Tom Nardi and I were talking about his trip to the Vintage Computer Festival on the podcast, and he admitted to not having been a retrocomputer aficionado before his first trip. But he ended up keying some binary machine code into some collection of archaic silicon, and he got it. In the same episode, the sound of the week was a Strowger switch — the old electromechanical “brain” of telephone switching centers of old. The sample I used was from Sam of Look Mum No Computer on YouTube, who got one for his museum and thinks it’s just awesome.
Why do people like this kind of old (obsolete?) tech? It’s certainly not because it’s overwhelmingly capable — the giant old switch is replaced easily by a stack of silicon, and don’t even get me started on the old blinkenlights computer that Tom was keying on. In both of these cases, the people are significantly younger than the tech they’re playing around with, so that rules out nostalgia. What’s left?
I think it’s that sometimes the older technology is more immediate, more understandable, more tangible, and that resonates with people. In a time when we all have wonder devices that can do anything, programmed in languages that are pleasant, using libraries that are nothing short of magical in terms of making difficult things easy, understanding how things work down to the ground is a rare commodity.
But it’s a strange position to find ourselves in, technologically, where there’s almost necessarily a trade-off between the usefulness and functionality of a device with the ability to understand fundamentally how it works.
Going through my “Stash”, I re-found my old “Canon A-200TP” kitted out with 2 51/4 floppies, and a folding LCD green screen. I rescued it from a trash load at the landfill CIRCA 1988 or so.
This link is here:
I had not booted this one since the 1990s, and it may need a good cleaning..
“I think it’s that sometimes the older technology is more immediate, more understandable, more tangible, and that resonates with people.”
Might explain all the Youtube channels that plain-speak technology.
For me I think the thing with old tech is its not abstraction on top of abstraction so you can’t know how the little box of magic does its stuff, in many cases with propriety layers in the abstraction stack too so the actual underlying functions are entirely opaque.
Digging through API to link a-b-c creates a working d, but it doesn’t really give you any real understanding of HOW d happens, or any ability to make d happen if the API isn’t available and you want to work with the hardware directly.
Plus even with that mythical thing of entirely open hardware the modern silicon with its web of co-processors is so complex you just can’t know how each and every internal part of the whole links up – its too much for most if not all of us to really keep track of. The old school stuff is simple enough you could pretend to be the computer and complete a processor cycle on paper albeit slowly..
I agree. It was a relatively simple in concept. Take DOS on the o’ PC. It was OS -> hardware. You could interface directly with the hardware (processor, graphics card, etc.) as desired. No complicated memory access. You just wrote/read from addresses as you pleased. When your program ran, it was all by itself on the hardware. You had to dig a bit and understand what is going on…. None of the ‘abstraction’ layers found in OS’s today nor multitasking to speak of unless you wrote it. It was ‘fun’ and still is…. Why I like programming the RP2040 and such. Or even Ultibo for the RPI gets you ‘closer’ to the hardware… and of course other SBCs/Arduino style. You have ‘control’ (mostly) without the ‘abstractions’.
Of course on the flip side the standardization of abstraction layers makes the programmers life easier and he/she can be a bit more productive and more complicated things can be accomplished without the ‘distractions’ of what is underneath. And more secure as most computers are ‘connected’ now-a-days.
You’re way too high.
Why not a computer where you enter binary by switches? At least my KIM-1 offered a few useful routines, and a monitor.
But neither were particularly useful, other than learning about comouters.
Operating systems came later.
You’re missing an intermediate step, I believe.
Remember the original Tron movie? There were socalled “monitor” programs. Kind of a cross of a simplistic firmware, a debugger and a loader routine. The 8-Bit Sharp MZ series had them in ROM, for example.
LOL. I do have O.G.’s PDP-11/70 front panel for that… I think, at my age, I am ‘past’ entering a program with switches. Trying to just enter the boot loader sequence into the PDP is enough for me…
My point was “where do you stop”? The post I replied to thought MSDOS was the best scenario. But it’s still an operating system.
By the time I got an Apple II in the early nineties, I didn’t the stamina to get good at it, and it offered nothing that I couldn’t do better with other computers
If we spend all our time going for simple, where does that leave the present, and future?
There was a recent post about using CP/M. Why? It wasn’t about learning, it was abkut using. An inferior OS, and no connectivity. I lived through that (well I skipped CP/M and used Microware OS-9 which was more advanced), I don’t want to go back. There’s nothing educational about using C on a 2MHz computer with two 5.25″ floppy drives, except to learn how agonizingly slow it is. I did that in 1988, and promptly gave up on C.
Ham radio is doing the same thing, some loud people fixated on the 1930s, as if nothing has changed. Go back fifty years and big advances, but that’s too complicated and hard.
I’d argue some of the problem isn’t that current technology is “too complicated”, but that the world has moved on. 47 years ago, we understood computers because there were magazines and books explaining them. Now the focus is on using. Same with ham radio, the technical stuff is elsewhere, so one has to look for detail about direct digital synthesizers and SDRs. PLL synthesizers weren’t hard for me to understand fifty years ago when I was 12, but if it’s not veing explained in simple terms on a regular basis in a magazine, of course you’ll stick with analog VFOs.
What we get is a lot of explanation of the simple stuff, rather than about the advanced stuff.
Define useful – that phone switching mechanism, the 8bit -maybe 32bit Z80 style computers are all very very capable of doing something useful, in the case of the phone switch it can only take a pulsed input and use it to connect two lines, with your early simpler computers you can do anything you can do on a modern computer, the only meaningful thing at the hardware level a modern computer does that the older ones do not is run really fast (yes they have more ASIC elements inside them to further aid running x really fast but really its the gate switching high clock speed and being 64bit that is the key differential).
Which is where something like Dos becomes a good example, its a great initial framework to build your bespoke program on – direct enough access to the hardware, simple understandable abstractions to make your life easier, the code more portable etc. Very few programs that exist now don’t have an equivalent in DOS. But its still possible to actually comprehend every step of the how its working, which then lets you do things like be sure its secure, bend the way its working to a new task efficiently.
You flat out can’t do that on a modern system, even a stupidly slow one that is entirely opensource – nobody is able to take in and comprehend all the many many abstraction layers, you end up being the UEFI BIOS specialist, or the I trust that BIOS level works as it should, because I do, for instance – low level driver on the device (that the OS likely doesn’t even know exists as this is the onboard firmware) or work on boot loader, the kernel power management interface, a device driver of the sort an OS does interface with (that likely depends on other device drivers, as there are these fancy bus architectures etc), or perhaps you work on the Micro-code or management engine type stuff etc.
By the time you get to a userspace program you have absolutely no idea how it works, or if its only doing what it is supposed to be, debugging is often the nearest thing to impossible as once you figure out its not an error in your code but one of the many many layers its passing through, many of them quite likely propriety you are at the mercy of others.
It is not that there are not good explanations for how things work in a modern system, as usually there are (though some propriety secrets in the mix too), its that you have to translate through 8, 9, who knows how many different sets of explanations for each of the various layers – in effect you need to speak fluently more languages full of odd very technical minutia to be able to comprehend why something is failing, or taking a very long time, is not secure etc.
It really is that current tech is “too complicated” and in many ways there isn’t a need for it to be so, with the switching speed increases and really good efficient compilers you can do stuff on the Arduino’s little atmega chips or the Pi Pico’s RPI2040 that you couldn’t do on supercomputers at the same speed not all that long ago, and better/faster/more reliably than you can do on your brand new monster Ryzen or Intel 12th gen CPU – as you don’t have to waste time and power going through all those abstractions before you get to the bare metal hardware! All the many many abstractions do is allow sloppier practices to function and more companies to put out their own brand of whatever that works just different enough to be legally distinct, and thus needs lots of extra help to then match whatever your highest level OS elements expect.
There is always something about getting closer to the nuts and bolts(mechanics), of a thing. Seeing it work.
“Why do people like this kind of old (obsolete?) tech?”
I think you sense the wonder and adventure of the people that at the time put some if their souls into the machines.
Some time ago, I went to see the silent film “Phantom of the Opera” at Davies’ Symphony Hall, with an organist playing the score and providing a few foley effects. In essence, it was a reproduction of what a night at the cinema in the 1920s would have been.
What was the biggest surprise to me was that there was a brief bit of full color footage included, but even more impressive was that some of the frames were painstakingly hand-tinted and others had a color-wash applied.
Most of us born after a certain age remember early cinema only as monochrome, but that’s purely an artifact of monochrome television, where such color effects would have been impossible. This sort of thing was even happening in the 1940s – Jacque Tati’s film “Jour de Fete” was shot on monochrome film, but they hand-tinted the french flag, and this is preserved in the Criterion Collection DVD.
Early films did have some use of color. It just wound up being a technological cul-de-sac that almost nobody remembers today.
I just LOVE all that old technology and science. I have a collection of old cameras, a device for self-administered electrotherapy that still works, and many old books that targeted DIY crowd, some digitalized, some more traditional. Some of them are in my native language, polish, and were written when Poland was a communist country under soviet influence, so basically we had almost nothing. So for example I have chemistry books for kids and teens showing, how to prepare hard to get chemicals from more common ones, and how to perform (sometimes dangerous) experiments with them. From my first electronics book I learned about protons, electrons and Lenin, also how vacuum tubes and transistors work. I don’t own it, but I read a book that showed how to build model steam engines, make entire model train set, including making powered tracks with strips of sheet metal and a simple jig for bending them, and even a basic washing machine using an old barrel, some other parts and an electric motor. I also have some english books from XIX and early XX century that cover everything from math and geometry aids, scientific instruments to clocks. My dream is to build some of this stuff, but I lack space, time and money, at least for now…
Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
When people don’t understand the technological underpinnings, technology becomes “magic”. People don’t understands it, so they make bad decisions on its proper use. Advances become difficult or impossible since no one can see how to fix or improve it. A technological “priesthood” can form to monopolize it for their own gain.
Technology needs to be more like a ladder that must be climbed to be appreciated. To truly learn and understand something, you have to start with the basics. Earlier simpler tech is the way to learn how things work.
To paraphrase an old saying, “He who does not learn a technology is doomed to misuse it.”
Leaving the fundamentals of a technology behind for abstractions is part of the evolution of every technology. Shakespeare did not know the etymology of all the words he used or all of the functions of how English was built. He would have either been less prolific or less good as a result of chasing some mythic version of expert knowledge. Abstraction is the act of standing on the shoulders of giants and leveraging the work of those that came before that did great work (with the limitations they had) that allows us to build on top of it.
If your goal is recreation and you enjoy experiencing old technology because it is fun to you, that is one thing, but if your goal is productivity and building something better techically, this feeling of needing to “understand the whole stack” is counterproductive. Turing wouldn’t still be using a Turing machine if he was alive today.
Whenever I’m working with components with date codes that precede my birth year, I get this unique feeling that’s hard to put into words. I’m interacting with something that existed before I was even an idea. The world was turning before me and people “figured it all out” before the internet was a thing. There’s a cool cross-generational connection when you interface with hardware from years gone by.
The more you work with vintage components, the more you can begin to understand the “why’s” and “how’s” of our modern, abstracted technological landscape. Every great idea started somewhere and it’s really cool to peer into the engineering zeitgeist of previous eras.
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