When computers had personality

When computers had personality

From glass teletypes to the PC revolution, the terminals, consoles and computers that entered the market in 1970s and 80s are now being rediscovered by a younger generation of developers.

On August 24th, 1967 Charles A Kiesling at Sperry Rand filed a patent for 'Blinking Cursor for CRT Display'. One of the earliest innovations in the history of graphical user interface design, Kiesling’s patent allowed programmers to quickly see where the next character will be input on their console screen.

We all take the flashing cursor for granted today, but in the 1960s this was one of a succession of innovations that brought programmers closers to their code. Thanks to the introduction of electronic cathode ray tubes (CRTs) just a few years earlier, programmers could now interact with their code directly through terminals connected to a console screen. Displaying character sets linked directly to a mainframe computer, the console not only increased a programmer’s productivity, it also offered the world a new perspective and relationship to computing that would go on to inspire future generations.

Kiesling lays out the problem to be solved with the blinking cursor in his original patent:

The cursor in presently available systems has not satisfactorily performed the function for which it was intended. Whenever the cursor is positioned over a character that has already been painted on the screen, it becomes difficult to locate it. The more characters on the screen the more difficult it becomes to locate the cursor.

Kiesling would stay at Sperry Rand until his retirement in 1993, where his designs and ideas helped lay the foundation for the modern computer world.

Computers with Personality: A Love of Consoles

Computing is so often a story of what’s coming next. At Console we're at the cutting edge of the latest beta releases and tools, but we also have a healthy respect and love for the early pioneers of computing, hence the decision to name our company, well ... Console.

Like much of the very best technology and design, its easy to forget the lineage of iterations that got us here. The computers we use today have style and processing power, but when it comes to personality, we'd take a Dec VT100 over the latest MacBook Pro anytime. Launching Console gave us an excuse to explore the history of the Console and dive into the golden age of computer. Here's what we discovered and everything we love about the golden era of the console.

A beautiful Wyse Terminal from the 1980s. In 2012 Dell acquired Wyse. Image Source

From Glass Teletypes to the PC Revolution

To understand the future you need to know the past. Before the console, programmers interfaced with mainframe computers via a standalone terminal. Early user terminals connected to computers were electromechanical teleprinters or teletypewriters (TeleTYpewriter, TTY) - effectively a typewriter to enter the data into a computing system. Limited to the input of data, these early terminals were often referred to as dumb terminals that pre-dated computer console screens.

The Model 33

The archetypal teletype was the Teletype Model 33 originally designed for the United States Navy, the Teletype Corporation introduced the Model 33 in 1963. The Model 33 was one of the first products to employ the newly standardized ASCII code.

Costing $700, the Model 33 was far more affordable than other options and with the first Video Display Unit (VDU) consoles costing in excess of $10,000, its popularity extended well into the 1970s. By 1975 over 500,000 Model 32 and 33s were manufactured, going on to become one of the most popular terminals in history.

Teletype Model 33 introduced Bill Gates to programming. Image Source

The historical impact of the Model 33 was notable. The programming language BASIC was designed to be written and edited on a low-speed Teletype Model 33, with the slow speed of the Teletype Model 33 influencing the later user interface of minicomputer operating systems, including UNIX.

Fun fact: Bill Gates cites the Teletype Model 33 as his first computing experience. In 1973 Gates’ Lakeside Prep School Mothers Club used its garage sale proceeds to give students computer access. The club purchased a Model-33 teletype machine that connected over phone lines to a GE time sharing computer.

Glass Teletypes and the Console: VDUs

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the first glass teletypes entered the market, combing an input terminal with a Video Display Unit (VDU). The early consoles were relatively primitive, lacking a CPU. They relied on individual logic gates and simple LSI chips, and were still connected to mainframe computers to do all the processing.

The shift to an ‘intelligent terminal’ was identifiable through the device’s ability to process inputs by the user with the terminal sending a block of data at time, rather than interrupting the main processing computer after every keystroke.

Datapoint 3300 - One of the first general purpose video terminals. Image Source

Designed by the Computer Terminal Corporation, the Datapoint 3300 was the first successful general purpose video terminal designed to compete with the Model 33 teletype. The Datapoint 3300 was marketed as a programmable ‘intelligent terminal’ that could handle offline data entry and data processing. It also set the benchmark for business video terminals with an 8 bit general purpose CPU, 24 x 80 green phosphor display, consumer friendly ergonomics and a futuristic design.

ASCII

As the use of terminals became more commonplace and new companies began to enter the market, so there was an increasing need for a standardization of character encoding. ASCII (abbreviated from American Standard Code for Information Interchange) was developed from telegraph code, with the first commercial use in a seven-bit teleprinter developed by Bell Data Systems.

Based on the English alphabet, ASCII originally encoded 128 specified characters into seven-bit integers. Ninety-five of the encoded characters are printable, including the digits 0 to 9, lowercase letters a to z, uppercase letters A to Z, and punctuation symbols. The remaining 33 non-printing control codes originated from Teletype machines, though most of these are now obsolete. Later in 1981, IBM developed an extension called ‘code page 437’. In this version, some obsolete characters were replaced for graphic characters and a further 128 characters ranging from 128 to 255 were added.

With 95 printable characters in the original ASCII from 1963, it also offered artistically minded programmers the tools to create beautiful imagery from just a fixed width prompt.

Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is an early example of ASCII art from 1960 produced using a dot-matrix computer: Image Source

ASCII art originated from printers that used large sets of repeating characters to mark divisions between print jobs, but the art form quickly evolved as computer bulletin board systems in late 1970s grew in popularity.

Command Protocols

Just as the blinking cursor offered new ease of use for anyone working with a console, so the ANSI 3.64 protocol helped standardize commands across different vendors. The new protocol allowed similar sequences of input to be interpreted by the terminal as commands rather than text to be displayed on the console.

This standardization was popularized by the Digital VT100 in 1978, and thanks to the success, led to most new terminals and emulators that followed to support them. Over six million terminals in the VT series were sold based on the success of the VT100. Even today the majority of terminal emulators still interpret a portion of the original ANSI standard.

Designed by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), DEC was one of the major players of the computer industry from the 1960s until the 1990s, when it struggled to compete in an increasingly competitive market driven by home computing.

DEC VT100 terminal at the Living Computer Museum Image Source

Monochrome Monitors

Hollywood was quick to embrace the rise of the console screen, quickly introducing the console as a protagonist in some of the biggest films of the 1970s and 80s. Image: War Games (1983). Image Source

The impact of the glowing green “P1” phosphor screen on popular culture long outlived its practical use. Unlike color monitors that display text and graphics through the use of alternating-intensity red, green and blue phosphors, monochrome monitors rely on a single color. Typically this would be P1 phosphor (green), P3 phosphor (amber) and P4 phosphor (white).

Phosphor 1 (green), Phosphor 3 (amber), Phosphor 4 (white). 

Pixel for pixel, the monochrome monitors produce sharper text and images than color CRT monitors. The ghosting effect we often associate with scrolling on a green screen console, was a product of the adoption of a heavy full phosphor coating. Offering a sharper display of characters, it would cause an afterglow-effect when scrolling through text. This effect would later be immortalized in the Matrix film series.

Originally green, an amber alternative was introduced later to many consoles to reduce eye strain, and offer a softer light to minimize disruption to a user's circadian rhythm.

The PC Revolution

By the early 1980s, with more processing power, work stations like the Televideo TS-800, the Apple II and the IBM PC started to blur the distinction between a terminal and a Personal Computer. The terminal could now handle operations like editing and inserting characters that would previously have required a screen-full of characters to be re-sent from the computer, possibly over a slow modem line.  

The IBM PC kickstarted the PC Revolution: Image Source

A long-time leader in mainframe computing, IBM became interested in the potential of the personal computer in the late 1970s after brands like Apple, Commodore and Atari entered the market. Feeling market pressure, IBM assembled a team of 12 engineers under the codename “Project Chess” to design and build a prototype personal computer within one month.  

Originally named the Acorn, IBM renamed the computer the IBM PC, popularizing the term “PC” (personal computer), launching it in August 1981. The 5150 PC was powered by a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor and came with 16 kilobytes of RAM, expandable to 256K. Bundled with a handful of applications, the IBM PC had a retail price of $1,565.

The Computer, Machine of the Year | Time Magazine January 3rd, 1983: Image Source

Following the release of the first IBM PC in 1981 and the rising popularity of the Apple II and Apple II Plus, Time Magazine named the Computer as the Machine (Person) of the Year for 1982. The terminal and console had gone mainstream - replaced by a multi-functional PC, running a terminal emulator that removed the need to maintain a standalone terminal with increasingly specialized functionality.

Despite the influence of the Apple Lisa, it was considered a commercial failure generating $100 million in sales against a development cost of more than $150 million. Image Source

The transition to the modern PC, was solidified one year later with the launch of the Apple Lisa (an acronym for "Locally Integrated Software Architecture") in January 1983. One of the first personal computers to use a graphical user interface, the Apple Lisa's consumer-friendly usability signaled a definitive move away from the command-led terminals of the 1970s. At the time, influential American Microcomputer magazine, BYTE, described the Apple Lisa as:

the most important development in computers in the last five years, easily outpacing the IBM PC.

The Rise of Retro-computing


The terminals, consoles and computers that entered the market in 1970s and 80s are now being rediscovered by a younger generation of developers that missed the golden era. Inspired by the early pioneers of computing, enthusiasts look to the past with nostalgia at a simpler but no less inspiring time for programming. With over one million subscribers, LGR on YouTube is just one example of the rising popularity in retro-computing.

We no longer discuss connectivity speed in baud, and we barely acknowledge the significance of a blinking cursor on our screen. It's hard, however, to deny the impact that the original teletypes, terminals and consoles have had on today's technology. So when we started the design work for Console, we couldn't help but be drawn to the aesthetics and spirit of this era, attempting capture the glow of the green screen that first lured us to computing in our logo and brand identity.

If you're interesting in digging deeper into the history of the computer terminal and console, then the following resources are some great places to start:

  • Bit Savers Computing Archive - A treasure trove of archived computer manuals and marketing materials. Constantly updated, the archive currently hold 113000 files including over 5 million text pages!
  • The Computer History Museum - Based in Silicon Valley, the CHM has an incomparable collection of computing artifacts and oral histories freely available to browse online.
  • OldComputr - Beautifully shot images of vintage consoles, terminals and computers.
  • Steve's Old Computers - A well curated personal website dedicated to the preservation and display of vintage computer systems.
  • Retrocomputing Stack Exchange - Question and answer site for vintage-computer hobbyists interested in restoring, preserving, and using the classic computer and gaming systems.
  • Retro Computing Forum - The place to share stories and information about retro-computing and vintage computers.



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