About

20161217_144852.jpgHowdy, I’m JWhitten. I’ve been doing things with computers and electronics ever since I was a kid–  designing, building, hacking, modding– whatever it takes– I just like to make stuff.

I cut my teeth on the Altair way back when– finger-boning op-codes on the front panel, upgrading it from its original 2 MHz 8080 to a Z80… then Z80A then Z80B…. it was a real speed demon cruising along at 6 MHz. I also added more RAM to take it from the paltry 2048 bytes to a whopping 64K. And of course I just had to write a BDOS for it so it could run CP/M. I had a lot of fun with that system.

Altair 8800b Computer Front Panel
(Altair 8800b front panel close-up from Wikipedia)

Here is a better view of what it looked like, though this particular one isn’t mine, it’s just a photo I found on Wikipedia.

The ones in the photos below are mine though– or rather they were mine, they’re long gone now. The pictures were taken sometime in the early 1980’s.

altair1-bigThere’s no telling how many programs I’ve toggled in via those switches on the front panel. I got to where I was pretty good at it and could generally do it without looking– most of the time. If you’ve never used one, a front panel is a nice way of working with a system. It’s very natural, though hard on your fingers to be sure. When computers started coming out without switches or indicator lights it felt very, very strange. Like how in the world are you supposed to troubleshoot this thing or view the contents of a register without lights!?!? Not to mention they just looked cool sitting there flickering away. And of course it was always fun when people would come to visit as they were always attracted to the blinking lights.

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I also had several other S-100 systems including one from a (now defunct) company called U.S. Micro, and another butt-ugly home-brew thing that I traded some guy for at a Hamfest in Dallas. I did it mainly because it had a lot of extra S-100 boards in it which seemed like they could be useful. I don’t think the covers were ever on any of them for long. I used to swap the parts around a lot depending on whatever I was doing at the time.

S-100 was pretty good for mixing and matching as long as you knew how to set up the addressing. I remember having a number of smaller memory cards– probably all like 2K / 4K / 8K– none of them very big– and a few 4-port parallel cards and a couple of dual port RS232 serial cards, a few S-100 prototyping cards, which along with the several  8080 and Z80 processor boards, made up my small collection of computer stuff back then. I also had a friend with a paper-tape reader which came in handy from time-to-time. You never really see those much anymore these days…

PertecMITS_300_55_Business_System (1)At some point I acquired another Altair, which was one of the turnkey models, which is sort of interesting from a historical perspective since probably only a few people really knew about them. It came bundled with a 14-inch hard drive and a spiffy solid wood-top computer desk. And it was a nice desk too– at just the right height for using the system, something I’ve rarely experienced since– I liked it a lot. Here’s a nice picture of one fully-assembled I found on Wikipedia. Mine only looked like that for maybe twenty minutes before I took it apart… I discovered I could make it wider and much roomier if I bolted it to the leftmost side of the rack which came in handy for stacking more computers on top. 😉

At the time it was extremely rare to have a computer with a hard drive. My boss helped me get the one I had. This one, which was made by Pertec, had one removable platter and one fixed platter for a total of 5MB and it sounded like a jet airplane winding up for take-off every time it powered up. It was really loud– so loud that I used to keep it in the next room (my bedroom) and ran the cables through the wall. I was fortunate in having an understanding neighbor living in the apartment below me.

If you’re a young person, just stop and think about that for a moment… it’s hard to imagine, given the way we experience computers these days, that they used to be so big that building an entire desk around one would be considered a practical thing to do. And probably the funniest part now would be the idea that they called ’em *MINI* computers!!

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Lear-Siegler ADM-3A

And who could forget those “sexy” ASCII terminals with their 80 character by 25 line black & white screens?? I had several terminals including an ADM-3A like you see in the picture to the right, and I don’t recall what the other one was– maybe someone will recognize it in one of the pictures (above) and remind me. I also had a Hazeltine terminal that I used at work for awhile. Not sure what happened to it. Maybe my boss kept it.

But while we’re on the subject, here’s a funny story about that… the ADM-3A had a very “upright” design and I hated it. So one day my Dad and I literally sawed off the keyboard with a hand saw and then made a wooden box to put it in and reattached it with a long ribbon cable. So that became my first terminal with a “detachable” keyboard…

altair3So, the geeky-looking kid in the photo is me. I was maybe 20. That was the day I got my first acoustic-coupler (modem)… 300 baud… woo hoo. My boss took the picture for posterity– or maybe it was so he could blackmail me with it later, I’m not really sure which.

Back then I was working for a pretty rich guy who, among other things, owned a chain of day care centers and I had it set up there for a bit while I was writing some software to help him manage his operation.

I often had the computers cobbled together via the parallel ports– you can just barely see the cable connecting the two systems in the back, just to the left of the terminal. I suppose people these days might consider it a crude form of networking,– so I reckon that part is just in my blood. Though in truth it kind-of happened out of necessity a few years earlier when another friend (and occasional employer) who also had a CP/M-based computer, would have me write programs for him and his system used 5-1/4 inch floppy disks where mine were all 8-inch and of course incompatible with his. So I wrote some programs to have the computers exchange data over the parallel ports and that often came in handy afterwards in other situations. The little U.S. Micro computer (the smaller white one on top in the picture) usually ended-up being the go-between since it was easiest to haul around. Not quite a “mobile computer” by today’s standards but it was definitely easier than lugging that Altair around. Those things were heavy! And big. And heavy. ‘Cause, you know, switching power supplies are for wimps! 😉

altair1-cropIn some of the pictures you can also see one of my early robotics projects sitting on top of the oscilloscope. Computers were a lot bigger then so it was much easier to just run it on a tether and leave the computer where it was.

The robot didn’t really do very much. Just crawled around on the tank treads mainly and it could also raise and lower its arm and open and close the jaws. That was about it. It also had a couple of bump switches on it for sensors. The interface for it was equally crude, some relays soldered up on some perfboard and everything running back to the parallel ports on the Altair.

51VYlpApt7LI was really interested and inspired by David Heiserman’s “Buster” project (“How to Build Your Own Working Robot”) and was playing with his ideas for mapping and so forth. I read all of his books on robotics, along with lots of others– especially Rodney Brooks. He had a lot of really interesting ideas. So my robot was nothing like any of those robots. But it was still fun to play with and I learned a lot in the process.

At this point, that robot is also long gone, but oddly enough, I still have the relays from its control board in my junk box. I run across ’em every now and then as I’m pawing through it for parts. It’s kind of strange the stuff you end up keeping, I guess.

Since then I reckon that I’ve gone through a lot of computers of different ilk, though probably the bulk of them at this point have been various IBM PC clones. Though the Atari ST was fun. And so was the Commodore 64. At one point I was living in a sort of “group house” with some roommates / workmates who were all into Ataris and we used to have a lot of fun hooking them together to play “Midi Maze” and “Dungeon Master” until the wee hours of the morning. I also remember that we made some money from time-to-time modding / upgrading the memory in the Ataris for folks by glomming-on extra memory to the tops of the existing chips and then wiring them back to the MMU. The Ataris were nice systems and more memory was definitely a nice improvement. And the GEM operating system was definitely way ahead of its time.

masscompsIn the early 1990’s I discovered multibus systems. The company I used to work for had a tendency to toss out old gear whenever the contracts ended. One year they had some particularly sweet Masscomp 5600 systems which kept creeping towards the trash heap. So I talked them into selling them to me for a decent price and ended up getting three whole complete units, a couple of partial systems and a box or two of spare parts. That was a nice haul. Soon after I managed to snag a couple of Cypher 9-track tape drives and a butt-load of tapes when they tossed out their old tape library. I used my IBM PC-clone– whatever it was, some sort of AT– as the front-end / main terminal for the system though as you can see I also had a couple of ASCII terminals that I used, mainly for status displays.

bratThe Masscomps are a little hard to make out in the picture. Here’s another picture of me (still geeky) standing in front of them. The Masscomps are just behind me there to the left left of the tape drives. I tried to find some better pictures of one online to show you but there don’t seem to be many pictures of them available. I saw some Masscomp 5400’s, which were the next model below the ones I had. Essentially the same system, a little smaller, and wasn’t able to expand quite as much. The 5600’s were Motorola 68020-based systems which were pretty beefy systems at the time. One of their neat features was that you could connect them with a high-speed interconnect across the backplane which allowed them to interact with each other much faster than the primitive 10Mbps network which was the standard of the day. It seemed fast back then and really, really ancient now looking back.

vnet_8th_streetNot long after that I worked out a plan to leverage my growing collection of systems to start my first company, an Internet Service Provider– which ended up being a wild ride and a ton of work, but definitely a lot of fun. And as maddening as it was back then, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!

Our primary building, the one you see here– our third location in as many years– was originally an ADT security building and so it was already well-equipped for anything related to telecommunications. It had a very nice generator out back and a huge battey room filled floor-to-ceiling with deep-cycle marine batteries so we were fairly independent with respect to power. On full tanks we could go two or three weeks non-stop off the grid without commercial power, and of course longer than that if we refueled.

These might be the only remaining pictures of it which were taken shortly after we moved in. I did have some more at one point but they’ve all faded pretty badly over the years. So much for one-hour photos, eh? It’s nice that the world has moved on to digital photos, IMO.

The building itself was long and narrow. It was built down a long central hallway with most of the rooms off to either side, which were generally small and cramped. The place sort of naturally had a bit of a “nautical” feel to it. Sort of like a submarine. The computer room was all the way up front (the end furthest in the photo) which we called “The Bridge”. And my office was way way back in the back (the end closest in the photo) which we called “The Battle Bridge” since we could monitor and run pretty much everything from back there as well. Those were the two largest rooms in the building. There were also a number of video cameras mounted around the outside including one up on the roof mounted on top of a large pole which was able to pan and tilt– all leftovers from ADT– that were fun to play with and of course fit right into the “submarine-y” feel of the place.

vnet_bridgeThe computer room was very nice. We had it custom built specially so it would make for a nice presentation whenever we had a “show and tell” (or “dog & pony show” as we used say). There was plenty of room along a hidden aisle in the back behind the racks to run all the wires and cabling. We also had a pair of dedicated six-inch conduits to Southern Bell (the local Telco) a couple blocks away (left-overs from its days as a security operation) which came in very handy as an ISP. We also had a number of “POP’s” (Points of Presence) in other cities and a very large influx of X.25 traffic which kept us all pretty busy.

The early days of the Internet were pretty exciting and just full of massive growth. Everybody was clamoring to get online back then and we had a heck of a time keeping up with the demand. We kept moving into bigger and bigger digs and would hardly get moved before we would already be busting them out again at the seams. We were in operation for about five years or so and then got a nice buyout offer from a telephone company and decided to take it. AFAIK it’s still going today, albeit buried deep within the bowels of the telco which has itself been purchased and rolled-up several times since.

After that I kicked around for a bit, started another little business doing custom software development for folks– Internet-related stuff mostly, auction sites, online commerce, that sort of thing. I wasn’t really interested in making it into anything big, just wanted a little something to keep myself occupied and have some fun problems to work on. So it was mainly just myself and a couple of partners. And that was fun for a few years but eventually got a bit repetitive so I pulled up stakes and moved to the Northern Virginia area and started working as a general system admin– and then finally to where I work now– back to running the networks, so you know, full circle. Go figure…

Over the years I suppose that I’ve worked professionally in just about every capacity related to computers and IT from bottom to top. I’ve never really figured out which part I like doing the best so I’ve sort of ping-ponged back and forth between doing Software programming, IT and Network Administration, and whenever I can swing a gig, some electronics design work. I generally prefer doing the hands-on stuff the best though as I’m not really the suit-and-tie type.

I’ve always been interested in Robotics and Automation, but mostly as an arm-chair enthusiast, and after the sale of my ISP I decided to take the plunge and immerse myself fully into the subject as an avid avocation and hobbyist pursuit.

One of my first serious robotics projects was “Gadget”, a robot built around 1997-ish starting from an R/C truck base and using a collection of homebrew sensors, a custom-made 68HC11-based “Low-level” computer to interface with the sensors and such, and a Linux-80386-based “High-level” computer for the higher-level goal-oriented functions. The original page detailing it’s creation has long since been taken down, but I’ve recreated it somewhat  recently on my Google albums as my kids and I have sort of resurrected it to work on some more.

Here’s a link to it if you’re interested: Rebuilding Robot “Gadget” (Gadget-NG)

These days I’m all about my kids. Ever since they were old enough to hold a screwdriver I’ve been engaging them in various projects. They’ve grown up immersed in an environment where we “make things”. We’ve had fun building model railroads, electro-mechanical components from first principles, 3D printers, “Smart Home” mock-ups, Robots, Cyber locks, CNC Routers, etc. — you name it, we’ve probably built one.

Recently they found Gadget stuffed in a storage box and pulled it out and wanted to play with it. But sadly, after having been knocked around for ten plus years it was in need of a bit of overhaul. So we talked about it and decided to see  if maybe we could rebuild it again using modern components. So that’s become one of our on-again / off-again projects, along with the several other robots we’re building. I try not to force them into anything, but will happily jump on any opportunity to move us forward on our projects.

My goal is to keep it fun, keep it light and not turn it into a chore so it stays engaging and keeps their attention and excitement levels up. That way it doesn’t become “work” or “education” but just stays fun “hanging out with Daddy” and “doing stuff”. So far the approach seems to work pretty well though we almost always have a bunch of half-baked projects floating around as a result. But c’est la vie, right? What matters is that they’re having fun and learning useful stuff without realizing it. And I am too.

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One nice thing about doing stuff with robots and automation these days is that there’s generally less DIY and home-brew and a lot more just buying it off the shelf. Not to mention how computers and controllers and things have come a long ways since the original Gadget.  We have Raspberry PI’s, Odroids, Arduinos, Smartphones, and sensors of every conceivable type for pennies on the dollar which makes things a whole lot easier.

Another thing I’ve gotten interested in is lately is building machine tools. For instance I’ve just about completed my second CNC Router which is designed to assist in the fabrication of our various “Maker” projects. I have a whole list of projects lined up waiting for time on the machine to move forward. While it’s certainly been fun building all of this stuff just for my own purposes, I’ve also been using it as opportunities to get the kids engaged in various computer, electronics and engineering projects, and they’ve been having a great time doing it as well.

Here’s the link to the build log if you want to see it: New CNC Router

In the upcoming months my plan is to start migrating to here many of the project logs and albums that I’ve been keeping from our projects in various other online locations with the goal of chronicling our activities in a more comprehensive way. There’s only so much you can do with Google Photo Albums for instance. I need a better way to start organizing all of these logs and records.

So this is getting kind of long and I really only intended for it to be an introduction to me and my world… so “hello” and welcome aboard! Please feel free to follow along and make any comments, ask whatever questions, and do share links to your own projects and ideas. I’m always interested in seeing what everybody else is up to. I suppose I’m a little eclectic in getting updates up. It depends upon how busy I’ve been with work and “Honey-do’s” whether or not I’ve gotten in any time on projects. I try to plan stuff to do every weekend and sometimes it works out 😉 Whenever I accumulate enough progress that it seems like it could be interesting, I put up a new post. So maybe once a week or two on average, I’d say.

Thanks for stopping by!