A well-stocked basement: At Home With Josh

So many nice things in Josh’s basement: AT&T 3B2, PDP-11, transputers, VAX, DG Nova, several PDP-8… even one-of-six-surviving Lisp Machines’ Lambda.

Here’s one snap as a taster:

And here’s a quote:

VAX-11/730 (1982) is one of my favorite systems — it’s the world’s slowest VAX but it’s small, relatively quiet, and clever — The entire VAX processor was compressed into three hex-height boards. A couple of years back, I took this system to the beach… Where it ran for 5 days providing dial-up service at 300 baud and a splendid time was had by all. We only tripped the breakers a few dozen times and it only rained once…


That Tektronix machine, in the center left, brown with the green screen, is very similar to the one I worked with in college, it may well be the same thing.

At work, our VAX-11/730 was a 3 cabinet affair. The first cabinet (similar in size to the thing the Tektronix is sitting on, but that’s certainly not a VAX), was the computer itself. It had a removable 5MB disk pack on top, an internal 80MB hard drive, and a small streaming cassette drive (not your normal audio cassettes, these are the small ones with the little wheel in them). That was used to load software on to the system. I don’t recall how much memory we had, 2 or 3MB (or words, I just don’t remember how the VAX calculated memory).

The next cabinet was simply a 6250 reel to reel tape drive. It was nice as it used a vacuum system to thread the tape on to the take up reel. We used this device everyday. Every night, we’d stream our main database to the tape, then read it back in to merge the days transactions. We did this simply because we didn’t have the extra space on the 80MB main drive.

This was remedied by the addition of the 3rd cabinet, which contained a Fujitisu Eagle 400MB drive. This was a mainstay of the industry at the time, and cost us $25,000.

Four HUNDRED megabytes. You can just smell the freedom!

We had a room full of terminals connected to this machine, two printers, and we had easily 7 people a day working on this thing doing development, data entry, data processing and reports. Our hammer was Datatrieve, and, later BASIC PLUS.

Sometimes we had more. We tended to use the terminals to run long running jobs.

We had a lady at the front who ran much of our reports, we adding a faux crank to her terminal for her to spin to make the system go faster.

And I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s important for context, as the quote said, the 730 was their slowest VAX. This was a tiny machine. The 11/780 (two steps larger than the 730) is where MIPS was coined, this thing probably ran 300K instructions per second.

But it worked, I was there 4 years, mid-80s, and it was there still churning along when I left and lasted several more years. Over time it was supplemented by a MicroVAX, and random Unix workstations (Suns and the like). Those were mostly demonstration projects, and the MicroVAX was used only by one or two engineers for some specific processing, not the day to day stuff that we were doing with Datatrieve.


Nice recollections, thanks @whartung

We had one 11/730 at work, I used it quite a bit, and I think we had it until somewhen in the nineties. As I didn’t have much experience with faster VAX systems I didn’t particularly notice its speed, but it did take at least 15 minutes to boot, that was definitely noticeable. (EDIT: It’s possible that at this time we had actually replaced the 11/730 with a MicroVAX II - my memory is fuzzy). After it was removed I didn’t have access to any VAX/VMS system.
But some years later a nearby company called me up early one Sunday morning, they had a problem with a system running VMS and for some reason they had the idea that I could help. So I drove in and looked it over. They had one of the more modern VMS systems (possibly Alpha-based) for doing some satellite processing (and this goes on around the clock, so it couldn’t wait). By that time I hadn’t touched VMS since we removed the VAX from our company, and I had forgotten everything VMS (my main mini system was ND/SINTRAN after all). But it turned out my fingers remembered a lot. I still don’t know what I did, but my hands typed in a sequence of operations and everything worked in the end.

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Updates have been posted:
At Home With Josh, Part 2: Lambda Cleaning and Inspection
At Home with Josh, Part 3: Power Supply Testing and Initial LMI Lambda Power-up
Rusty, musty and possibly mousey. Lots of care and cleaning needed before attempting to power up. Two four-card CPUs for two Lisp users, and a 68010 CPU for Unix. Both Nubus and Multibus… and the System Diagnostic Unit card has an 8088 too. Spoiler:

My plan now is to hunt down a suitable 9-track tape drive so that I can use it to load diagnostics into the system and test the various components in the system.

At Home With Josh Part 4: High-Resolution Terminal Restoration
(“RIFA film capacitors”! " These were manufactured by RIFA, and are absolutely notorious for failing in this way, and when they do fail they emit an unforgettable odor, though not an entirely bad one (we’ll get to those smells later).")

Also “These are tantalum capacitors and they have a tendency to explode in a tiny little fireball when they go bad — and they can scorch other components when they do so. And the smell they make is decidedly unpleasant.”

At Home With Josh Part 5: Tape Drives and EPROMS And Whiskers on Kittens
“I have one potentially compatible drive in my collection — a Qualstar 1052. This was a low-cost, no-frills drive when it was introduced in the late 1980s but it’s simple and well documented and best of all: it has no plastic or rubber parts, so no worries about parts of the transport turning into tar or becoming brittle and breaking off.”

"For cleaning out edge connectors like this, I’ll usually spray the insides with contact cleaner and then, to apply a bit of abrasion to the pins, I wipe a thin piece of cardboard soaked in isopropyl alcohol in and out of the slot. "

At Home With Josh Part 6: Diagnostic Time!

Compounding this problem is a lack of any technical information on the Interphase SMD 2181 controller. Not even a user’s manual. The Lambda came with a huge stack of (very moldy) documentation, including binders covering the hardware: “Hardware 1” and “Hardware 3.” There’s supposed to be a “Hardware 2” binder but it’s missing… and guess which binder contains the 2181 manual? Sigh.

At Home With Josh Part 7: Putting the “Mass” in “Mass Storage”

The lack of a disk was a situation I could rectify. The Lambda’s original disk was a Fujitsu Eagle (model M2351), a monster of a drive storing about 470mb on 10.5″ platters. It drew 600 watts and took up most of the bottom of the cabinet. At the time of this writing I am still trying to hunt one of these drives down. The Eagle used the industry-standard SMD interface, so in theory another SMD drive could be made to work in its stead. And I had just such a drive lying dormant…

If the Eagle is a monster of a drive, its predecessor, the M2284 is Godzilla. This drive stores 160MB on 14″ platters and draws up to 9.5 Amps while getting those platters spinning at 3,000 RPM.

(The disk controller has an 8085 in it, so that’s another CPU…)

At Home With Josh Part 8: Lisp System Installation

I have a small pile of blank (or otherwise unimportant) 9-track tapes here at home but all of them were showing signs of shedding and none of them worked well enough for me to write out a complete Lambda Install tape. Despite a few cleaning passes, eventually enough oxide would shed off the tape to gum up the heads and cause errors.

There are three tape files that the install process brings in; you can see them being copied above. The first (“SDU5 3.0 rev 14”) contains a set of tools for the SDU to use, diagnostics and bootstrap programs. The second (“ULAMBDA 1764″) contains a set of microcode files for use by the Lambda processor. The Lambda CPU is microcoded, and the SDU must load the proper microcode into the processor before it can run. The final file (cryptically named ” 500.0 (12/8)” is a load band. (The Symbolics analogue is a “world” file). This is (roughly) a snapshot of a running Lisp system’s virtual memory. At boot time, the load band is copied to the system’s paging partition, and memory-resident portions are paged into the Lambda’s memory and executed to bring the Lisp system to life.

He told me to press “META-CTRL-META-CTRL-LINE” on the keyboard


Those load bars at the bottom are the microcode paging pages in from the disk. I’m impressed - did you boot the load band from the eagle? yowza. that’s quite a feat. it will get unhappy if there’s no network, since it can’t get the date and time. and, well, maybe the file system, depending. still, that’s amazing. I’ve never seen a lambda boot. The one I found in RG’s garage looked “ok”, but I was (at the time) only interesting in a real LM from MIT. Who knows, his might still be there.

I think it was salvaged and went west.

lol. of course. I was only looking for disk packs, to be honest. I spent some time shoveling mud. and found none. so I moved on. And, well, I did find the CADR tapes in Dan Weinreb’s basement. (i miss you Dan). As his 10 yo son looked on, in amazement. The cadr there was in really bad shape. The LMI was in a lot better shape. so much for being on a mission. I didn’t want an LMI. I wanted to find cadr disk packs. color me crazy. still, I think I could get either booted in a pinch.

It’s fascinating to see how many different types of computers have been made… Standardization is great for portability and compatibility but it’s terrible for variety.

Although the biggest question I have is why is the blog full of black fish skeletons on a black background?