classes:

  • Technician
  • General, 13 WPM
  • Extra, 20 WPM

The Technician class was still a no-code class and was restricted to frequencies above 30MHz. This put me in a relatively special position. I was Tech Plus, with HF operating privileges, but since I was retitled Technician, I “technically” didn’t have those privileges. I found out (or otherwise understood) later that I was grandfathered into those HF privileges. It just would have been a bit troublesome for me to verify it if another HAM questioned my certification.

The TS-520 got moth-balled, so to speak, until I finally bought a house (with a small yard, unfortunately) and was able to settle down with this hobby. I set the radio up to listen to HAM radio activity, called QSOs, as background chatter in my workshop. In 2007, the FCC made a ruling that code requirements were eliminated for license testing of any class. NOW, I was able to work on getting my license upgrade. But I didn’t do so right away. I still felt the need to be able to use and configure the required equipment to operate in the privileged frequency bands. It just wasn’t a priority in my life at the time.

Set the clock forward several years to the July 4th weekend, 2013, at the W3UU Firecracker Hamfest, where I finally attempted to take the test to earn my General class license. About two months before, a co-worker developed an interest in HAM radio. I told him what it involved to get licensed. The catalyst for him was the ability to buy a functional 2-meter handheld radio that just arrived on the market for only $40, instead of the average $200 for a “more professional” model. I encouraged him to study for his Technician license, and I figured at that time, I’ll provide some peer support and study for my General license.

We both passed our tests! He was a new HAM and started taking advantage of what the hobby has to offer. I did little with my new operating privileges, although I was glad to have them. I still regularly used the privileges that were available to me under my Technician license. I figured I could go camping some weekend and rig up a nice antenna with which to talk to others. However, it was still not a priority to do so.

Several months before the 2014 Firecracker Hamfest, my co-worker had an interest in going for his General license. I considered it a good reason for me to go for my Extra license. Meanwhile, my son studied for his Technician license.

Unfortunately, my son missed by two questions, but there are no restrictions preventing him from trying again. My co-worker passed his General and I managed to pass my Extra! Believe me, The Extra class license is the one in which you’ll study the hardest. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is quite challenging. After all, it is a pinnacle of the hobby. I like to think of it in this manner; with only three classes of licenses, I visualize the Technician, General, and Extra equivalent to Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees.

So with that in mind, let’s go back to my “thesis” about the hobby being a lost art. In reality, it is a lost art in the sense that the technical aspects of the hobby are not as awe inspiring as they once were. There are many more ways of communicating instantly to others, so why would I (or anyone else) have ever considered getting an Extra license at all? Even though there is a growing convergence of HAM radio and the Internet, HAM radio on its own is looking like it might become a lost art.

For me, it was a life goal to upgrade to the top level. There was more of a reason to upgrade as a personal achievement, than to not do so at all. I know now that I’m not restricted in any way on all the allotted HAM radio bands. I also don’t need to take any more tests in the hobby… LOL. For me, it also refreshes the hobby. For the first time, since before I earned my General license, I set my TS-520 on a table on the back patio, ran a long wire antenna from a mini antenna tuner I bought at the Hamfest, and started to use that radio with conviction. An antenna tuner is something that lets you match the operating characteristics of a “less than perfect” antenna to that of the radio itself. If your antenna isn’t electrically matched, you risk damaging your radio’s electronics as part of the transmitted signal energy actually reflects back into the radio. Until several days ago, I never owned an antenna tuner, but for the restricted antenna sizes I can get away with in my backyard, it was absolutely necessary to own one. It was one of those items that can cost $100-$200 new, but in used condition, are quickly sold out at Hamfests. I snagged a small one for $35, and now I’m ready to go again in this hobby. My equipment list is complete enough for me to enjoy the Extra (and General) class privileges.

For the new HAM, or one who might aspire to become one, I say, GO FOR IT! There really is nothing to lose. Think of it as getting your drivers license. You earn it through specialized testing requirements, and it’s yours for life. Just renew it as required (10 years for a HAM radio license). Renewal is free, too. In many cases, the testing is free to the public. Just contact a local HAM radio club for details.

As for upgrades to your Technician license, think of the process of getting a General or Extra as getting a motorcycle certification or other drivers license upgrade. Those are typically just additional proficiency tests, and you keep the certification for life.

Baofeng UV-5R

If you want to start off cheap, you can earn your Technician license and start off with a radio like the Baofeng UV-5R. It’s a tiny handheld radio that works on the popular 2-Meter band, and is only about $40! But you DO need that HAM radio license to use it. Granted, it is one of those “you get what you pay for” items in the sense that it is a “no-frills” device. Programming them with your local HAM radio repeater frequencies is a bit cumbersome, but there are plenty of online (and HAM radio club) resources to help you through that. The more popular professional models like Yaesu, Icom, Alinco, etc. have a starting price between $150-$200, and are typically more user friendly. But if you’re the least bit interested in pursuing the HAM radio hobby, your total cost, with radio, could be less than $50, and you’ll be able to be active on the most popular part of HAM radio communications. If you find the hobby to be less than what you were expecting, you’re not out a lot of money.

So, come to think about it, maybe HAM radio isn’t a lost art after all. Maybe it’s only struggling to find a new focus, driven by the market, new technologies, and a new generation of people.

Thank you for reading,

“73″

Links:

Source: Upgrading a “Lost Art”

    

Summer Challenge 2014 Retrochallenge – GEOS

Ignore the last post about the “Summer Challenge” Retrochallenge (http://www.retrochallenge.net/). While I was looking for the equipment I needed to effectively finish the Donkey Kong game for the VIC-20 (I was trying to find a RAM expansion cartridge), I came across a stack of GEOS software for the Commodore 128. So, I decided to “go GEOS” for the month of July. I’ll save the Donkey Kong challenge for the Winter Retrochallenge.

What I plan on doing is set up a Commodore 128 with the following hardware:

GEOS Software

  • (2) 1571 disk drives
  • 1350 Mouse
  • Composite and RGB monitor
  • 1200 (or 300) baud modem
  • Dot matrix printer of some sort

…and I will make use of the GEOS software I have on hand, and maybe even any additional GEOS software I can produce from archived disk images.

I’ll try to use the word processing software to document my progress, use GeoProgrammer to write a useful GEOS program. Find a GEOS terminal program to call up a BBS. And put other GEOS software to use as much as I can, documenting my experience with it. I expect to experience using GEOS in a way that I could not afford to do back in its heyday while discovering if it has any usefulness in today’s computing environment.

Source: Summer Challenge 2014 Retrochallenge – GEOS

    

Summer Challenge 2014 Retrochallenge

It’s time again to “kid myself” for another month, thinking I’ll someday complete an actual Retrochallenge (http://www.retrochallenge.net/), but WHO CARES… it’s a fun activity no matter what!!! This time around, I’m going to continue a challenge that I apparently put off for 32 years, after discovering a cassette tape I had all this time with my original source code on it.

Homebrew Donkey Kong game for the VIC-20

Back in my younger days, when I either had delusions of grandeur of being a professional programmer, or I was simply insane enough to even attempt it, I tried to write a Donkey Kong game for the Commodore VIC-20 IN BASIC!!! I was totally nuts to even try, I know, but teenagers to some degree are still expected to lack a certain measure of common sense. Even teenagers from back in the early 80′s.

Need more proof? I believed I could not only write it in BASIC (!!!snicker!!!), but I could also do it in an unexpanded VIC-20 having “3583 BYTES FREE” (BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!)

HA..!! HA..!! Whooooo..!!!! Ohhh… let me calm down here for a bit…

Whoa… OK…

The real proof that I tried is in the picture. That is the only screen in the game. It was also the only game level I was going to attempt. I don’t exactly remember WHY I stopped working on it back in those days, but after looking at the materials I have today regarding the program, I’m guessing I had simply run out of memory (at a time when I couldn’t afford to buy additional memory). All the program does at the moment is move the fireball characters randomly, and allow the player to move the “stick figure” Mario. With this program loaded into the VIC-20 memory, I only have 43 bytes remaining.

My challenge for SC2014 is to try and finish this one level, to at least have it as playable as one would expect the original Donkey Kong level to play. I may attempt to make it fit in the original 5K RAM (the current code is HIGHLY inefficient), but will reserve the option to increase the memory size of the VIC-20 in order to complete it. As most VIC-20 owners may have known, expanding the memory of a VIC-20 changes certain important pointers to screen memory and such, which would require some of my original code to be rewritten to address the change.

Source: Summer Challenge 2014 Retrochallenge

    

VCF East 9.1

In 2014, I was invited to attend the Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) East 9.1 as an exhibitor. I had recently finished cleaning and assembling a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer with a Peripheral Expansion Box (PEB), so that became my exhibit. It was going to be the first VCF I ever attended, and I’m glad I did. It was a wonderful experience!

I arrived at the InfoAge Science Center at 7:30 on Friday night, just in time to unload my equipment and get a feel for the layout of the show. Afterwards, I checked into my hotel and went to Yestercades in Red Bank, NJ, a subject of a future Vintage Volts article.

Meanwhile, here are observations of the show from my personal point of view.

My “span of interest” in computer systems stems mainly from the trifecta days of the Commodore PET, Apple II, and TRS-80. Anything beyond the scope of those kind of computer systems, called “home computers”, had little influence on my curiosity. That’s what made the VCF so interesting for me. I actually had an opportunity to learn something new.

Since I didn’t attend the many morning lectures on Saturday and Sunday, I was free to explore some of the other exhibits without having to man my own. The public attendees were released to the exhibits at 2PM each day. I knew I had time to explore.

Saturday morning, I decided to skip the lectures. I didn’t want to wake up at zero-dark-30 hours (military time) and be at InfoAge before 8AM. I arrived at 10AM with plenty of time to set up both TI-99/4A computer systems. My kids were with me, so I had a little extra help. Eventually, I had things placed where I liked them, along with hiding the cables and boxes (per show policy).

Next, I ran a couple of rubbermaid containers of Commodore software and books to take to the Consignment Room. Exhibitors were allowed some space to put their wares which were to be sold, but could only be sold in that room. You were not allowed to sell stuff at your table. This served two purposes: 1) the show didn’t turn into a “flea market”, and 2) it allows the venue to earn some residual income to be able to run these shows. The venue received 15% of the sales.

Now, I had a chance to see some of the other exhibits before lunch, and before the general public is allowed in at 2PM. Granted, when 2PM arrived, I had to man my booth, so I couldn’t freely visit any exhibit I wanted to. But, my kids knew enough of my setup to answer some basic questions for visitors, or text me to return if needed.


Here are some of the exhibits I discovered:

Raspberry Pi feeding image data to a Commodore PET

A project I dub “Raspberry PET”

The gentleman who presented this exhibit created custom software for a Raspberry Pi which took the live moving image from a smartphone camera, processed it, and created ASCII Art which was presented on a Commodore PET and C64 in real time. From my understanding, it required the use of some custom code and a User Port interface on the PET to receive data from the Raspberry Pi… and it was a whole lot faster than that old ASCII art we used to receive at 2400 baud.

Newsroom

Typical collection of early desktop publishing gear

Typical collection of early desktop publishing gear

I thought this exhibit was rather unique. I would have never thought about ever putting up an exhibit like this, but it has some genius thinking to it. It’s almost diorama-like in its style. You have to keep in mind that there were attendees who were not alive during the days represented in the Newsroom exhibit.

This shows the program “Newsroom”, by Springboard Software, as it is used on the Commodore 64 platform. Or in this case, the portable SX-64. While people take for granted our ability to do impressive desktop publishing tasks at home today, back then, there was little in the way of affordable home desktop publishing. This exhibit captures that moment in time in the mid-1980s.

I actually bought Newsroom for myself in the mid-1980′s. I used it on occasion to write newsletters for my Army unit(s) where I was stationed. I also had a passing interest in creating better looking printed materials than what could be done in Broderbund’s “The Print Shop.”

Electronic Games

Assorted electronic handheld games

Assorted electronic handheld games

These may not look like vintage computers, but technically, they are. Almost all of them, that is (can you guess which one isn’t?) They have computing systems in them that act on preprogrammed responses to your input. Their computing power isn’t all that great, but they do contain tiny computers in them, except for the baseball game off on the left edge of the picture. That is a Tomy “Digital Diamond” and it is completely electromechanical, but it does respond to your input like a computer.

I was able to contribute to this particular exhibit myself because I knew how to play the “Computer Perfection” game (the round blue dome), and the exhibit’s owner didn’t have the instructions for the one he has, so I was able to teach it to him so he can teach others how to play.

By the way, the iCade on the right is NOT a vintage computer game, nor a computer. It is a bluetooth based gaming interface for modern tablet devices.

Before the Revolution

Some example microprocessor trainer boards from the early days of 4/8 bit microprocessors

Some example microprocessor trainer boards from the early days of 4/8 bit microprocessors

Before 8-bit computing, before the original Apple computer was displayed at the Homebrew Computer Club, there were other microprocessors, like the Intel 4004, et. al.

This exhibit demonstrates some of the early microprocessors and how they are used, particularly in an industry environment. The box on the left is a PROM programmer which operates via an early microprocessor (I do not know which one) and is used to program software on PROM chips to be used in other computerized devices. The interface is similar to those microprocessor trainers they used in later decades that had the hexadecimal keypad interface. One of the demos that was running displayed alphanumeric characters on a VFD display (as seen in the upper right of the picture).

Ohio Scientific Computers

Ohio Scientific computer system(s) on display at VCF East 9.1

Ohio Scientific computer system(s) on display at VCF East 9.1

As mentioned before, these computers are generally outside my realm of interest. For one, they are large and heavy. On the other hand, they operate with a Motorola 6502 CPU, something I am rather familiar with. These systems are Ohio Scientific (OSI) Challenger computer systems. I actually own an OSI system myself, an OSI C2P OEM, which I never really hooked up and used before. But this exhibit gave me incentive to do so in the near future.

What I learned from this exhibit is that OSI systems are NOT S-100 based as I thought all along. They use a bus plane like an S-100, but it’s somewhat proprietary, hence my earlier misunderstanding. The owner of these computers was able to give me some pointers on the use of OSI systems, what to look for, how to boot them, etc.

These weren’t the only OSI systems at the show, but the others weren’t necessarily the main attractions at the other exhibits, and acted in a supporting role or were otherwise augmented with custom electronics.

Franklin Ace

A series of Apple II clone computers produced by Franklin Ace

A series of Apple II clone computers produced by Franklin Ace

I always thought the Franklin Ace came in only one configuration. I suppose that’s one of the reasons for shows like this, to educate the public.

There were various version of the Franklin Ace line of computers. The split configuration (keyboard/CPU) design is rather interesting, especially in the luggable “Kaypro style” configuration. It would have been cool to actually own one of those. It’s a very clever design for an Apple II, considering Apple did not do any such thing themselves (at least, not that I know of).

Also on display at this exhibit was the very first Franklin Ace to come off the manufacturing line. Although I apologize for not having a picture of it.


A series of Commodore 64 computers connected together via network to play multiplayer games.

A series of Commodore 64 computers connected together via network to play multiplayer games.

There were gaming opportunities, too, but I didn’t get a chance to play the multiplayer games on the networked series of Commodore 64 computers. On the other hand, I was impressed that they had at least eight Commodore 1702 monitors in the same room! A task that could be rather costly these days. Although, I could venture to guess there would be a fight over who had to use that sole Atari 2600 joystick. We all know how accurate and responsive THAT joystick is! (LOL) Their disk drives, however, weren’t as readily matched like the monitors. Not that it ruined their setup, but if they want all their drives to look identical too, I’m sure I’d be willing to trade them some of my 1541 drives, “even steven”, for their 1571 drives, so theirs all look the same. That sounds like a fair trade to ME!

A rather interesting dedicated computer system called Prime 4450

A rather interesting dedicated computer system called Prime 4450

I did not get a chance to talk to the owner of this interesting computer system, so some of my information on it is rather sketchy. I stared at this particular computer system most of the time, mainly because it was sort of across the room from my exhibit. It’s called a Prime 4450.

What I found interesting about this system is that the CPU itself is comprised of more than one board. The number of cards are indicative of the system working on a backplane or bus system of connectivity.

These little “space heaters” (standing three feet high) were topped with a green screen terminal, most likely for operating system control. Beside the units, on a table, was an amber terminal displaying a text based adventure.

As for my own exhibit, I recall a lot of people milling around during the public exhibit event on both days. I had quite a few play FlappyBird on one of the TI-99s. For several hours, I really didn’t have physical access to that particular computer. I felt that I would be lynched if I even tried to shut off FlappyBird. The impact of that game on the crowd surprised me. It was a good thing to see people’s reaction to a modern game running on a vintage platform, but it still was surprising.

There were a fair amount of people who remember owning TI-99s, but not necessarily the PEBs. Therefore, questions arose from the crowd in an attempt to remember some of the subtle details. I answered them to the best of my knowledge, even answering question like why I brought TI-99s to the show. I told them that I recently finished up a project restoring full systems and was invited to bring them to VCF East to display because fully working TI-99 systems rarely end up in public view for direct interaction.

There were two visitors in particular that had an impact on me as I interacted with them. Both of them were of the younger computer generation and were younger than the TI-99 computer itself.

The first of these visitors approached the system I was using to demonstrate BBS activity. I had configured the TI-99 with a serial cable attached to a serial-to-USB adapter, to a netbook running RealTerm for Windows, which bridged the serial connection to the HeatWave BBS via telnet (heatwavebbs.com:23) via WiFi through the hotspot on my mobile phone… easy peasy, right?

I throttled the connection to 2400 baud and I found myself explaining to this person that THIS was how we communicated via computer “back in the day.” This was OUR Internet. We read text (and blocky graphics) scrolling up the screen at a measurable pace. Our world was restricted by town level regions, lest we didn’t mind long distance phone charges. Many BBSs of the day catered only to their local callers, like the I/O towers in TRON. When we sent e-mail, it was usually only to some other local member of the BBS. I explained that eventually, public protocols like FIDONet allowed BBS owners to batch up local emails and send them down the line to other BBSs for eventual retransmission around the world (and back, in several days at best). That young man was fascinated at the entire concept of BBSs of the past. It never dawned on me until then that there really IS a generation of hardcore computer users that actually don’t know the concept of a BBS. It was quite an interesting realization.

The other visitor in question was yet another one of the younger computer generation. However, this old dog (me) learned quite a bit from him. I saw him working with the speech synthesizer attached to the TI-99 and asked if he had any questions about it. Instead, I got “skooled” on it myself. He was a fountain of information about Texas Instruments semiconductors, like those used in the speech synthesizer. He rattled off various TI part numbers of speech synthesizers (made before his time), the variations of those part numbers as they pertained to the TI-99′s speech synthesizer module, and even how they were implemented in the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell. Part numbers, nomenclatures, various on-chip speech tables, etc. were all pouring out in what seemed like a non-stop dialog. Not that I minded too much, as I was learning something new here, and I was quite impressed with his knowledge of the subject. I found out that he has an interest in computer speech synthesis itself, and if his explanations to me of the concept is any indication, we could eventually find ourselves using a future software or hardware creation of his.

Early during the show, I was approached by Brad Arnold of the ANTIC podcast. It’s always good to finally meet people whose voices you hear on a regular basis. It helps put a face to the voice. He and I discussed some personal histories of the TI-99 system. Brad was there with some cohorts to promote the upcoming VCF SouthEast show. He also invited me to exhibit at VCF SouthEast in May, an opportunity that I would have liked to take advantage of, but it would be difficult to arrange on such a short notice. Although, I do encourage you all to attend that show if you can make it, if you have even the slightest interest in vintage computer technology. Also, in a completely unsolicited recommendation, try out the ANTIC Atari Podcast at ataripodcast.com.

I also got to meet a few “tech heroes” of mine. I am actually a Commodore computer aficionado. My first computer was a VIC-20, which I still have. Then I progressed to the Commodore 64, 128, and Amiga.

Well, during the first day of VCF East, I thought I saw a small group of familiar looking faces. Dave Haynie, Bil Herd, and Andy Finkel were going around the exhibits together and when they came to mine, I said in a tongue tied effort, “La-phut gabble-tog, phtttt!” Or at least, that’s what it felt like I said. But apparently, what I actually said was, “You’re the Commodore guys, aren’t you?” Afterwards, Bil said, “Hi, I’m Dave Haynie, and he’s Bil Herd (pointing to Dave)” They really are a couple of jokesters as their reputation denotes. LOL.

I asked Dave if he would sign the front bezel of my Amiga 2000. He said he would, leading up to the next awkward moment… my realization that I left that bezel IN THE CAR!!! I must thank my daughter’s quick thinking for offering to run out to the car and getting the bezel for me, because I certainly wasn’t thinking straight at the time (I owe her one). I’m surprised I didn’t wet my pants by now.

So while my daughter ran for that bezel, I “entertained the guys” by standing there like an idiot and intently listen to them explain how Commodore muscled Texas Instruments out of the market. It was a fact that I was generally aware of, but I was interesting to hear those rumors and details confirmed directly from those in the know.

When my daughter returned, Dave signed the front bezel of my Amiga 2000. I could have kicked myself for not bringing my C128 for Bil to sign. I didn’t realize he would be there! Then after Dave and Bil moved to the next exhibit, the third person in their group approached me and asked me if I wanted him to sign the bezel, too.

I didn’t recognize the person. I asked him his name and he said he was Andy Finkel. The name sounded familiar, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t place it. For some reason I kept thinking it was the “Andy” of Macintosh fame (Andy Hertzfeld), until he said he was in charge of software development for the Amiga line. “Ah! Now I remember!” I told him that I would love to have him sign the bezel, too. But I still feel bad that I didn’t recognize him, if not by his face, but at least by his name. Oh, the shame!!!

Last, but not least, I must mention the exhausting efforts of Evan Koblentz. He was the primary director of the event, and it certainly looked like his duties were keeping him busy enough. He never seemed to stop for a moment, always making sure that things were running smoothly at all times. It’s obvious that without his effort, the VCF East could have steered toward some form of chaos.

Source: VCF East 9.1

    

Vintage Volts Episode 4 – 1976 Radio Shack Catalog – Part 2

Mike Whalen and I finish up browsing through the 1976 Radio Shack catalog and discussing the technology of the day.

If you wish to follow along with us, you can browse an online version of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog at: http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/catalogs/1976/

This Radio Shack catalog series is broken up into multiple parts. This part covers the second half of the 1976 catalog.

The podcast is available here: http://www.vintagevolts.com/podcast/Vintage_Volts_Episode_4_part_2.mp3


You can find the Vintage Volts podcast, along with other quality retro podcasts, at the Throwback Network http://www.throwbacknetwork.net

Source: Vintage Volts Episode 4 – 1976 Radio Shack Catalog – Part 2

    

Texas Instruments SILENT 700 series

In the early days of public online services, there were many ways to access information sources like Compuserve, BIX, and GEnie. You could use a desktop computer in the home or office… when you were in the home or office. Or, you could use a portable data terminal device like the Texas Instruments SILENT 700 series.

The SILENT 700 comes in several varieties. This article will document details about the model 703 that I personally have in my collection. I just recently purchased the 703 at, of all places, an antique radio show. I got it cheap enough to take a risk that it may or may not work. If it didn’t work, and if it was beyond basic repair, I would have decided to hack it for parts. It came with a carrying case, the 703 itself, and the installed roll of FAX paper. There was no power supply.

The first thing I needed to do was figure out how to power the device. The product label states it uses 20 volts AC, a power source value which I had no direct solution for. The power connector had three pins. I assumed that the outer two pins were the AC source and the middle pin was Ground. Still, I had no 20 VAC power supplies. However, I have always been able to, IN A PINCH, substitute a DC power supply in most similar cases.

The theory of an AC power supply powered device is that the external part of the power supply is only a transformer which reduces the wall socket voltage to a more manageable level. Then, the circuitry inside the device acts as a full power supply, rectifying the AC to DC and powering the internal electronics.

Throwing caution to the wind, I used a 19 volt DC power supply I had lying around. chances are, there is a bridge rectifier immediately connected to the devices power supply connector. These are used to convert the constantly switching polarity of the AC coming in, to a form of DC that the device can use. So by using a DC voltage at the start, I’ll only be using part of the bridge rectifier. The remaining pert of the internal power supply won’t see anything much different than it would normally see.

I am happy to report that my hunch worked. As soon as I turned on the SILENT 700, I got a prompt stating “703″, which is the specific version of the model I have. As soon as I typed something, The printhead started doing its line dance and printing what I typed. There is no ribbon in this device, nor is there an LCD or CRT display. All interaction is printed onto the heat sensitive thermal FAX paper. It’s the same kind of paper older FAX machines used. As the printhead moves along the line, it generates heat in a bitmap pattern, which produces the printed letters in turn. The nice thing about thermal printing is that it’s silent, hence “SILENT” 700.

There were other models made in the SILENT 700 series. I believe they were the 707 and 709 series. Those versions had built-in phone line connectivity. One would connect to the phone with an acoustic coupler (soundproofed clip-on sockets which clip over the earpiece and mouthpiece of conventional phone handsets. My 703 model does not have a built-in modem. Instead, it had a 25-pin RS-232 compatible serial port, but with a female connector.

I could have hooked this up to an old external modem, but I already had a solution in place that allows me to bridge old RS-232 connections to modern day Telnet sessions on a Windows PC using a program called RealTERM. RealTERM lets me connect this to a serial-to-USB PC connection, then using RealTERM as an echo bridge to any telnet server I choose. RealTERM manages the connection on both ends and passes data back and forth between them. It even lets me use two different modem and parity settings. The SILENT 700 only supports: odd, even, mark, and space parity values. It does NOT support the more popular “NONE” parity. RealTERM took care of the differences for me.

SILENT 700 Sample PrintI logged onto a Telnet BBS I frequent on a regular basis, heatwavebbs.com. I was able to do most everything I could on the BBS as if I used a telnet program on a computer with a screen. The difference is, I use up paper as the SILENT 700 feeds the FAX paper through as text is being received. Plus, I was restricted to the 300 baud, so text wasn’t exactly racing up the printed page. What I ended up with is a paper trail of my online session, as seen on the right side.

There’s really not much I can do with this outside of the novelty of it. Not many modern devices support the capabilities of the SILENT 700, even if it only works at 300 baud. I could connect it to an Apple, TRS-80, Commodore Amiga, IBM PC, or any hardware device that supports serial communications with ASCII text. The SILENT 700 does not support ANSI graphics (colorized text that requires special code sequences to display). ANSI looks like garbled text when it’s transmitting to an unsupporting connected device. If a wanted, I could hook it up to a serial port on a Linux box and use it for direct shell access to administer the Linux server.

Meanwhile, it gets added to my collection along with various other unique items. I could probably put it to use on a ham radio packet setup and have it display anything and everything that gets transmitted on a packet radio net.

Source: Texas Instruments SILENT 700 series

    

Vintage Volts Episode 2 – Brief History of Transistor Radios

Before the end of 2013, I was able to slip in episode number 2!

In this episode, I provide a brief history of transistor radios. I also discuss a bit about vacuum tube radios, just to show how the technology had progressed

This episode also introduces a new segment for the Vintage Volts podcast, called the “Vintage Tech Primer”, where the basic technical concepts behind the technology discussed in the episode are presented in a concise, informative style.

MP3 Link: http://www.vintagevolts.com/podcast/Vintage_Volts_Episode_2.mp3

RSS Feed: http://www.vintagevolts.com/podcast/rss.xml

Source: Vintage Volts Episode 2 – Brief History of Transistor Radios

    

Vintage Volts Episode 4 – 1976 Radio Shack Catalog – Part 1

Follow along with my guest host, Mike Whalen, as we browse through the 1976 Radio Shack catalog and discuss the technology of the day.

If you wish to follow along with us, you can browse an online version of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog at: http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/catalogs/1976/

This Radio Shack catalog series is broken up into multiple parts. This part covers the first half of the 1976 catalog.

The podcast is available here: http://www.vintagevolts.com/podcast/Vintage_Volts_Episode_4_part1.mp3


You can find the Vintage Volts podcast, along with other quality retro podcasts, at the Throwback Network http://www.throwbacknetwork.net

Source: Vintage Volts Episode 4 – 1976 Radio Shack Catalog – Part 1

    

Reliving History… One Videocassette at a Time

One thing which makes the Internet such a wonderful tool for exploring history is the immediate access to media from the past. It will also allow future generations to be able to relive their own past, which will coincidentally be derived from the media we post these days.

It is safe to say that the Internet as we know it has been around for almost 20 years. That leaves an entire (young) adult generation with a full lifetime of memories and pop-culture references in electronic form.

So, what about us “older folks?” Well, unless your parents and/or grandparents are saavy enough to have posted pictures and videos from your past all over their Facebook feed (subsequently embarrassing you), you are left to culling elements and experiences your past from other people’s memorabilia, such as their old videotapes.

Granted, you will most likely NOT find yourself on some stranger’s discarded videotape, but you could find a plethora of pop-culture goodies. You’ll never know until you give it a try!

So, how do you go about doing so? How many of you like to stroll around flea markets? How many times have you come across stacks of older media? I know I have stumbled upon a fair share of old videotapes, wondering to myself, “I wonder what’s on those?”.

I’m not talking about the stacks of old Disney titles that seem to be at every other table. It’s obvious those are what they appear to be. I’m talking about the unmarked tapes usually thrown into a box under the flea market table at a “grab bag” price. Those are the tapes which possibly contain the “buried treasure!”

What kind of treasure are we talking about? Who knows! Half of the fun is finding out…

Chances are, if you get one of those blank videotapes, you’ll stumble upon a copied movie of some sort. Maybe it will be “The Goonies” or something. Or, it might be a 5th generation copy of a Swedish “adult” film. Either way, it would still be a surprise.

It’s that strange element of surprise which will drive some people to sit through 2, 4, or 6 hours of tape, looking for that hint of the past which had been long forgotten about. Whether that “lost memory”of the past is in the form of an old TV show or commercial, or a familiar backdrop from someone else’s home movies, there is still the chance that you may stumble upon something which has not been archived anywhere on the Internet.

Quite frankly, that is the reason why I used this topic for a blog post. I was “roaming around” YouTube recently and came across some old television commercials from the 70′s and 80′s.The apparent quality of the 70′s commercials was rather bad for some of the YouTube videos. I can only assume they were copied from consumer grade videotapes because VCRs were available to consumers in the 70′s. That’s why I believe that there could be an undiscovered collection of video in discarded videotapes.

commercials on YouTube []

That got me thinking about some of the things I wish I would have videotaped for posterity when I had the chance. For example, when I was stationed in a remote Army base overseas in 1986-87, our only contact with civilization and entertainment was the Armed Forces Radio and Television (AFRTS/AFN) network. It might not mean anything to others but it was a memorable portion of life for me back then. In hindsight, I should have at least recorded a 6-hour tape of a typical AFRTS broadcasting day, just so I’d have something to show my (future) family about a part of what life was like for me over there.

Lucky for me, someone posted some sample AFN videos from the 80′s. There is nothing from the year(s) I was stationed there, but the essence of the network is still there to characterize the experience.

news segment from 1984 []

In conclusion, if you’re so inclined, you can get started yourself by acquiring some used videotapes. If it’s too cold to hit up a flea market in your area there is always the local Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift store. Just make sure you pick up a used VCR while you’re there if you need one.

Source: Reliving History… One Videocassette at a Time

    

Personal Review of VCF East – Coming Soon!

I had a great time as an exhibitor at VCF East 9.1 this year. There are many experiences and memories I am still mentally digesting. It was rather overwhelming and I will be posting a more detailed write-up about that experience in the near future.

In the meantime, enjoy this preview picture of a Franklin Ace portable Apple ][ clone!

Source: Personal Review of VCF East – Coming Soon!

    

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