Friday, February 6, 2009

My friend Sol

Meet Sol. Sol was my first computer I built from a kit in 1977. I had seen the earlier computers such as the Altair that in it's introduction was a basic box with blinking lights and a lot of switches. I did not really understand how blinking lights made a computer but as Altair matured it set standards such as the s-100 buss. What I liked about the Sol was it had a keyboard and a video output already built in. I also had a connection to Sol through Bill Etra someone I had met through work.

Bill knew the father of the Sol Lee Felsenstein. Bill used the Sol as the cpu for the his VMS video system he was developing which was an offshoot of the 3D video system he was developing for the Australians.

The Sol came out in the same year as the Apple II. I had seen both of them at the first West Coast Computer Faire. I decided on the Sol since I had met Lee in real life and Bill said that was the one to get based on the fact that Sol had S-100 buss and an Intel 8080 CPU chip. Yes it was Intel inside even back in the day.

I took $1600.00 to the Byte Shop on Francisco Blvd. in San Rafael CA. I plunked down my money and loaded a big box in to my car. The kit was pretty easy to build. I had to solder all of the IC sockets on to the CPU board, insert the chips and build the power supply. I put the assembled CPU board and power supply in to the pretty blue case. It worked the first time I powered it up. I was very pleased and started to see what this thing did. About 5 minutes in to messing with the demo programs SOL went dead. I though I had done something wrong. I turned it off and checked the usual things I did when things broke. I pushed on the chips, wiggled connectors. I began to learn how computers work or in this case don't work. I finally loaded SOL back in to the car for the trip from Santa Rosa to San Rafael to see what the Byte Shop had to say.

The guy at the Byte Shop said he would look at it for me. He though it was a bad solder. I was not convinced my soldering was the problem. I told him I solder for a living. He said he would look at it and I headed back home. He called me a few days later to say it was a part in the power supply that was bad. The part was a cent Zener Diode part of the power supply crowbar circuit. Already I had learned something new. I learned crowbars keep the power supply from putting out to much voltage by shutting the power supply down. He replaced the bad part for me. When I picked the computer up he told me the solders looked perfect. I took Sol back home and started seeing what a computer actually did.

One of the programs I got did electronic music. I got the program as a gift from some friends. Back in the day you had to load the programs off of a cassette tape. From there you could load the music file also on a cassette tape. It was amazing to hear a computer making music. My roommate and I got some music books and hand loaded some other songs in to it. I remember we had it playing the Beatles song When I'm 64. It was amazing.

The original computer came with 16k of memory. A fraction what we use today. When I retired Sol he had 48k of memory. 64K was the limit in those days. I had to build the memory boards as well. With the financial help of my brother we later added the Daisy Wheel printer and a couple of 5.25 in floppy drives along with a CPM operating system. With the CPM and disk drives SOL could then run a database, Electric Pencil (word Processor) and a thing called What's It. What's It was a kick. It was sort of a funny database you could type phrases in to and you could could ask it questions as it learned. My roommate also made a program that would put out a silly story after you input a bunch of questions. I used the data base to do my taxes for my business. I would input all the checks and it would spit out reports I took to my CPA.

People that saw SOL just shook their head. "Why?" they would ask "do you need a computer?". Some of the people did not understand included my electronics teacher and my boss. I explained that the little CPU chip in my computer was going to someday be embedded in to everything. My profession has always been the video industry. As the video industry matured so did video machines with CPUs. Just about every new product had a CPU chip and software. The interesting bit was my confused boss later started a company called Diaquest than made software that interfaced the Apple Macintosh with VTRs and Video Disk Recorders. My sister worked for Diaquest doing testing of the product.

I later built an interface to a Ampex VTR I had with the intention of building up a video editing system. One of my clients saw SOL controlling the VTR and ran out an bought an Apple II.

The experience I gained from having a computer so early has paid off many times for me in my professional career. It is amazing to look at something like my iPhone and see how much computing power you can hold in your hand.


Angel said...

I used to have an Altair. The blinky lights? That was binary. Ditto for the switches. One nice thing was that it could be stopped in the middle of a run and then single-stepped thru the program.

Shortly after I built the computer, I added a hexadecimal keypad and display, which was a lot nicer than loading a program via the panel switches.

Interesting note... I later added a paper tape reader, but using it required that a short program first be entered manually so that the computer would recognize it. That program was called a bootstrap loader, and was the origin of the term "booting the computer".

Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane!

CC Fiorella said...

I had an Apple II then a GS, and that was replaced by a Classic II at school. I also had a CX. The worst computer I had was a Packard Bell running Windows 95. I would just go frantic because it would not do what Gates promised it would do.
A lot later on, I bought a used Atari 2600, that was really fun to play with, and an HP 3650 with Windows 98. To it's credit, the damn thing still works.
Writing commands was always hard for me. I took and received a "C" in FORTRAN, DOS scared the hell outta me, and UNIX, although powerful, is just too much for my poor little brain to deal with!

Lee Felsenstein said...

What a pleasant surprise! I'm afraid I can't retrieve a memory of meeting you (Bill Etra always had a lot of colorful people in orbit around him), so please remind me of the circumstances.

At a sci-fi convention not long ago I introduced myself as a "technological adventurer and designer of lost computers". It seems as if you found some of that adventure for yourself. It's gratifying to hear your story.

In the definitive history book of that epoch, "Fire in the Valley" by Freberger and Swaine I inadvertently provided the epigraph: "a year was a lifetime in those days". Fortunately nt my only lifetime.

Lee Felsenstein
also in Silly Con Valley

Le visage d'avril said...

@Angel I know the lights were binary. I remember in school we learned how to convert from binary to hex. I never understood why we needed to know that until I had a computer. I remember doing the boot loader on a PDP 11 used for the CMX edit systems.

@CC Windows not doing something? Never heard of that.

@Lee Felsenstein I am honored. The first time we met you were doing something with the KGB so you were working. I worked for Mr Lindheim from 1974 to 1978. I looked a bit of mess back then. We did talk on the phone a few years later about SOS (Save Old Sols).

I like it here in the valley. I was a long time Marin/Sonoma county resident before.

Thanks so much for chiming in. Thank you also for making an awesome computer that totally sucked me in to computers. I have added your blog to my RSS reader.

Chloe said...

You and Lynn Conway should get together and go bowling! I swear - that was one of the best stories I have read in a while. Thank you for taking the time to share it.

My first computer was a Commador Vic 20 - hardly worth comparing the Sol too, but, it was my first computer that I learned the Basic language on. I have a Cassette Drive to load programs or save them too - a printer and an acoustic 300Baud Modem.

Learning from Byte magazine, I quickly learned how to make my own games and basic other programs. One of them was a PhonePhreaking emulator that would allow you to do things like make free long distant calls, or make other peoples phones call you - you could even drop coins out of payphones, etc. Today, that is no longer possible as the phone companies realized that they were not the only ones with this technology anymore. It became common knowledge how to do and they changed how the systems all work.

Go figure, I work for the phone company today ;)

I upgraded to a Commador 64, then a 128, then an Amiga, then I have my first Clone XT 8088 that I built myself, then a Clone 286 AT, and so on... man, those were the days.

Btw hon, I am moving my Blog "Pink Thoughts" to Private, Invitation only. I would like you to remain a follower, but I need to send you an invite via your email. Can you email me directly at: and let me know if you'd like to remain? said...

Hi April, it's funny that I wrote this comment on a iPad...

My father was an early Computer teacher in University of Montpellier in France. I had some pictures of me playing with University computers and trying to put some paper card in the machine to enter new programs...