Friday, May 30, 2008

The First Phonebook

The only known edition of the world's first telephone book has just surfaced in Connecticut. November 1878 is about a hundred years earlier than the usual focus of this blog, but it's old technology all the same. Some notes:

- The whole document is only 20 pages.
- Users were asked to limit calls to three minutes, so other subscribers would have a chance to use the line.
- "Hulloa!" is the appointed greeting when you initiate a call. (I had thought it had been "Ahoy-hoy").
- "Never take the telephone off the hook unless you wish to use it."
- "When you are done talking say, 'That is all,' and the person spoken to should say, 'O.K.'"

The telephone was a source of uneasy paranoia when it was first introduced. If it can transmit our voice to others when we wish it to - how do we know it's not "listening" at other times?

Article at Discovery News.

P.S.: The first computer bulletin board system went online 100 years later. These, you recall, were how people outside governmental, educational or military organizations traded electronic mail and files and used message forums before the Internet became widespread for casual use. Bulletin Board Systems used phone lines too - and in the 21st century dial-up online connections, pay phones, and to some extent land lines in general, are now in decline.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


There are games you pause to remember fondly once in a while, and then there are games you and your friends still play 20 years later. Ebonstar, designed by the Dreamers' Guild in 1988 and released only for the Commodore Amiga, is both of these. It's a straight-up one-to-four-player space arcade extravaganza wherein you battle the computer ships, your friends, or both. How it came to be is a story that's never been told on the Web until now.

Robert McNally, at the tender age of 17, was the youngest programmer Sega had ever hired. The Sega workplace was a friendly one, with a regular group gathering during the lunch hour to wolf down sandwiches then make a beeline for the dimly-lit back room where sat one of the few four-player Eliminator machines ever made. (see "Chronology: Spacewar," below.) The group was more than four in number, so at the end of a game, only the player with the highest score would continue in the next game - the other three would be replaced, sort of a "king of the hill" series. Young Robert would play so hard his palms would sweat profusely - something that never happened in any other context - and once, when his ship was destroyed, he spontaneously lost control of his body and fell over backwards (luckily there was a pile of empty boxes and packing material behind him which broke his fall.) He also shared this anecdote:
I remember when one of the engineers who had originally worked on Eliminator snuck in a re-coded ROM with a cheat: Between rounds, if a player continuously held down a particular combination of the four control buttons, the machine would reduce the size of that player's "hit radius" for the duration of the round. This would result in the player not being quite as easy to hit as the other players. Used intermittently so as not to give it away, that engineer had quite a bit of evil fun for several months before the other engineers got sufficiently suspicious to pull out the ROM and compare it to the production master.
When Robert left Sega he couldn't stand to see Eliminator go, so he and his brother Michael created Ebonstar.

A few fun notes about Ebonstar:
  • The best way to play, by far, is in Tournament mode with four players of about equal skill. Tournament means you're concentrating on your human opponents rather than trying to get a high score or advance to the higher levels of the game. The game regularly provides fireballs, homing shots, and a lightning bolt that zaps-out-of-existence any ships near you when you trigger it - your mission is to pick up as many of these items as possible and put them to good use.
  • Team play is preferred - two on two. You can play every man for himself, but the game takes on a new dimension when you have one ally and two opponents. Especially when your ally accidentally kills you - "Ca-raaaaaaaap."
  • A computer keyboard was not designed to support the energetic pressing and/or holding down of a dozen different keys at once, arcade-stylee. Occasionally you will experience "keylock," the sudden nonresponsiveness of the keyboard - unless you're the one guy who only uses the joystick - or the mouse (not recommended)
  • Very rarely, gravity will affect the entire play area, and your little ship will resemble a salmon desperately swimming upstream instead of a little bee buzzing around fancy free. No one - not even the programmers - know exactly what triggers this, but some believe that a secret key combination does it - and that I know what it is.
  • There is a great debate that has raged for decades about what constitutes "winning" a Tournament game. It's customary for the last player standing to quit the game with Amiga-Q when he's defeated the last opponent - everyone's eager to play again, and doesn't want to sit around while he plays against the computer ships that once again start coming out. The game itself displays "Winner" in the color of the ship with the highest score, presumably in an homage to those early Eliminator lunches at Sega. But the winner must necessarily be considered to be the sole survivor - who, obviously, could rack up big points on his own, by putting the non-human-piloted computer ships in what is known as "das position" (say it with an evil German accent) and pummel them till the cows come home - or extra ships are awarded. Because your standard shots don't destroy other ships - only bounce them away and possibly into a wall - it's possible to dribble another ship like a basketball for a good while, racking up points in the process.
Some other enjoyable moments to experience:
    • When you've got no weaponry whatsoever and another guy has collected a ton of fireballs, homing shots, AND the lightning, destroy the black hole satellite while he's on the other side of the screen - the game will reset everyone to no weapons for the next level - he'll have nothing (and you'll like it).
    • If the big yellow Nemesis ship emerges from the black hole and comes at you, do all you can to divert it to another player and force him to deal with it instead. As you do this, be sure to say "Take 'im."
    • Too many more to list.
To play Ebonstar on your PC, just download WinUAE, an Amiga kickstart ROM, and Ebonstar.ADF, get three friends, and fire it up!

Also, at the top of this post is a completely clueless negative review of the game (Amiga User International, June 1988). The reviewer clearly didn't experience the multiplayer/tournament/team aspect of the game.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chronology: Spacewar

(Image above is "Computer Space")

"Hackers" get a bad rap.

"Hacking" today tends to mean breaking into a computer system. This is a corruption of the term - the original hackers didn't break into computers - because they were the only computer users and already had access. At MIT at the beginning of the 1960s, the first hackers prized efficient, elegant, beautiful solutions - the noun "hack" has been said to be undefinable, but has been characterized as "an appropriate application of ingenuity." So it's a shame that the mass media has been ruining the word since the 80s.

Especially because it's hackers we have to thank for making computers fun. For a long time, computers were just for doing work. Sure, there was Tennis for Two back in 1958, and other trinkets here and there, but things didn't go serious arcade style until 1961 when those hackers at MIT dreamed up Spacewar. It was at once complex and bind-mogglingly simple - with game physics including gravity, thrust and hyperspace, not to mention an astronomically-accurate background star field, courtesy of a subroutine dubbed "Expensive Planetarium" - yet at its heart, it was a simple two-player hot seat duel. Spacewar was, by necessity, a shared experience.

Take a look at the prodigious progeny of this game:
  • 1961-62 - Spacewar! (Steve Russell et al, PDP minicomputer)
  • September 1971 - Galaxy Game (Installed at the student union at Stanford, a version of Spacewar that cost 10 cents or three plays for a quarter.)
  • November 1971 - Nolan Bushnell (later the father of Atari) mass produces Spacewar as "Computer Space" - the first video game in arcades.
  • 1977 - Space Wars, the first vector graphics arcade game, is released by Cinematronics- it's a very accurate arcade version of Spacewar. "Vector" graphics are made up of very bright, clear, lines, which makes the game more appealing than the blocky low resolution graphics on black and white televisions, as is more common in arcade games of the day.
  • 1979 - Atari releases Asteroids - along with Space Invaders, one of the biggest arcade smash hits of the 70s. Asteroids uses the same left/right/thrust/fire control scheme as Spacewar, as well as the "Hyperspace" concept that - as everyone knows - randomly teleports your ship to another location on the screen.
  • 1980 - Cinematronics releases Star Castle, a one-player-at-a-time space battle against a circular fortress in the middle of the screen.
  • 1981 - Sega comes out with Eliminator, a vector game for one to four players, not unlike a Star Castle with the enemy installation mobile and floating around the screen. [video]
  • 1982 - a version of Spacewar is ported to the Vectrex game console, the only vector graphics game console ever made. It's a very faithful rendering, and even includes a one-player version - though the intelligence of the opposing ship is not what you'd face from a human adversary.
  • 1988 - The Dreamers Guild creates Ebonstar, a version of Eliminator for the Amiga home computer.
This is only a small sampling. Steve Russell, when asked, was extremely modest about his contribution, saying if he hadn't done it, someone else would have. Maybe. What we do know for sure is he came up with one very influential computer program - and since his nickname was "Slug" due to his tendency to be slow to start anything, and he was the first, who's to say we might not still be waiting for Spacewar if he hadn't come through?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stick Around

Whatever happened to the joystick?

If you're about my age, you've probably used one of these. Back in junior high we all complained about the standard issue Atari model, but looking back, it was one of the best - maybe not always the most comfortable, but it provided good control for years - until you'd beaten the life out of it, for instance, playing Decathlon, which required you to jerk your stick left and right as fast as possible - for minutes on end.

The joystick may be passe, but it's still bubbling under the surface of our pop culture. This guy hacked one into a TV remote, and this woman made a giant joystick work of art.

Newsweek has a good overview of game control from the Atari era to today. An excerpt, if I may:

*1977: the Atari 2600 controller. One joystick, one button. 2 inputs.
*1980: the Intellivision controller featured a 12-key keypad and two action buttons on each side, and included a “control disc” that essentially functioned as a joystick input. Function overlays were included for most of the games and fit over the keypad. All told, it was 17 inputs.
*1982: the Atari 5200 was the gold standard for the early complexity era. A joystick, a 12-key keypad, four action buttons, plus start, pause, and reset buttons. 20 inputs. Incredibly, this controller had as many inputs as the PS3 controller—twenty-five years sooner.
*1985: the Nintendo Entertainment System reduced the 20 inputs on the Atari 5200 controller to a d-pad, two action buttons, plus select and start buttons. 5 inputs. The NES did, um, pretty well, and the NES controller marked a permanent break from the complexity of only a few years earlier.
*1990: the Super Nintendo controller added a third and fourth button, as well as two shoulder buttons. Both would become standards. 9 inputs total.
*1995: the Sony Playstation controller added a third and fourth shoulder button. They also made each d-pad direction a separate button. 14 inputs total.
*1998: in response to the analog stick of the Nintendo 64 controller, Sony introduced the Dual Shock controller, which featured two analog sticks in addition to all the buttons of the original Playstation controller. The analog sticks were also clickable, thus potentially functioning as two additional buttons. We’re up to 18 inputs now, if you don’t count the "analog" button (which really couldn’t be used as in input in games).
*2006: the Sony PS3 controller, which we’ve already mentioned, had 20 inputs.

For more on sticks, check out Kokatu or just try a Google image search.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Basically, the Classics

Apropos of my past post, I just wanted to throw out this cool BASIC interpreter that lets one run BASIC programs from the Windows desktop.

Classic BASIC Games

Cool. Classic. BASIC.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Digital Archaeology Turns Up an Artifact from 1984

I was searching for a "shareware" BBS-downloaded game I played on my IBM PC circa 1985 and used the search term GRIME.ZIP. I found the game, and something else that surprised me even more - a program I wrote on the same PC, the previous year. It's a BASIC program that draws the Ghostbusters logo on the screen. (Ghostbusters was absolutely HUGE in the summer/fall of 1984, you will remember.) I found a couple other Ghostbusters programs in the same filebase.

It's kind of neat what you can find on the Web. Even things that were created long before there WAS a Web. My file, the Grime game, and many others were uploaded to this BBS in 1989 it seems, and burned onto CD maybe a year later - eventually, the BBS became a dialup/Web hybrid, and here we are. Here's a list of some of the files on the BBS.

Here's a shot of the screen and some text from the program.

I hope you enjoyed this presentation!!

Copyright (c)October 16th, 1984

Friday, May 2, 2008

ASCII and Ye Shall Receive

Not so long ago, in a relative sense, computer graphics were almost an afterthought - the earliest computers didn't have a monitor screen at all. Programmers looked at a wavy line on an oscillocope, a few blinky lights, or a printout, to see if their program worked. Nowadays of course the graphics are the goal, whether it's the latest slick user interface or the most photo realistic game environment. Back in the halcyon days, computer users made the best of what they had; which, initially, was text characters. The ASCII character set is a standard that most computers and printers use to keep track of letters, numbers and symbols - and computer enthusiasts were quick to utilize them as a kind of graphics, when pixels were not available.

In 1966, a man named Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Labs created a photomosaic by scanning a series of photographs - you can see the result above, Studies in Perception I. But just as interesting, and possibly even more creative, are the uses ASCII has been put to by those who manipulate the characters by hand. A great overview is available at the Wikipedia ASCII Art article.

The colon and parenthesis "smiley faces" we still use in our emails today were first proposed back in 1982, and enthusiasts were making good use of text characters in games and simple animation then; the IBM PC initially did not come with a graphics card as standard. Dial-up Bulletin Board Systems - the only way for most people to go online before the Internet became accessible to the general public - were completely text-based for years, and an entire "Art Scene" sprang up around doing the fanciest things possible with whatever color, sound and motion came available. People were trading BASIC programs displaying animated ASCII "Cartoons" in the early 80s, the direct descendant of which you can see in "Star Wars ASCIImation" - or here, with sound added. An entire feature film has also been converted to ASCII.

If ASCII art interests you, be sure to check out Jason Scott's nostalgic collection at (his stated favorite is, as well as Joan Stark's site.