PolyMorphic Systems S-100 docs list

This document copyright Herb Johnson, document created 2012, updated Apr 29 2024 .
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PolyMorphic history

PolyMorphic Systems of Santa Barbara, California, produced the Poly 88 system in 1976, a slim "orange toaster" cabinet which held several cards of their design. It was cassette based, as were many early S-100 systems; with a video card and external keyboard, to be used with a TV monitor. They later offered systems with 8-inch and 5.25-inch floppy drives, and then a hard drive. They ended business in 1988 while transitioning to the IBM-PC market.

Marvin Johnston told me this story in late 2007: "Poly was manufactured here in Santa Barbara....When Polymorphic had trouble paying their bills, their production manager, Roger ???, started Lobo and was supplying drives to Polymorphic. Roger was still around [in the 1990's] when he worked for Applied Magnetics (now defunct.)"

...Long after [Poly] went out of business, a friend of mine got most of the stuff that had been put into a storage locker and passed a great deal of that along to me. One of my other projects is to get together all the Polymorphic documentation, etc. and then get it online. So much to do, so little time!"

"Something else that I need to get scanned, is the business plan for Polymorphics when they got in trouble and the management changed. There are a number of friends still around here that can help fill in the details including Dana Trout (of Pickles & Trout), Frank Anderson (Poly software manager), and a few others. If you have any specific questions, I'd be more than happy to ask them. One of *my* questions is whether or not the orange toaster (Poly 88) was ever built with the name "Micro Altair." I think it was in Stan Veit's book that I read it was originally named the Micro Altair, but Ed Roberts objected and the name was changed." - Marvin Johnston

In 2024, I looked around the Web, to see if Marvin Johnston did more with his Poly 88. I see he participated in a VCF (California USA) panel discussion in 1997 regarding vintage computing collecting and about Poly computers.

PolyMorphic owners and restoration & recovery work

Years ago, there was a PolyMorphic user's group and newsletter. Check this new and revived Poly Web site of Bob Bybee, Poly owner and one of the editors of the PolyLetter which ran from 1980 to 1993(!). He has some PolyMorphic history there and plans more support for Polymorphics. He has provided a Poly MS-DOS based emulator for many years.

I recieved an email in Nov 2003 from Marcus Lewis, about several computers of the 1970's he used. One of them was a Polymorphic, as follows below. See his comments on other systems on my S-100 owner's page.

"My first machine was a PolyMorphics Systems Poly-88 model 12 (I think it was). It was a business-clas machine, and proprietary in a lot of ways. It put 1.8432 MHz onthe system clock pin, rather than 2 MHz, and that blew any serial port add-on cards. I used and modified the 2 on-board serial ports. It had a 300/2400 baud cassette interface, 16x64 text and 48x128 graphics resolution on a 1K memory-mapped video card that only worked with the Poly-88 (based on the 1.8432 MHz clock). The BASIC interpreter that came with it was extraordinary for the time, but based solely on cassettes. They had a real business class machine (models 8810 and 8820) with one or two floppies and 5 or 10-slot MBs in a wood-trimmed case. The system had 3K of 2708 EPROM based at 0000H, 512 bytes of scratch RAM at about 1000H, and user RAM started at 2000H, which made it difficult to get software for. I put a Micropolis dual disk drive on it because they provided MDOS based at 2000H as well as at 0000H."

"I eventually got CP/M working on this box, but it required extensive mods to the CPU card. At least they designed the mods into it. I added a jumper to enable a latch triggered by an I/O instruction to shift RAM down to 0000H and overlay the EPROM. I learned a lot from that machine, and eventually built a new box (with a Godbout 20-slot MB) to put it all in. The original box was the "orange toaster", 6"x4"x17" and bright orange. It had a 5-slot MB and card fingers on the sides so you could plug two chassis together."

In May 2011 I acquired a Poly 88 from David Director. Here's a Web page about it, as shown at VCF-East 7.0.

After the May 2011 VCF-E 7.0 festival, I discussed Polymorphic tapes with Bill Degnan, and Dwight Elvey. Dwight Elvey discussed his recovery of Poly data from cassette tapes, and provides some files, on this Web page of mine.. Years later, I wrote a Web page about many kinds of cassette tape audio-data formats.

Notes from Poly 88 owner Tom Braxton 2024

[In April 2024, Tom Braxton contacted me:} "I found your retrotechnology.com site as I was researching Polymorphics Poly 88 systems. I built a Poly 88 computer in 1977, though after multiple moves of our home I no longer seem to have it. However, I do have a set of eight (8) Poly 88 software cassettes. Let me know if you’re interested [in these], and if so, to what address they should be sent. - Best regards, Tom Braxton". The labels read:

BASIC, BPrint, 800053, Version A00
BASIC SAMPLE PROGRAMS, 800103, Version A00, 2 copies
ASM, 800104, Version G03
ASSEMBLER EDITOR, 800104, Version G03
SMD 4.0 Monitor, 800002, Version 001

[I accepted his offer, and asked for his experiences with the Poly. Tom responded as follows.]

My Poly 88 history was an interesting, but tedious experience. I was a EET student at Purdue's Calumet campus in Hammond, Indiana in the 1970s. A friend's brother-in-law opened a Computer Store, which was an entrepreneurial leap in 1976. A number of Purdue students and local hobbyists hung around there and formed the Calumet Computer Tribe, for which I wrote the newsletter.

My wife bought the Poly 88 kit from the computer store as a gift, and I spent the next months assembling it. The kit was bare-bones -- only the enclosure, power supply, motherboard, and cassette interface, but remarkably, no memory. I spent a long time scrounging at hamfests and classified ads looking for S-100 memory boards. The kit had no keyboard or display interface.

Over the months I assembled from discrete parts the power supply, chassis, motherboard, and located a beat-up keyboard and a couple of 8k RAM boards to plug into the couple remaining S-100 bus slots. I kluged-up a video interface and connected it to a black-and-white TV. I finally reached a point where I could create a white square on the TV screen.

Around that time in 1978, I graduated and got a job at Bell Labs in Naperville, Illinois, necessitating a move and putting the computer project on hold. Also, around that time the Apple II was released and quickly made 8080 and S-100 based machines obsolete.

I was working and attending graduate school in the evening, which left little time to work on the Poly 88. As more time passed, so did the support of the shrinking S-100 community. The Poly 88 never grew beyond the white square on the black-and-white TV screen.

[When I pressed for details, Tom said: "What I remember is that Apple's presence blew away all the S-100 folks I knew in my area. By the time I resettled into a new job after my graduation in 1978, nobody I talked with had any interest in an S-100 machine. Thereafter I started part-time in grad school and didn't follow up with the S-100 community."]

My friend's computer store closed around that time, and he went into the home-video projector business, another entrepreneurial flash in the pan. I admired his pioneering spirit in both cases. ;)

Years passed, more moves happened, children came and grew, and the Poly 88 faded away. I was surprised recently to find the cassettes, as I honestly don't know if the hardware I built is still packed away. I retired in the past year after 45 years in electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) work. I'm still very active in the IEEE EMC Society and am involved in its standards committees and those of the ANSI C63 committees.

But sadly, there are very few who worked with or have knowledge of the blossoming hobby computers of the 1970s. Mine only got as far as making a white square on a TV screen, but I can say I was there to see the beginning of the age.

I'll let you know when the tapes have been shipped. Thank you for responding and for keeping this embryonic technology alive! - Tom

Herb's Polymorphic 88 and manuals

In 2011 I acquired a Polymorphic 88 system with a number of original manuals, copies of manuals, and original cassettes. See my Poly 88 restoration Web page for a list of manuals and cassettes. Manual copies are available for a modest per-page fee. (Since that time, Polymorphic manuals became more available on the Web; but I provided copies to many people in the meantime. - Herb)

odd fact about the Poly 88: The 100-pin buss connectors have a spacing between the two rows of pins, of .140 inches. This matches the MITS Altair 8800 connectors but only matches a few early S-100 computers otherwise. From the IMSAI forward, S-100 connectors had a .250 inch row spacing. Details on my S-100 connectors Web page.

Links to other Polymorphic resources

As the title says, as of early 2024. Also look at my other Poly documents, for links to sites by the Poly 88 owners I've worked and corresponded with.

archived Bob Bybee Web site at deramp.com. Bob Bybee accumulated and digitized a lot of Poly material.

An archive of the Poly 8813 as part of the vintagecomputer.ca large collection of imaged S-100 boards and computers. There's a Poly video board as part of the "S100 card collection".

Evan Allen AKA abzman's github page of Poly S-100 boards He's created KiCAD replica designs of these and other vintage boards. I'm not fond of replicas, but he's archived a lot of Poly 88 material as well among his vintage archives. He built in 2023, a replica Poly88 down to the orange powder-coating as described in his blog Web site description here. Desiging and building replicas, reveals details about differences and revisions among early computers like the Polymorphic. So they are informative about their development. - Herb

Herb Johnson
New Jersey, USA
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Copyright © 2024 Herb Johnson