My Favorite Products

By Jon Johnston, the museum's founder...

My favorite part of the museum is playing with the products (fixing, adjusting, programming and connecting to other products). I am very interested to learn about how things were done and why, and to see how that changed over time. The amount of effort required to perform even basic tasks in the earliest computers was enormous by today’s standards (loading a bunch of paper tapes, performing pre-system tests, loading more tapes and pushing some buttons, then manually rewinding all those paper tapes which are just sitting on the floor). It fascinates me to ponder what output justified all that effort, especially given the enormous cost of computers at the time. It is very interesting to experience hands-on how computers became easier to use over time and the relative improvement in productivity that each technological advancement brought. Below are my favorites:

HP-85. Inexpensive, small and easy to use.

HP-85 (1979). This is really a neat little computer. It’s small and very easy to use. This was the first HP computer I ever used (in a college thermodynamics class). These computers are still very common and typically only cost $30 to $150 to buy. These computers are still very reliable, although very few have working tape drives. HP’s Corvallis division made thousands of these little computers over the machine’s five year life. The introduction of the HP-85 in late 1979 was also the beginning of some spirited competition between HP’s Corvallis and Fort Collins divisions. Prior to the HP-85, the Fort Collins Division owned the technical desktop business for HP with the flagship 9845 and 9825 products. After introduction, the lower-cost HP-85 quickly became HP’s top seller.

9836C. HP's second color computer, MC68000 powered.

9836 (1981). I was fascinated by this computer when I became aware of its existence shortly after I joined HP in 1983. It had been on the cover of The HP Journal and it looked very impressive with its big screen and dual floppy drives. We had very few of these in our division, with the 9816 being the predominant technical desktop. The screen on the 9836 is very high-quality and sharp. We use a 9836 whenever we take a screen photo of Series 200 software. I thought these computers were extremely rare in the early days of the museum. I didn’t see a single unit on eBay in an 18-month period that covered 1998/99 (they have been far more common since then). I finally found a 9836 on a Canadian auction site. This computer didn’t work and I discovered that it was missing its power supply. Fortunately, I also had a non-working 9826, and these two computers share the same power supply. I swapped the power supplies and was delighted when the 9836 came to life and went through its boot up routine.

1350A Graphics Translaotr with 1304A analog monitor.

1350A Graphics Translator (1977). I had no idea what this thing was until I first saw it in an HP catalog in about 2003. At first, I thought it was some kind of instrument. Then, I figured out that its function was to convert vector commands from computers into lines and arcs on analog screens (usually large screens). Since I had never attempted to operate anything like it before, I was especially keen to set up a working demo. The first working unit I obtained had a rare 16-bit parallel interface, instead of the more common HP-IB interface. I obtained a non-working 1350A and swapped its HP-IB interface with the parallel interface in my operational unit. After a lot of knob adjusting on the monitor (horizontal and vertical centering, aspect ratio, brightness, etc), I succeeded in running a demo program from a 9825 through the 1350A onto a 1304A monitor. The electron beam in analog displays moves directly from point to point on the display rather than scanning the entire screen and illuminating individual dots (or not) as do digital displays. As a result the resolution of the analog screen is far higher than digital screens. In the case of my demo program, I could actually see the electron beam in the display move from point to point. This was fascinating for a simpleton like myself.

7245 thermal printer. The only combination raster/vector printer made by HP.

7245A/B thermal printer (1978). This is another product that I learned of only after starting the museum (even though it came out of the HP division in which I began my career). This thermal printer can print both raster dot matrix text as well as high-resolution vector graphics (where both the printhead and paper move at the same time). The 7245 was the only printer made by HP to operate in this manner; it’s a lot of fun to watch. The museum managed to rescue about 50 rolls of the special paper for the 7245 when the Australian Computer Museum was evicted from its storage warehouse. In 1983/84, HP initiated the “Squirt” lab project, which eventually became the PaintJet in 1987. HP also initiated the “Squid” lab project at the same time. Squid was an inkjet printer that printed text at 240 dpi (compared to 106 dpi on the 7245) and printed high resolution color graphics in a “paper-moving” vector mode like the 7245 (or a pen plotter). Squid also printed on cut sheet paper (like the LaserJet) rather than the cumbersome fanfold paper. The Squid project was cancelled in 1985; HP did not introduce a product of similar capability until the DeskJet 550C and PaintJet XL300 in 1992 (both of which were pure raster devices).

7550. The best pen plotter ever made.

7550A pen plotter (1984). Computers are not very interesting to observe in action (many people say the same is true of computer collectors). In the relatively short history of the industry, the only products of exception have been the pen plotters. These mechanical marvels are nothing less than fascinating to watch. Although pen plotters were made well into the mid 1990s, the 7550 was the best ever. The 7550 combines blinding speed (maximum 6g acceleration) with a cut sheet feeder to make it the most productive plotter ever made. These machines are still commonly available on the second hand market. :

9895A. High capacity, reliable and versatile.

9885 (1976) and 9895A (1980) 8” floppy disc drives. At first glance, it might seem a little sad that a floppy disc drive could actually be among someone’s favorite computer products. Be that as it may, I really like these products because of their reliability. Probably due to the mechanical stresses they endure, mass storage devices are the least reliable types of products in the museum (tapes drives are the worst). But, these old 8” floppy disc drives are terrific; they are even more reliable than the newer 5.25” and 3.5” floppy drives in the museum. As an added benefit, the 9895A can interface to a wider range of computers in the museum than any other mass storage device. This capability is very handy when we need to move software from one media type to another in the electronic archiving process.

HP-150. Great design and a lot of fun to play with.

HP-150 (1983). It is very easy to overlook the 150 because it is so common and in many respects a “me too” DOS product. But the 150 was the most differentiated DOS computer ever made by HP (and the least compatible to be fair). I like the 150 because the touchscreen feature is fun to play with and to demo, the computer is reliable, and it has a small footprint. On museum tours, we often use the 150 to illustrate how even really old computers were smaller than computers of today (and the 150 included a built in printer!). The 150 is also my platform of choice for running my favorite software – Diagraph by Computer Sciences Corporation. While painfully slow by today’s standards, Diagraph was a breakthrough clip art graphics program in its day (I used a 150, Diagraph and a 7475A pen plotter to produce my Christmas cards in 2005).

2700. A technological marvel, but too expensive for the market.

2700 terminal (1982). The 2700 was a business mistake by HP. I like this product because it was so technologically advanced for its time. I also like it because it is so rare (the rarest item in the museum).

9830. HP's first "real" PC.

9830 (1972). I like this old black beauty because it was the first desktop computer from HP that people used in a manner fairly similar to today’s PCs. It had a built in high-level programming language (BASIC), full keyboard, and removable mass storage (cassette tapes). These cassette tapes were more reliable than any other cartridge tape media marketed by HP in the 1970s and 1980s. A cassette tape written by a 9830A in 1973 is more likely to be readable now than a quarter-inch cartridge tape written in 2000. The 9830 also has easy-to-use interfaces, like the 80 Series computers. 9830s are easy to work on with simple access to the internal plug-in PCBs. I think I also find these old single-line-display computers somewhat mysterious. They are more limited in the visual prompting and feedback they can provide (compared to full-screen computers), and I’m also always less sure what is happening (if anything) after I press the EXECUTE key.

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