Sorting

A quick extra post this week. I’ve just spent a day sorting through some of my computer collection in the garage – we’re moving soon (we hate moving), but we have some time up our sleeves to prepare, so we’ve been sorting through rooms in our current home to get rid of stuff we don’t need. Today’s rummage through my collection was primarily to clean machines which aren’t boxed (and the tops of boxes) so I’m not moving dust into the new place.

One of the things I found is this lovely t-shirt I got from the dealer we bought our europlus from, Computer Lighthouse (there are two pictures, front and back). The colours are still vibrant but, unfortunately, I think it’s a little small for me these days – I’m sure it must have shrunk over the last 25+ years as it used to be a good fit. I find it odd they went to the trouble of producing these t-shirts but didn’t bother to put their phone number on them.

I have more europluses than I thought – I counted four today (I thought I was up to three). I have two other early ][‘s – one’s missing its lid, and the lid on the other that says it’s a ][+ (i.e. North American), but the colour of the lid’s plastic doesn’t match the rest of the case, so I have some motherboard detective work to do on those (maybe I have the lid on the wrong machine). At least I’ve been able to update my page banner using one of the better ][europlus badge photos I took today (I might play with it a bit more, though).

I also have more //c’s than I thought – seven, if my tired brain is remembering properly (there may be more in boxes I didn’t unpack today – there’s certainly one in its original box, and I found a shrink-wrapped Apple IIc Owner’s Manual, too). I might have to put some of the //c’s on eBay. I love the idea of the //c as a compact machine ideal for reliving a collector’s Apple ][ days of yore, but I always find myself firing up a //e or IIgs, instead.

Looks like I have six //e’s at home (add those to the one at the office). Not sure about IIgs’s, I think I have three – the final census will have to be a job for after we move.

I did start to take photos of the items, their serial numbers, etc. I’ll have to make a database of the collection someday – does anyone know of a good template/schema for a retrocomputer collection database?

I also found a TRS-80 Model I base unit and a Model II keyboard. Although I still get nostalgic whenever I see a Model I, I don’t have anything but those two base components (don’t even have a PSU), so I think they’re eBay-bound as well.

Although I completed the cleaning I wanted to get done today, it’s just made me realise how much documenting and real cleaning I have to do, let alone trying to check that everything’s operational. At least the place we’re buying has a decent amount of storage/work space, so I may actually be able to get back into the nuts and bolts of having a collection, rather than just collecting bits (and the bits collecting dust).

Have you looked through a neglected portion of your collection recently? Found any gems? Let me know in the comments.

Selecting the ][europlus

Some time in 1982, after I’d been using computers at school for about two years, my father decided we should get one at home. He was interested in having something to help him keep track of the tax records for our holiday home on the Central Coast (it was also rented out as a holiday let), and he wanted to create a database of his coin collection.

He gave me the task of selecting an appropriate machine – I was, after all, the only member of the family with any experience with personal computers at this point. Initially, because of my experience with them, I looked at Tandy’s TRS-80 offerings. This was in the days of the original TRS-80 Color Computer, and I distinctly remember looking at Tandy brochures expounding the virtues of these machines.

I find it amusing that my clearest recollections of the decision-making process are of considering the computer I ultimately decided not to get!

Unfortunately, I cannot recall just what it was that made me settle on the Apple ][, but settle on it I did, and Dad duly forked over what was likely to have been a huge wad of cash (or, more likely, he put it on his Bankcard, Australia & New Zealand’s own little credit card) for a 48K Apple ][europlus with a third party 16K memory expansion/language card, third party green screen monitor, a commodity dot matrix printer, two Disk ][ drives, pfs:file and pfs:report database programs and not much else. We bought it from our “local” (30 minutes’ drive away) Apple dealer, Computer Lighthouse at Penrith (which is at the Western outskirts of Sydney at the foot of the Blue Mountains).

I of course got to play a lot of my friends’ Apple ][ games (perhaps, more correctly, Apple ][ games my friends possessed) – I particularly enjoyed Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, Lode Runner and Championship Lode Runner, FastGammon, Sabotage, Karateka and an Applesoft BASIC Star Trek clone.

Having never been a particularly enthusiastic (or good) chess player, I toyed with Sargon (or one of its successors), but the only memorable thing about any of my computerised games of chess is that immediately after a successful use of a slight variation of the “Two-Move Checkmate“, the Apple ][ blew up! Well, it was probably just a blown capacitor (it was thankfully still under warranty), but one of my brothers and I used to joke that the computer was just a sore loser!

The dot matrix printer was not a high quality one and didn’t last long – by March 1983 it had been replaced by an Apple Silentype printer. Along with the addition of a joystick at some point, that remained our computing setup at home until late 1985. I used it for school timetables, started toying with fonts and graphics as a prelude to my desktop publishing career, but mostly I just played on it.

I spent uncountable hours in front of the europlus, and it obviously holds a lot of nostalgic value to me as my IRC nickname in #a2c.chat is “europlus” (on the rare occasions I make it in there) and, as you’ve possibly already noticed by now, it is also this blog’s name. When I started collecting Apple ][s, my goal was always to get another europlus and get as close to that original setup as possible. I’m mostly there, but am still awaiting a reasonably local and reasonably-priced working Silentype and the interface card required for it to work on a ][.

I’d be interested to hear how others chose to get Apple ][s, what the setup was and whether they kept their original machines or have had to “recreate” their ][ systems.

The man who changed my world

It’s probably good to get this post out of the way early on, rather than it languishing in the todo pile of an abandoned blog (I’m realistic about the number of blogs that successfully carry on long-term, here’s hoping I buck the trend).

As I’ve touched on in my introductory post, my true introduction to using computers (as opposed to just being fascinated by them) came when a kindly teacher at my high school took it upon himself to teach Yr 7 (first year of high school) students about computers.

In 1980, Patrician Bros College, Blacktown had a grand total of 1 computer. It was a TRS-80 – if my memory serves me well, it was a Model 1 with expansion module, floppy drive/s, cassette recorder and matching monitor (and likely matching printer). Up to this point, only Yr 10 students were allowed use this machine, so we felt pretty special to have access to it in the group of 4 or 5 of us who had put our hands up in class.

As an aside, the school at that time had students from Yr 5 through to Yr 10, so the last 2 years of Australian primary school, and the first 4 years of high school. Other schools were responsible for finishing the schooling if students decided to go beyond the School Certificate in Yr 10 and attempt the Higher School Certificate in Yr 12. Never understood the reasoning for this fairly oddball (by most Australian standards) range of years – it got “corrected” in the 90s and now has students in Yrs 7-12, the more standard Australian high school range.

So our self-selected group learnt to program in BASIC on the school’s “Trash-80”, a name we soon learned, and one which I later learned was almost universally applied. But to us, it wasn’t really trash, it was magical, because we could make it do our bidding, and the magician to our apprentices was Robert “Bob” Bates, then known to us students only as the more formal “Mr Bates”.

Bob Bates was ambidextrous – he would turn from the chalkboard, place the chalk in the hand he hadn’t been using, expound on something, turn back to the board without putting the chalk back in the hand he’d been using, and pick up writing where he’d left off. Buggered if I could ever pick the transitions from right to left or back again when looking at the full board later on.

Mr Bates wasn’t “cool” and trying to be our best friend. He had a calm reserve I only ever saw broken once. He had a ready smile when talking about topics he was passionate about (primarily technology in those days). He cared deeply about his charges and took his responsibility in helping to positively shape our lives very seriously. His nickname amongst the students was “Bunge” (pronounced “bunj”). He drove a Leyland P76 (to date, the only person I have personally known to have done so [it was a distinctive and memorable car]).

Through those early lunchtime sessions in Yr 7, then as my Science teacher in Yrs 8 and 9, Bob Bates helped me learn a lot about computers (and science in general) and kept my passion for technology alive. I would have liked to have had him as my Science teacher for the whole of Yr 10, but the school had the “bright” idea of splitting each of the three terms in two and having the six separate Science topics taught by different teachers. Unsurprisingly, Bob Bates taught us the Technology curriculum.

Also unsurprisingly, he taught it in a way I think few other teachers in 1983 would have (I suspect, though, that readers of this post who were at school before the widespread use of computers but who got to use and learnt to love computers at that time, may have had their own “Mr Bates”).

He taught us not only about computers as they were then, but offered us glimpses of a time when devices would converge, robots would take over many of manufacturing’s less savoury tasks, and employees would move to become what would now be called “knowledge workers”.

It was our duty to ourselves, he taught us, to not rely on employers to keep us “trained up”, but to do that ourselves by pro-actively reading trade magazines in our chosen fields and undertaking training to keep us ahead of our peers. He saw that those workers who embraced change and lead it by being part of it would be the workers who would benefit the most from it and not be left behind.

I’ve not necessarily led the most successful career in computers, but I’ve been kept off the streets, have my own business, and continue to enjoy the constant evolution of my knowledge of computers. I feel I owe a great debt to Bob Bates for helping me get my head in the right space for keeping my skills and knowledge growing.

Epilogue: some years after leaving school, I learnt that Bob had moved to the States. I’ve tracked him down 3 times now (it’s not stalking, I promise!) – in some ways, it gets easier each time, as the Web makes such tasks straightforward if the “target” isn’t actively trying to hide. A few years back Bob was visiting Australia and we got together, giving us a chance to meet each other’s wives, which I was happy for (my wife got to meet a seminal figure in my life, his wife saw the continuing regard I held her husband in 20+ years later). He’s currently on the staff of a Bible College, and also (I’ve discovered since starting to write this post) sells his paintings online – I never knew he was so artistically inclined (or talented). Quite the polymath, is Mr Bates.

Silentype font

For reasons which will become clearer after a few more backstories (I thought I should post something “useful”), I set out in September 2003 to create a font of the Silentype character set for modern computers.

I had a copy of Fontographer I had previously used for logo font creation I could use to make the font, but I didn’t have enough samples of the character set of the Silentype to be able to do as full a job as I would have liked.

So I turned to Usenet (most readers of this post won’t need, I suspect, to be told by Wikipedia what Usenet is – but it’s there, just in case) and received various replies trying to help locate a printout of the complete set or confirming my interpretation of the technical documentation on how the character set was generated on the original Silentype.

While waiting for the hoped-for complete character set sampler from a real Silentype, I went ahead and made a font with the characters from printouts I had from “back in the day”. I was short at least 16 characters, though, so I also went looking for any references to current owners of Silentypes. Direct appeals went unanswered, leading me to widen my net further to the forums (I always want to type “fora”) at Erik Klein’s Vintage Computer site.

Still no joy. But in an object lesson on keeping an open mind when trying to create resources like this, I noticed in late February 2004 an eBay auction of several Apple ][-related manuals, including a Silentype one!

I fired off a quick e-mail to the winning bidder, one Cristophe Janot, who very quickly (and kindly) not only confirmed that the manual had a sampler of the Silentype character set, but happily provided a scan of same.

I was able to complete the font and announce it to the world – but I never got around to properly distributing it. (As an aside, three years later, I had a request from a young Apple collector asking for a copy of the font files – coincidentally, this same collector won one of my eBay auctions in 2010 without either of us being aware we’d already communicated about retro-computers. As he primarily collects Macs, and I Apple ][s, and we are very much aligned on the whole “preservation” thing, I’ve since been able to pass on a significant amount of Mac materiale to minimise my clutter [my wife and I have different definitions of minimal clutter when it comes to old computers, but that’s about to become a moot point {and not because of a marital breakdown, but that story must be a separate post}].)

Eight years after completing the font, I began to consider creating a Motter Tektura font, and that made me think back to my not-officially-released Silentype font – I typed up some characters and noticed OS X is now rendering “o”, “O” and “8” with filled-in counters.

So I’ll have to revise the font, and announce and release it then, but it’s available in its current form to anyone who wants it. It seems to work fine in Windows XP, and I’m not sure which version of OS X “broke” the counters, but I’m sure I’ll be able to fix it at some point. Let me know if you have any recollections about the Silentype in the comments.

I believe an introduction is in order…

Well, here I am, writing again, this time purely for pleasure (yet still feeling guilty I’m not earning money for it).

My name is Sean McNamara and I’m an Apple consultant based in Sydney, Australia, but that’s only part of my story.

My journey as it more directly relates to this site began in 1980, and in very inauspicious circumstances.

Actually, no, it began before then, so please indulge me as I dig further back in my digging back than I’d originally set out to do. (A word of warning, though: I’m prone to rambling, side-tracks, musings and irrelevancies – it’s just the way my mind works.)

My first experience with computers was in the late 70’s – my Dad was 2IC in what I guess could best be described as the HR department of the Sydney City Council. They did payroll and leave entitlements, had the personnel files, etc. As was wont to happen in organisations of that size and function, even “back then”, they had a mainframe computer to do all the grunt work (well, OK, there was real grunt work being done by wetware on the roads and such, but you know what I mean).

If I made the long train journey in to visit Dad at work, I would often detour on the way in or out (or while waiting, he worked long hours) and stand and stare through the glass walls of the computing facility. Anyone who’s seen documentaries or news reports about computing facilities from the 60s or 70s would recognise the scene: brightly fluoro-lit, row upon row of gleaming tech gear, tape drives whirring, disk platters in what looked like cake containers moved to and fro…and lots of “blinkenlights”.

Even without being able to ever touch the bloody thing, I was fascinated. I literally whiled away hours at a time just staring. And staring. I couldn’t tell what the computers were doing, but that didn’t distract from the spectacle nor detract from the appeal for me at all.

A slow fast-forward a couple of years to 1980, and I’m sitting in a Yr 7 (first year of high school) Science class, when the teacher (an odd-ball Patrician Brother by the name of Br Cronin, who could tie a Windsor knot with one hand and liked to speak in rhymes [“Be on the run to lab one”, etc. {he was hardly Shakespeare, but he was lively}]) made an announcement that a new teacher at the school, Mr Bates, was prepared to teach interested students about computers during lunchtime classes. A (very) few hands went up, including mine and that of a good friend (also named Sean).

It was only BASIC on a TRS-80 Model I, it was only (up to) a few times a week, but it was a start and it wasn’t too long before I was using a more fruit-flavoured computer – more on that in separate posts. (Fast forward 32 years, both Sean and I still work in and on computers. From such humble beginnings we’ve both got established careers in our chosen paths.)

Nostalgia has been a strong emotion in relation to my computing history for many years now, hence my decision to begin being a little more lively in the vintage computer sphere and try and be active with this blog.

Preservation has always been very important to me – it’s just another form of hoarding, and if there’s one thing I am, it’s a hoarder (Your Honour, I present Exhibit A: I still have my two boxes of 5¼” disks from my Apple ][ days). So I’m a member of the Australian Computer Museum Society, I image disks that come into my possession, I try and rescue hardware I’m not even interested in collecting so it doesn’t end up in the tip (I have gotten better at passing that stuff on, at least). I’m not in Jason Scott’s league, but every bit counts (no pun intended, but I’ll run with it now I’ve seen it).

So Nostalgia and Preservation are two themes which will recur here, sometimes combined, sometimes one much stronger than the other. Nostalgic stories are important: they give context (I love context). Sometimes the resonances I feel in a story will be why I’m trying to preserve something; other times, I just cringe at the thought of it ending up in the tip or I think more people should have access (or exposure) to something from computing’s past.

So I hope you find something worthwhile or interesting in this blog and its supporting materials. I look forward to your feedback.