August 2007 Archives

Vintage Computer Swag

| No Comments
While poking around in my vintage computer junk, I found some swag from my old job. I thought I should immortalize it with a photo on the web, and then throw it in the trash.

ComputerLand produced a lot of crappy promotional items, and this can cooler must have been one of the worst. Back in the early 1980s, every major computer manufacturer was dying to associate themselves with ComputerLand, so they'd fund almost any advertising gimmick that put their names together. This cooler has the Hewlett-Packard logo on the back, so I know HP paid for it, ComputerLand paid nothing. This is called "co-op" advertising. I think it barely qualifies as advertising. The world would be a better place without so much of this disposable crap.
Whenever I see some old bits of ComputerLand swag, I always think about the ultimate swag our company ever produced, a surfboard. One of our salesmen was a surfer dude, he somehow conned the boss into funding his new custom surfboard if he'd put a huge ComputerLand logo on it. Everyone would see him riding the Malibu waves on top of a ComputerLand logo, it would associate our company name with the cool surfer image. In return for funding his board, the salesman agreed to prominently display the logo at the beach. To maximize exposure, the salesman was allowed to come in late to work any time the surf was up, which happened with no advance notice, leaving the rest of us to carry his workload. After coming in to work late, he would display the board in our lobby. He must have been a hell of a salesman for the boss to agree to that deal.

Sol-20 Restoration Phase 1 Completed

| 1 Comment
I have successfully restored my Sol-20 computer to working condition. I took special care to insure the repairs were correct, it was difficult, and at times I was certain the machine was completely dead, but ultimately, the restoration was a complete success. Here is a photo of the patient on the operating table, opened up and about to undergo surgery.

When I set up to take this picture, I was suddenly struck with a realization, this is the same chair I sat in 31 years ago when I assembled this computer. Somewhere I have a Polaroid photo of my desk with the Sol in mid-assembly, with this chair in the background. But I couldn't find the picture. Oh well. Anyway, I thought this was a good omen for the project.
At this point, I've cleaned up the computer with cans of compressed air and circuit board cleaning spray. It took me almost an hour to get it all clean, it was especially difficult getting the gunk off the top of the keyboard. It was really grubby and nicotine stained. I used to spend many hours smoking at the keyboard, dropping ashes right into the keys. I used to open it up, lift out the keyboard plane, and dump out the ashes once a week or so. The Sol keyboard seemed impervious to this kind of abuse. But now I had to clean that all up and make it shine.
Here is a closer view of the operating table, you can see the interior of the computer. There are thousands of tiny solder joints on that motherboard, and I made every single one of them. I recall it took about 200 hours to completely assemble the kit. That was pretty slow, but I'd never built any electronics kits before, I was a total novice.

There is one particular component that makes this Sol rare and unique. It has a Graphic-Add daughterboard, which I used to create simple computer graphic images. Without the Graphic-Add, the Sol can only display text. I've never heard of any other Sol equipped with this circuitry.

And now the patient is under the knife. Or more accurately, under a dental pick. I'm picking out the old foam pads, you can see I've got some of them out, they're black and decomposing. Up at the top, you can see the circuit board contacts, shaped like a circle with a line through it. The pads push against the contacts, the mylar will bridge the gap and complete the circuit, indicating a key was pressed.


And here is the keyboard with all the pads replaced. They're shiny and new, just like the day it was built. Everything is ready to reassemble and test.

This is the point everything went all to hell.

I got the machine assembled and ready to test. I hooked it up to my TV through the video monitor input. I successfully tested the Sol in March 2002, I got a video signal and a cursor, indicating the CPU was operational. But today when I fired it up, I got nothing. No video, no cursor. The CPU was dead.
I was devastated, in shock. My long-planned restoration project was a total failure. In 2002 everything but the keyboard worked; now the keyboard was repaired but everything else was dead. I tried to deduce what happened. I noticed the LEDs on the keyboard wouldn't light up, so there must have been a problem with the power supply. Then I noticed the power supply fan was running, so there must be power, it's just not getting to the motherboard. I started by unplugging and reconnecting the main power connector on the motherboard. And instantly, the computer was restored to life. It was so simple once I figured it out. And here is the computer in operation.

This picture looks a bit fake, but I assure you it is 100% real. I had to enhance the contrast of the TV screen so the text was legible, but other than that, it is unaltered. So now the Sol is operating, the keyboard works, everything is ready to go. But go where?
The next step is reinstalling my memory cards and testing the software. I have a box full of Sol data tapes, my memory boards are in the box, but it's buried somewhere in my storage locker. It may take me a while to unbury it. I have tapes of games like Chess, Targ, and Trek80, and languages like Focal, Basic, and Logo. But even if I can never find my old software, there is an online archive where I can download everything I need. But I really need to find those tapes, they have all the programs I wrote in Basic, and the archive doesn't have programs to run my Graphics-Add. I have offered those programs to the archive, if and when I ever find them, and if the tapes are still readable.
And that is the primary goal of this project, to document and archive my unique pieces of Sol hardware and software, particularly some of the computer animations I exhibited in art shows in 1976. But that will have to wait for Phase 2 of this restoration project.
Today, I am giddy with excitement. Everything works, and I'm ready to rediscover my microcomputer roots. I can't wait.

Sol-20 Restoration

| 1 Comment
I retrieved my vintage Sol-20 microcomputer from my storage vault and I am about to begin restoring the keyboard. I dusted it off and took a picture, it's old and a little dinged up, but it sure is a beautiful piece of hardware.


The Sol-20 is legendary for several unique features such as the solid walnut side panels and the one-piece construction. When the Sol was released, most microcomputers were naked circuit boards like the Apple 1, the Sol was the first microcomputer to have everything in one box. The Sol kit came with the keyboard pre-assembled, it was considered too tricky for hobbyists to assemble on their own. And of course, that turned out to be the piece that everyone has to disassemble and restore. Oh well.

Sol Keyboard Pads

| 1 Comment
It's like a dream come true, I suddenly acquired a set of new parts for my vintage Sol-20 microcomputer. I've written about this before, someone found that old article from 5 years ago in a web search, and asked me if I'd ever located the parts. I said I gave up, and do you have any? I've hunted unsuccessfully for 10 or 15 years. So he generously offered me a pack of parts, for free. Oh boy.


I swear this looks just like a bag of pills. They are little foam pads with foil on one side. These pads were used in the keyboard of the Sol, when you hit a key, it pressed on the foam, pushing the foil into contact with the circuit, then when you let go the foam pushed the key back up. It was an inexpensive design, it worked fairly well, but over the years the foam deteriorated, and today every single Sol is surely unusable due to rotted foam pads.
But now I have the parts I need to get my old Sol back up and running. This is going to be a tedious job, I have to painstakingly disassemble every keyswitch, pick out the rotted remnants of the old pads, clean up the circuit contacts, install the new pads, and put everything back in perfect order. Then my Sol should be restored to full function. I can't wait to see my old computer back in action after all these years.


| No Comments
I'm quite pleased with my houseplant lately. I've grown it for three years and this is the first time it's really done anything. Here's a picture of my plant catching the last rays of the afternoon sun.

I grew this dieffenbachia plant from cuttings. This plant is also known as "dumb cane" and it grows in jointed segments like cane or bamboo. All you have to do is cut one segment and bury it in a pot and it will take root. But my plant didn't poke up through the soil for over a year. The next year, it hardly grew at all, it only produced a couple of scrawny leaves per stem. So I decided to repot it in new dirt, and it just exploded. Each of the 3 plants has leaves continuously coming in, it's growing so fast I have to keep rotating it towards the sun to keep it growing straight up. And it only took 3 years of tending to get to this point.


| 1 Comment
Merv Griffin is dead, another bloated Hollywood corpse has washed up on the beach. Merv's body will be rendered into fat and reformulated into a special lubricant used to grease palms in the TV business.
I don't have much reason to blog about my contempt for old farts like Merv, except that it is the only excuse I'll ever have to tell my Merv anecdote. I once met Merv face to face, and I laugh every time I think about it. Unfortunately, it is a moment in time and nobody ever understands the context anymore. But I figure somebody will get it and laugh.
A long time ago, maybe around the early 1970s, my family went on vacation to Miami to see the Orange Bowl. One morning, my sister I went out of our hotel and found the Orange Bowl Parade was about to start. We were trying to cross the road, we stood right at the corner but it was too late, the parade had started. The parade's lead car, a big Lincoln convertible, stopped right in front of us, close enough I could stand there and open the door. It had a big sign on the door, "Merv Griffin, Grand Marshall." I looked up and Merv was right there, close enough to me I could reach out and touch him. So I nudged my sister, and spoke loudly so that Merv would hear me, I know he heard me because he looked right at me, and ooh you should have seen the look on his face. I pointed right at Merv and I said, "hey look it's Irv Kupcinet!"

Sudden Surgery

| 1 Comment
I'm going into the hospital for surgery in the morning. I've been seeing a doctor for a few weeks due to stomach pains, it turns out I've got gall stones, so I need to have my gall bladder removed. I went in today for another surgical consultation, I expected them to schedule it for a few weeks out, but the doctor said they had a cancellation so I might as well have it done tomorrow. This is rather sudden, but I guess it works out for the best, it gives me less time to worry about things.
I'm having a "lap chole" which is a minimally invasive surgery done with laparoscopic instruments. They say it will be all over in 90 minutes. I'm in pretty good physical condition (aside from my gall bladder) so I don't expect any complications. But then, nobody ever expects complications.
I was planning to write a lengthy story about my medical travails, but I was waiting for a definitive conclusion. And now it is upon me so suddenly, there's no time to write about it. So it will have to wait for later.
Update 1PM Tuesday: All done, feeling woozy and sore. Percocet is nice. Need rest.

Dutch Blue, Again

| No Comments
An old, obscure article I wrote on the subject of the pigment "Dutch Blue" and lapis lazuli has suddenly become relevant again, albeit in another obscure context. I discovered some discussion on the Ancient Japan Weblog about a frescoes in a tomb dated to the 7th or 8th Century. Researchers suddenly withdrew their assertion that the blue pigment in the tomb paintings were made from lapis lazuli. This retraction caused much puzzlement amongst scholars as no reason was given, and it appears that forensic analysis has not yet been performed. My article asserted that lapis was used as a pigment in the Edo era, but there is no evidence that it was used as early as the 7th or 8th century in Japan, so its use at such an early date would have been a significant historical discovery.
I won't repost the entire obscure discussion, but I will point towards the original post at the Ancient Japan Weblog and the followup discussion on their associated forum.