From VT220 to NCD Xterminal, at work without a PC

I realised something… from the 1980s to the early 2000s, I never had a Wintel PC on my desk at work. Only with laptops did that happen. What did I have on my desk? At first, I think it was a DEC VT220 hooked up to a VAX cluster…

(Photo from Back to the Future: Using a DEC VT220 from 1983)

… and then I moved to a place which used Apollo Domain workstations. Something like this which would have had a 68000 inside and hooked up with a token ring:

(Photo from Brendan’s Classic Apollo Domain-Series Computers)

I moved again and we had a transputer-based workstation at the desk, with a VT320 probably, which could connect through to a microvax or one of the main vaxes. We had colour graphics on the workstation but the main interface was textual on the VT. There was a mouse, or a puck, but no icons, no windows - it was purely for polygon pushing. I found a photo captured from a news archive, of someone in the right building with the right kind of desk, but the wrong kind of display so it must be later:


We got Sun workstations not too long later, but that was one per office not one per desk, for quite a while. I’m not sure I ever had one on my desk.

What I had was an X terminal, or an X Window Display Server as this article from Infoworld calls it - this is a 19 inch monochrome one, with 68020 inside, not that you’d know it as a user: nothing was run locally other than perhaps the xdm chooser: which Unix server did you want to use for your session.

It wasn’t unusual to have a colour X terminal, but even when I did I usually had such a muted colour palette that people thought it was monochrome. As I recall, I used a succession of X terminals, initially NCD and then Tektronix (possibly based on 88000) with huge 24 inch CRT, until eventually it was worth using Shuttles instead - cheap x86 boxes running Linux Terminal Server Project and LCD displays. That might have been 2005 or later.

So, mostly, no disks, no fans, boot from network, log in to a SunOS or Linux server to start a session, run jobs on a farm of compute servers and store all data on central network attached storage.


Very similar work history here. Had a VT220 hooked up to a Sun system, and also had an Apollo 10000 in my office. Beautiful machine, slightly smaller than a dishwasher :slight_smile:

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For a maybe comical contrast, compare my late1990s Heath Robinson setup. Since my work encompassed design and graphics, before me on my desk, there was a PowerMac (which had to be fought for constantly, since the IT staff naturally wanted to get rid of the few Macs in an otherwise homogenous corporate environment). The Mac was used as a local machine, but also connected to a HP-UX cluster via telnet and also by using Mac-X to display the CDE desktop. (Mac-X was, I believe, the last remnant of Apple’s own A/UX. Probably, it was still 68K-code, thus running in emulation on a PowerMac.) Beside set a Windows PC, mostly used for Outlook and to test things in IE, otherwise sitting idle most of the time. (This was actually the first time I was using Windows in some way.) The Mac-X/HP-UX setup was clunky at best, but most things could be done via telnet only. Things didn’t improve, when one morning the mouse was gone and there was a huge A3+ sized Wacom tablet on my desk instead (something my predecessor had been wishing for.) Now, operating a Mac by a giant tablet and no mouse isn’t exactly a joy (this was before sticky menus and drag-and-drop became a pain, moreover ways and distances on the screen were just enormous), but operating X this way was an other story. So, besides fighting for a mouse, I gradually replicated the test environment on the Mac, at least for those things, which required basic services only. So the Mac got a shell, Perl, a web server, etc, but then I came upon MachTen by Tenon, which was a small marvel. This was a Mach-based BSD-environment, running all vital parts inside a Mac process, up and running in X in about 10 seconds from the first double click. – I still have no idea how they accomplished that.
(The old Tenon website is still up:
To sum this up, while I was sitting behind the biggest HP-UX cluster in the country, my actual setup was really low-tech and amateurish at best. But it got things done and also got me around most of the internal bureaucracy for requesting individual test setups, which wasn’t exactly practical for the short turnaround typical for the job anyway.

Edit: For completeness sake, the display was a 23" CRT (we counted one inch less on Mac) and was a reasonably sharp iiyama (not Trinitron-sharp, but reasonable). BTW, I’ve a G4 Cube with the digital Trinitron CRT display that came (exclusively) with it (most opted for the LCD, though), which I fired up recently – and I was absolutely amazed how sharp and crisp it still is. (It really compares favourably to my everyday Eizo display.)


In College, we had Telerays, connected to CDC Cyber’s, as well as the PDP. If you’ve seen “Wargames”, the scene in the college computer lab is pretty much what we had. The white terminals are Telerays. The big computer in the back was a CDC something. Savvy users had scripts that either at least cleared, or reprogrammed the function keys. I also worked on printing terminals.

From there, went to a place with a VAX, so we had VT-100s, 220s, etc. of assorted vintage scattered about. We also had early Suns, early Apollos, other machines Ridge and all TI Explorers at one point.

Moving on, away from DEC to Alpha Micros. We use Hazeltine Esprit terminals there. Full color. The nice thing we had at that time was that the operating environment that we had at the time supported multiple terminal sessions. Using a FUNC- combination, we could switch from one session to another. This was long before something like GNU Screen. The stuff was reasonably innovative for a creaky 68000.

I remained on green screens pretty much through the min-90s. Wise-50s, HP terminals, etc. Eventually I had a Window-98 box, that I used pretty much exclusively for terminal emulation. On the host HP we had a commercial package called FacetTerm, which is essentially what GNU Screen is today. By that time, I did not use it much. I was pretty ingrained in my habits of just shelling in and out of things. It was not untoward to just shell out of vi and do something else.

At one point, I was exiting my shell, trying to log out and found that I was nested over 30 processes deep. vi, !ksh, vi again, !ksh…something else, etc. etc. I routinely wrote chunks of files to /tmp/x.x to read in to other files. vi file, !vi other_file,/thing, ma, /other, 'a,.w!/tmp/x.x, :q!, :r /tmp/x.x. Cut and past in the days of yore.

I don’t do that today as much since I have multitude of terminal windows and simple mouse cut and paste.

I’ve never used a dedicated X-Terminal. I’ve only used X across machines a couple of times (I really like it, it’s nice running a GUI on a foreign machine - not a desktop, just a single app). Using MacOS today, I don’t do much of that.


I’ve never had a Wintel PC on my work desktop (or at home) at all… the first terminal I used was a mechanical teletype (although never on my desktop), and the first glass terminal was probably an Infoton 400.

Somewhat later I had my hands on a glorious VT-100 with its, at first, fascinating ‘smooth scroll’ (but it turned out that even without the smooth scroll the terminal was so slow that it couldn’t handle 9600 bps unless it was 8 bits/no parity/two stop bits - i.e. make each char take as much time as possible).

Move on to the good stuff: Tandberg terminals. Ergonomic. Incredible keyboards, fully adjustable displays on a svivel stand. First the TDV-2215, then the TDV-2200, and finally a fantastic TDV-2400 which had, IIRC, four serial ports - at least three, if not all four, could be used for terminal input and I could be connected to several different computers at the same time.

Somewhen after we moved to Unix and X11 I got a Tandberg X terminal, I don’t remember the model number anymore. It was very nice, and, as always, with a fantastic keyboard. I have that keyboard still, as they became PS2 compatible at some point and I’ve used it with my various desktop PCs all these years. Right now it needs maintenance (key maintenance is easy with these keyboards - my model is, I believe, a TDV-5010 - label is now unreadble. But the secretary’s got one too, and the label of hers is intact).

One day in the early nineties the X terminal broke (but not the keyboard, as mentioned above), and instead of getting another X terminal I moved over to a 486 PC with Linux and used that at first as an X terminal to our Sun systems.

Since then I’ve been through Linux PCs as desktop work stations, with, occasionally, SGI boxes in parallel. There was never a Wintel PC on my desktop, as already mentioned - the closest must have been the occasional MS-DOS PC back in the eighties, and, at some point, OS/2 PCs, for some specific projects.

As for DEC terminals, there was the VT-100 mentioned earlier, and I’ve used VT-220, VT-420, VT-5xx-something too. I’ve used VT-220 compatible Wyse terminals as consoles for SGI computers too.

And I almost forgot - in the nineties I also used a Facit terminal which could be turned 90 degrees and used in portrait format. That one was also very good. It was VT-220 compatible but specially modified for use with ND computers (with extra keys).

At home I’ve got a non-working VT-520 or -420 - not sure - it was working but the power supply went out with a bang the last time I turned it on. At least I think it’s the power supply. Possibly a capacitor. I’ll fix it one day. And I’ve got a fully working Nokia terminal, it has a current loop interface (in addition to RS-232), so it’s the only one I can use as a console with my ND-110 computer.