Archive for February, 2009

28-Feb-09 – 1965 Friden Competitive Analysis

February 28, 2009

Recently I received an EMail from a fellow old technology afficionado in The Netherlands, Frank Philipse, who had found an interesting document in a used bookstore where he lives. The document is entitled Electronic Calculators Report 1965. It was produced by Friden International S.A., in Berg en Dal, Holland. I have not been able to find out much about Friden International, but do know that it was a wholly-owned business unit of Friden Calculating Machine Co., and remained a relatively independent arm of Friden even after Singer bought out Friden in 1963. It appears that Friden International S.A. was involved in a lot of research and development work. I do know that a lot of development work on the Friden 5005 Computyper was done in Holland, as my Godparents’ business bought a 5005 Computyper from Singer/Friden, and a bunch of custom programming was done for the particular application they had. All of the programming work was done in Holland, and while the programming was being debugged, the Friden reps would spend a lot of time on the phone to the engineers in Holland who developed the programming.

The document that Frank found was clearly intended for internal use by sales and marketing people at Friden. It was written as a competitive comparison between the Friden EC-130 and EC-132 calculators versus other electronic calculators on the market in the mid-1965 timeframe. The document is quite comprehensive in its coverage, addressing competitive machines from IME, SCM, Olympia, Casio, Dero Research, Sumlock/Anita, Victor, Sharp, Canon, Tohiba, Oi Electric, Nippon Calculating Machine Co., Monroe, Olivetti, Philips, Wanderer/Nixdorf, Mathatronics, Wang, and Wyle Laboratories.

In reading through this document, there was a lot of great information contained within, and, for the most part, the comparisons were reasonably fair. While generally the comments were resonable, I sometimes found myself shaking my head at some of the “stretches” that were made in terms of how Friden compared their machines to their competitors. It was also quite interesting how some competitive machines were addressed in great detail, while others were simply glossed over with very basic comparisons.

An example of a competitive machine that Friden spent a lot of effort to review was the comparison between the SCM Cogito 240 (Yes — there was a Cogito 240..a machine without the Square Root function, though who knows if any survive today) and Cogito 240SR. They went to great detail in explaining the architecture and operation of these machines. Then, they went about ripping the machine to shreds when comparing it to the EC-130/EC-132. It was made very clear that the Cogitos were slower, harder to use, and in the case of square root, “archaic”. It is an interesting question to ponder: Why did Friden pick on this particular machine so intensely? Was it perhaps because it used a CRT display like the Friden 130/132? It is quite clear that Friden thought that their CRT-based display was a brilliant innovation. Perhaps Friden viewed SCM’s machine as a “copy” of theirs, making it more worthy of their ire than other competitive calculators with simple Nixie-tube displays or printers?

Their comparison of the “new” IME 84 RC (RC standing for “Remote Calculator”, a follow-on to IME’s brialliantly-designed first electronic calculator, the IME 84) was interesting. The IME 84RC allowed remote keyboard/display units to be plugged into the main calculator unit. This could mean that a main calculator could service a number of remote keyboard/display units. It isn’t clear to this day if the remote keyboards could be used simultaneously (like Wang’s later 200 & 300-series SE (Simultaneous Electronics) machines). The report commented that they thought that the idea of a remote calculator was oversold by IME, and also that IME was a “small company” that likely couldn’t compete in the market. While they may have been right about IME making too big a deal out of the remote calculator capability, it’s clear that the concept in general was viable, as Wang’s Simultaneous units were quite popular sellers, especially in educational and engineering environments.

The claimed that the Dero Research Sage 1 calculator “looked like a toy”, and didn’t really give much information about the machine. The report brushed the Sage 1 off as non-competitive because they considered Dero to be an insignificant player in the market. I wish that they had given more information about the Sage 1, as there’s very little information out there about this machine, though there were some interesting morsels of information that were used to update the Old Calculator Museum “Wanted” page for this machine.

They gave the Olympia RAE 4/15 (Olympia’s first electronic calculator) a pretty good review overall, but claimed that the Friden stack-based architecture allowed problems to be solved with less keyboard operations, a fact which is true.

They made no comparison between the EC-130 and the Anita Mk 10. They simply outlined the interesting aspect of the Mk10, which was its ability to perform calculations with English currency. In this part of the document, Friden International indicated that a similar report was done in late ’64 to early ’65 that addressed the Anita Mk 8 and Mk 9 machines, so apparently it was felt that there was no need to perform a comparison with the Mk 10. The tidbit of information here is that there’s an earlier version of this document out there somewhere — hopefully it can be found.

Friden commented that the miraculous (because it used Large Scale Integration (LSI) MOS integrated circuits) Victor 3900 was technologically advanced, but more difficult to operate, and rather expensive compared to its own machines. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to hammer on the Victor 3900 like they did the Cogito 240/240SR. It’s not quite clear why Friden didn’t appear to consider the Victor machine to be a real market threat, as Victor was a major force in the calculating machine market, and had a lot of experience with building high-quality mechanical and electro-mechanical adders and calculators.

A summary of Japanese competition was given in the form of a chart that outlined basic parameters such as capacity, math capabilities, cost, etc. No real in-depth analysis was done, but they did comment that the Sharp Compet 20 (no square root) and Compet 21 (square root) were the most competitive machines amongst the Japanese offerings, though still making it clear that the Friden stack-based math architecture was superior to any of the Japanese machines. They did indicate that the massive growth in the number of players in the electronic calculator business in Japan was something to be concerned about.

Comparisons were made between various printing electronic calculators on the market at the time, including the Monroe EPIC 2000, the Olivetti Programma 101, the Philips EL-2500, and the Wanderer Conti. They pointed out that having printed output was a competitive advantage in business applications over Friden’s CRT-based calculators, but made it clear that the noise made by the printers in these machines was a definite downside as compared to the silence of Friden display calculators. The report went into reasonable detail about the Monroe EPIC 2000, pointing out (something I didn’t know) that the machine used a similar stack-based architecture to the Friden EC-130. They underplayed the programmability of the EPIC 2000 as something that most users were likely not to be able to make much use of. They had little comment on the groundbreaking Olivetti Programma 101, but pointed out that delivery times were as long as six months after an order was placed. One can imagine that the capabilities of the Programma 101 were daunting to Friden to say the least. They also complained about the keyboard action on both the Philips and Wanderer machines, saying that they were “unreliable”.

A section on “Scientific” calculators included the Mathatronics Mathatron 8-48; the Wang LOCI 1 & LOCI 2 and the initial Wang 300-series (300, 310, 320) calculators; and the Wyle Laboratories Scientific.

They commented that the Mathatron was overly complicated, and that Mathatronics was too small of a company for them to be concerned about. An interesting tidbit was learned here in that they actually evaluated a machine called the “EMD 8-48”, which was a version of the Mathatron 8-48 manufactured under license by French company Electronique Marcel Dassault. I wonder if there are any surviving examples of this machine anywhere.

They had pretty high praise for the Wang calculators, pointing out the advanced mathematics functions that these machines offered. Their competitive stance against the Wang machines was that Wang Laboratories was a small company, and likely would not be a formidable competitor. Little did they know.

There wasn’t much information given about the Wyle Scientific, but they commented that they thought this machine was a prime example of a calculator designed by a bunch of electronics engineers who didn’t have much of a clue of the practical applications for an electronic calculator. They also said that “recent developments” would soon make a machine like the Scientific obsolete (perhaps they were thinking about the Olivetti Programma 101 when they wrote this statement?).

The unearthing of old documents such as this can give some really great insights into the mindsets of those deeply involved in the business of calculating machines at the time. Especially enlightening are internal documents that are targeted toward the sales and marketing staff, because they give a lot of editorial opinion relating to the originator’s attitides regarding their competitors and their guesses on the future of the business.

I will be putting this document online in the museum soon. Watch the Old Calculator Museum Change Log to see when it becomes available. For someone interested in old calculators, it is really a lot of fun to read.

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17-Feb-09: Friden EC-130 Display System

February 17, 2009

I recently received an EMail from Mr. Jack Bialik that contained some very interesting information about the development of the CRT-based display system that ended up being used in Friden’s first electronic calculator, the Friden EC-130. All of the information contained in this posting is from Mr. Bialik’s memories of a project he was involved in at Stanford Research Institute in the early 1960’s.

Mr. Bialik obtained his BSEE from University of Michigan in 1950. After graduating, he worked at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp. (CONVAIR), where he was involved in development of a display system utliizing CONVAIR’s Charactron display tube technology. Joseph McNaney of CONVAIR invented the Charactron tube in 1949, but the production operations were later transfered to Stromberg-Carlson (S-C) by General Dynamics, the parent corporation of (among others) CONVAIR and S-C. In late 1955, Mr. Bialik left CONVAIR, and joined Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International), a non-profit research and development organization founded in Menlo Park, California, in 1949. The Old Calculator Museum wishes to thank Mr. Bialik for sharing his memories.

In the latter part of 1961, SRI was contacted by Friden Calculating Machine Company’s VP of Research and Development, Mr. Larry Robinson. Robinson requested a proposal from SRI’s Computer Lab to design and develop a prototype transistorized CRT-based numeric display system that could display four lines of 27 digits on a small CRT display. Friden’s stated intention then was to use the SRI’s research efforts as the basis for producing an electronic display for an electronic calculator that Friden was planning to build. Friden’s requirement for such a display for this calculator was defined by the desire for the machine to be able to display the entry register, the result register, and temporary registers used to hold intermediate results of calculations. Existing display methods (Nixie or Pixie tubes) would require way too much space, power, and expense in order to display a similar amount of data. The use of a CRT display would provide a much more compact and efficient means to display this quantity of information.

Mr. Bialik, and his immediate Supervisor, Milton B. Adams, wrote up a proposal for the project that Friden accepted. Work on the project began in late 1961. A five-man design team was put together, with Mr. Bialik as the Project Leader and architect; Dave Condon and Dale Masher performing design work (logic and circuit implementation); Don Ruder to develop a separate testing system to drive the display subsystem; and Bill Stephens to fabricate the designs.

In early 1962 , SRI delivered to Friden three hardware copies (and associated documentation) of an engineering prototype display system that met the requirements established by Friden.. The display system contained four plug-in circuit boards that contained all of the circuitry to implement the display system, including the high voltage drive for the CRT. The prototype units were packaged in an aluminum housing with a viewport that allowed the face of the CRT to be seen, as well as house the electronics and power supply for the display system. Also included in the deliverables was a “calculator simulator”, a device that would allow digits to be entered into a keyboard and displayed on the display subsystem. The simulator device provided a means to test and troubleshoot the display system, and also to demonstrate that it indeed operated. The calculator simulator device was not a calculator — it could not perform any arithmetic. It only provided a means for entry (via a keyboard); storage (via a small magnetic drum); and control logic (transistorized circuitry) that would provide a source of data for the display system to display. Along with the hardware, all of the design information, engineering notebooks, and any other data related to the project were turned over to Friden when the project was completed and signed off.

Along with all of the work on the project itself, a patent (US Patent #3430095) on the principles of the display system and the “calculator simulator” was filed. It isn’t clear if SRI drafted the patent application for the concepts of the display system on its own, or if this was part of the arrangement with Friden. What is known is that because the work done by SRI was an exclusive “CLIENT CONFIDENTIAL” contract with Friden, once the patent was approved (not until February of 1969), SRI assigned all rights to the patent to Friden Calculating Machine Co. The patent lists Mr. Bialik, Mr. Masher, and Mr. Stephens as the inventors, but makes no reference at all to Stanford Research Institute.

The display system worked as required, and Friden appeared pleased with the results. The design of the display system was used pretty much un-modified from its SRI-designed form in various calculator prototypes. An early prototype electronic calculator, patented by Friden (US Patent #3474238), was based on a magnetic drum memory system, very similar to that used in the “calculator simulator” developed by SRI. Diagrams and text in this patent are very similar to those listed in the patent for the display subsystem and “calculator simulator”. Later patents from Friden outlining design prototypes that led to the development of the EC-130 also used much of the material in the original patent with little changes.

Although more research needs to be done, it seems pretty clear that in the early stages of brainstorming their ideas for an electronic calculator, Friden grappled with issues relating to how they were going to display the working registers of the machine that they had envisioned. One of the early prototype calculator patents filed by Friden indicated that it was considered very important that the calculator be able to display all of its working registers for the operator to see. As a result of this requirement, and limitations with existing numeric display technology, Friden had to look outside the company for design expertise in display systems technology. While it’s clear that Friden had internal resources skilled in the art of digital design, perhaps the “analog-ness” of the design requirements to generate a CRT-based numeric display required skillsets that didn’t exist in-house., This is probably why Stanford Research Institute’s Computer Lab was hired to do the design.

While the development of the display technology certainly played a significant role in making the EC-130 an early reality, the display system was only a part of what was needed to make a complete electronic calculator. It appears that much of the display system concept developed at SRI, along with some concepts from the “calculator simulator” (including basic transistorized logic gate designs) were used by Friden in the development of the EC-130. However, clearly the internal design work that went on at Friden to put the “brains” behind the display system was by far a more challenging task.

This commentary is in no way intended to take away any of the significance of Friden’s engineering effort in the development of the EC-130. It is, however, an interesting new tidbit of inforamation to add to the story of the development of Friden’s first electronic calculator.

06-Feb-09 – More Busicom 161

February 6, 2009

The Busicom 161 calculator chassis donated to the Old Calculator Museum arrived Tuesday (2/3) morning. The box it was packed in looked a slight bit worse for the wear due to handling during shipping, but structurally, the box looked OK.

The machine was double boxed, which is one of the best ways to ship old calculators (the best way being custom-made conformal foam packing). The machine was cushioned by styrofoam packing “peanuts”, another good thing, however, it’s usually a good idea to first seal the machine in some kind of bag (preferably an anti-static bag) to keep the packing material from working its way into every nook and cranny — especially in a machine like this that is a bare chassis, without the cabinet. It took about 1/2 hour with long handled tweezers to pick all of the packing material out from between circuit boards, under the keyboard, and in various other cavities in the machine.

The first order of business, after harvesting the peanurs, was to give the machine a complete visual inspection once all of the packing material was removed. It was noted that one of the discrete neon lamps that are positioned between the Nixie tubes as decimal point indicators was missing. The wires for the lamp were sticking out of the circuit board, but the lamp itself was missing. Referring to the photograph of the machine placed in the eBay auction showed that the lamp wasn’t there in the auction posting, so it wasn’t missing as a result of shipping damage. This isn’t a big deal, as it likely can be replaced. The chassis was turned upside-down, and the glass neon tube fell out from inside the machine. Apparently somewhere along the line, the indicator was broken, probably as a result of improper handling without the cabinet in place, and it fell down inside the machine.

The next step was to very carefully pull out each of the 41 logic circuit boards. There are 42 logic circuit boards in the machine, but one of them isn’t removable. It contains the Mitsubishi-made 16×16 magnetic core array, and it is hard-wired into the backplane. Why this board is hard-wired is beyond me, – many machines of similar design use plug-in core arrays. It is interesting to note that the IME 84, upon which it appears the Busicon 161 was patterned, also has a fixed circuit board for the core memory array. Anyway, all of the logic boards were individually carefully withdrawn from their backplane connectors.

As discussed in the original posting about the Busicom 161, the museum’s existing machine has severe problems with the edge connector sockets losing their structural integrity. It was strongly hoped that this chassis didn’t share the same problem. Unfortunately, as the circuit boards were removed, it was found that of the 41 sockets, six of them suffer the same kind of problem.

The problem manifests itself by cracks developing in the plastic-like material that the socket contacts are encased in. The socket contacts are gold-plated, and look somewhat like a “Y”, with the open part of the “Y” being where the card edge connector is inserted. Each connector has 22 of these contacts. Once the plastic material cracks sufficiently, the tension that holds the contacts in place is released causing the contacts to become mis-positioned, and also to lose the spring tension that keeps them in contact with the gold-plated fingers on the wire side of the logic circuit board.

Given the problems wtih the backplane, it was not safe to try to power up the machine with the circuit boards in place. But, it was possible to check out the power supply. The damaged backplane connectors were carefully inspected to make sure that none of the contacts were shorted, so that when the machine is powered up without the circuit boards, there’s no chance of short circuits. The Nixie tube display subassembly, and the keyboard subassembly were removed. Both subassemblies connect into the backplane wiring with high-quality connectors, allowing these units to be easily removed and serviced. Unfortunately, the power supply is hard-wired into the backplane, meaning that some disassembly is required in order to look at the power supply circuit board. Once things were taken apart enough, the power supply board was found to conveniently have nomenclature on it identifying the various voltages. The power supply makes +5, -12, and -5 volts for logic supplies, and +85 and -85 Volts for powering the Nixie tube displays. The power switch for the machine is located in the keyboard assembly, and thus the wiring for the power switch had to be traced and a jumper fashioned to plug into the socket that the keyboard plugs into, in order to simulate the power switch being “on”. Three digital voltmeters were connected up to the power supply, and the power cord was plugged into a Variac, and the voltage slowly ramped up. There were no signs of any trauma as the mains voltage was ramped up to 50%, then slowly up to 75%. The digital voltmeters started to register voltages. Once the mains voltage was at 100%, the +5V supply read +5.31V, the -12V supply was at -13.21V, and the -5V supply was at -5.89V. The voltages were all a little higher than expected, but this is liekly because there was no load on any of the power supply voltages. The Variac was turned off, and two of the DVM’s connected up to the +85 and -85V Nixie tube power supplies, and the machine powered back up again. The +85V supply was running at almost 89V, and the -85V supply was running at just over -90V. These voltages aren’t as critical as the logic supplies, and aren’t actively regulated. Transformer windings are simply rectified and filtered, so some variance in the output voltages is to be expected. Lastly, the machine was again powered off, and the oscilloscope connected up to the logic supplies to measure ripple, to make sure the power supply filter capacitors were OK. All of the logic supply voltages had only slight (1-2 millivolts) of ripple, all within safe boundaries. With all of these measurements performed, the power supply of the machine seems to be in good health after all these years.

Speaking of years, this 161 appears to have been made at very close to the same time as the original 161 in the museum. Transistors are all coded with dates in the range of the 2nd week in 1969 to the 5th week in 1969, while the original 161 has date codes that are just a few weeks later, with the latest date codes listed being in the 6th week in 1969. In a rather silly move, Busicom put the serial number tag on the back surface of the upper part of the cabinet. The upper part of the cabinet on the recently donated machine was missing, thus, there’s no way to identify the serial number on this machine. While disassembling the machine, I looked high and low for any hints of a serial number stamped or written in other locations within the chassis, but none was found. This is rather unusual given the price of machines of this vintage (frequently $1000 or more, which was a lot of money in 1969), many manufacturers put the serial number on a fixed part of the machine that was not easily removable, and also had markings inside the chassis that provided secondary identification of the serial number to aid in identifying a machine if it was lost/stolen.

It is going to take some time to figure out a stragegy to replace the edge connector sockets that are bad. Experience trying this with the other Busicom 161 proved to be futile. That time, the connectors were replaced with the backplane in place. This involved very carefully separating the dense wiring to clear it away from around a failed edge connector socket (horribly difficult because the backplane wiring is very tightly laced into a big bundle of wire), carefully desoldering the wires to the bad connector, putting in a new connector, and then soldering the wires back to the new connector. This proved to be nearly impossible due to the density of the backplane wiring. A different approach is going to be needed to replace the faulty connectors on this machine. Fortunately, the connectors used are standard 0.156-spacing 22-pin sockets, easily available through any electronics supply outlet. The edge connector sockets in the 161 are held in position by rectangular holes in the bottom of the circuit card guides that are screwed into the chassis. There are bosses on each end of the edge connector sockets with a hole through them that would allow the connectors to be screwed into a circuit board or chassis to hold them in place. The screw holes are not used in the 161, but these bosses fit into the rectangular holes on the circut board edge guides on each end of the connectors to hold each connector in place. If the card guides are removed from the chassis, this would free up the edge connectors to “float”, allowing the backplane to be worked on in a much easier fashion. The only support for the edge connector sockets at this point would be the backplane wiring itself. This is likely that strategy that will be used to try to safely replace the damaged sockets. The real difficulty with any means to try to replace the connectors is that the backplane wiring uses only minimally color-coded wire, and due to age, heat cycling, and other factors, the coloring on the wire insulation is sometimes very difficult to make out. There’s no schematic or service documentation that I’ve run across for the 161 (if anyone knows of any such documentation, I’d love to hear from you), so it means that very careful observation and documentation of the wiring will have to be done. This will rquire a lot of digital photography at close-quarters, a lot of time with bright lighting and a magnifying glass, and meticulous note-taking. Keeping all of the wiring sorted out to assure that it all goes back together again with the correct connections is going to be absolutely critical. No room for any errors here.

I need to get hands on replacement connectors, which is something I hope to do sometime soon. Once I have them in hand, and have been able to take things apart enough that I can test my method for repair, I’ll make a new post here letting everyone know how its going. In the meantime, I plan on taking the original machine and taking photos of it (though it’s certainly not operational), and begin the process of creating a museum exhibit for the Busicom 161. The goal of the Old Calculator Museum is to have fully operational machines, but for the time being, the Busicom 161 exhibit, when I put it online, will be one of the few exhibits where the machine shown isn’t operational. But, over time, I hope to be able to get a fully-operational machine. Betweent he two machines, there are plenty of spare parts that an operational machine can be made, assuming I can get through the backplane repairs without causing more problems or, worse yet, irreparable damage.

Thanks for reading.