Tuesday 29 November 2016

Dumb terminals

I was so glad to find the wonderful VT100 website is still up, though it doesn't seem to have been updated for 10 years now. Its a website about dumb terminals, ancient technology to most geeks these days maybe but full of memories for me. Dumb terminals look a bit like computers (in that they have screens, keyboards and sometimes mice) but they do no computing themselves. Instead they access a remote computer where all the actual computing takes place, i suppose you could say they are the ancestors of Chromebooks?

When i started my HND at Birmingham Polytechnic (as it was back then, now BCU of course) in 1990, as well as rooms full of IBM PCs (real ones) there was a Pr1me minicomputer which we logged into for programming class (Pascal) and sending e-mail (the first e-mail i ever had). We usually logged into the Pr1me from one of the PCs using Kermit terminal emulation software but there were also a number of real terminals dotted around the polytechnic.

Baker building (B208) had a whole room full of Volker-Craig VC404 terminals, and there were also some in the library as well as some other type of terminal (i think they were Volker-Craigs too) for accessing the library catalogue. Many an hour was spent pounding away on these terminals (and PCs) logged into the Pr1me. Firstly on the XCOM BBS which was installed on the Pr1me but also in a chat program. Later on we were able to venture out onto JANET and FTP files down using the Pr1me/Kermit (we couldn't use the terminals for this alas) and connecting to the Monochrome BBS (which still exists) and talking to students from other universities using Relay.

Social networking and living a life on-line being a new thing? I was doing this in the early 90s!

I miss the simplicity of using a dumb terminal to access the Pr1me and the internet in general, it was robust, reliable and simple. Just ASCII characters on a screen. Limited and slow maybe but it had a lot of charm. Of course getting any files was a bit long winded. As mentioned above this had to be done on one of the PCs running the Kermit terminal emulation software. First of all you needed to log into an FTP site from your Pr1me account, and bring the files you wanted to your Pr1me space. Then you used Kermit to download the files to the PC. Then you had to take the files home on a floppy disc! Downloading files is a lot easier now.

A document i still have is the university IT department's user guide to using EMACS (a text editor) on the VC404, i scanned the document a number of years ago and you can see it below: