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A computer history collage

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This whole computer fixation is the fault of my father. He's an engineer by training and trade, so it's not entirely his fault, I suppose – some slightly altered gene somewhere in the family pool.

When I was 12 or 13, he built a homebrew computer around the MOS 6502 CPU – same chip that Apple, Atari and Commodore later built their 8-bit computers around. This one was more basic than any of those – 2K RAM, hex display, Teletype for a printer. It's in the San Diego Computer Museum collection now (which has since been donated en masse to the San Diego State University Library.)

Through the years, I've owned and worked on all kinds of computers – Atari 400, 800, ST, STe and Falcon030 (plus a 2600 console, an XE Game System and a Jaguar 64-bit game console), Commodore 64 and Amiga 500, Apple //c, Texas Instruments Ti 99 4/A, an XT DOS box, AT&T Unix workstation, Sparc I, MacSE, MacIIci, '486, Pentium, Pentium III and iMac. The operating systems have varied from the simple (Atari and Commodore used BASIC as the OS on their 8-bit boxes!) to the complex (Solaris, Linux, DOS) to the dysfunctional (VAXnotes). The best I've ever used was the GEM desktop on Atari's 16-, 24- and 32-bit computers – it is, of course, dead and buried.

On the other hand, this whole writing about computers business is the fault of Andy Rathbone. We worked together at the Daily Aztec at San Diego State, and about a year after graduating in 1986 we each ended up needing a roommate – both being broke, we ended up sharing a dumpy little place in San Diego's Ocean Beach community renting from then-assistant D.A. and now Judge Howard Shore.

Andy had himself a 1,200 baud modem for his Kaypro computer, and discovered the world of computer bulletin board systems (BBSs). Pretty soon I was hooked, too, and whenever Andy wasn't using the modem, I'd borrow it to use with my Atari 400.

Our favorite BBS quickly became the People's Message System, run by Bill Blue and Morgan Davis. One of the most interesting characters to frequent this BBS was Dan Gookin, who at the time was editor of a local weekly computer mag name of The Byte Buyer (which was shortly thereafter sued by BYTE magazine for trademark infringement, and changed its name to ComputorEdge). Dan organized some of the denizens of the BBS into a weekend daredevil club that would go skydiving and rappelling and have paint-pellet wars – called themselves the PMS Commandoes because of the People's Message System connection. Most folks, though, assumed from the name emblazoned on their matching t-shirts that they were simply husbands who needed out of the house one weekend a month.

Shortly after we virtually met him, Gookin wrote a book called "DOS for Dummies," and left ComputorEdge for the riches of best-selling authorhood. Before leaving, though, he'd added Andy to the regular rotation of ComputorEdge writers.

Dan's replacement as editor, Tina Berke, not only kept Andy on as a regular, but unleashed her beguiling charm on him, leaving him no choice but to fall helplessly in love with her (a condition that persists to this day). When she left to become editor at SuperComputer Review, Andy was tabbed as her replacement. (You can find the whole history of ComputorEdge editors in my column on "The former editors' club.")

Taking pity on my young family's financial dependence on my unfortunate choice of journalism as a career, Andy added me to the regular pool of ComputorEdge contributors in the early '90s. I wrote stories on all kinds of issues, and was still calling local BBSs – was an early e-mail addict before most folks knew what e-mail was.

So when Andy wrote "Windows for Dummies," and soon joined Gookin on the best-sellers lists, his replacement, Leah Steward, probably had some kind of misinformed impression that I knew something about something. She was, quite sadly, wrong, but nonetheless asked me to take over the Online San Diego column when the infinitely more knowledgeable Ron Dippold decided to do something more rewarding with his time. (The entire history of the Online San Diego/Hot on the Web column can be found in my January 23 1998 column.)

I wrote the column for a couple years, got burned out and turned it over to Brad Fikes, then took it back when he got burned out. When I was hired by the San Diego Union-Tribune's Web site, SignOn San Diego, in November 1998, they asked me to give up the Online San Diego column again – didn't want me writing for the competition. Only benefit of that was I got to write the Lost in Cyberspace column for them, which Copley News Service carried nationally as part of its Net Sitings column.

Still and all, I hated giving the ComputorEdge column up – and when I left SignOn in June 2000, I immediately took hat in hand back to Leah. She and fellow editors Pat Smith and Gretchen Grunburg graciously welcomed me back – but the column had a new name and focus: Hot on the Web.

Since ComputorEdge has gone Web-only in January 2008, I'm writing the column less frequently.

This page is basically a fancied-up version of the bookmarks I used in my work as webmaster for the Computer Museum of America. As the list of bookmarks has grown, I'm in the process of divvying them up into several separate sections to make finding individual sites a bit easier on me – and hopefully anyone else who finds them useful.

I'm not aiming for a comprehensive list of all good Web sites connected with computer history, shareware, operating systems or platforms – there are thousands out there, and just checking the links would be a full-time job. Rather, I try to give links to other folks' sites that also provide links to computer resources. So instead of trying to find all the good Commodore 64 sites myself, I try to list a couple of good C-64 links that themselves link to other sites.

I'm always looking for new sites; if you have one or know of one, drop me a line.

Right now, the page is a bit of a mess – but I needed to get something up, and so here it is. I'll be cleaning it up in the weeks ... er, months ... years to come ...

PLATFORMS

There was a time, not so very long ago, that there were actually multitudes of different computer platforms – hardware and operating system combined into a single machine, much like the Mac is today. From the late '70s through the early '90s, consumers had far more choice than the PC vs. Mac debate today. (Even most of today's alternative operating systems, mostly the various flavors of Linux, depend on existing hardware, namely, the Intel-standard PC.)

Most of the one-time alternatives to Wintel have faded into the dustbin of history. The latter models of computers from Commodore, Atari and NeXT, though, are still around – in the hands of dedicated users and in small mom-and-pop operations that cater to their small but rabid users by refurbishing old equipment for resale (and, in some cases, still building clones of Ataris or Commodore Amigas). In fact, the explosion of the Web has probably lengthened the life of these older machines by providing a medium by which far-flung users of them can stay in touch, can create a sense of community and an active support system. With FTP sites, shareware and freeware can effectively be distributed. With mail-order direct from Web sites, commercial software can be offered.

Following are links to sites with active, ongoing support for these various platforms. As always, if you find dead links or know of good resources I don't have listed here, drop me a line.

  • When it first came out in 1985, almost simultaneously with the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga raised the state of the art for computer graphics. The original Amiga 500 only had a half-meg of RAM, and the original version of AmigaOS was still buggy (reportedly, Commodore rushed the Amiga to market so as not to let the Atari ST debut solo), but this computer could sing. When the Video Toaster was brought out a few years later, you could create professional caliber video effects on your home computer ... assuming you had an Amiga. In fact, there probably aren't too many TV stations in the country today that don't still have an Amiga with Video Toaster sitting around in a storage room somewhere. Amiga.org is the best resource right now on the Web, with links to all kinds of companies that continue to support the Amiga.
  • Apple – The Mac remains a solid, well-designed computer – OSX brings the stability that Microsoft has only promised the home user (and appears no closer to delivering it). Tinkerers still hate its closed operating system, but for simply getting the job done with the least amount of hassle, the Mac is pretty hard to beat.
  • Atari isn't the company it was; Sam Tramiel sold the rights to the Atari name in spring 1998 to Hasbro, which kept the name a few years and then sold it to French software giant Infogrames (which then renamed itself Atari). Another great site, and of more interest to Atari computer owners, is Atari.org. It serves much the same purpose as the Amiga.org site above – to carry news of ongoing support of an orphaned platform and provide links to various companies that still support Atari. When it came out in 1985, the ST/Mega/TT line of 16- and 32-bit computers set a new standard for audio and midi, much as the Amiga had for video. While the Mac only offered monochrome displays at that time, the Amiga and Atari offered full-color desktop-style computer operating systems – the ease of Windows a good five years before Windows 3.1. (Earlier versions of Windows were junk, to be kind.) The Atari Museum is also a fun, informative way to lose a few hours of your life.
  • Not too many people have a Cray around the house, but Cray did really define the supercomputer. The late Seymour Cray was an absolute engineering genius, first at Control Data and then at the company that still bears his name. Silicon Graphics bought Cray out and got the company back on its feet, although it was sold off to a startup that has now adopted the old name – Cray Research – of the company it bought. They're back on top, now – and have a cool site, too.
  • Hewlett Packard – From calculators to minis to printers, HP is among the best.
  • IBM – Yes, a behemoth, but still an industry leader, and actually a very nice, well-organized site with lots of info.
  • Intel – Well, I can't say I much like their continuing Microsoft-like business tactics, and I think they deserved to lose in the Digital case, but give Intel its due – this is the company that invented the CPU. And they have a nice history exhibit on their site as well.
  • When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, he started NeXT, which made high-end (for the time) workstations that ran on a Mac-like desktop interface atop a Unix-like OS. The black NeXT boxes were legendary on college campuses in the late '80s and early '90s, and were among the most powerful desktop computers of their time. NeXT is no longer among the living what with being acquired by Apple when they re-hired Jobs, but several companies still sell NeXT systems, plus parts and accessories. A good starting point is Black Hole Inc.
  • Silicon Graphics – What the Amiga and Atari started with high-end graphics and sound, SGI perfected. Their proprietary systems are outrageous, although they're now also offering Intel-based Windows 2000 workstations. Yuch. But for multimedia, this is it.
  • Sun Microsystems – The folks who invented Java, who make the best Unix and Web servers going, who are giving Bill Gates and Microsoft a hard time (extra credit in my book).

USER GROUPS
  • Association of Personal Computer User Groups – This is a national umbrella group that helps local users groups find the resources they need to best serve their members. No matter where you live, APCUG can probably help you find a local users group.
  • San Diego Computer Society – An umbrella group for lots of active SIGs.
  • San Diego Macintosh Users Group – Fairly active local Mac group.

  • SALES, SUPPORT
  • The Atari Preservation Society is dedicated to providing resources for Atari owners. Cool history of Atari game machines (2600, 5200, 7800), plus full Jaguar support.
  • eBay has a computer category where you'll find lots of odd stuff for sale – software, hardware and manuals for everything from the latest PC clones and Macs to Ataris, Amigas and even the occasional NeXT.
  • Emulators Online sells Atari and Mac emulators for the PC; still have that old GEM or Mac software? Now you can run it on your Pentium.
  • Sun Remarketing still sells old Apple ][ and Lisa parts and supplies (plus all former and current Mac models); does repair work, too. No relation to Sun Microsystems (above).
  • Zebra Systems Inc. advertises its sites as the last place in the universe where you can still by a Sinclair ZX81 kit. $30 plus $10 shipping and handling; 16K RAM is just $30 (yep – same price as a 16meg SIM will cost you these days ...).

HISTORY
  • San Diego Computer Museum – For about 10 years, this was one of the few museums dedicated to preserving historic computers, software, manuals, marketing materials, etc. I was president for awhile, then a volunteer as director David Weil helped grow the museum to its own building in downtown San Diego. But we lost our major sponsor, and ended up donating the collection (one of the top 2 or 3 in the world) to the San Diego State University Library Special Collections – there it is intact and safely stored, hopefully to be displayed again someday. In the meantime, the old Web site is still up and when David and I get some time we'll get back on track to creating an online digital museum.
  • The American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham, Wash., traces the early history of the "wireless" – not only are there photos of antique radios and broadcast equipment, but they have sound clips of historic broadcasts.
  • The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota is one of the few places to have a grasp of the importance of documenting the history of computing. Wonderful research center, good Web site.
  • The Vintage Computer Festival in central California has a Web site with highlights from past events and plans for the next.
  • Binary Dinosaurs is a British-based online computer museum. It's got a neat little JavaScript nav menu that looks like a Mac System 2 Control Panel – very cool.
  • The Mind Machine Museum is run by Hal Layer up in San Fran and has some really rare equipment listed.
  • The Obsolete Computer Museum is a virtual museum organized and hosted by Tom Carlson. Lots of photos of old computers, links to other online museums and other good info.
  • The ZX81 Home Page is devoted to Clive Sinclair's classic Z-80-based machine – the first palmtop computer (of course, it had no monitor or batteries or ...).
  • As is Planet Sinclair. Nice history of the man, his company and his machine.
  • Classic Home Video Games Museum – A virtual museum tracing the history of home video games, with pictures and links to other resources. You can easily waste a whole day here.
  • The Classic Video Games Cartridge List Server – This is a hotlinked table of Web sites where video game cartridge lists are found. If you've an old Bally, Atari, Fairchild or ColecoVision game, this is worth a visit – you can find out what game cartridges you don't have yet.
  • Video Arcade Preservation Society – Nice site dedicated to the coin-op versions of video games.
  • The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers chronicles the history of 8-bit video and computer games – especially the characters who wrote those early games.

SHAREWARE, PD & OPEN SOURCE
  • Shareware.com – All kinds of try-before-you-buy demos, plus device drivers. Mac also supported.
  • Download.com – Good site for the latest Mac and Windows shareware. Now owned by c|net.
  • SourceForge – Maybe not as many links as Shareware.com or Download.com, but a more useful list in general. This is a gathering point for developers who create open source software.

GAMING
  • Atari Gaming Headquarters is dedicated to maintaining support for the Atari home game consoles – Video Cartridge System (later renamed the 2600), 5200, 7800, XL Game System, Lynx and Jaguar. They sponsor the annual World of Atari show.
  • Atari Games is now a separate company from Atari Inc., and is owned by the same folks who own Midway Games. These are arcade games – the coin-op kind you find in bars and Pizza Huts – and there is good info on both current arcade and home releases, as well as a nice history section.
  • Telegames still supports a lot of the now-obsolete dedicated game machines – early Nintendo and Sega 8-bit stuff, for instance.

(If you know of other good sites, send me the info and I'll add!)