The State of Computing 1993

Time Capsule: Personal Computing, 1993 Style

The first thing one must know about computers of the 1990s were that they had two primary attributes — they were boxy and gray. Oh, and they were also super expensive. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to revisit those heady, pre-internet days when only the luckiest (or the ones with a ton of disposable income) had their own PC. So let’s head back three decades and do just that, through the magic of preserved photos and vintage advertising.

I haven’t been in college for many years. Do they still have computer labs? I remember the thrill of sending my first non-America Online email with one in 19…well, that’s not important. Well even if they do, I’d be shocked to find any dot matrix printers there.

No, that’s not a camera at the bottom of this computer. That’s what us old folks remember as a track ball. It came in handy when navigating around the whopping screens on laptops of the day. According to this site, the Siemens Nixdorf PCD-4NL was positioned as a compact subnotebook. It was offered with a VGA color or grayscale display; the dimensions were 36 (with color display 39) × 269 × 199 mm with a weight of just over 2 kg. An external floppy disk drive was available as an accessory.

1993 graphic on how modems work, from BYTE Magazine

I don’t really have any commentary on this other than to say that I love a good modem infographic.

And now a word from the Tandy Sensation!

Amstrad NC150 Notepad Computer

I certainly don’t want to forget about my European friends, so here’s a neat item from ’93. This is the Amstrad NC150 Notepad Computer. Amstrad was a British electronics company (1968-2010) and was a big player in the UK PC market during the late 1980s. The NC150 was an intermediate version of the NC100 and was only sold in Italy and France. Its main selling point was ease of use and simplicity, thus the “User Friendly” label at the top of the unit.

1993 Prodigy promo image

Before they were eclipsed by America Online, Prodigy was the biggest player in America’s online service provider space. And here’s a cool piece of trivia for you — the company was founded as a joint venture (Trintex) in 1984 by CBS, IBM, and… you guessed it, Sears, Roebuck and Company. Man, was there anything Sears wasn’t involved in back in the day?

Man, I can just hear that keyboard clicking in my head now.

Prodigy changed ownership hands in 1996, went public in 1999, and was essentially subsumed by SBC Communications — formerly Southwestern Bell — in 2001.

1993 Apple Newton magazine ad

I certainly don’t want to leave my non-PC friends out of this roundup. So let’s take a moment to remember the ill-fated Apple Newton, which lasted not quite five years. Perhaps Newton’s most lasting legacy — other than being the butt of a great Simpsons joke — is introducing the term Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) into the popular lexicon. Alas, the Palm Pilot ate Newton’s lunch and relegated the latter to a technological footnote.

Mosaic web browser 1993

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what the internet was like for most people in 1993. In a word, rudimentary. What you’re looking at here is one of the first browsers of note, Mosaic. Version 1.0 of Mosaic was released in April 1993 and introduced such features as icons, bookmarks, and pictures. Fancy!

1993 ZyXEL modem magazine ad

And speaking of the internet, let’s wrap this up by remembering the days when you had a choice to make — either you could use your home telephone or the internet, but not both. That’s because for most home computer users, the humble dial-up modem was their only way to access the web. A typical modem ran for anywhere from $200-500 in 1993 bucks, or from $400-1,000 in 2023 value. I can’t speak for you but I know those blazing fast speeds were worth every penny.

Vintage coin-operated coffee machine, 1947

Time Capsule: Vintage Coin-Operated Machines (Life Magazine, 1947)

Sometimes the coolest photos from Life magazine were crammed into incidental articles in the back of an issue. Take, for instance, an article on coin-operated machines — “Brave New Machines” — from the March 17, 1947 edition. The original images, taken by staff photographer Wallace Kirkland, showcase beautifully designed machines that would now probably fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars on the antiques market. But in ’47 they warranted little more than small pictures tucked into the very back of the magazine.

Here they are in their original splendor. Click on any image for the full-size version.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated coffee machine, 1947

Coin-operated coffee machine with 4 possible mixtures, each selling for five cents.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated pinball machine, 1947 (Life magazine, Wallace Kirkland)

Pinball champion George Schnabel (right) trying out coin-operated pinball machine, supporting his court action that pinball is a game of skills.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated shoeshine machine, 1947 (Life magazine, Wallace Kirkland)

Coin-operated shoeshine machine is for men not afraid of modern contraptions. The charge is five cents for each shoe unless use is exceptionally parsimonious and agile.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated book machine, 1947 (Life magazine, Wallace Kirkland)

Customer using a coin-operated book machine ($175), which has 50 different selections with titles visible for browsing.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated popcorn machine, 1947 (Life magazine, Wallace Kirkland)

Customer using a coin-operated popcorn machine, which charges ten cents per bag, with customer waiting 90 seconds for the operation.

Photograph of a vintage coin-operated quiz machine, 1947 (Life magazine, Wallace Kirkland)

Customer using a coin-operated quiz machine, which asks 5 questions for five cents, then registers an IQ square ranging from “genius” to “poor.” It holds 32,000 questions on eight topics.

View-Master reel packet envelope

A How-To Guide for Scanning View-Master Reels

Recently a visitor to my View-Master gallery wrote in and asked how I scan my reels and get them ready for publication. So as a public service I’ll go through the steps I take to get an image from a reel to you. Note that I don’t profess to be an expert in this area, and by no means do I claim to have the best technique. I also tend to make things much more complicated than necessary, so keep that in mind.

So here is my humble guide to scanning View-Master reels and getting them cleaned up.

The Hardware

For my reel scanning I use an Epson Perfection 1660 Photo Scanner. It’s a rather old model — at least a decade — but does the job. If memory serves it came with plastic photo scan adapters, but they have long since been lost.

Epson Perfection 1660 Photo Scanner

See that opaque strip in the middle of the lid’s underside? That’s the reflective section that enables scanning of the View-Master reel images. I’m sure there are dozens of models that have the same thing and that don’t cost a lot of money.

The Software

I use Photoshop for scanning and post-processing, just because that’s what I’ve used for years and that’s what I’m comfortable with. But as with the scanner itself, there are a ton of choices out there. For this how-to I’m using screenshots of Photoshop CS4.

Let’s go through a scan using one of my New York City reels, a project that’s still in progress as of this posting.

The Steps

1. Place the reel on the scanner bed, so that some of the pictures are lined up under the opaque filmstrip adapter. Unless you have a larger adapter you won’t be able to fit all of them. It shouldn’t matter if the reel is facing up or down, but I always have mine print side down out of habit.

2. In Photoshop initiate a scan/import process. Here’s what it looks like in CS4 (selecting the installed Epson software):

A How-To Guide for Scanning View-Master Reels

3. From the Epson scanner interface, I use the following settings:

  • Document source: TPU: Pos. Film
  • Image Type: Color Photo
  • Destination: Screen/Web
  • Resolution: 1200 dpi

A How-To Guide for Scanning View-Master Reels

Remember that View-Master images are not film negatives, but transparent film prints. As for the resolution, I find that 1200 dpi allows me to get a large enough image to be useful. Anything more and the file size becomes a bit unwieldy. But if you want to blow up an image you’ll want to go higher.

Note in this preview window that I only got three distinct pictures (remember that a View-Master picture is made up of two separate pieces of film). So to capture all seven on a reel you’ll need to repeat this process.

4. Now into post-processing! Align and crop the scanned images to your liking. I’m not going to tell you how to use your image processing software, but I will note that you may want to apply some curve leveling to account for your scanner. Also watch out for proper alignment. It’s easy to work on a slide only to discover it’s backwards — this can happen in slides without lettering in the picture — so remember to compare to the original reel as seen through a viewer.

Here are two scans from a New York slide (Coney Island beach). The first has no processing applied, and the second had adjustments made in the levels and shadow/highlights. I also added a sharpening filter. Remember that this is half-century old picture less than an inch wide, so don’t expect to be wowed.

View-Master reel scan example


View-Master reel scan example


And that’s pretty much it!

Vintage 1950s RCA Color Television Camera

Check Out This Vintage 1950s RCA Color Television Camera

Vintage 1950s RCA Color Television Camera

The RCA TK-40/41 is considered to be the first color television camera. It began production in late 1953 and was produced in greater quantity in 1954. This particular camera (MI-40534) was made in 1954 and bought by WBAP (later KXAS) of Fort Worth, the first television station in Texas (debuted in 1948). Outfitted with three lenses, it is a live pick-up camera used to separate a color image into its primary red, blue, and green component images and convert them into signals required for the RCA color television system.

Beginning with The Colgate Comedy Hour on November 22, 1953 these cameras were in wide use at TV networks and affiliate studios, as well as independent TV production facilities through the 1960s. Notice the sweet CBS period logo, which actually hasn’t changed that much, and a smaller red RCA logo.

Here’s another image of the same camera, with all sorts of camera guts on display. I think I see big transistors or capacitors, or whatever they are. What do I know, I can barely operate my remote control.

Vintage 1950s RCA Color Television Camera

For more auction finds, click here.

Akara 2010 Shogi (Japanese Chess) Computer

Computers Have Taken Our Jobs, Now They Want Our Games

Janken Robot Wins Rock-Paper-Scissors

We’ve grown accustomed to machines taking over routine jobs that humans used to perform (think auto assembly, telephone operators, etc.). But now, the machines are even taking away our fun. Recently, researchers at Japan’s Ishikawa Oku Laboratory unveiled a robotic hand that is unbeatable at the time-honored game of rock-paper-scissors (Roshambo).

That’s right, the friggin’ machines have taken rock-paper-scissors away from us. And this is simply the latest example of artificial intelligence ruining our cherished games and acting like a giant buzzkill with circuits in the process.

“What Is an Ass-Kicking?”

IBM's Watson on Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer appeared on Jeopardy! and wiped the floor with two of the show’s greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Even after missing the Final Jeopardy clue, Watson still racked up $35,734 in winnings. Jennings and Rutter combined won just over $15,000.

King Me, Hoser Meatbag!

Chinook Checkers/Draughts Computer

Canadian researchers developed a computer program named Chinook, which was essentially unbeatable at checkers/draughts. In 1995, Chinook won the Man vs. Machine World Checkers Championship, defeating Grandmaster Don Lafferty 1-0, with 31 draws. In 2007, the lead developer on the Chinook team, Jonathan Schaeffer, published a humble paper titled “Checkers Is Solved.”

Computers Own Chess in Two Hemispheres

Akara 2010 Shogi (Japanese Chess) Computer

We all know about IBM’s Deep Blue computer besting world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, but that was small potatoes. After all, Western chess only has 10123 games that can be played out. The Japanese version, shogi, has 10224. And a computer named Akara 2010 only needed 86 moves to beat top women’s shogi player Ichiyo Shimizu in 2010.

RoboKeeper Is Unstoppable, Available for Bar Mitzvahs

Scientists are still working on robots that can beat the best humans at soccer, but German researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute seem to already have the goal keeping thing down. Behold RoboKeeper, a motion-detecting robot that can block everything kicked its way. Oddly enough, RoboKeeper seems to be used mostly for parties and other money-making events, which is kind of a waste. But you can’t argue with the results.

RoboKeeper, the Robot Soccer Goalie

RoboKeeper Soccer Goalie Computer Image

Here’s video of RoboKeeper stopping some pretty damn good kicks. Skip ahead about a minute if you don’t care about the setup.

Othello/Reversi — A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Lose

 Logistello (Moor) Othello/Reversi computer

Computers have actually been kicking our ass in Othello for years. An early program called Moor (get it?) first won a game against world champion Hiroshi Inoue in the early ’80s. The domination was complete by 1997, when an improved program called Logistello whipped world champion Takeshi Murakami 6-0.

Murakami was quoted at the time as saying, “Frankly, I have a very slim chance of winning it. I can not find any defect or weakness.”

Steve Jobs

A polite request for Steve Jobs bashers to STFU

Steve JobsI can’t pretend to be personally moved by Steve Jobs’ death. I can acknowledge the impact he had on modern technology and our society, and still not be all that upset that he’s no longer with us. But here’s the thing — last night, while the internet poured out its sympathy and grief over Steve Jobs, I decided that instead of being a phony I just wouldn’t say anything at all. I really wish some of you Steve Jobs/Apple bashers would do the same.

I read a lot of negative commentary yesterday regarding Jobs, and it seems to break down into a few major gripes. Allow me to address them here.

You say: Why should I care about Steve Jobs? I don’t even own an iPod.

I say: Good job on demonstrating your short-sightedness. The fact that you don’t own an iPod or any other Apple products, believe it or not, does not mean that you haven’t been affected by Jobs anyway. Take five minutes and actually read up on the impact he and the company he founded have had on the world before you make yourself look even more stupid.

You say: But what about those Chinese factory workers who committed suicide? Sweatshops, maaaaaan!

I say: Ah yes, another internet human rights champion. Right on cue, here they come to school us all on the fact that — gasp! — working conditions in China aren’t all that great. Thanks for the lesson numbnuts, you’ve really opened my eyes. So tell me, what have you done to right this horrible wrong? Because I missed the news reports about all the protests you led or all the work you’ve done to raise awareness of this injustice.

Please. Other than capitalizing on Jobs’ death as a chance to draw some attention to yourself, you haven’t done shit to help those poor Chinese workers you now claim to care so much about.

You say: Sure I do! I boycott Apple products! Nyaaah!

I say: Stop. You boycott Apple products because you hate their commercials and don’t want people to think of you as an Apple fanboy or as a slave to trends, not because you’re trying to teach Apple a lesson on corporate responsibility. I get that you hate Apple’s douchey marketing campaigns. I hate them too. But don’t pretend like your desperate need to cultivate an image as some kind of iconoclast is anything more than a different flavor of pretentiousness than slavish devotion.

The bottom line: Look, I’m not telling you what to think. If you really don’t care about Steve Jobs or Apple, fine. But maybe, just maybe, you should consider not acting like a jackass for a few days by trying to impress everyone over what a radical free thinker you are. I’m sorry if reading paeans to Jobs’ life and legacy makes you feel insignificant, but you’re not going to change that situation or anyone’s mind about him simply by flinging your mental boogers all over the internet.

Say hello to Elektro, the Westinghouse Robot

He’s all but forgotten today, but at one time Elektro was king of all robots. He was assembled by Westinghouse at their Mansfield, Ohio facility in 1937/38 and made his public debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Elektro stood at a height of seven feet, six inches and weighed 260 pounds. 60 of those pounds were his brain, which was comprised of “48 electrical relays.”

At the Westinghouse Pavilion of the World’s Fair, Elektro the Moto-Man demonstrated a wide variety of skills such as speech, counting, stand-up comedy, and of course, smoking! Witness the marvels of modern 1930s technology in this excerpt from the 1939 promotional film The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair.

“Stand aside puny human, as I enjoy the mild, refreshing tobacco flavor of Philip Morris!”

In 1940 Elektro appeared once again at the fair, this time with a robotic canine companion named Sparko. After the World’s Fair, he toured the U.S. and made a number of appearances on television and in film. This clip (from what I believe to be an episode of You Asked For It) finds Elektro in a decidedly more servile mood as he becomes the world’s most expensive helium tank.

I have to say I miss the spunk of earlier Elektro. He’s gone from cracking wise to proclaiming, “If you use me well, I can be your slave.” What a sellout.

By the 1960s Elektro had largely fallen out of public consciousness, despite a starring role as Thinko in the classic 1960 film Sex Kittens Go to College, co-starring Mamie Van Doren, John Carradine, Conway Twitty, and Tuesday Weld. Here’s a faux-racy but ultimately tame sequence involving fire extinguishers and lots of recycled footage.

As if that weren’t enough, the movies features a 10-minute sequence with Thinko checking out a series of strip tease dances while being served bourbon by a monkey bartender. Yup, you read that right. Here’s a brief clip (there’s nudity and whatnot, so this is definitely NSFW).

There’s probably nowhere to go but down after a cameo like this, and truly this was just about the end for Elektro. He stopped appearing in public and was consigned to the scrap heap. Luckily he was rescued and restored, and now spends his days quietly as a featured exhibit at the Mansfield Memorial Museum.

For those inclined to build a smoking Moto-Man of your own, here’s a cross-sectional drawing showing Elektro’s workings.

Elektro interior diagram

Finally, enjoy this Flickr slideshow of some neat Elektro images I’ve compiled!