[Altair 8800]

Restoration of vintage computers - PRELIMINARY

This Web page updated April 25 2013. (c) Herb Johnson 2013.

Why bother with old technology? - editorial

In April 2009, a freelance journalist in the U.K. asked me a few general questions about why I promote and support older technology. Here's my responses. For more information, look over my retrotechnology.com "restoration" home page to get the general idea behind "vintage" technology restoration. For specific work I do on S-100 systems, my S-100 computer efforts. And for links to that and my other work, check my retrotechnology.com Home page.-- Herb Johnson

What kinds of older technologies still have value today?

That's the key question. In general, an "old" technology has to offer some kind of advantage to whomever is using it. For example, iron forging by hand has no general advantage over the modern steel mill. But the craftsperson who hand-forges a fence gate needs to know those skills, materials, and methods to produce a well-crafted piece.

In the computing world today, it's impossible for one person to "get their arms around" or fully comprehend an operating system, from high-level functions down to the operation of hardware. In fact, those are now specialized skills. But in the "old days" of much simpler hardware and software, knowledge of both was actually REQUIRED, as both were still in development, until a stable and generally-accepted OS and hardware platform was established. In fact the history of personal computing is a series of "established" platforms, one after another.

My general experience was based on my studies as an Electrical Engineer in college, and my tech experiences in repair. In both regimes I learned to look at fundamentals, and to look at things diagnostically. Many "retrotechnology" skills and methods are based on fundamentals, things which change more slowly AND which have patterns, features or principles which repeat in other areas. These are things which offer advantages, when adapting to "new" skills or technologies today.

Do you find that older tech does things that modern tech has forgotten, or does it do it better in some ways?

That's the excitement of "retrotechnology". The use of forgotten skills and materials occurs when those offer some advantage or create an opportunity. If you are an unemployed computer engineer, you are not going to spend thousands of dollars on software development tools to make some widget to sell. Yet, the Internet lets you become a "craftsperson" and actually offer one-off bits of computing hardware, called in general "embedded computers".

A good example of this is in hobby robotics, where individuals and small companies offer small widgets all the time. The development platforms for those products are very simple, much like the ones used in the CP/M and S-100 days.

Embedded hardware means computers which are unique to one area of use, like GPS systems or cell phones, or controllers for machines and robots, and so on. Since those areas of use keep changing, and since computer chips keep changing, there are few "established" platforms.

But today's embedded computing world is in conflict, between using "established" operating systems like Linux, Windows CE or other Microsoft operating environments, and other companies' OS's. These are HUGE development packages, of hundreds of megabytes of programs and files. And yet, these embedded computers may only have megabytes of program memory or even less- much like the "classic" computers of decades ago.

I see this as an opportunity to re-examine old tools for new use. This goes back to your previous question about "value".

What kinds of things do you do with the old S-100 machines?

There are few S-100 systems in practical use, so this question addresses the other interest in retrotechnology, which simply put is nostalgia. People of my age, in their 40's, 50's and 60's, used S-100 systems or wanted to. Today they can buy a S-100 system for hundreds of dollars instead of thousands. Again, these are simpler systems, and these owners find it pleasant to be able to rebuild and reprogram these systems in direct fashion, down to changing hardware and writing in assembler language - the binary language of microprocessors. Or, these owners are hardware engineers, and they enjoy repairing old hardware to make it work. Classic car collectors are much like many S-100 owners; their specific interests vary from owner to owner, but they are of a kind with S-100 owners.

It's unusual to have a specific use for a running S-100 system, but they could be used as they were in the past. You can use them for writing documents, or for controlling some mechanical system, or for data collection. There are a few S-100 systems still running some machines, somewhere in the world.

There is also a substantial interest in S-100 systems as collectables. The first two S-100 systems were the original - the MITS Altair 8800 - and one of the earliest "compatibles", the IMSAI 8080 by IMSAI. These are a delight to watch in operation, because they have "front panels" of lights and switches; the lights show actual address and data binary activity, the switches let you enter BINARY programs and data. In the older days of minicomputers, front panels were necessary start-up and diagnostic tools. The first microcomputers often had front panels for similar reasons.

The other reason people are interested in S-100 today, is as a learning tool. These are still simple systems, and can still do computing things. The S-100 bus is relatively straightforward hardware design. The chips used on S-100 cards, TTL logic and early high-scale logic, are relatively simple to understand. While a "nuts and bolts" level of microcomputing is not often called for today, I'd argue that such knowledge is necessary for certain kinds of embedded design and development, as I discussed above.

Indeed, there is growing interest in hobby robotics as a literal "nuts and bolts" environment. But there are also moves by Microsoft and other large companies, to introduce very complex and large software tools into robotics. They claim these are "efficient" tools, but their motives are simply to grab market share with tools that you can't escape from. Whereas, if you know the fundamentals, and your tools are fundamental, you can always use other tools or adapt YOUR tools for other purposes. Knowing the basics makes you flexible, and I'd argue flexibility is still an advantage today.

- Herb johnson

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Herb Johnson
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