The vast majority of PC users today have no memory of what PC keyboards looked like before the standard 101/102-key layout arrived, even though various OEMs do their best to mangle the standard layout in order to minimize usability, especially on laptops. OEM-specific modifications aside, the basic layout of the main block of alphanumeric keys has not changed in over 30 years, since 1986. However, up until that point the PC keyboard layout and the keyboard hardware changed quite a bit, and looking at the 1981-1986 IBM Technical References is key to understanding a) why the standard keyboard scan codes are so complex, and b) why there are so many seemingly odd vendor-specific modifications of the standard layout. With our modern operating systems and crazy fast processors, it’s easy to forget that the PC as a platform is almost 40 years old, and many of the PC standards we don’t even think of as standards have roots that date back that far – and the keyboard is no exception.
John Stanley Ford, my father, was the first black software engineer in America, hired by IBM in 1946. Passed over for promotions, discriminated against in pay, with many inside IBM working to ensure his failure, he still viewed his job as an opportunity of a lifetime. He refused to give up. Minority underrepresentation in high tech has been present since the earliest days of the industry. In reflecting upon my father’s career for a new memoir I wrote about him, I saw important lessons about the history and nature of racism in high tech, and about the steps that corporations and individuals can take to bring about much-needed change. An important and fascinating story – especially since it involves IBM, a company with a long and deep roots in racism, eugenics, and genocide.
On Thursday IBM unveiled their new mainframe, the z15. Overall, the z15 represents an evolutionary change over its predecessor, the z14. However, there are plenty of enhancements across the board. This goes way over my head, but it’s still immensely cool.
It has been a long time coming, and it might have been better if this had been done a decade ago. But with a big injection of open source spirit from its acquisition of Red Hat, IBM is finally taking the next step and open sourcing the instruction set architecture of its Power family of processors. Opening up architectures that have fallen out of favour seems to be all the rage these days. Good news, of course, but a tad late.
The few times I’ve had the lid off of my 5100 have all been anxious moments, as I have no idea where I’d find replacements for any of the ICs or SLT modules inside the machine. I resolved early on that my recovery of the 5100’s non-executable ROS – the ROS that contains the programming for the 5100’s BASIC and APL interpreters – would be as minimally-invasive as possible. In accomplishing this recovery I may have used more compute than all the IBM 5100s ever built have carried out over the past 44 years.
In late April of 2019 Adam Bradley and Chris Blackburn were sitting in a pub on a Monday night when Chris happened across a somewhat unusual eBay listing for an IBM 360 Model 20. This eBay listing was unusual mainly because it didn’t actually list the computer as an IBM 360, but rather as an “seltene Anlage “Puma Computer IBM 2020” which roughly translates from German into “rare plant “Puma Computer IBM 2020”. Amazing story.
The IBM System/360 was a groundbreaking family of mainframe computers announced on April 7, 1964. Designing the System/360 was an extremely risky “bet-the-company” project for IBM, costing over $5 billion. Although the project ran into severe problems, especially with the software, it was a huge success, one of the top three business accomplishments of all time. System/360 set the direction of the computer industry for decades and popularized features such as the byte, 32-bit words, microcode, and standardized interfaces. The S/360 architecture was so successful that it is still supported by IBM’s latest z/Architecture mainframes, 55 years later. Although the S/360 models shared a common architecture, internally they were completely different to support the wide range of cost and performance levels. Low-end models used simple hardware and an 8-bit datapath while advanced models used features such as wide datapaths, fast semiconductor registers, out-of-order instruction execution, and caches. These differences were reflected in the distinctive front panels of these computers, covered with lights and switches. This article describes the various S/360 models and how to identify them from the front panels. I’ll start with the Model 30, a popular low-end system, and then go through the remaining models in order. Conveniently IBM assigned model numbers rationally, with the size and performance increasing with the model number, from the stripped-down but popular Model 20 to the high-performance Model 195. This is an incredibly detailed article on this – relatively speaking – arcane topic, filled with beautiful photography. A delight to read.
Use elementary image processing and machine learning techniques to decode images of a computer screen showing hexadecimal digits. The data in these images are ROM contents from an interesting old computer. The IBM 5100 is an early personal computer (ostensibly portable at 24 kg). Depending on customer-selected options, a 5100 could have interactive programming environments for APL and BASIC built into its ROM. Or, if you prefer, its ROS (“read-only storage”), which seems to have been the IBM-favoured term. The youngest 5100s are a bit over 40 at time of writing, and some accounts online suggest that the ROS devices are no longer dependable. This notebook is part of an effort to back up the entire IBM 5100 ROS to modern media. Specifically, this notebook contains code that analyses screenshots (that is, photographs taken with a camera) containing 512-byte portions of the “Executable ROS”—the ROS containing the native PALM code. That sure is one way to perform computer archeology and keep an old technology alive for posterity.
In the early 1990s, we had no idea where the computer industry was going, what the next generation would look like, or even what the driving factor would be. All the developers back then knew is that the operating systems available in server rooms or on desktop computers simply weren’t good enough, and that the next generation needed to be better—a lot better. This was easier said than done, but this problem for some reason seemed to rack the brains of one company more than any other: IBM. Throughout the decade, the company was associated with more overwrought thinking about operating systems than any other, with little to show for it in the end. The problem? It might have gotten caught up in kernel madness. Today’s Tedium explains IBM’s odd operating system fixation, and the belly flops it created. I personally really loved using OS/2 over the past ten years or so. There’s something quite elegant and appealing about the operating system, and I consider it the best way to run Windows 3.x software there is – it’s entirely built-in. The world would’ve been a very different place had IBM managed to take the operating system crown for the PC industry – or the Mac, for that matter, through Talingent.
Recently I’ve gotten a hold of an old IBM mid-range computer, an AS/400 150. This is an 1997 server very much aimed at businesses, pay-rolling, inventory management and such. It can be used as a multi user system, with users logging in via a terminal. The operating system it runs is OS/400 and that is also the only OS it can run, no Linux available for this system. Of course it comes with all the fun programming languages like COBOL and RPG, all the business classics. It’s compatible with the IBM system/36, so any programs made for an 80’s S/36 machine run without problems on the AS/400 machines. It also looks very much 90s, though I personally like the cover at the back, hiding all ports. Stories like these are always great reads. This is the kind of hardware I eventually want to collect and play around with once I have the space to do so.
Archaic to most people, IBM mainframes play a pivotal role in our everyday life. Behind the scenes, these state-of-the-art machines process billions of transactions every day. Announced in July of last year, IBM's latest mainframe is the z14, succeeding the z13 which launched back in 2015.
Earlier this year at the 65th International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco IBM presented some of the architectural changes between the z13 and z14. The paper was presented by Christopher Berry, a Senior Technical Staff Member for the IBM Systems Hardware Development Team. Mr. Berry led the z14 physical design execution.
So I learned something new today. Back in the early and mid-90s, IBM tried to build a PC-like platform and ecosystem around its PowerPC processor. They called it the PowerPC Reference Platform, or PReP, and with it, you could build what were effectively PC clones with PowerPC processors, ready to run a number of operating systems, including AIX, Windows NT, OS/2, and Apple's failed Taligent project. None of this is news to me.
What is news to me, however, is that aside from a number of desktop PReP machines, IBM also developed and sold a number of PReP laptops under the ThinkPad brand.
Sometime in 1994, IBM started working on a prototype mobile system named Woodfield and designated as type 6020. Very little is known about this system; it was never officially announced or sold. On June 19, 1995, IBM announced the ThinkPad 850 and 820 (announcement letters 195-178 and 195-179, respectively) with a planned availability date of July 24, 1995. The ThinkPad 820 designation was type 6040, code name Wiltwick; the 850 was type 6042, code name Woodfield Prime.
The ThinkPads 820/850 were to be available with no software or with preloaded Windows NT 3.51 or AIX 4.1.3. OS/2 was to come at some unspecified later date, and Solaris 2.5.1 support was announced in February 1996.
The ThinkPad 850 type 6042 came with 16 or 32 MB RAM, 540 or 810 MB hard disk, and 640Ã—480 or 800Ã—600 TFT display.
Definitely an interesting bit of computing history, and I'd love to get my hands on a working model - they pop up on eBay from time to time.
A mysterious full-length sound card
recently arrived at the OS/2 Museum. It was clearly manufactured by IBM in 1985, and sports a 20 MHz Texas Instrument TMS32010 DSP (the DSP is the large black DIP chip near the lower left corner, not the ceramic gold cap chip).
I love a good hardware mystery.
The PC-RETRO Kit Beta (Catalog #PC-RETRO) is a hobby electronics kit for building a faithful reproduction of the classic IBM PC 5150 motherboard from 1982. We have been in development on this new product offering for over 1 year. We started with the original circuit diagrams, as published by IBM in their Technical Reference Manual. These open source circuit diagrams launched the explosion in PC clone products that followed the IBM PC introduction. Reverse engineering the original IBM board was a substantial undertaking, as we found many differences between the 'official' circuit diagrams and actual board construction. Additionally, you can imagine the complexity of trouble-shooting this board and verifying the correct operation! Not to mention the logistical challenge of sourcing the original vintage electronic parts. You will receive all the components to build a PC Motherboard exactly as shown here.
At a mere $189.50 (including international shipping; $149.50 for domestic US customers), this is an absolute steal. I'm very tempted to look into getting this, but my utter lack of even the most basic soldering skills makes me a little nervous. Might be a better idea to get some soldering test kits before attempting a project like this.
The IBM Model M was a keyboard was first released in 1985 as a cheaper successor to the Model F. It's hard to imagine a keyboard more expensive as Model M keyboards cost a bomb even in those days but it's true.
The Model F was based on a very durable capacitive buckling spring but was expensive to produce hence IBM made the Model M with a lower-cost membrane buckling spring model. At the same time, the Model M pioneered the ANSI 101-key layout that is still in use today. This keyboard was also the first one to utilise the PS/2 connector which would go on to be in service for decades.
At a small event in San Francisco last night, IBM hosted two debate club-style discussions between two humans and an AI called "Project Debater". The goal was for the AI to engage in a series of reasoned arguments according to some pretty standard rules of debate: no awareness of the debate topic ahead of time, no pre-canned responses. Each side gave a four-minute introductory speech, a four-minute rebuttal to the other's arguments, and a two-minute closing statement.
Project Debater held its own.
I'd pay so much money to see prominent political leaders debate this machine.
We often see people funneling their passion into keeping beloved devices in operation long past their manufacturer’s intent. These replacement Thinkpad motherboards bring old (yet beloved) Thinkpads a much desired processor upgrade. This is the work of the user on the enthusiast forum 51nb. The hack exemplifies what happens when that passion for legendary gear hits deep electrical expertise and available manufacturing. This isn’t your regular laptop refurbishment, is building something new.
This is incredible. I wish someone could do this with an iBook G4 or a 12.1" PowerBook.
IBM's vacuum tube computers of the 1950s were built from pluggable modules, each holding eight tubes and the associated components. I recently came across one of these modules so I studied its circuitry. This particular module implements five contact debouncing circuits, used to clean up input from a key or relay. When you press a key, the metal contacts tend to bounce a bit before closing, so you end up with multiple open/closed signals, rather than a nice, clean signal. The signal needs to be "debounced" to remove the extra transitions before being processed by a computer.
This is so far before my time, it basically looks like 19th century machinery to me. The steps between this module and what we have today blow my mind.
From the comments on the previous story:
Connor Krukosky is an 18-year-old college student with a hobby of collecting vintage computers. One day, he decided to buy his own mainframe... An IBM z890. This is his story.
Grab a warm drink, and enjoy. This is great.
I recently came across a challenge to print a holiday greeting card on a vintage computer, so I decided to make a card on a 1960s IBM 1401 mainframe. The IBM 1401 computer was a low-end business mainframe announced in 1959, and went on to become the most popular computer of the mid-1960s, with more than 10,000 systems in use. The 1401's rental price started at $2500 a month (about $20,000 in current dollars), a low price that made it possible for even a medium-sized business to have a computer for payroll, accounting, inventory, and many other tasks. Although the 1401 was an early all-transistorized computer, these weren't silicon transistors - the 1401 used germanium transistors, the technology before silicon. It used magnetic core memory for storage, holding 16,000 characters.
Some people have access to the coolest stuff.