Back in the early-to-mid ’80s, per­son­al com­put­ing was find­ing it’s way. Desktop com­puters were becom­ing more vis­ible in smal­ler busi­nesses, but the work of com­put­ing still had to be done at the work­place. Port­able com­puters were really just shrunken down desktops — they were called lug­gables at the time. Then came the revolu­tion, as they say. 

My first glimpse of the new wave of port­able com­puters was not the Radio Shack (Tandy) TRS-80 Mod­el 100, but rather the NEC PC-8201a — a sib­ling to the Mod­el 100 (and the Oliv­etti M‑10). All were made by Kyo­cera of Japan and based on the Kyo­cera Kyotron­ics KC-85. But the 8201a was the first port­able I used that was actu­ally a reas­on­ably com­pet­ent com­puter for it’s time. 

Radio Shack TRS-80 Mod­el 100
Kyo­cera Keytronic-85

Oliv­etti M‑10

Cost­ing about $1,000 ($2,600 in 2021) USD for a 24K mod­el (yes, K as in kilo­byte), it was a sol­id mobile com­put­ing plat­form with simple text edit­ing, built-in tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions, and the BASIC pro­gram­ming lan­guage; sup­posedly the last iter­a­tion of BASIC that Bill Gates worked on before he went on to do oth­er things. 

Add a cas­sette record­er to your ensemble, and you could save your doc­u­ments to tape, or load in oth­er fin­an­cial ana­lys­is and cal­cu­la­tion pro­grams. Plug it into a modem and you could dial in to Com­puServe or GEnie, or a BBS (Bul­let­in Board Sys­tem) and be charged by the minute for your online social media (we did­n’t call it that back then) or gam­ing activity.

Fast Forward — about 40 years

Per­haps I’m get­ting to that age where the past begins to devel­op a rich, warm glow. I dis­covered that you could still find these port­able com­put­ing pion­eers avail­able for a mod­est sum on Ebay. And with my recent interest in IoT (Inter­net of Things) devices, and micro­con­trol­lers (Ardu­ino, Rasp­berry Pi), it seemed like this could be an inter­est­ing way to pass some Pan­dem­ic time. 

I found one for a reas­on­able price and a few weeks later was the happy own­er of the little unit in the image at the top of this story. 

They’re really simple (by today’s stand­ards) little devices. After unwrap­ping it and wait­ing for it to warm up — it was delivered on a ‑15c day so I thought I’d give the elec­tron­ics time to clear any con­dens­a­tion — I flipped the power switch. And noth­ing happened.

To be expec­ted actu­ally. The Ebay seller had used an extern­al power sup­ply to test it, so I had to cobble one togeth­er myself to actu­ally get it run­ning. 5xAA alkaline bat­ter­ies and a salvaged bat­tery hold­er from one of my Ardu­ino pro­jects got me the power I needed to turn it on. Instant grat­i­fic­a­tion! It worked, no smoke leaked out.

Testing and next steps

I put it through a quick test, loaded basic, ran a ‘Hello World’ pro­gram, made it beep, typed on all the keys, and gave it a good visu­al inspection. 

Since the unit did­n’t power up without an extern­al power source, I knew I’d be tak­ing apart the remov­able, rechargeable NiCad bat­tery pack. So I did that next.

As expec­ted, the pack was shot. Cor­ro­sion had crept across the cir­cuit board and the bat­tery pack did­n’t look good. I was going to have to rebuild that pack and cir­cuit board if I wanted to use rechargeable in it. Excel­lent, an excuse to research! 

After determ­in­ing the state of the bat­tery pack, I built a list of things to do, and star­ted check­ing them off. I’ll leave the list below, but the details, well those are words for anoth­er blog post.

By Brad Grier geek.hack

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