A frustrating few days on the Retrochallenge front. Still no luck in reviving the FDD in the Epson PX-16. I found some isopropyl alcohol and gave the heads a thoroughly good clean but still no joy. I ordered the parts I need to build a cable for the RS232 port but they haven’t arrived yet.
I then moved on to try and build a cable that would work with the modem that came installed in the PX-16. The modem has an RJ45 socket, all the modems that I have owned in the past have come with an RJ11 socket and despite my best attempts I was unable to make a cable for it that would work. After a considerable amount of time, cable twisting and no dialtone messages I gave up and moved onto something else I’d been meaning to do.
One thing that has struck me since becoming involved in retro computing is that whilst there’s plenty of hardware still out there to enjoy I really miss the more transient elements. As an example one of my fondest memories of my early computing experiences was using an acoustic coupler and a teletype and connecting for the first time to a remote machine.
Moving forward to the BBS scene and the excitement of dialing machines all over the world, (what my parents made of the phone bill I don’t know) it’s these such experiences that I really miss. There are of course plenty of BBS’s out there which you can connect to via the Internet but that doesn’t cut it for me from a retro viewpoint, nor are they of any use when it comes to most of my retro hardware. There are also some dial up systems out there but none that I can find within the UK.
I therefore decided I should try and set up a dial up BBS, if for no other reason than for testing and hopefully connecting some of my retro hardware. Initially I toyed with the idea of using a Mac Mini G4 that I have in storage, it has a built in modem and the ability to run OS 9. However I found it quite difficult to find suitable software and therefore turned to my Windows 98 system. I dug out a Diamond Supra Express PCI modem and installed it and went on the hunt for some BBS software.
I settled pretty quickly on the excellent Synchronet for which the author has also written dial up support. I installed it, connected the modem to a spare phone line that I have at work and after some tinkering had it up and running. I used my MacMini G4 to connect via another line with Zterm and it all worked very well. I now need to spend some time configuring things properly and see no reason why I can’t leave this thing running for others to use.
The phone number for now is 01582 600882 (+44 1582 600882) if you want to try it, there’s very little there at the moment but I hope to get some stuff added over the next few days. The ultimate goal would be to get the BBS running 24/7 on some retro hardware.
I might be fortunate enough to acquire an acoustic coupler for the Epson PX-8 before the end of the month, I already have a suitable retro phone that will fit the cups, so hopefully I might be able to connect the PX-8, now that would be a challenge!
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.
OK, I know it looks a bit like a cash register, especially when it’s sitting on the disk unit but I like it! I’ve removed all of the internals today and given the cases a good clean inside and out. I’ve secured the FDD and HDD in the working disk unit and made an attempt to get the FDD working.
The FDD is an Epson SMD-400. Like the HDD it has a non-standard connection, with power being supplied via the interface cable as opposed to the usual separate cable. Unlike the HDD it doesn’t work and I’ve been unable to make it read or write to any disks. I’ve had it apart and fiddled a bit with the spin speed and head alignment but no joy. Oddly a cable to nowhere has been soldered to the board, I have no idea what it would have been connected to but hope it’s not something painfully obvious like the head.
The unit does spin up and the head moves around but it fails on every disk I’ve tried. It would of course be nice to slot another drive in there, I’ve got plenty of them but of course they all require a separate power cable.
With no serial cable and no FDD I’m rather limited on what I can do with the machine as I’m unable to get any files on to it. In desperation I opened up my Windows 95 box and trailed the cable from its floppy into the PX-16 disk unit so the Windows 95 box could power it. However with it connected to the floppy interface on the PX-16 the Epson won’t start up.
I gave up and turned my attention to the installed modem. It has an RJ connector that I’ve not seen on a UK modem before. Usually they’re RJll’s with 4 connections. This looks more like an RJ45 and it has 8 connections, although it’s a UK specified machine and the modem is made by a UK company.
I started up Term and sent some modem commands to COM 2 and got the usual OK’s back. I tried to kludge a cable together but was unable to get a dial tone. So a slightly more frustrating day today although I did have fun playing with XTGold which was on the disk I’d salvaged from the Equity, it seems like quite an impressive file manager.
Things are progressing quickly with the PX-16. Having got the main unit working my attention was today turned to the two disk units that came with the Epson. Designed to hold either one or two FDD’s or an FDD and an HDD the units sit under and clip onto the main machine. The two units are then connected via a cable at the back.
The first unit I tried seemed dead, no amount of fiddling would coax it into life. The second unit however powered up first time, although the FDD in it won’t currently read or write to any disks. The dead unit had a daughter card and from it a cable with a 26 pin connector which I assumed was for the HDD, although I’d not seen that sort of connector before.
I enquired over at the Vintage Computer Forums as to whether anyone recognised this connector. Mike S & Chuck G pointed me in the direction of the JVC JD-3824 drive, Chuck remembering it from a Gridlite he used to own. I did a search for JVC JD-3824 and had a doh! moment when my own blog came up. This is the drive in my Epson Equity. I was considering, somewhat reluctantly, taking the Equity apart and trying the HDD in the PX-16.
Then I remembered I had another Equity, seriously beaten up and not working, tucked away somewhere. I dug it out, took it apart and low and behold there was a JVC JD-3824 drive in it and on the drive that familiar 26 pin connector and cable, I love moments like that!
I quickly removed the drive, cleaned it up and put it in the PX-16 drive unit into which I’d also installed the daughter card from the dead unit. I turned it on and… nothing. Then I noticed a jumper by the mainboard connector to the daughter card. On checking the unit from which I’d removed the daughter card I realised the jumper was in the alternative position.
I swapped the jumper, turned the unit on and the HDD whirred into life. Not only that but it actually booted to the drive’s original installation of MS-DOS. I was astonished to say the least, it’s noisy and clunky but I love it.
The PX-16 is highly configurable, in fact it’s so highly configurable that it makes my head hurt. There’s a bank of DIP switches in the unit to set depending on which configuration you require. This includes two boot modes, one of which behaves like a regular PC but also denies access to the system’s ROM’s. I’m still trying to fully understand the other mode.
I’d like to try and get the FDD working next and I want to build an RS232 cable at some point. The system also came with some additional RAM which I can’t seem to access in the PC boot mode although it’s available in the standard mode so I need to look at that.
There’s also a Modem in the unit which I’d like to try and I need to do some swapping around to get all the working components into the cleanest cases and secure the various drives properly.
On first turning the machine on it would simply beep and display some odd glitches on the screen. After referring to the manual and simply resetting the DIP switches on the unit to correspond with the display that was attached it booted up.
The unit is currently booting from ROM, it can also be set to boot from floppy but I’ve yet to get the disk unit working, there’s also a 26 pin connector in the disk unit which I assume is some sort of proprietary HDD connection.
I’m having a fair amount of difficulty tracking down much information on the PX-16. From what I can tell it was mainly used in Europe and often by field service engineers. Its modular design allows you to swap out the keyboard and screen for alternative versions and like the PX-4 it has a removable cartridge on the right of the machine which can house various peripherals.
It’s looking as though this Retrochallenge is going to end up considerably less focused than the last. Not helped by a late start due to a family holiday I’ve now been thrown a googly by the arrival of a new machine.
For some time I’ve lusted after an Epson PX-16 and with one recently listed on Ebay it was an opportunity not to be missed. Listed as non-working but including some additional bits such as a spare screen and disk unit I felt confident I’d be able to resurrect it so I put in a bid. Somewhat amusingly for me, not so much the seller I got it for 99 pence.
It’s in good condition cosmetically and I’ve put it on charge hopeful that I’ll be able to get it working tomorrow. Information on the PX-16 is pretty scarce, as usual for old Epson stuff the best resource is Fred Kraan’s excellent site.
I shall try and find out some more information and take some better pictures in due course. For now I know this machine runs MS-DOS 3.2 from ROM and has an 8088 compatible V20 processor. In the picture above the PX-16 is sitting on top of the optional disk unit which can house two floppy drives or a floppy drive and hard disk.