Monday, April 29, 2013

My Micro Life (5) : Amstrad PPC512DD

We have now reached 1990 in the story of my microcomputers growing up and by now i was a student at Birmingham Polytechnic. More importantly I now had money (you see back in the past we actually got paid to be students and got all of our course fees paid!) and of course i wanted my own computer after using and abusing my Dad's computers up until now. I saw an advert for Morgan Computers where they were selling Amstrad PPC512DD portable computers with a free external monitor. I fancied the idea of having a laptop as a rich guy on my course had one. So i went along and bought it...

If you are not familiar with the PPC512 then it was an unusual portable computer. It had a full-size proper keyboard (so was fairly big) though it had a small black & white (and non-backlit) LCD screen. This was rather hard to see anything on though so i tended to use the Sinclair black & white monitor instead (until it overheated which was usually by the time the PPC had booted). It had twin 3.5" floppy disc drives and not a great deal else. It was not what you would call a laptop though to be fair it was not a heavy computer. It ran reasonably well, with an NEC V30 chip (a clone of the 8086) and 512K of RAM.

I can't remember a great deal about the PPC to be honest because i sold it within a couple of months. I only lost about 20 quid on it, selling it to a fellow student, he didn't come back to me for a refund so i assume he got some good use out of it! I wanted a proper laptop and that is where i thought i was going next...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

10 years of the iTunes Music Store

The i-devices helped restore Apple's fortunes and eventually made them the juggernaut they are today (even if they have dipped a bit lately). After the iMac steadied the ship it was the divergence into the iPod music player and later the iPhone and iPad that set Apple's fortunes soaring. The Apple strategy was to produce the devices for people to be able to live a digital media lifestyle and the iTunes Store, which is 10 years old today, is a key cornerstone of that strategy.

There had been music stores before but Apple packaged it all up with a price-per-song ($0.99) that broke such things out of the geek niche and into the mainstream. The iTunes Store has become a huge success, making billions of dollars for Apple, diversifying into movies and books, and is now the biggest music retailer in the world.

Personally i don't buy many songs from it, i prefer to buy CDs and rip to iTunes that way but for the odd song and digital only release it works very well. Part of the success of the store has been to help encourage and tie many customers to Apple's hardware too and with over 25 billion songs sold to date there are a lot of people now tied into the system. 

Ancient computers in use today

Technology and computing in particular has a rapid cycle of innovation and obsolescence. However in some cases old computing equipment remains in use decades after it went obsolete. PC World covers a few systems still in use including a warehouse inventory system still running on an Apple IIe, PDPs still in use by defence establishments and most amazingly an IBM 402 accounting machine from 1948 which is apparently still in use by a Texan chemical filter company. The IBM 1401 Restoration Project have more photos of the system in use, which is the last one in service in the world, and are trying to get it into a museum.

Many older computers are perfectly fine for certain tasks, though a 402 is probably pushing it a bit. However as one of the commenters in the PC World article says, at least the operators don't have to worry about malware and endless software updates.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Micro Life (4) : Amstrad PC1640DD

After the BBC Micro expired, due to mysterious circumstances, we were in search of a new computer. It was by now the late 1980s and Amstrad had recently launched the PC revolution in the UK with IBM PC compatibles within the price range of mere mortals. Thus it was decided it was time to jump on that bandwagon and get a proper grown-up computer so we could do proper stuff like word processing and spreadsheets (yawn).

The PC1640DD was an early IBM XT compatible though it did have a few strange foibles such as the power supply unit being in the monitor and a non-standard mouse. Ours had the full 640K of RAM, it came with twin 5.25" floppy drives and... a GUI! That GUI was GEM Desktop and it wasn't very useful on that PC to be honest, especially as we only had CGA graphics, and we had no GUI applications so it had limited use to us, so we mostly stuck to DOS. The most useful software that came with the Amstrad was a business software pack of WordStar, Supercalc and a database i can't remember the name of now mostly because it was rubbish.

For the next few years that PC was our workhorse and my Dad was keen to upgrade it as much as possible. Over the years we got a 32MB hard drive (though because of the idiosyncratic Amstrad PC architecture the hard drive came on an extension card... thus a hard card) and an external 3.5" floppy drive. I also bought MS-DOS 4.01 for it just because i could.

I even installed MS Windows 3.0 on it as that did support CGA mode though it was as useless as GEM but intriguing.

The PC coincided with my arrival at Birmingham Polytechnic so some of the software i used during my HND on the Poly's PCs i also used on the Amstrad including a shareware clone of dBase III which i used for my final year project and Turbo Pascal (v4 which i bought myself as the poly was still on v3) to learn how to program.

However by the early 1990s the PC1640 was starting to look tired and had reached its limits, more or less, in terms of expandability. Besides which i now had a grant cheque and decided it was time to buy my own computer at last, though for some reason i bought for my first computer a cut-down portable version of the Amstrad PC, but that is a story for next time...

Friday, April 19, 2013

British Airships 1905-30 (Book Review)

The end of the 19th century saw a great spark of interest in the airship in countries like Germany and France, the British lagged behind somewhat though quickly caught up in the early 20th century. R101 apart not much is often written about British airship developments compared to the likes of the zeppelins which makes Ian Castle's book British Airships 1905-30 in the Osprey New Vanguard series most welcome.

As with all NV books it is a fairly slim tome but packed full of information and well illustrated. The book tells the story of British airships from the first non-rigid ships through to the disaster of the R101 which pretty much ended British interest in the airship (for the time being anyway).

The book describes each Army and Navy airship series in turn and describes their wartime exploits. The book concentrates on the military role of Britain's airships so does not go into great detail about the R101 but that has been amply covered in other books. What is particularly interesting is the coverage of early British non-rigid airships such as the rather lovely looking flying sausage Nulli Secundus.
Nulli Secundus II (Library of Congress photo)
The only flaw in the book is that it is rather short (only 48 pages) but that is a common problem with the Osprey NV series. The structure is also a little illogical, the airships are described first and then the book goes back to cover the war service. It may have flowed better to do this at the same time. These are only minor niggles though, it is a lovely book that is highly recommended.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Transatlantic Airships - An Illustrated History (Book Review)

Airships are one of my obsessions and books on them i hungrily consume. Transatlantic Airships is not a general history of airships though does cover a great deal of their heyday and more recent developments. It concentrates on airships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, seen as the great barrier in early aviation. Transatlantic passenger flights were seen in the 1920s as the great commercial opportunity for airships like the famous zeppelin, able to take passengers in comfort long distances. This was something the fixed wing aircraft of the time was far beyond being able to match.

In his well written and brilliantly illustrated book John Christopher describes the early history of the airship, both rigid and non-rigid and the advances in technology sparked by the First World War with the German zeppelins gaining longer and longer legs. The first airship to cross the Atlantic non-stop though was British, R34 which crossed from East to West in July 1919. Although the fixed wing aircraft beat it across with Alcock and Brown crossing in the other direction in their former Vimy bomber just 2 weeks beforehand, R34 did make the first return crossing by an aircraft. R34's epic journey is covered in great detail as are a number of other crossings, the book throughout is well illustrated with excellent photographs and period graphics and maps.

Despite the British lead (whose interest in airships was finally destroyed in the R101 crash) it was the German zeppelins who made passenger flights across the Atlantic their own with airships of increasing size and complexity culminating in the Hindenberg. The airship was holding its own in its special niche in the 1930s despite increasing competition by aeroplanes. The level of comfort that could be offered unmatched until the wide-bodied jet airliners of the 1970s (albeit for the rich only). Of course the airship was a lot slower but when you are rich maybe the time to travel  does not matter too much as a smoking room and a grand piano, as the Hindenberg had, does. The Hindenberg disaster killed off the commercial airship business though by then it was largely restricted to the zeppelin Atlantic trade.

If the Hindenberg had not blown up on that dreadful day in May 1937 its interesting to consider for how much longer the zeppelins would have crossed the Atlantic. It is likely they could have continued for a few more years though the disaster and the Second World War killed off the dream. That is not the end of the story the book recounts however as the wartime exploits of the US Navy's blimp squadrons (or blimprons) which on occasion crossed the Atlantic to get to their assignments in Europe are also included. The book ends with a look at recent airship developments including the Zeppelin NT though airships crossing the Atlantic carrying passengers in decadent comfort is probably a dream that will never live again.

Dreams are something the book covers well. Many futuristic (and outlandish) designs for airships were made in both sides of the war, even nuclear powered airships being considered at one stage but all of these dreams came to nothing. But it is good to dream after all, even if the dream is ultimately doomed.

Weapon Fail : Rocket fighters

In the 1930s and 40s along with the jet engine the rocket engine was another alternative method of propulsion that promised unrivalled performance gains over piston-engined fighters which, by the 1940s, were reaching the limit of their performance. However while the jet engine went on to dominate military (and civil) aviation in the postwar period the rocket engine has not and to this day there has only ever been one operational rocket powered fighter (not including jet powered aircraft which also used rockets for short-term boost) and that was the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. Why? Because of range.

The Komet, which was one of the advanced fighters designed by the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt the daily Allied bomber attacks, had amazing performance. It could reach around 700mp/h, far in advance of anything on the Allied side at the time and easily out-climb any fighters being able to shoot up to 39,000ft in 3 minutes. That performance came at a heavy price though and the Komet had only enough fuel for a few minutes of powered flight. After that it was simply a futuristic looking glider and had to try and return to it's base unpowered.

One other problem with the great performance was that the targets (the bombers) were much slower than the Komet and thus were difficult to hit. The Komet pilot only having a couple of brief opportunities for firing on it's target before having to disengage. Only a small number of successful kills were made by Komets. Allied pilots quickly learnt the Komet had very short legs and waited for the fuel to run out before attacking the now unpowered and vulnerable Komet.

After the war rocket power continued to be explored by the various participants in the Cold War but the pure rocket powered fighter died a quick death. Rocket power was explored to boost the performance of jet powered aircraft but as jet engines gained in power rocket power has been relegated to research aircraft only.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Soviet Mars 3 lander may have been detected

In 1971 the Soviet Union launched a number of missions to land a probe on Mars. Mars 3 managed to land on the planet and transmit back to home... but then a few seconds later it went quiet. It still managed to become the first probe to land on Mars in a working condition... at least momentarily. It is a shame the probe failed as it was intended to be able to analyse the Martian soil, monitor the Martian magnetic field and even deploy a small "rover" Prop-M. Unfortunately apart from 70 lines from a partial image (that showed nothing identifiable) no useful data was sent back.

Nowadays Mars has been visited by a number of successful probes and rovers, some missions still ongoing, though what happened to Mars 3 remains a mystery and probably will remain so until some future astronaut on Mars investigates the probe. However at least the probe has been spotted on the surface or that is what Russian amateur space enthusiasts believe they have found in publicly available imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. They believe they have found the lander as well as its parachute and other debris.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Friday, April 12, 2013

50 years since Sketchpad demonstration

TUAW notes the 50th anniversary of the first demonstration of Sketchpad, the first computer program with a GUI. Long before the rise of the Xerox and Apple's GUI in the 1970s this was a drawing program developed by Ivan Sutherland for his PhD and is considered the direct ancestor of Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems. Sketchpad is also considered to have pioneered the Graphical User Interface, object orientated programming and human computer interaction (HCI).

In the video below Alan Kay discusses Sketchpad and shows a demonstration.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A pop-up Apple museum

No its not a self-parody, there is indeed a pop-up Apple museum even though you would have thought such an entity would have created a hipster singularity and destroyed the universe by now. The museum is in the USA alas but the 512 Pixels blog has a great preview of some of the amazing Apple exhibits on show. All the usual suspects are there, Apple II, Macintoshes, a lovely looking Lisa and also the intriguing MacColby portable.

If you are in the US, especially around Atlanta Georgia then the pop-up museum is surely well worth a visit. Its open on April 20th and 21st as part of Vintage Computer Festival.
This Macintosh 512K isn't in the museum, as it's mine

Monday, April 8, 2013

NASA approves next generation exoplanet survey satellite

NASA has given the go-ahead for a $200 million mission called Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to hunt for exoplanets around nearby stars. TESS will built upon the work of the Kepler Space Telescope which to date has discovered 2740 exoplanets by detecting the dip in starlight from nearby stars as the planets travel in front of the star (or rather the face of the star facing us).

While Kepler works well it is restricted to a small portion of space (0.28% of the sky) while TESS will be able to survey all of the sky using an array of telescopes and should be able to detect many more exoplanets. The key goal of TESS will be to hunt for planets which have similar conditions to Earth and maybe could contain life. TESS will launch in 2017.
Image credit: D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Sunday, April 7, 2013

4 decades of Pioneer 11

The Pioneer 11 space mission began on April 5th 1973 when the rocket carrying the satellite launched from Cape Canaveral. Pioneer 11 followed its predecessor which had become the first man-made object to leave the inner Solar System to visit Jupiter, where it took detailed photographs of the red spot. It then went onto visit Saturn, the first probe to do so.

By now Pioneer 11 had completed its mission objectives (and more) but it also served a use to test the route through Saturn's rings which the Voyager missions (which were following on a couple of years behind) would also take. In doing so Pioneer 11 discovered two new moons of Saturn and the F ring of Saturn.

Pioneer 11 was then sent out of the Solar System and it left the planetary system in 1990 (beyond the orbit of Pluto). The last transmission from the probe was detected in 1995 and NASA officially ended the Pioneer 11 mission however the probe is still heading out into interstellar space towards the constellation Scutum.
Saturn (and Titan) taken by Pioneer 11 (Image NASA Ames)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The story behind Apple DOS

CNET have a fascinating article on the Apple's first Disk Operation System (DOS) which it needed for the Apple II microcomputer. As the article describes Apple bought the DOS from an outside company to work with the Apple II and the innovative disk drive Woz designed as they didn't have anyone in house who could develop the DOS in time.

Apple DOS was critical in the success of the Apple II and hence Apple itself which may not have survived long enough to develop the Lisa and Macintosh if the Apple II had not been the success it was. Indeed the Apple II continued to be a success well into the 1980s.

Apple DOS was written by Paul Laughton, and it together with Woz's disk drive and VisiCalc (the first killer app) made the Apple II a success in business. Interestingly it was developed on a minicomputer, stored on punch cards and debugged on that system before being put on Apple's microcomputer (more about this can be read here on Laughton's own website). This is nothing new of course, the Apple II itself was used to write early Lisa and Macintosh system software.
Apple IIe, Mac IIcx and 2 floppy drives

40 years of cellphones

The mobile phone in its cellphone guise is 40 years old today. On April 3rd 1973 Marty Cooper, an engineer with Motorola, made the first public phone call with a cellphone. His phone, a DynaTAC 8000x, was quite chunky compared to today though my first mobile phone in 1997 (also a Motorola) was also quite chunky.

That was an 8800I, if you threw that at someone you could hurt them for sure. If i threw my iPhone at someone? They'd probably barely feel it, not that i want to test this out.

Experiments in hand-held communication devices have been going on for some time, as this article apparently detailing prototype mobile phone technology from 1938 describes. (I think its more likely a tiny radio).

So how many mobile phones have you had? From memory i think i'm on 8th now. My favourite phone was my Panasonic X200 which i still have. I'd rather use my iPhone though...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Weapon Fail : Chauchat

Some weapons may seem great in the workshop under development or on the drawing board. However once they are used on the slightly less controlled situation of the battlefield then design flaws which went unnoticed at the factory often shown up especially if they have been badly made. Such was the case with the FM Chauchat or Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915, a light machine gun developed by the French in the First World War.

Over a quarter of a million Chauchats (named after the man who headed the commission that accepted the gun into service) were made making it the most widely produced automatic weapon of the war and it was used by the French and seven other nations. It was one of the first light machine guns that could be carried and fired by 2 men, one to fire it and someone to assist him, instead of needing a whole team. There was just one problem with the Chauchat. It was rubbish.

It's main problem was the open sided magazine. In a muddy environment it caused the gun to easily jam, mud being fairly abundant in the trenches. It's bad ergonomics and loose bipod also made it an inaccurate weapon when it wasn't jammed and working. It also overheated easily if used for long bursts rendering the gun useless until it cooled down. This could take several minutes which obviously was not a good thing if the enemy were attacking. So basically the gun was prone to jamming but if it didn't jam then it was inaccurate and overheated. Other than that it was great!

The 8mm Lebel cartridge it had to use caused some of the problems as the cartridge's taper dictated the semi-circular nature of the magazine. It's action was also not suited for a light machine gun. It's design flaws were made worse by the gun's generally poor standard of manufacture and the poor raw materials used. The gun was quite light though which was maybe it's only virtue.

Improved guns without the open sided magazine were designed but they were too late to see any service in the war. The gun itself was immediately replaced with superior guns after the war ended. Indeed there were superior guns like the Hotchkiss M'le'09 around before the Chauchat which should have been adopted instead. C'est la guerre.

It has been described as the worst machine gun ever made, maybe somewhat unfair but it certainly was up there among the worst.