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.