Herb's Biography

[herb's head] Some people are interested in my background and history. The short story is that I've supported S-100 computers for decades, and in the 1990's as "Dr. S-100". I have a BSEE degree from the 1970's. These days on the Web, I restore and sell old computer stuff, do some 1970's microcomputer history, and offer some documents of the era. I'm interested in new uses for old technology. All this is on my Web site at retrotechnology.com. I'm married and live in the Northeast USA. Details are below; however because of potential identity theft details are obscured. Info last updated Jan 2020.

I was an Electrical Engineering student at a midwest university when the Altair 8800 was announced. The emerging microprocessor industry encouraged me to specialize in digital electronics and microprocessors in my BSEE program, which I completed. I co-founded the first computer club in that state in 1975. I worked in both the microcomputer and mainframe industries over the years at that university, Eastman Kodak, DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.), and as a contract programmer/engineer for a contract programming company. I worked with DEC mainframes and minis as well as with various microcomputers as a grad student in Computer Science at a southern USA university. Following that I ran a DEC KA-10 and later a KS-10 (PDP-10) system. at one point I had a job to set up and program Multibus graphics cards for medical imaging.

I was an engineer for a little microcomputer company in the early 1980's. They produced products around the Heath H-89 Z80 computer, including a dual processor Z80/8086 card (yes, not an 8088 but an 8086). At that time I met engineer Lee Hart, and we have been good friends for many years. In 2020 he still has interests in the Z80 and Heath communities. I consider the H-89 to be a superior computer product, past and present; there are many Heath enthusiasts today who still agree with that proposition. The subsequent Heath Z-120 computer series (generally referred to as the Z-100 for the S-100/IEEE-696 bus) was largly bought by the government: they continue to inject them into the surplus world and so even today there is a trickle of these workhorse S-100 machines available. (They are so reliable and available, that it is hard to make money providing parts: they don't break and most owners has spares!)

Project Xanadu and Ted Nelson

I briefly worked for one of Ted Nelson's "Project Xanadu" groups, led by Roger Gregory at that time. (I did some hardware support, and a bit of contract network programming.) Nelson and his Xanadu project have not recieved the respect they deserve as pioneers of today's Web. Ted is at least credited for creating the term "hypertext", preceeded by Vannevar Bush's more general notions of active documents in the 1940's; and "the mother of all demos" Douglas Engelbart in 1968.

Xanadu proposed a Web-like server/client architecture, hyperlinked documents, with a graphical interface, in the late 1970's - before the Internet was public, before any Web browser was written. Their architecture was much more advanced than today's Web environment: links were BI-DIRECTIONAL, not one way, and had mechanisms for showing revisions and for payments to authors, editors and from readers. This would have resolved issues of copyright and payments which decades later became obvious. But it was ahead of its time and the technology needed was just not in place, so public or private funding was too difficult to obtain.

"Dr." S-100

My initial role in the S-100 world was to collect and resell old S-100 cards, manuals and systems, which I did in the 1980's. In 1992 I authored a series of S-100 articles in the privately published "The Computer Journal", a magazine of the late 1980s into the early 1990's. It was popular to take the name of a product line, so I called myself "Dr. S-100". I wrote about the features of the S-100 bus and on how to repair, diagnose, and program some of S-100 cards of the previous era. I've collected those articles and at some point I'll republish them, as I retained copyright and the publishing magazine no longer offers them as reprints. I will also add my two S-100 articles from "The Z-Letter", another private magazine of the era.

My articles, and the early dial-up email of the era, gave me access to the world of S-100 users and collectors. So I decided to share my accumulated archives of now-defunct S-100 computer companies as a copy service with those old and new owners of S-100 type computers. Since then I've recieved even more documenation and provided it to these clients, creating probably the largest archive of original S-100 paper manuals in the world. With the expansion of the Internet in the mid-1990's I was able to do this around the world at minimal expense, a "cottage Internet company".

But by 2004, Internet bandwidth and storage became almost free; scanners, computers and even CD writers are practically free. So a few individuals and companies simply digitized ALL their S-100 documents, and offered them for free download on their sites - gutting my business and the financial support it gave me for that work. Like other Internet companies, my business was disintermediated by simple trading or giveaways directly between ndividuals - and the fact that my "content" was now available for free with a mouseclick.

As for S-100 systems, they initially became more popular thanks to the Internet. S-100 boards were sold daily at Web auctions; I've already said there are many sites with information and original docs and software online. But by the early 2000's, 32-bit embedded microprocessors from cell phones and appliances became available as "Arduinos", later as "Raspberry Pi's", at ever cheaper prices. They were more familar to people born in the 1990's, than "ugly boxes of boards" S-100 systems. So S-100 fell out of favor in the 21st century; prices fell and buyers and sellers declined.

Nonetheless, many people feel that these old 8-bit systems still have something to offer today's computing "explorers" as these systems are well-documented and straightforward in operation and design. There are also people and companies who continue to use this technology, either from necessity or from nostalgia, who still need support and equipment. And there are enthusiasts who, for various reasons, have new interests in old computers; they have acquired one but don't know what the next step is.

Mac stuff and more

In the late 90's I noticed that universities and corporations were discarding older Apple Macintosh computers in large numbers. From my S-100 experiences I saw yet another round of computer collecting and reselling ahead. In this case, I saw old Mac hardware as the service I could provide. I've sold old Macs since 1997 via my simple Web site, and as time goes on it is the OLDEST Macs that garner the most interest. As with the S-100 world, my customers appreciate the availability of parts and accessories for their older Macs. My previous old computer experiences inform me as I provide another generation of computer users with yet another generation of old computers. However, by the 21st century, most Mac users have migrated to OS X, a UNIX/BSD type operating system, and the newest Macs. But just as with S-100 systems, there are enthusiasts and traditional Mac users who still need old systems and parts, so my modest Mac business continues.

Similar to my commercial Mac interests, I also accumulated older Sun and SGI computers and offered those for sale. Again, my customers are mostly collectors, individual enthusiasts, and the occasional industrial user who has applications dependent on these old systems. In the early 2000's, as consumer PC's matched the performance of SGI graphic systems, personal interest in the older systems declined to just the older enthusiasts, and supplies from corporate discards were starting to dry up. A decade later, the "professional" sellers of Sun and SGI started to dump their inventory, and there's some pickup in interest from individuals new to those products.

There was a similar rise and fall in electronic test equipment in the 1990's through the mid 00's. Early in the 90's, companies downsized and released a lot of test equipment which was eagerly snapped up. But as time went on and engineering declined in the United States, there was less interest. Also new, faster, cheaper equipment competed with the old; even as new technology became cheaper, ultimately disposable, and unrepairable and unmodifiable. Many people now just buy modules, widgets, or kits rather than design their own. "Test equipment" that works by itself, is becoming obsolete: if you can't hook it to a computer, it's considered useless!

My work in Retrotechnology

In the 21st century, I spend more time developing content on my sites, documenting technology history and on developing technology myself as I did a few decades ago. In 2005 I purchased my own domain name: retrotechnology.com. The name represents the reuse of old technology - materials, methods, tools - for modern or classic use. My domain home page shows the range of retro-technology of interest to me.

An example of my interests in development was my work in amateur astronomy. I became an amateur astronomer in the early 1990's when I moved to the Northeast. In 2004-2006, I joined a group of Amateur Telescope Makers (ATM's) who met to make mirrors at a private shop. They allowed us to use his mirror workshop and provide advice and materials. I dug out my old almost-finished 8-inch-diameter mirror and completed it there, and made another mirror from scratch. Check out my work on figuring an 8-inch mirror; and my work on making an 8-inch mirror from start. Here are details on my amateur astronomy interests.

Another interest I have is to preserve 1970's computing history. Since the so-called "25th anniversary of the IBM-PC" in 2006, and similar anniversaries after, I've noticed that most of today's "personal computing" histories begin with that computer from 1981. But that was several years after the MITS Altair 8800 (among others) kicked off a revolutionary development of microcomputers used by individuals, technologists and business people. Their efforts laid the foundations of modern personal computing; IBM simply grabbed an existing market. CP/M was the software foundation for much of modern personal computing and was dominant in the 1970's and beyond.

So around 2006, I created a whole Web section about the early days of CP/M and what led to, and followed, its creation by Dr. Gary Kildall in 1975. That effort paid off in 2014, when the IEEE and other organizations decided to honor Dr. Kildall on the 40th anniversary of the first operation of CP/M. They found my Web site, used the information there, and asked me to comment on a summary history written by one of their leadership. I take some credit for establishing a trail of history which they found and followed.

RCA, the COSMAC 1802, and JOe Weisbecker

RCA's research facility was near Princeton NJ, and became the David Sarnoff Center and eventually part of SRI. In 2009 SRI decided to disburse the Sarnoff Library collection of books, documents and artifacts. One of the recipients of artifacts was The College of New Jersey in central New Jersey; another was a computer club called "MARCH" which had a small vintage computing museum in New Jersey. I happened to be involved with the College and that club at the time. I was intreiged by the Library's collection of COSMAC 1802 RCA microprocessor items from Joseph Weisbecker, who created the 1802 at RCA. So I followed the trail of those materials to TCNJ, and became a technical volunteer to assist in processing and evaluating those Sarnoff Library technical artifacts. When TCNJ created "the Sarnoff Collection" museum in 2013, I volunteered there as a docent and continued to assist in their curation of Weisbecker's and others artifacts. And so my Web pages, cover the development of the Sarnoff Collection and their particular activities to curate and preserve information about RCA's 1802 COSMAC microprocessor and development of tools and products around it. I'm still involved as of 2020.

At the same time in 2009, my old friend Lee Hart, decided to produce "the 1802 Membership Card". It's an Altoids-can sized microcomputer which contains a fully operational 1802 microprocessor with RAM and ROM and controls of LEDs and toggle switches. It's just like Weisbecker's "COSMAC ELF", which he described in Popular Electronics in the mid 1970's. So on my Web site, I decided to follow and support Lee Hart's 1802 Membership Card. As of 2020 that product is now ten years old, and still for sale. My Web site also covers other early developments of the 1802 and early products for hobbyists and engineers.

In 2019 I curated an ELF II system (obtained from the VCFed Museum, that club I work with) and produced digitized audio from cassette tapes containing COSMAC programs, recorded decades ago. Thanks to work performed (with my assistance) by the curator of the Sarnoff Collection to digitize Weisbecker's tapes, the results were reconstructed into their original binary programs and run in emulation by the developer of the EMMA 02, a COSMAC computer emulator program. This result is a product of my activities with all these COSMAC-related organizations. It "makes the case" for how I value these activities - as far as I'm concerned.

My Web site, also follows the COSMAC 1802 early use in spacecraft. Because the COSMAC was produced as a low-power device and could be produced with radiation-resistance "SOS" technology, it was an early microprocessor choice for satellites and spacecraft of the 1970's. But that history wasn't entirely clear. For example, in 2009 sites such as Wikipedia claimed the 1802 was on iconic spacecraft like Voyager and Viking. The work I produced on my Web site, corrected those errors and detailed early COSMAC 1802 use by radio amateurs in their OSCAR series spacecraft; and use by researchers on early satellites. It's not the "first microprocessor in space" (that's the Intel 4004!) but it's the first microprocessor used for satellite control on a successful spacecraft. I give myself and Steve Gemeny credit, for re-establishing those and other details of the COSMAC 1802's early use in space. Again - this "makes the case" for the value of my efforts to curate some history of the COSMAC 1802 and spacecraft of the 1970's.

Herb Johnson
New Jersey, USA
follow this link to email @ me

Copyright © 2020 Herb Johnson
Most recent revision Jan 16 2020