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Oldskool Tales

As cool as I consider myself to be, there are literally thousands of people who came before me that I simply can't touch. They are the ones who coined terms like "down to the bare metal" and "hard core" in reference to computing. They invented most of the techniques we take for granted. They put me to shame, and kick my ass up, left, down, right, and sideways.

This section of is dedicated to the memories and stories of all the people who had nothing to work with, yet built real machines with their bare hands. Read on, skeptical user, and learn how you did things in the old days. Personal computing was nothing like it is today. It was fun.

How do you work on a PC if you can't see?

Kerry Hoath writes:

"Ever remember a program called tran? It was an adaption of the say public domain speech synth for the PC-speaker on the XT.

say h-eh-l-o th-eh-r-eh

Getting a talking XT was as easy as dir/w|tran. It sounded horrible but was usable. I have a 7k program you might want to see for a laugh, It sends screen output in morse to the pc-speaker so we can read the screen. I don't know morse but the guy who wrote it swears by it. I only mention these in relation to the comments on the Speech synth for the Apple ][. The lengths people will go to to get access to their computer...

I used an XT for 6 months with no speech under dos 2.0. You could tell if copies completed or not based on the noise from disk drives and which drive stopped first. Yes, there were people who got upset when disk drives got *quieter*. Admittedly, the miniscribe 20-meg jobbies with the stepper motors would wake the dead; the 40-meg Microscience were a good choice for audibility and reliability.

Same machine, different language

Christian Harms writes:

"In 1980 I could play on CP/M machines at the university. Not interesting? I was born in Dresden, GDR and all computers are products of the east-block. The only producer of these computers was called Robotron, including the software. There exists Software like R-DOS, R-Pascal and R-Base. These software looks like the originals (Turbo-Pascal and DBase), but all textoutputs was manuell translated to german and all copyright-messaged was removed or replaced.

The problem: Some strings are to long in german and the shortcuts for english names does not fit on german names :).

Apple II Disk Drive Tricks, Part 2

Peter Ferrie writes:

"By altering some of the nibbilization routines, it was possible to create what was, in effect, 18 sectors per track (instead of the usual 16). It was really 6 sectors of three times the size, such that reading a single sector read 768 bytes instead of 256, but each block of 256 bytes could be read to a different address. I first saw this trick done by Roland Gustuffson in Broderbund's Wings of Fury. I wrote an OS (who didn't?) that used a similar routine for the disk access, but I never released it."

Commodore 64 Disk Drive Tricks

Philip C. Tsao writes:

"The Commodore 64's 5.25" floppy drive was (in)famous for being possibly the slowest floppy drive ever sold to the public. This was partly because Jack Tramiel (then President of Commodore) opted for a kludged software-timed serial I/O bus instead of the proven reliable IEEE-488. As a result, while the cost of the CPU and keyboard was kept down, the cost of the disk drive itself skyrocketted because it needed its OWN CPU and I/O hardware to interface with the kludged I/O bus!

Programmers quickly figured out how exploit the disk-drive's CPU. It turned out that this CPU could control the speed of the stepper motor which positioned the read/write head. When the head moved slowly, the stepper motor emitted a low frequency noise. When the head moved quickly, a high frequency noise was heard. It wasn't long before programmers took advantage of the stepper motor to generate "drive music"! Since the drive and computer CPUs could operate independently and simultaneously, stereo effects could be achieved in combination with the built-in SID (audio) chip.

Fun with users, Part 3

Mark Juric writes:

"My favorite was the complete morons who'd set their display to :0 on a multi-user machine. I'd be working on the console and some damn emacs window would keep popping up. So just for grins, I'd grab it and make some choice edits to whatever they were working on before they could figure out what happened. Made for some very amusing help desk callsabout file corruption: 'Hello... Every time I try to edit my C program, the words 'I'm a moron' keep appearing out of nowhere. I think this machine has a virus...'"

Apple II Disk Drive Tricks

Ron "Asbestos" Dippold writes:

"I liked the controlling being done in software. It allowed all sorts of nifty tricks. I (others did too) made a disk that was one huge spiral - you could control the head down to a quarter track level - you lay down the data and every quarter track you move the head. The disk boots phenomenally fast."

Apple II Hardware Tricks

Michael writes:

"Most of the hardware tricks involved burning new ROMs to override the default behavior of the machines. One favorite technique for cracking games was to burn a new ROM that would ALWAYS dump you in the system monitor when you hit ctrl-reset. The biggest roadblock to cracking a disk was getting into the monitor, once you were there and had the thing loaded, you could dump the entire program's ASM listing to your printer and set about the task of figuring out how it worked.

I read about someone connecting their cassette out port to their phone lines, and their friend on the other end connected their phone line to the cassette in port on their own II... Transferring programs was as simple as typing SAVE on one end and LOAD on the other.

Sound on the early IIs was as horrid as it was on the PCs. One-bit speaker. Terrible... Until someone figured out that you could generate a 22KHz carrier tone and modulate nearly any kind of wave audio into that. Such feats took up 100% CPU time, however, so this technique was not used in games. (At least not during gameplay --Ed.)

Fun with users, Part 2

Fred Butzen writes:

"Another prank: At the old office, MWC had a PDP-11/44, with a bunch of dumb terminals plugged into it. Bob had gotten the cheapest possible terminals, which were old Zenith Z-19 terminals. (They were also sold as kits by Heathkit.) A guy named Bob Beals, whose login was "foad" (for "fuck off and die"), read the manual for the terminal, and discovered that there was an escape sequence that would submit the contents of the screen to the computer. So, of course, foad started mailing letter bombs to people: the mail message would clear the screen, print a command (sometimes damaging, sometimes just embarrassing), submit it, then clear the screen again. foad got pretty good at covering up his tracks as well -- but not good enough. Every sooften the cry of "FOAD!" would rise up, and we'd know that Beals had struck again."

Fun With Users

Charles Fiterman writes:

"At IIT our computers talked to the outside world via teletype, this was a really long time ago. The statistics department didn't understand that the Teletype was a full duplex device and when the computer, a 1620 tube machine, went down they would call and say 'Something is wrong with the Teletype I push keys and instead of typing it just goes buzz buzz.' I modified the echo routine for their connection so that no matter what you typed it would echo the next character of the string 'You are losing your mind.\r\n'"

The Automatic Teller Machine and the Mafia

Charles Fiterman writes:

"(Editor's Note: When I was doing research for this section, Fred Butzen asked me to ask Charles Fiterman about how he helped design the world's first ATM, and almost got assassinated for his trouble. I couldn't go another day without details, so I asked him about it.)

What happened was I imagined the following scenario; Some gangsters walk into my office, put pictures of my kids on the desk and say "Tell us what you know about breaking into ATM machines." At that point I would become their most enthusiastic assistant and that is the opponent I designed against. So I became the first person to implement public key encryption on a micro processor, a Z80.

Sadly the mechanical design people didn't take this attitude and our machine had the computer directly behind the plasma display. I said it was a dinosaur with powerful scaly armor over every part of its body but its brain which sat behind a little piece of glass.

Anyway the hypothetical gangsters never showed up in my office, they did something smarter. The American Bankers Association formed a committee on ATM machines and the committee voted that ATM manufacturers should share all security information. We immediatly got a new competitor Leferburough. This turned out to be a subsidiary of Emprise Corporation which was the Mafia flagship corporation at the time, this was before RICO. So we got to share all our security information with the Mafia. A good argument for public key encryption.

Burroughs had "test cards" which they gave reparimen. A test card had all 9's written on its mag stripe except the last two digits which had a command code. Thus a repair man could give any command to a machine by inserting the right test card. Very convienient, and it only took two test cards to pull money from any machine and not leave any record of what had happened.

One group of criminals worked the following scam. They had a movie camera set up across the street from an ATM in an apartment. When the machine was used they could capture the user's PIN by photographing his hand movments. A pickpocket got the card.

Our machine had a horizontal screen and you had to be within 1 degree of vertical over it to read it. The screen was touch sensative so instead of having an ordinary key pad we displayed a keypad. On requesting the PIN we would scramble the keypad so your PIN couldn't be captured from hand movments. You could change your PIN at will but we didn't allow palindromes e.g. 71417. Your PIN entered backward worked exactly like your PIN entered forward but threw the silent alarm.

Thank God they're no longer as big and hot as they used to be

Hal Snyder writes:

"My sister had a summer job during her high school years at Great Lakes Naval Base on one of the last computers still using vacuum tubes. This was in the mid 1960's before central air conditioning was as prevalent and as effective as it is now. I think she was really bored by the clerical nature of her job, but what I remember best is how hot she said it got there, frequently 90-100 degrees.

My first college teaching job was part time around 1970 at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. After class one day, a student approached me and asked if I wanted a Univac computer. He had submitted what he thought was a ridiculously low bid (I think a few thousand dollars) at a government auction in Tennessee, and was now required by law to make good on his bid. He had no space nor facilities for the system (imagine a room full of refrigerator-sized cabinets) and was going to lose money just carting the thing away. The computer itself was old enough that it predated the 80-column standard on punch cards. It used punch cards with 90 columns, and the holes in the cards were round rather than rectangular.

Norwegian CP/M

Robert Schmidt writes:

"...reminds me of the Norwegian computer Tiki-100 (initially the name was "Kon Tiki", but Thor Heyerdahl, the famous (?) Norwegian adventurer who crossed the Pacific on a small pram called "Kon Tiki", claimed his copyright on that name). Tiki-100 ran not CP/M, but a Norwegian translation called "KP/M". "cat" was named "kat", for example... :-) It had OK graphics and could play digitized sounds - I remember playing the first version of Karateka I ever saw on this thing. It became very popular through schools - a success quite similar to the BBC micro's in Great Britain. Relentlessly, though, the PCs took over..."

Fun with the Atari ST

Fred Butzen writes:

"Here's one of my stories. Not really old school, but it's funny.

In the mid-80s, MWC wrote one of the first C compilers for the Atari ST -- the "Jackintosh", so called because Jack Tremiel (formerly of Commodore) designed it with Atari as a rip-off of the Macintosh. It had a GUI built around Digital Research's GEM interface. It had two floppies, a 68000 CPU, and 512 kilobytes of RAM -- which in those days was a lot of memory. To save money, the hardware was totally sleezy. From time to time it would simply stop working, and you'd have to open up the unit and reseat all of the chips in their sockets. If you were in a hurry, you'd just lift up the unit about six inches and drop it. A total piece of junk.

Part of the savings was that the machine had no MMU and no parity on the memory. This meant that the machine was totally unreliable; however, it also meant that a kid hacker could do anything to the hardware, and there's no way the machine would stop him. (Mind you, that anything included smoking the tube, but that's another story.) For example, I wrote a little program that reset the base address of video memory to zero, which was where the operating system lived. (Video used RAM, of course, rather than memory on a separate card.) It was kind of cool, because when you ran a program that allocated memory -- say, a sort program, you could see the memory being allocated and deallocated on the screen. The difference between qsort and shellsort was really obvious just by the patterns they drew on the screen.

Anyway, as a programming exercise I wrote a version of the game of life for this machine. It ran fine; however, I made one mistake: I forgot to set the clipping rectangle around the screen. So, the first time I built a glider gun, the glider went creeping off the screen, and just kept on going, crashing through memory. Mind you, there's no MMU, so the machine is still running while the glider is rampaging through memory. Because the 68000 used memory-mapped ports for its hardware, you could see where the glider was going because the disk drives starting running, the lights flashed on the keyboard, the tube blinked, and so on. Finally, the glider hit something really vital and the machine died with "streaky bombs" -- a sign that the operating system was really, really sick.

Of course, I had to show this to all the other guys. We laughed ourselves sick watching that happen.

How do you write a speech synthesizer if you can't see?

Fred Butzen writes:

"BTW, here's a real-life anecdote for your old-school collection. I don't know if you ever met Karl Dahlke, but he's a blind programmer with whom I worked at Rush. He ported his drivers for the Votrax voice synthesizer to Coherent -- it's a beautiful system. Anyway, he originally wrote his original voice-synthesizer driver on the Apple II. Now, you ask yourself, how did write the voice synthesizer if the voice synthesizer did not yet exist to tell him what was on the screen? The answer is that he kept the entire driver in his head, and wrote, assembled, and installed it blindly -- the only feedback he had from the machine was the bell. Now THAT'S old school!"

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