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Digital Equipment Corporation

Interesting information from Harold:
I used the VT-180 systems for many years, from 1982 to the mid-1990's. I still have several systems in storage. They are real cast-iron stable workhorses. I NEVER had a VT-180 crash a program. Never heard of crashes until I moved to Windows in the 1990's.

The "standard" printer was a keyboard printer LA34 which could be used as a supplementary terminal. The worst part of the LA34 aside from its enormous weight was that it was only a 7-pin dot matrix and had to subtends (like in g j q and so forth) so the printing looked very "computer-like". The LA34 was a desktop machine that looked like a very big IBM typewriter of that era. It was like all DEC equipment, built to last forever. The LA34 sold for about $2500.00 in the early 80's. One large football player could move the machine ;-)

The "optional" or later printer was an LA-50 which was a very compact 9-pin dot matrix built by NEC. The LA50 was also the Applewriter of that era and the ribbons were the same. Unfortunately, the LA50 like all DEC printers had its own interface personality which made it incompatible with the ordinary IBM computers of that era. The interface was serial RS-232C, but the protocol was different from IBM so problems arose. The printer ROM set had different "special characters" (e.g., the upper set) although the alpha-numerical set was identical to IBM instructions. Yes I did get the LA50 to run on the IBM machine back then, but I also have more grey hairs as a result. The LA-50 was a "low cost" printer, selling for $695.00 in the 80's. It was superceded by the LA-75 which was very nearly the same machine, with a few extra bells and whistles. The LA50 weighed about the same as a Smith Corona portable typewriter of that era.

The VT-180 also worked well with the DEC LA-120 printer which was a big floor console about like a Teletype machine. Again it only had a 7-pin print head and looked like the LA34 printing except it was very fast. The LA-120 was long used as a high-speed high-throughput printer such as printing bills, computer code, financial data, etc. The LA-120 sold then for about $3500.00 and on a per-pound basis was not really such a bad deal. You needed two men to move it.

The original VT-180 cost about $5,000.00 (in 1982 dollars) including the standard Digital Research CP/M 2.2 operating system software package and two disk drives. An additional pair of disk drives (drive C and D) cost about $695.00.

The available SELECT wordprocessor was a very good and versatile office program. It included spell checking and printer-drivers for Digital printers. SELECT was supplied on several floppy disks and one of the disks was installed in the A drive when the program ran. The program cost about $595.00

The Microsoft Multiplan program was the standard spreadsheet and ran well on the VT-180. The program cost about $595.00.

Microsoft M-Basic was the programming language which was included with the VT-180. M-Basic was/is very similiar to GW-Basic. Nearly identical. Most code written using MBasic can be run on IBM-Basic or GW-Basic with very little modification. The VT-180 version of M-Basic cost about $395.00.

Wordstar word processor programs could be set-up to run on the VT-180. However, Wordstar due to its cumbersome commands was inferior from the operability point of view, when compared with the standard SELECT wordprocessor offered by DEC.

Various other CP/M programs could be run on the VT-180. This included Cobol, E-Basic, etc. The Robin was very adaptable due to the CP/M 2.2 system and programs for other CP/M machines such as Kaypro could be modified to run on the Robin by hacking and patching.

At that time there was a very active "Robin User's Group" (ROG) which was mostly DEC employees and enthusiasts. One of the best offerings from the ROG was a conversion software which ran on the early IBM machines to convert Robin (VT-180) files into IBM files and vice-versa. This meant that if you had files made on an IBM machine then running the Intel 8086 or 8088 uP they could be converted to run on the Robin with its Zilog Z80A uP. Even in today's world, I keep one of my IBM clone machines setup with this capability. Although it is a Pentium machine, by installing a "360KB" floppy drive from an earlier IBM machine, I can run this early conversion software and still read and write Robin-compatible floppy disks in-to and out-of my IBM type system. Now that is cool ! This enables me to retrieve old manuscript files from the 80's (of which I had many) and view or file them on the new machines. Also, I have an M-Basic program (for the VT-180) and a GW-Basic version (for IBM machines) which can filter the SELECT wordprocessor files into clean ASCII text for re-editing in any new wordprocessor (such as Wordperfect) that will accept ASCII text files.

My most valuable asset when I worked with these VT-180 machines was a full set of original electrical SCHEMATIC diagrams and mechanical layout diagrams (including PC board layout). These were exact wiring schematics for each part of the VT-100 terminal and the VT-180 option board. They showed all of the components, values, signal levels, etc. These were very hard documents to get back then. They were sold for a short while at the DEC "employee bookstore" and a friend got me a set. The diagrams even included the schematic for the LA50 printer.

As a closing note, many if not most of the VT-180's got into circulation AFTER they were "dumped" by DEC. DEC had a program whereby each DEC employee could buy a limit (of two I believe) VT-180's for about $1200.00 complete. In this case, "complete" meant including the complete VT-180 "terminal", 4-disk drives, a printer (either a LA34 or a LA50) and a full set of software including SELECT wordprocessor, M-Basic language, Multiplan and CP/M 2.2 plus all documentation. It pretty well filled the back end of a station wagon. This sell-off as I recall took place in 1982-1983. I got my first Robin this way, with a LA50 printer. I later bought several others from former employees who advertised in the paper. I paid about $500-$600 for the "aftermarket" units, although usually they had never even been taken out of their boxes.

One of the most notable deficiencies of the Robin was the lacking of a clear screen (CLS) which was found on even the earlies IBM machines. This was just not inherent in the CP/M operating system. However, I was able to resolve the problem by 2 methods. One was to use a separate assembly language routine written as a separate CLS.COM program which responded whenever I typed "CLS" into the keyboard, or included the command in a M-Basic program. I also succeeded in disassembling the CP/M far enough to add the CLS integral with the operating system, much like IBM did. Funny how such a mundane feature is so noticably missed. There was no way to get clutter off of the screen otherwise.

The graphics capability was limited to what a generic VT-100 terminal with "graphics option" could do. This included "double height" characters, reverse video and an upper-ASCII set of graphical characters which could be used to embellish the screen to at least have some decorum, such as borders, highlighted text and so forth. But it was pretty plain-vanilla which was both a plus and a minus. 

In the thousands of hours of operation I used my machines for, I never had a software crash nor a hardware failure. They were built like a tank with a very stable operating system.

There was a trick for the VT-180 which allowed the single-sided drives to write on both sides of the double-sided IBM (5-1/4") standard 360KB floppies. After all a 360KB floppy was nothing except two 180KB floppies back to back ! Also the DEC drives were the same TEAC and Shugart drives used by the early single-sided IBM PCs. By punching an additional timing hole using a 1/4" paper punch and adding a notch on the opposite edge of the floppy the disk could be written on both sides by flipping it over and inserting upside down in the drive. There were actually "notching tools" available back then that enabled modifying the floppy disks not only for the VT180 but also the single-sided IBM machines and other drives of that era.

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