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    When Gadgets Were Huge: The Great 80s Computers of "Computer Chess"

    Written by

    Andrew Overton

    The good old days—when the fantasy of a computer passing even the most basic Turing Test kept a generation of nerds up late at night, when a machine could only calculate, say, 16,000 chess positions per second—those days are gone. But long before machines could outperform their fleshy human counterparts in an ever-growing number of tasks—in a space no bigger than a fleshy hand—computers were huge. Literally, huge.

    In Andrew Bujalski's new film “Computer Chess,” which tells the story of some early programmers who are determined to win a weekend-long tournament in the then-cutting-edge field of chess-playing software, the computers are nearly as impossible to ignore as the humans who clickity-clack on their giant keyboards. 

    The film, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, is set in the early 80s, long before college lecture halls were seas of Macbook Pros and Google made declarative memory obsolete. To achieve its retro vibe, cinematographer Matthias Grunsky used a state-of-the-art-for-1970 Sony AVC-3260 video camera that was rigged to record to a hard drive. The result is a foggy and surreal grayscale effect throughout most of the film. (In one scene, he switches to an even older Bolex camera; the effect is better seen than described.)

    But Computer Chess's feel wouldn't be complete without the bulky computers that populate the tournament and the hotel rooms upstairs, where people in polyester and mustaches hunch over their latest code and do other strange things. The machines became a part of the cast too, their presence inescapable, thanks to their size and their constant sound. "Anytime we were alone with the computers, it was like the sound of a giant refrigerator," said Bujalski, who happily incorporated the hum of fans and disk drives into the soundtrack.

    Like the rest of the cast, the filmmakers sourced the film's computers from Austin, Texas. Calls went out on Craigslist, but producers struck gold when they discovered the Austin Goodwill Computer Works Museum. The museum lent the production about fifteen computers that had been donated over the years. Each digital relic brought a different personality to the project, and as producer Houston King attests, "We did our best to match the personality of the [tournament] teams with the right equipment." The Caltech team, for instance, uses a fancy rig; the film's independent programmer uses a less-expensive hacked-together machine.

    Of course, not all of the computers still worked. To make a broken machine appear to function—and in some cases, not function correctly at all—the filmmakers employed the help of Peter Kappler, an American computer chess programmer, chess player, and webmaster of the Texas Chess Association, who hacked the terminals so they displayed information from an off-camera laptop.

    The effect is transporting: from the loud click-clacks of the old keyboard to the calming, creepy whirr of those wiry innards, Bujalski's cast of computers helps spin to life a faded era when the things that compute for us were simpler—and couldn't simply be put in a pocket.

    The PDP-11

    The refrigerator-sized PDP-11 rig may look comedic now, but its software at one point had applications for everything from traffic light automation to air traffic control. The PDP-11 was even used in the experiments that discovered the J/Psi meson—a less elusive Higgs-Boson of yesteryear—leading to what's known in particle physics as the "November Revolution."

    Due in part to the Year 2000 Problem, however, many of its uses that had otherwise managed to survive the decades are now unfeasible. Still, there are some jobs out there for PDP-11 coders, namely in the field of nuclear energy. Remarkably, 1970s PDP-11 code still helps run GE nuclear power plants in Canada. Makes you feel really safe, right?

    Commodore PET

    Commodore started out selling calculators. It wasn’t until company leaders realized the significance of Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s Apple II prototype that they made the switch to home computers. Their first computer, the Commodore PET, was developed over a six-month period leading up to the June 1977 Consumer Electronics Show.

    Though it was initially fairly successful, its popularity waned, in part because of its inferior graphics. Text adventure games were still a thing back then, but graphics were beginning to become a priority, and while the Commodore PET could produce them at about the caliber of the classic game Space Invaders, competitors easily beat them.

    IMSAI 8080

    Built to mimic the Altair 8800, which is often considered the first "personal computer," the IMSAI 8080 is notable for being one of the first "clones" in home computing. Arriving on the market in 1975 for $931 assembled (or $599 as a kit), it is a “little older” than some of the other computers in Computer Chess, says producer Houston King, but it's "still versatile for independent programmers to be able to use it." (In the film, the computer belongs to upstart coder Mike Papageorge; an IMSAI 8080 is also one of Matthew Broderick's weapons-of-choice in 1983's WarGames.)

    Between 1975 and 1978, IMSAI produced 20,000 of these machines. To put that in perspective, consider that 37 million iPhones were sold in the second quarter of 2013. But like many of the computers of its time, it was built in the U.S., not in hundreds of Chinese factories.

    The Kaypro II

    In 1952, Andrew Kay, the inventor of the digital voltmeter, founded the company Non-Linear Systems, which would eventually become Kaypro. The Kaypro II, the company's first product, was marketed as being a "portable" computer. In 2013, portable means you stick it in your pocket and don’t notice when it falls out. In 1982, it meant that you could hope to fit it in your station wagon; the thing was 29 pounds. Nevertheless, the $1,795 computer was wildly popular, and by 1983 the company was selling more than 10,000 units a month—briefly making it the fifth-largest computer maker in the world.

    The Kaypro II also owed its mainstream success to its large screen and its relatively inexpensive, simplified closed architecture system; it also came bundled with popular third-party application software like PerfectWriter and PerfectCalc, and was supported by a network of trained dealers and hobbyist user groups. Kaypro was slow to enter the IBM clone market, however, and in 1990, the company filed for bankruptcy.

    The Osborne 1

    The Osborne 1 was introduced as a chief competitor to the Kaypro II. The two computers started out at the same apparently great-for-the-times price. The Osborne I manufacturers even claimed a “significant price/performance advantage” with their machine in a 1981 front-page article of InfoWorld. They were so sure of their product being a bargain that they weren’t afraid to admit to its “merely adequate” performance.

    Of course, the Osborne Computer Corporation didn’t last long, and their major legacy isn't a computer but an idea. The phenomenon of a company announcing a new gadget too long before its release, thereby killing orders for its current merchandise, is now known as the Osborne effect. The Osborne II would be followed by, among other devices in the sadder history of technology, the Sega Saturn; the console division of Sega would eventually follow Osborne into the grave.

    Before I get back to caressing my smartphone’s touchscreen—the distant descendent of these hulking computer-chess-playing boxes—I wish to bring to mind Edmond Burke’s famous quote, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”—over and over again, like a computer stuck in a loop.