the 2014 mac pro – another gas outlet

January 26, 2014

I started a small conversation with atmtx over on one of his blog posts. Andy’s post was about the 30 year anniversary of the original Mac. I remember the Mac, as well as its progenitor, the Lisa. I was working for Digital Communications Associates of Atlanta in the early 1980s (1982 to 1985). DCA was a company that sold digital communications gear, specifically statistical multiplexors that could tie terminals (and later, IBM PCs running terminal software) to minicomputers, especially the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) VAXen that were ruling the roost at the time.

In 1982 DCA purchased a small local Atlanta company called Technical Analysis Corporation (TAC), whose claim to fame at the time was the IRMA Board, a full-length IBM PC card that turned the PC into an IBM 3270-alike terminal. DCA was looking to diversify, TAC needed capital to expand, and TAC with its Irma card seemed a good fit into a growing telecom gear company. There would eventually be software that allowed software running on the PC to basically screen scrape, not just turn the IBM PC into a dumb terminal. This would then hook into other applications (or so the thinking went) allowing for a crude way to integrate IBM mainframe applications into PC applications.

When TAC arrived at the DCA offices they brought an original Apple Lisa with them. The original with twin floppy drives. That big honking system that cost a cool $10,000 dollars. I don’t remember what the Lisa was being used for, all I remember was seeing a machine with the Apple multi-colored logo stuck to the front, and it weren’t no Apple II. Since I was just a field engineer (a mere peon, not a vaunted software engineer at the time) I was only allowed to look, but never touch. TAC would eventually buy the new Mac, and integrate the Irma to the Mac by building it into a flat pizza-box size housing that the Mac sat on. Tow cables came out of that Irma, one to the Apple and the regular coax cable to connect to the IBM 3270 terminal port.

Anyway, all this was triggered by reading about Apple’s 30th Mac anniversary, which led to the video at the top of the post, and the latest Mac Pro, which costs – get ready – about $10,000 when fixed up into something decent. Think of it as the Lisa reborn. Except this time, instead of a paltry 5MHz Motorola 68000, we have multi-core Intel Xeon processors and nVidia GPUs with hundreds of cores, capable of driving 32-bit color panels with 4K and higher resolution. And the networking that little machine is capable of allows the attachment of devices undreamed of in 1982, when the original Lisa was released. So, it might cost the same amount, but this Mac Pro ain’t your daddy’s Lisa. Not by a long shot.

One more bit of history: the Irma used the SMS/Signetics N8x305 microprocessor chip, a very peculiar 8-bit micro that was blazing fast at the time (10MHz) and optimized for signal processing. It handled the video and communications between the computer and the IBM mainframe terminal system. It was a big chip, power hungry, and recognized as a dead end even back then. It was originally selected at the time as the only reasonable solution for that type of product. I left DCA in 1985 after moving to Florida, and DCA was purchased by Attachmate in 1994, long after I’d left.

That turned out to be a bad idea, as two years later a clash developed between Attachmate’s management and former DCA management (still in place), which led to a corporate implosion of sorts. I don’t know what happened after that as it was the mid 1990s and I was heavy into wireless telephony. Attachmate survived, and eventually went on to buy up what was left of Novell and SUSE Linux in late 2010. In an odd way, my history intertwines with Attachmate via my first engineering company (DCA) and one of my former favorite Linux distributions (SUSE). These days I live in a world of modeling, simulation, and robotics and the Linux I use is either Ubuntu or an occasional foray into Fedora/RHEL. It’s a funny old world…

GAS stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome, an affliction well known to enthusiast photographers. Buying computer gear is every bit as expensive as buying digital camera gear, and they insidiously conspire with one another to double dip into your wallet. After all, you need that beefy computer to post process those beefy raw files coming out of that beefy camera system you just purchased. Right?

One more memory: It was DCA/TAC that introduced me to C, specifically Lifeboat C, on an IBM PC XT. You needed the 5MB (yes, MB) 5 1/4″ full-height drive not just to hold all the tools, but to have a computer fast enough to be productive. The definition of slow as molasses in winter was developing on a floppy-only IBM PC.

2 responses to the 2014 mac pro – another gas outlet

  1. 

    I think I have vague recollections of the IRMA solution for the Mac… but I’m unsure.

    Also, I was surprised and pleased to find out the new Mac Pro is built in Austin, Texas, where I live.

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    • 

      Perhaps Apple can fill the technical void being left by Dell and AMD. I’m conflicted about Apple, but when they bring high-tech jobs into an area, you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.

      As for the Mac Irma, you’d remember it if you did anything substantive with it. It definitely left an “impression.”

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