Tough, rugged, angular, ugly… that’s enough about me, my Husky Hunter 2 has arrived. I’ve lusted after some military computing hardware ever since I first saw the GRiDCase controlled remote sentinels in Aliens SE. I’ve yet to come across an affordable GRiDCase but was pleased to catch this Husky instead.
Running the CP/M 2.2 compatible Demos this British made machine is physically designed to handle some serious abuse, an Epson PX-8 pimped by Lucius Fox if you like. Built by Husky Computers of Coventry and introduced in 1984 the unit runs an NSC800-4 Z80 compatible CPU and runs on four AA batteries.
Base RAM specification was 128K althoughup to 726k could be added. Ports are limited to one DB 25 RS 232. There’s a circular 4 pin power connector on the back.
After inserting four AA batteries I was initially unable to start my Hunter so I had a quick peek inside to check that the backup battery hadn’t leaked and fortunately it was fine, there was also a large pack of silica gel in there for moisture protection. On reassembly the unit powered up and a quick bit of research online revealed that the backup battery needs to draw some juice from the AAs before the Hunter will power on.
On boot you’re presented with a splash screen and press any key prompt, doing so takes you to the main screen and command prompt. There are eight pre-defined keys selected by pressing the CTL/FN button with numbers one to eight. One and two are the familiar CP/M commands DIR and STAT, three starts BASIC, four allows you change the communication protocols for the RS 232 port. To set the clock select five, six launches a terminal software, seven the Edit command and finally eight allows you to toggle to another set of options including Inp, Save, Type, Ren and Send.
My Hunter has arrived with a rather fetching ‘Secret’ sticker on the back warning that ‘This Winchester has been used for classified material and is to be treated I.A.W. current regulations in BR 4005‘ so there! Of course any information that may have been held in the RAM disk is long gone, indeed issuing the DIR command would initially crash the Husky every time until I formatted the drive. I’m aware that ‘Winchester’ became synonymous with any make of fixed disk but I’ve not seen it used to describe a RAM disk before.
There’s a very useful unofficial Husky Hunter 2 wiki here for which I am unable to identify the author but whoever you are I am very grateful for your efforts. From there I downloaded the HCOM file transfer utility and followed the excellent instructions provided for installing it on the Hunter. I ran the DOS client on my Windows XP box and the two machines were soon talking to each other via null modem.
I transferred over a copy of the CP/M version of Level 9′s Snowball which ran well, albeit with the need to horizontally scroll backwards and forwards to read the text.
I also took the opportunity to try the built in terminal software to connect to my BBS Nostromo which allows local connections via null modem and this worked without issue.
The built in BASIC interpreter is apparently quite powerful so I may have a dabble with that, meanwhile I’ve added some more images and links to resources below. Oh and I’ve just realised my model has a backlight, cool, but not very bright.
After several months as a dial-up only BBS I recently opened up access to Nostromo via telnet. Still running reliably from a SanDisk CompactFlash card installed within a Wyse Terminal the discrete unit sits quietly in the corner of my office happily doing its own thing, the only reminder of its existence the occasional screech of the modem responding to a user connecting via dial-up.
Nostromo runs on the simply superb Synchronet BBS software created by Rob Swindell. Not only is Synchronet a fantastic piece of software but the available documentation makes using it child’s play, even for an eejit like me. Rob even helpfully provides a free easy-to-use dynamic hostname service which I have taken advantage of. You can therefore now reach Nostromo via telnet at nostromo.synchro.net.
Enabling telnet access has unsurprisingly led to more visitors both welcome and unwelcome. It’s been a pleasure to welcome some new users and somewhat less welcome though admittedly interesting to witness various attempts by spammers to relay mail through the mail server. None of these attempts have been successful and nor will the be, but they are persistent and I may be naive but I am amazed at the speed with which they descended upon the newly Internet facing box.
It is now also possible to FTP into the file area of Nostromo. You can do so, if your browser supports it by FTP’ing to nostromo.synchro.net. I have been and will continue to add an eclectic mix of files that I’ve found useful over the last couple of years whilst tinkering with retro gear. Thus far I have concentrated on stuff related to the Epson PX-8 and whenever a few spare minutes present themselves I shall continue to add files.
A recent Google search for Epson PX-8 software led me to this page, an archive of a 1997 post to the comp.os.cpm usenet group. Without much hope (assuming the contact details to be out of date) I fired off an e-mail to its referenced author, Bill Esposito, to enquire if he was still in possession of the files from the PX8 dedicated BBS, PX Dock.
Much to my surprise and delight Bill responded quickly and generously sent me an archive of all the files he had. I shall therefore be sorting through these and adding them to Nostromo in due course.
Anyway, if like me you get a strange buzz out of the thought of being remotely served files from a CompactFlash card you’re more than welcome to FTP in to Nostromo.
I recently discovered an original brochure for the Epson PX-8 system and accessories. In it is an image of the PX-8, along with the CX-21 acoustic coupler, the PF-10 FDD, and two printers, the P-80 and P-40. I was pretty sure I had at least one of all these items kicking around in my collection of retro gear. It occurred to me it would be fun to try to recreate the aforementioned shot given that almost 30 years had elapsed since it was originally taken.
I delved into my many boxes of gear and pulled out everything I needed. It was then I realised there was one item that didn’t match, what I’d thought was a P-80 is in actual fact a P-80X which varies slightly in appearance. Its plastic has also yellowed much more than the other peripherals and looks particularly bad when seen alongside what was my ‘new in the box’ PX-8. I’m now wondering whether I should perhaps consider a session of Retr0brighting, one of those things I’ve always wanted to do but have never taken the dip.
I’ve always had a thing for portable printers and I’m particularly fond of the P-40 and P-80X. Mine are both in fine working order although I’m unable to hook up the P-40 to my Epson gear as it has a parallel interface as opposed to the P-80X which is serial/RS232.
The P-40 requires thermal paper rolls, the P-80X can apparently print on either thermal or plain paper, I can vouch for the latter. I’m now wondering whether it would be fun to hook it up to the PX-8 and use it as a kind of Teletype with all output going to the printer. Anyway I digress. I arranged all the peripherals as laid out in the original picture and took a quick test shot with which I’m reasonably pleased.
Thus far then not a great deal of challenge on the actual retro front. Time to think of something fiendishly difficult to fail at. That beginner’s guide to CP/M assembly in the above shot has caught my eye, I believe it came with my C128D and I’ve never properly looked at it.
Since contracting this retro computing bug, after prolonged exposure to Urbancamo, I’ve had a yearning to try to recreate one of my earliest and fondest computing memories. That memory, when recalled, still has the ability to send a little shiver of excitement down my spine. Picture the scene if you will, a musty old office in the maths block of my local upper school. Two spotty teenage boys, myself and the aforementioned Urbancamo. In one dingy corner of the room an ASR 33 Teletype, on the window sill an acoustic coupler and telephone and on a piece of paper, a phone number.
Thinking we were Matthew Broderick from WarGames we eagerly dialled the number inserted the handset into the coupler and waited excitedly for the Teletype to burst into life. Sure enough the ASR 33 started clanking away and we were in! Not NASA or anything like that you understand, but a nearby college upon which we were able to play a game called Shark Attack! A momentous moment in my computing history and the first and last time that I ever used an acoustic coupler.
I have for some time therefore been on the lookout for a working acoustic coupler that I could use to try to recreate some of that experience. After failing to bring back to life a very old Anderson Jacobson ADC 212 model, I was recently lucky enough to sport an Epson CX-21 on Ebay.
It’s in lovely condition, and the original NiCad battery even appears to hold a reasonable charge. It came with an Epson HX-20 in a custom-made case which no doubt accounts for its excellent condition. There was a little blooming on the rubber cups but I cleaned this off with a mild detergent solution and the whole unit looks almost new.
I will of course also need an old telephone with suitable handset and fortunately we still have a couple of 1970′s models at work that thankfully were never thrown out. These old BT models were built to last and the one I chose cleaned up really nicely, in fact it looks so cool I may use it in place of our current home set.
The CX-21 only has two options to select, half or full-duplex and answer or originate mode. It has a standard DB25 port and I have the appropriate cable to hook it up to my PX-8, an Epson 724 cable. This is a modem cable with DB25 at one end and an 8 pin Mini DIN connector at the other. I have two options for terminal software on the PX-8, both previously downloaded, Kermit and Mex. The PX-8 does have a rudimentary terminal application on the built-in ROM but I’ve never had much success with it.
After charging the CX-21 and PX-8 I hooked up the TF-20 FDD and copied over all the software I’d need to the PX-8′s RAM disk so I had the minimal amount of stuff to take home from where I would be calling back to the box running my BBS.
I then spent rather too long trying to get my head around whether I was originating or answering the call, clearly I was originating it and the BBS box was answering but for some unknown reason I’d convinced myself that the coupler would have to ‘answer’ the handshaking attempts of the remote modem.
Nevertheless once sanity had been restored I set the coupler to ‘originate’ mode at full-duplex and dialled the BBS with the telephone. After several attempts the ready light finally illuminated on the coupler and it seemed a connection had been established. However once I’d connected via the terminal software all I received was a screen full of garbage.
I checked all my settings, made sure background noise was minimal and continued to make many more attempts to create a good connection. Eventually I discovered that contrary to my instinct to push the handset more deeply and securely into the coupler, lifting the mouthpiece end slightly out of the cup resulted in a much better connection! Whether the proximity of the transducers was causing some sort of distortion I don’t know but whatever the reason I now had a working connection and was reliably able to re-create it. There are still a few erroneous characters coming through but I can live with that.
I shot a quick video showing the process below, all I need now are a couple of ASR 33′s.
This year’s Retrochallenge will soon be upon us, running for the entire month of July there’s still time to sign up and participate. Head over to the Retrochallenge Website and register your interest.
This year I’m hoping to hook up my recently acquired Epson acoustic coupler to my PX-8 and with the aid of an old telephone dial in to one of the few remaining dial up services out there, and no doubt my own BBS.
In my previous blog entry I posted some scans of some promotional literature for the PX-8 and it occurred to me that I’m now in possession of the all the hardware shown in the image opposite. I thought therefore it might be interesting to try to recreate the shot.
Other options are to create another instalment for my Silent Running text adventure created with Inform.
Today was spent fiddling with the configuration of Nostromo, the BBS I’m setting up for testing retro machines. After a considerable amount of time (much of which was spent trying to remember my mail server passwords) I managed to get the mail forwarding working so I could send e-mail from the BBS.
It then occurred to me it must be possible to Tweet via e-mail. A quick internet search later and I found Tweety Mail and duly signed up. At this stage I was only able to get mail out into the wild from the BBS by sending it to another user who had their account set to forward internal mail. I therefore set up a user account with firstname.lastname@example.org as their e-mail address and logged on with the PX-8.
I’m still experiencing some problems with errant text even when connecting at 300 baud but I can still navigate around and I soon managed to send an e-mail to the tweetymail user account. Much to my surprise and excitement it duly popped up on Twitter almost immediately.
I decided to shoot some video of the process. I apologise in advance for the shoddy standards, particularly the bit at the end where I hadn’t planned for moving the camera from the PX-8 to the Mac display and helpfully the camera decided to go on strike when it came to finding focus. Still it does rather sum up my Retrochallenge, unfocussed but with a clear result in the end.
I’d hoped to acquire an acoustic coupler to use with the Epson PX-8 however it wasn’t to be. Plan B involved connecting up an external modem and I therefore needed some software that would allow me to communicate with the US Robotics unit that I have, Mex from NightOwl Software was the obvious choice.
Using this guide I was able to determine which files I needed specifically for the PX-8 which were as follows:-
The MXO-PX8 overlay is I believe written specifically for the Epson Multi Function Unit which has a built in modem and sits below the PX-8 connecting via the system bus. It is therefore also necessary to include a generic Hayes compatible overlay if you need to communicate via RS232 with an external modem.
I used Filink to move all the files that I needed across to the PX-8 and saved them on disk with the TF-20 and used ASM.COM to assemble the overlays. Using MLOAD you can then generate a MEX executable tailored specifically to your PX-8/Modem set up.
In order to connect a modem to the RS232 interface on the PX-8 you need the Epson 724 cable, which is mini din to DB25. Fortunately one of my PX-8′s came with this cable and it’s not to be confused with the similar looking 725 cable which is a null modem version.
So then the moment of truth, what chance this would all work? I decided I should try and find a dial up BBS other than mine own to try. Wgoodf’s recent blog entry pointed me in the direction of the Plasma Sphere BBS which I didn’t have any luck with but this did lead me to the Arcade BBS.
A nice feature of MEX is you can use either ‘Call’ or ‘Dial’ to initiate the call, the latter will allow you to drop back into the command line and fire up other software if necessary, Kermit for instance. I stuck with ‘Call’ initially and it worked! Sort Of. Clearly there are some issues, I’m guessing buffer overruns but I’m sure these can be ironed out.
So here’s a video of me connecting to the Arcade BBS with my Epson PX-8 using Mex:-
(Update, I restricted the RS-232 port to 300 Baud and tried again with better results and have therefore updated the video, ahhh 300 baud, those were the days.)
I’ve been messing around with some terminal stuff today. I have almost no experience of terminal software so it’s not coming naturally to me. What I had hoped to achieve was to use the PX-16 with its clearer screen as a dumb terminal for the PX-8.
I don’t yet have a serial cable that fits the PX-16 so I’ve been experimenting with the PX-8 hooked up via RS232 to my Windows 95 box. By luck one of the PX-8′s I have came with a pre-configured copy of Kermit. I downloaded Kermit for Windows 95 and set about trying to get them to talk to each other. After a bit of fiddling I managed to get the PX-8 acting as a sort of dumb terminal for the other box.
What I really want is to do this the other way around but due to my ignorance of the subject I don’t know if that’s even possible, whether you can control a CP/M box via DOS or if you need two CP/M based machines. In my mind the terminal is just acting as screen and keyboard for the other machine but it doesn’t seem to be working that way. Still early days and some reading required.
This is just a quick video of me changing directory and listing the directory of the Windows 95 machine on the PX-8.
Having declared in an earlier post that I’d managed to get the PF-10 working again I thought I should really post some proof.
I apologise for the shaky, and frankly poor quality of this video, I forgot my tripod and camera and had to fall back on the iPhone.
I just show the PX-8 going through the available drives:-
A: Ram Disk
B: Basic ROM
C: System ROM
D: TF-20 5.25″ FDD 1
E: TF-20 5.25″ FDD 2
F: PF-10 3.5″ FDD
H: Mini Cassette (Realised I forgot this, bless it)
I have a couple of Epson PF-10 portable 3.5″ floppy drive units. One is in very nice cosmetic condition, the other is pretty battered. When I initially received them, the battered unit seemed to hold a charge and would spin a disk but never successfully read or write to one. The other unit worked for a short while, albeit intermittently before completely dying on me.
The PF-10 is an odd beast, taking standard DSDD 3.5″ disks it uses the same 40 track format as the TF-20 5.25″ drive resulting in a formatted disk capacity of 278k. I don’t know how common battery operated portable floppy drives were but the PF-10 is not unique, a quick search turned up this HP Drive and this drive for the Tandy TRS-80 and I’m sure I once read about a unit for the Cambridge Z88 though I can’t find reference to it.
The PF-10 has a replaceable main NiCad battery which can also be substituted for four dry C cells. In order to prevent the drive dying in the middle of operation when the battery runs low there’s an additonal sub-battery hardwired inside the unit, a single 4.8v 100 mAh cell. A battery light on the front of the unit lights when the main battery is low to warn you that the sub battery has kicked in and will subsequently flash when the sub battery itself is running low.
I read sometime ago in the manual that when using dry cells in the unit it may still not work if the sub battery is flat and this is what I found leading me to conclude that the sub battery was dead as I’d made numerous attempts to charge it, no surprise really after 25 years or so. Putting a meter on the battery confirmed this.
I had envisaged trying to replace the sub battery but my soldering skills are poor and these drives are pretty rare, I don’t want to be responsible for totally wrecking one. I dug out the battered unit and took it apart thinking I might be able to clean and align the heads on it. However putting a meter on the sub battery on this unit showed some life in the old cell.
I therefore decided to take both units apart and swap the boards so that the board with the working sub battery would be combined with the drive that had worked in the past. I then swapped out the original Epson main battery and replaced it with a modern NiMh pack. On connecting up the drive to the PX-8 things initially looked promising as I was able to read the directory of a disk, however the sub-battery light then immediately came on and shortly after began flashing, then the drive died.
I knew the NiMh pack had a good charge and a meter appeared to show the sub-battery also holding a reasonable charge. When I plug in the AC adapter the unit works fine which it didn’t do before but at the moment I can’t understand why the unit won’t run off of its batteries and the manual does advise that you shouldn’t run the drive with the adapter attached.
So some success, I can use the drive albeit with the adapter attached.