Ghetto Blast from the Past

Mini Boom Box

Whilst browsing through my local Cash Converter store last year, I came across this vintage Mini Boom Box. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to discover that, since I am a collector of all things musical, it was love at first sight for me. Since it was selling for less than a fiver, I snapped it up on the spot and took it home to give it a bit of tender loving care.

Cassette Heaven

It has been a long while since I last owned a portable device for playing cassettes, so after a quick clean of the mechanism, I dusted off some of my prized tapes and gave it a whirl. To my amazement it worked perfectly – no wow, no flutter…and no tape chewing! In no time at all, I was instantly transported back to the largely carefree days of my teens where cassettes were the weapons of choice in the war against tedium.

Back Panel

Although there is no brand marking or a make /model identifier on the casing, this particular machine probably dates back to the early 90’s and was manufactured in China for sale in Europe. However, since the CE marking on the label at the rear is a ‘counterfeit’, the manufacturers were never officially licensed to sell this product in the Economic Union (EU). 

Actually, the word ‘counterfeit’ is not quite correct. From 1985 onwards it became a mandatory requirement in the EU to label certain products i.e. electrical goods etc, to identify anything that was either made in the EU, or made by other countries specially licensed by the EU, for sale within the European Economic Area (EEA). They developed a special CE identifying mark, where CE stands for ‘Conformité Européenne’.  Manufacturers in China got round the licensing issues by inventing and registering their own CE logo which, at first glance, looks almost identical to the European version. The difference between the two is in the subtle spacing between the C and the E. In the European version, the C and E are widely spaced, whereas in the Chinese logo, the C and E are practically touching. The Chinese CE stands for ‘China Export’. Cheeky, but legal!

CE

As well as the cassette player, the Mini Boom Box also has a built in AM/FM radio. On the back it has an output mini jack socket for headphones and an input mini jack for connecting up a CD player to the internal amplifier. On the top panel there is a mini jack input for a mains adapter.

Top View

It is highly portable, measuring 22.5 cm by 12 cm by 10.5 cm and fashioned in the shape of a handyman toolbox. All in all, it is a nifty piece of cassette/radio nostalgia.

If anyone can shed some light on the name of manufacturer or can pin down an accurate date for its release, please let me know!

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Some of my Computing Past

BASIC Coding Sheet

BASIC Coding Sheet

The kids of today don’t know how lucky they are. Take computers for instance.

As I progressed through my latter years of secondary school in the late ‘70s & early ‘80s, a new subject was added to the curriculum that really appealed to the nerd in me: Computer Studies.

Before the 1970s, computers were huge, complex and expensive affairs that only resided in military, industrial or university establishments. In short, they were very much out of the reach of the average person. However, by the mid ‘70s all of that changed due to the birth of the Microcomputer. Suddenly, machines were drastically reduced in size, cost and reliability, making them increasingly accessible to the average person on the street. Naturally, being a huge fan of science fiction, I wanted to get my hands on them. So I enrolled on the course. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the computer we would be using was not located at the school, but in another town around 35 miles away!

We ‘programmed’ this computer by writing out BASIC* programs on coding sheets that were then sent via snail mail to a data centre in Crewe. Upon arrival, the sheets would be typed by hand into the computer. They would then run your program and post back a printout of the output. The whole process took around two weeks from sending off your coding sheet to getting back the results. However, if you had made a mistake, ie incorrectly spelled a command, missed out a comma, declared the wrong variable or, heavens forbid, the person inputting the data made a typo, no attempt would be made to correct it. Instead your program was run until it failed. Of course, on many occasions there would be multiple errors in your program, which you would only discover once previous errors had been ironed out. To cut a long story short, it could literally take months to get a program to run correctly.

Olivetti Terminal - taken from a publicity brochure Circa 1969

Olivetti Terminal – taken from a publicity brochure Circa 1969

After a few terms of this exercise in ‘delayed action insanity’, the school invested in an Olivetti teletype terminal complete with a punch tape reader and an acoustic coupler. Our computing lives were transformed overnight. Now we could enter our programs ‘directly’ into the Crewe computer via the phone line & acoustic coupler/modem and receive the results back in minutes, not months.

Acoustic Coupler. Photo: Peter Edin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteredin/6148062456/

Acoustic Coupler. Photo: Peter Edin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteredin/6148062456/

For those of you not familiar with acoustic couplers, they were large(ish) soundproof boxes which you placed your (land line) telephone’s handset into. Inside the box were two ‘cups’ which you inserted the handset’s mouth and ear pieces into. These ‘cups’ converted electrical signals from the terminal into sound (and vice versa) which were then sent down the phone line to the main computer in Crewe. The same happened at the Crewe end of the connection where the output of the computer was sent back to the terminal in the school. In these days of 21st Century Wi-Fi magic, this practice must sound terribly impractical and archaic, but to us in the late ‘70s, it was cutting edge!

Punch Tape

Punch Tape

As you typed on the terminal, each key depression was captured on Punch Tape. It did this by punching holes into a strip of paper tape in different combinations to represent each key on the terminal’s keyboard. The tape we used was wide enough to accommodate 8 holes (or spaces) per row. Each key had its own unique pattern, so if you typed in the letter A, for instance, the sequence was: Space / Hole / Space / Space / Space / Space / Space / Hole. When the tape was fed back into the reader, the patterns were read and converted back to the keys they represented. If you made a mistake, it was easy to correct by pressing backspace, where the tape would move back one row and all 8 rows were then punched out as holes. A pattern of 8 holes was read by the machine as ‘do nothing’.

'70s ASCII Art. Say Hello to Deborah!

’70s ASCII Art. Say Hello to Deborah!

Somehow, possibly via teacher visits to industry computing centres, we got our hands on rolls of punch tape that did not contain programs, but pictures made out of ASCII characters. The jumbles of seemingly random symbols made no sense until you stood well back to view them. This was our first exposure to computer art. Two I remember well were of a picture of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy with a calendar printed underneath and a ‘naughty’ picture of a nude woman (called Deborah) sitting on a tall stool. The latter tape got copied quite a few times and distributed to all the nerds in the school. I’ll be covering the history of computer art in more detail in a future post.

The Olivetti Terminal was kept in a tiny storeroom tucked away in the school’s maths block. The room was only large enough to accommodate the terminal plus around three people at a time. Due to the lack of space we worked largely unsupervised. Normally the thought of leaving pupils to their own devices would fill a teacher with dread, but since we were all nerds they were not worried. In fact, the only problem they had was getting us out of the room at the end of lessons.

PET Computer Advert - Taken from Wireless World July 1979

PET Computer Advert – Taken from Wireless World July 1979

By 1980, the school truly entered the computer age with the purchase of a Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor). The PET was an amazing machine. Ours was the 2001 version which came with a built in tape deck for reading and storing computer programs, a 6502 processor and a whopping 8K of memory. That’s right. 8 KiloBytes – 40 times less memory than you can find nowadays in the average Tamagotchi toy! 

The PET was a thing of beauty. With its angular shaped box and screen, it looked in my mind how a real computer should. In no time at all our programming skills improved in an exponential curve. Computing in those days was exciting, a new frontier accessible only to nerds. For me, there will never be another time quite like it.

But tell all this to the kids of today and they won’t believe you.

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Many thanks to Geoff Macdonald for supplying a few technical details for this posting. Check out his virtual computer museum at: http://geoff.org.uk/museum/index.htm

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*BASIC (which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) was a computer language used to program most microcomputers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dial-a-Disc

Dial_a_Disc_Listing

Typical listing from a local phone book’s white pages

Dial-a-Disc was a music service run by the (then) General Post Office (GPO) where, by dialing 16 or 160 on your telephone, you could hear the latest hit records played down the phone line.

So how did it all come about?

The GPO were already running a number of useful dial-up information services, such as the Speaking Clock, the Weather Forecast and live Test Match Cricket Score Services, but the latter was only in use during the cricket season from May to August, whereupon it laid dormant for the rest of the year. So it was decided that an experimental music service should be run during the non-cricket months to make more use of the highly expensive Test Match Service equipment.

Dial-a-Disc was trialed first in Leeds, springing to life at 6 pm on the 7th July 1966. It ran for just under a month, before being hailed as an outstanding success! The service was started again on the 8th December 1966, again only in the Leeds area, but it was rolled out to the rest of the country gradually over a four year period.  On-demand music streaming had arrived. But Hi-Fidelity it wasn’t.

Transmitted in Mono, with the bandwidth heavily squeezed, the music was accompanied by the obligatory background crackle and static hiss generated by sending the audio down miles of copper cable. But despite its shortcomings in musical quality, it was a truly magical experience – and one that had an indefinable charm about it. For 1966 was a much simpler time – before WiFi, before streaming content, before the iPod, before iTunes, before peer-to-peer file sharing, before the Internet, before the Discman & Compact Discs (CD’s), before the Walkman – and even before Compact Cassette Tapes had become widely used domestically!  At the time, Dial-a-Disc was one of the only ways of hearing the latest hits ‘on demand’, save for actually buying the records themselves!

The service ran during the ‘cheap rate’ hours from 6 pm in the evening to 6 am the following morning every weekday, and all day on Sundays.  Initially only the top 7 records in the charts were played on the service, with a new record being played every day. This was soon increased to the top 8, with two records being played on Sundays. Eventually, the service expanded in its latter years to include the whole of the top 20.

So, how did it all work?

DADRACK_DialADiscRack_John_Lamble

Dial-a-Disc rack (DADRACK). Photo: John Lamble. Thanks to John Chenery (www.lightstraw.co.uk) for permission to use it here.

Meet the Dial-a-Disc Rack (or DADRACK for short).  It was mainly comprised of a record deck connected to a reel to reel tape recorder. Here, Post Office Technicians would record an introductory announcement, then record a hit single and finally make a tape loop of the whole recording. The tape loop was then fed into a special device called an Equipment Announcer (EA). In 1966 a new EA was designed especially for the Dial-a-Disc Service, which became known as the EA9a. A pair of EA9a’s can be seen in the above picture located below the record deck.

The EA9a was essentially a robust, high quality playback tape machine capable of holding up to 4 minutes worth of tape which played out in an endless loop.  When you called Dial-a-Disc you were connected to the EA playback, more often than not in mid song depending on what part of the loop was playing at the time when your call was connected. By the mid ‘70s there were around 15 DADRACKs located in Regional Information Service Centres (RISCs) scattered around the country.

Dial_a-Disc_judd_Street_1967_08_02_TCB 473_P 10075_postOfficeTelecomms

DADRACk at Judd Street Exchange, London 02/08/1967. Photo Copyright Post Office Telecoms (TCB 473_P 10075)

Dial-a-Disc was very popular, especially with the younger generation who, by and large, ran up huge phone bills across the nation. In the mid 1970s Dial-a-Disc received around 70 million calls annually, but by 1981, when the service was at its peak, it was pulling in over 200 million calls per year.

People who used Dial-a-Disc have fond memories of the quirkiness of the service.  Some individuals recall that on some occasions they could sometimes hear other people talking on the line during the gaps between the end and start of the records. This appears to have been more of a problem when listening to Dial-a-Disc via public phone boxes. In some inner-city booths, youths would dial into the service specifically to chat to other local users during the quiet spots. One woman from Birmingham claimed to have met her future husband in this way!

Like all technology, unscrupulous users managed to discover ingenious ways of ‘hacking’ into the ‘system’ in order to hear the records for free. Popular methods used by phone box ‘hackers’ were the following:

Tapping out the services number rapidly on the phone handset rest buttons. Occasionally this would allow free connection to the service.

Listening to the record in installments.  The GPO allowed users to listen to the first 10 seconds of the recording for free before you had to insert money into the coin box. Users would ring the service multiple times until they had managed to listen to the whole disc. Tedious, but achievable.

Finally, on earlier phone boxes that were equipped with A and B buttons* users soon discovered that they could get all their money back by hanging up just before the disc finished followed by pressing the B Button. However, the GPO eventually got wise to this trick and did some tinkering at the exchange end of the lines to prevent people from getting free listens.

There was another problem caused by the service that particularly affected small towns and villages that only had one public phone box. Clusters of youths began to hold what the press began to term ‘telephone-a-gogos’, where dozens of teens pooled their pocket money and hogged call boxes for hours on end listening and dancing to the same record over and over.  This certainly happened in the North West where I lived and also in West Derbyshire, although it is unclear if this craze was a nationwide phenomenon.

My ‘love affair’ with Dial-a-Disc occurred during the summer of 1979, where I would often dial in to hear the latest sounds. However, the first quarterly bill brought my happy ‘affair’ to an abrupt end.  I did attempt to call from a Phone box on one occasion, but a bunch of local yobs ran round the box with a roll of masking tape and sealed me in. Luckily, a passer-by spotted me and managed to get me out.

It was sometime during that same year that a good friend of mine found himself walking home from a party in the wee small hours in an advanced state of alcoholic intoxication. Cold and lost, he found a call box in the middle of nowhere and stepped inside in an attempt to get warm. After a few minutes he decided that he wanted to listen to some music and so put all his loose change in the coin slot and called Dial-a-Disc. With the phone cradled against his ear, he soon fell asleep to the sounds of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’ repeating endlessly. The next morning he awoke, slumped against the glass, phone still clutched to his ear and feeling as stiff as a board. He had no recollection of the night before and was therefore surprised to find himself inside a phone box. He put the handset back on the cradle and then noticed the long queue of angry looking people gathered outside waiting to use the phone.  Not one of them had thought to open the door and wake him up. Instead, they just accepted the situation and, in typical British fashion, formed an orderly queue and began to grumble.

Dial-a-Disc spun its last record sometime in 1991, when technology such as the Sony Walkman, cassette tapes and portable FM radios surpassed the service’s usefulness and musical quality. But for 25 glorious years Dial-a-Disc was a tantalising glimpse into the future possibilities of on-demand music distribution.

Here is a demonstration by a telephone enthusiast of a demo telephone exchange where, amongst other things he gives us a feel of what it was like to call and listen to the Dial-a-Disc service:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUGsRoebaVM

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*You pushed Button A to connect your call once the person you dialled had answered their phone. When your call had ended you could push Button B to retrieve any unused coins.

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Many thanks to John Chenery, for providing me with essential information about the Dial-a-Disc service and for kindly allowing me to use some of his photographs. For more detailed information about  Dial-a-Disc and other ‘obsolete technologies’ please visit John’s excellent website:  http://www.lightstraw.co.uk/