It was also, objectively, madness.
Well over a thousand hours of work went into the project from a very wide range of volunteers who poured galactic amounts of time into making the project a reality. Along the way, changes were made to Emscripten, the Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome Browsers, MAME, and the Internet Archive’s codebase to accommodate this dream.
Additional announcements came with each expansion of the types of software being emulated, and it became huge news, leading to millions of visitors coming to try this it out.
By any measure, a quarter of a million items later, it has been a huge, huge success.
The rest of this blog entry is pretty pictures and beautiful links, but before we move on, it’s once again important to highlight people who provided major contributions, including Justin Kerk, Daniel Brooks, Vitorio Miliano, James Baicoianu, John Vilk, Tracey Jaquith, Jim Nelson, and Hank Bromley. Dozens more developers spent evenings, weekends, and months to make this system happen. Thank you to everyone involved.
The joy of watching a computer boot up in the browser was (and is) a miraculous feeling. And after that feeling, comes a quick comfort with the situation: Of course we can run computers inside our browsers. Of course we can make most anything we want run in these browser-based computers. What’s next?
Within a short time after our 2013 announcement, the archive was running hundreds, then thousands of individual programs, floppy disks and even cassette-based software from computing’s past.
As emulators besides MAME were added, it became necessary to create a framework for a versatile and understandable method to load emulators. This framework eventually got a name: THE EMULARITY.
In the decade of the Emularity’s existence, the Archive’s software emulation has expanded into directions nobody could have fully expected to work when the project started.
Here are some highlights:
Hypercard Stacks for the Apple Macintosh, a critical period in content creation and computer information architecture, have been restored to easy access, surpassing thousands of hypercards to try instantly.
Plastic Electronic Handheld Games, once a staple of toys in the 1970s through the 1990s, have been able to live once again as, including the original housing that these simple (and not so simple) machines relied on instead of graphics.
As the uploads veered into the many thousands, it became more and more difficult for new adventurous users to figure out what, if any, software was at the archive to check out. This has led to specialized collections focused on one type of program, like the Computer Chess Club. People can use these collections as gateways to quickly testing the waters of now-decades of computer and software history, seeing the turns and twists of countless lost companies and individuals who squeezed every last bit of wonder and spectacle out of these underpowered boxes.
The Calculator Drawer took things to a new level when entire calculators could be emulated, including their unique looks, accompanied by a “drawer of manuals” to browse through if you had to learn (or re-learn) how to make these machines run.
The Woz-a-Day Collection, in many ways, represents the logical end for the role that the Internet Archive’s Emularity can provide for software history. The project is the effort of the software historian 4am, who has spent years on its maintenance. Methodically preserving Apple II software from the original floppy disks, incorporating every last bit and track of the disks with no modifications, and allowing the best fidelity of these programs as they originally were offered, 4am allows some of these programs to be playable for the first time in decades.
With each new batch of added emulated systems and machines have come a greater and greater pool of users, toying with historical software or playing long-forgotten or never-remembered games with a new level of convenience and willingness to try them out.
At this milestone of a decade into this experimental adventure, Internet Archive continues to grow its collection, to test and automate the functioning of both uploaded and self-maintained collections of software, and to provide a vast and necessary service in the preservation of historical software.
While there are plenty of items at the Internet Archive that have no obvious home elsewhere online, there are also cases where we hold a copy of a frequently-available set of material, but we can provide it for much easier distribution and preview, including the ability to download the entire original set of files in one fell swoop.
The world of sound effects is two-fold interesting:
There’s the interesting way we use recorded sound, cut together from various sources and even spliced from organic and generated sources, to provide the audio soundtrack for visual experiences in a way the audience thinks sounds “natural”.
And there’s the actual process of sound effects, of engineers going into the field or into a studio and generating sound after speculative sound, trying to find just the right combination of noise and speech to create just what they might need in the future.
As long as there has been performance on the Radio and to mediums beyond, the generating of sound effects live and recorded is a fascinating skill, shared among many different people, and is rightly considered an awards-worthy occupation. While not everyone is fascinated at this sort of work, many people are, and there’s a childlike delight in going through a “sound library” of effects and noises, getting ideas of how they might be used later.
As explained in a blog entry written by Craig Smith, a variety of tapes called the “Red” and “Gold” libraries of recorded sound effects were joined by a third set from a sound company called Sunset Editorial, who worked on hundreds of films over the years.
This collection has now been mirrored at the Internet Archive.
In the USC Optical Effects Library are over 1,000 digitized tapes of sound effects, including not just the sounds themselves but the voices of many different engineers bracketing them with explanations, cajoling and call-outs while they’re being made. We hear not just a dog panting, but an engineer talking to the dog that they’re doing a good job. Some recordings clearly have a crew sitting around while recordings are being made, and they hush with the sound of professionals knowing they can’t just edit the noise out if they talk over it.
The pleasant stroll of “just playing” the effects in our browser-based player belies the fact that at one time, this was magnetic reels, sliced with razors and joined with tape, used to remix and reconstitute environments of sound for entertainment. The push to digital allows for much more experimentation and mixing without generational loss and huge amounts of precious time, but in these versions we can hear how much work went into the foundational soundscape of entertainment in the 20th century.
Craig Smith, who made this collection available, goes into great detail in his blog entry about how fragile these tapes had become before being transferred, and how some were lost along the way. Folks unfamiliar with “Sticky Shed Syndrome” and the process of “baking tapes” will be surprised to know how quickly and dramatically tapes can fall apart after a passage of time. With large efforts by a number of people, the amount that was saved is now available at the Archive.
There is extensive metadata in each item, captured as spreadsheets and documents about the assumed sources or credits of the sound. They’re important to bring along with these noises if a patron wants to maintain a local copy.
Speaking of which.
In this collection is a massive compilation of all the data related to the project. It’s located in an item called “Sound Effect Libraries (Red, Gold, Sunset Editorial)”. Patrons whose immediate urge is to grab their own private set of the data to keep “safe” will want to go to this item, using either the direct download of the three .ZIP files inside, or to click on the TORRENT link to download the 20+ gigabytes of files. Depending on your bandwidth, it will take some time to download, but you can be assured that you got “all” the data from this amazing collection. This, in some ways, is the Internet Archive’s greatest strength – direct access to the original files for others to have, instead of adding a layer of processing and change as the presentation mediums of the day require modification for “ease”.
Patrons come to the Internet Archive’s software collections for many reasons, and among the major reasons are some manner of playing historical software in our in-browser emulation environment. Well over a decade old now, the Emularity gives near-instant access to functional versions of what would otherwise be dormant software packages. If a patron wants to go from idly thinking they’d like to try something to playing a 2011 Pac-Man clone running in an obscure DOS graphics resolution, they can be experiencing it in anywhere from seconds to under a minute.
Naturally, “near-instant” is a nebulous, and inaccurate, portrayal of the time required to spin up the Emularity’s environment – a Webassembly runtime with an emulator embedded in it will come through, followed by whatever the total time to download the software itself afterwards. This playable version of Apple Macintosh System 7.0.1 requires 10 additional megabytes to download the hard drive image it is booting. That data will either snap down instantly on your fast connection, or be achingly slow on a less robust one.
Cooked into everything digital and online this present day is the fact that speed and efficiency win out over authenticity and reality. We go from thinking we’d like to hear a piece of music to hearing it (or never hearing it, as we can’t find it), in brisk flashes, a few clicks and a momentary pause. But listen to a track of music written decades ago, and a mass of assumptions by the creators of how you would experience these works no longer apply.
We’re not indicating the only way to enjoy Dark Side of the Moon is to see it mentioned in a magazine or fanzine in 1973, wander down to your local record store, see them stacked up near the front of a rack, and then buy one and take it home, gently unpacking the stickers and poster while playing the album in headphones or on speakers, cross-legged on your shag carpet.
…but they probably thought you were going to at the time.
Such it is, in the emulated world of software, that the way these works will be primarily enjoyed through all of time to come is as discrete blocks, loaded into a waiting process or slot, and then turned on moments after being selected. This is right and good – it’s a decent argument that many people would not want to sit through the “realistic” amount of time it would have taken to boot up software at the time of its release.
But maybe some of you do.
Most people who use computers know that they once loaded from floppy disks, plastic cartridges with magnetic plastic rings inside that could hold some small amount of data. Slow, weird, but the aesthetic experience of the floppy disk has, to some small amount, bubbled up into the present day. It’s seen as a “save icon”, or a reference to times long past, and there’s even a notable amount of “old floppy disks” found in family storage, where younger generations find them in the same way you might find an old smoking pipe or a saved wedding invitation.
But nestled in a relatively short span of time is the era of cassette-based loading, where actual audio tapes could have data stored on them, and played back to load into computers.
In terms of adoption, the cassette-based software period is marked by people entering it and almost immediately clawing their way out of it as soon as they can afford to. The combination of time consuming playback, limited data storage, and lack of read-write ease ensured that as soon as anything better came along, a user would leap to it.
As a result, it has become the case that not only are there people who consider themselves computer enthusiasts who have only a light glancing memory or awareness of cassette-based software – there are people who are not aware this ever even happened.
So, let us begin.
In the wild and wooly days of kit computers, where one of the major options was to be sent a pile of parts and instructions to screw, solder and assemble them into a functioning beast, the option of saving your code into a cassette tape machine was one of the possible storage options. And by “cassette tape machine”, we’re bringing back a dozen memories of schoolchildren in the 1970s:
And this is exactly what it sounds like, using the headphone and microphone jack of these machines that would normally provide language education and field recordings, and attaching them to circuit boards either recording to or listening to standard audio cassettes.
So, an expensive ($27.99 is $151 in today’s dollars.) machine to hook up but due to the dropping costs of blank cassettes, themselves manufactured in the millions to satisfy a range of customers, you could now tinker and toy on these computer kits and save out your digital creations to a medium with a fairly high chance of recovering them again.
Combine the simplicity of the programs involved, the often-cheap tape medium being bought, and the use of labelmakers to create adhesive labels to describe the inside program, and you get a very memorable, very evocative 1970s-1980s aesthetic that will either confuse the new or warm the heart of the old:
As a side note on our introductory tour, it would be possible to save multiple programs on these tapes, but you had to be verycareful about where on the tape counter each program was placed, so your works didn’t override each other, an art far above the head of the impatient or unwilling to rewind to the beginning of the tape and carefully watch a rising counter number to find fresh fields of data.
And the result, not obvious otherwise, are these glyphs providing you a possibly cryptic map of “dumps” (writing of the programs into the tape, following the counter as you would go). Note how in the label, a failed/broken program has to be left where it is on the tape; a combination of hearing the old program under an overwritten one, as well as not being able to predict how many feet down the tape a new program will take, means the road to data dumps is littered with broken memories.
But what is exactly ending up on these audio cassettes (now considered to be data cassettes, or datasettes)?
Particularly curious folks can read up about examples like the Tarbell Cassette Interface and Protocols here in the bitsavers collection. But in more general terms, a variety of standards (and not-so-standards) had emerged where pulses of sound went onto an audio cassette, and these sounds reflected individual data that could then be interpreted coming back off the tape. The distinction is important here – these were not digital signals, but digital information encoded as analog/audio recordings. Think of someone shouting the word “42!” instead of digitally encoding up-down on-off data like “101010”.
The questions that might come to mind are probably myriad.
This sounds like it’s incredibly slow. Why yes indeed. The tarbell format/interface linked above brought in data at a screaming 187 bytes per second, that is, a couple short sentences worth of words. Compare that with a capability of 200,000 bytes per second of an early floppy drive and you can see why people would jump. (Naturally, modifications to the Tarbell format and alternative cassette tape electronics could increase the transfer rate to 540 bytes per second and above, but you’re adding complications.)
Won’t it take a very long time to dump and read this data, at such a slow speed? Why, yes! That is the crux of this already-long article, coming up.
Is this the only way people ended up saving and loading data to cassette tapes? Why, no!
In the late 1970s-early 1980s, a myriad of cassette-tape based storage systems started being sold as an option for the “home computer” market, the plastic-wrapped, cheaper but all-in-one-already-built computers being sold by various companies in a bid to become dominant in the market. (Even the ultimately-winning IBM PC had a cassette port, although the system was generally sold with a floppy drive and it’s unlikely any significant number of people used it.) Each of these systems had slightly different approaches to how they wrote data on tape, and read it back, with speed differing notably between them.
By the late 1980s, it was rapidly becoming unusual to depend on data tapes to read and load to home computers, and the jump to floppies and ultimately hard drives and CD-ROMs came with mass adoption in the 1990s.
But it wasn’t completely gone, either.
In this zone, this Venn Diagram of a market of computer end-users with this exhausting set of possible media input devices, commercial creators had a heck of time. Intent on reaching every market they reasonably could, multiple formats meant multiple releases of the same programs.
Does this mean that Activision had to spend the money to make a floppy disk version and a computer cassette version of the game Ghostbusters for Commodore 64? Yes, in fact they did. (One distributor, HES, even made a cartridge version, which was an Australia-only hack that put the contents onto a cartridge and forced a loading as if it was a floppy.)
For someone playing these games, the choice (or lack of choice) of medium meant their memories, experiences and consideration of the programs was very different, reflections of what configuration they could afford.
All these moments of time, washed away like spools of tape.
…unless you seek them out.
Emulation at the Internet Archive is designed to be fast, easy, and a snap between first thought and trying the software out. In general, this is the case; you decide you want to play a game and a very short time later, you’re playing that game.
This is an absolute gift, if your intention is to browse a lot of obscure, weird, or possibly-bad games, giving them minimal amounts of time while discovering what you were looking for. With a few clicks, you run down the massive lists of potential stops, watch the program come up, and give it a quick regard as to whether it’s worth your time or what you were seeking. As a finding and exploratory environment, it’s the way to go.
This comes at a cost, one which a lot of media/content is experiencing, now – your personal investment (time, patience, effort) is miniscule, meaning you will probably switch away in milliseconds if anything is annoying or non-intuitive. Annoying sound? Hard-to-figure-out key mappings? Slow title screen? Onto the next thing.
Loading cassette tapes of data is slow, slower than a modern person might consider reasonable. By using a variety of tricks, providers of older data tried to mitigate this by converting tape data, which would be a slow drip of data, into a single finished, packed set of instructions. The Z80 format, for example, is the result of a snapshot of the memory banks of a Sinclair computer, so if you visit the stacks of Sinclair ZX programs, you’re not loading in data the “old” way – you’re spinning up an already-loaded machine that is just starting off from the moment it all finally loaded in. Dropped off at the finish line, it still feels reduced in speed from today, but that’s just the (intended) experience of the machine it is running on.
Two platforms at the Internet Archive currently provide the experience of loading programs from cassette tapes: The Sinclair ZX-81 and the Commodore 64. Both of these home computers flourished in the early 1980s, with use of them continuing longer based on the available hardware to users up until the 1990s. The ZX-81 itself faded before the C64, and the C64 saw transition to a (slow-reading) floppy drive that made cassettes fall out of favor as the decade moved on.
In both cases, there is the original data provided in a straightforward file; for the ZX-81 a .p or a .tzx tape data compilation, very small and compact. For the Commodore 64 cassette version, a .tap file with the information less compact, because the programs on the Commodore 64 could be significantly bigger.
To this extent, loading a program on the ZX-81 emulation can be demonstrated on the program One Little Ghost, a 2012 retro-make version of Pac-Man that stuffs a whole lot of game into a very limited system. Going to this emulation and starting it, you are faced with not an instantly loading, black and white remake of Pac-Man, but this:
Incomprehensible! Mysterious! Uninformative! Welcome to home computing in the 1980s!
This is the gap between today’s fast-food version of computer history, and trying to get things running in the original days of the hardware. We’re not even addressing the peculiar aspects of the ZX-81’s RAMpack, an externally attached device for increasing memory, that was legendary for just falling off while using the machine.
To make this interaction of software-emulated machine and actual machine at all clear, instructions were added to the items added to the Archive’s collection, including this intimidating set of movements and keypresses to be able to set a cassette loading:
“Currently, emulation for this item does not auto-start. To load the ‘cassette’ this program is located on, press the following keys: j (which will appear as LOAD), shift-p shift -p (Which will appear as double quotes) and then ENTER/RETURN. Then press SCROLL LOCK on your keyboard, and the F2 key. If all is working properly, the system will bring up a box showing the cassette tape loading into memory. It will stop when complete and the emulation can be interacted with normally. Some games will run by themselves after cassette loading, while others can be started by pressing the r key and ENTER to run.”
As one last piece of intimidation, the instructions have to include a picture of what the ZX-81 keyboard even looked like:
Once you negotiate the instructions, press all the requested commands, and sit back, the emulation rewards you with a screen not unlike this:
What is happening here is an honest-to-goodness cassette loading sequence. The constantly flashing graphics are an ancient hack to allow the end-user to know things are “working”, that the data is being successfully read off the tape. An additional convenience is provided by the emulator: on the top left is an overlay window indicating that it is 16 seconds into the loading of the data, and that there are six minutes and fifty-two seconds of loading to be done, for a total of 412 tape tick counts. Yes, you are reading that correctly: loading this program will take seven minutes of real time.
Perhaps it becomes obvious why so many shortcuts begin to arrive in emulation and why so many people were willing to spend the equivalent of a short vacation to bring their machines into the floppy age.
You can browse the ZX-81 collection of programs and see preview screenshots of the games. The good news is that a human didn’t generate them – a script called SCREENSHOTGUN started up, “pressed PLAY on the cassette player”, and then waited until the whole thing was loaded, and then removed most of the “loading” screenshots to bring you the result. That is a lot of saved misery.
Which brings us to the Commodore 64.
The Commodore 64 stands to live in fame forever as the most-sold, unchanged home computer in history. From 1982 to 1994, with no substantial changes in its configuration or capabilities, the C64 plowed on through multiple generations of industry standards, providing an inexpensive and dependable on-ramp for families and individuals to acquaint themselves with this “computer in the home” nonsense taking over the general populace.
While much can be made of its shortcomings, most of these have faded into a quaint memory of working around them. The breadth of software, the utter domination of understanding of the ins and outs of the machine’s quirks, and the toil of many millions of users means that the Commodore 64 is a giant in computer history.
And to that end, a group has been working hard to preserve that most odd, increasingly rare-to-find subset of C64 works: the cassette-based commercial products that flourished in the beginning of its life.
And here we find ourselves, a significant number of paragraphs later, to what inspired this walk down tape-loading memory lane: the forgotten minutes-long time of the experience of loading these tapes on the Commodore 64, and the many different ways that companies tried to keep buyers from restlessly complaining the tapes weren’t “working” and giving up before the long loading times revealed the programs.
The Ultimate Tape Archive is an effort to preserve these cassette-based titles, including the data on the tape, scans of the tapes themselves, and of the cassette case inserts, papers inside the case, that provided instructions or cover art. The group behind this project have been tirelessly approaching the acquisition and preservation for years, and as of this writing, version 4.0 contains over 2,000 individual tapes.
To honor their work and provide the final step in experiencing them, it is possible to visit the Ultimate Tape Archive on the Internet Archive and emulate these items in the browser. Doing so, however, will be committing the slow burn, the steady and time-consuming cassette loading of the programs.
Luckily, for this essay, a machine stepped forward to do the work.
Utilizing the SCREENSHOTGUN program, the thousands of cassettes from this collection were “inserted”, “loaded”, and “played”, over the course of a month, to allow a later quick assessment of the experience of loading them. The reasoning behind this was that companies employed not just clever, but inspiring ways to distract end-users.
What follows are some of the highlights.
In most cases, the loaders will use the same trick we saw with the ZX-81, except with color: a rapidly pulsating, moving set of lines reflecting that something is happening, and data is coming in. A sense of “hold on, everything is working”, not requiring a lot of machine time to provide, and swapping between colors for a few minutes before a burst of music and graphics came at the end of a reward.
The main variations are the use of different lines or arrangement of lines to reflect this. For example, this thinner and more “high resolution”-feeling version:
This was more than sufficient for most cassette-based titles. But some wanted to go a little further to inform the user.
A significant upgrade was adding a sort of “loading screen” to the process, where the lines would still move, but around a “title card” that informed you what was “coming soon” to your computer. Some had nice graphics to accompany them, representing some attempt at recreating the printed artwork on the cassette insert.
An impressive upgrade, but not something to leave well enough alone to a generation of tinkerers.
To give an answer of “are we there yet?”, some titles included calculated countdown timers to tell users how long they had to go before the game would go:
And again, this would have been a favorable solution to the “sit and wait” problem, but a handful of instances exist of the most rare of tape-loading systems: The Loading Games. Games that would be booted up by the system, that would then load the actual programs in the background while you played an amusement, either a song or a smaller game while waiting.
These are harder to discern using the screenshotting system, but a few are clear:
Perhaps not surprisingly, this clear and available innovation in software loading was ignored when Namco created a “play while you load” system in the 1990s, and they were granted a software patent that killed innovation in the bud for years. The epic story of the software patent for a game while waiting for a game to load was covered extensively by the Electronic Frontier Foundation upon its expiration in 2015.
We are, as a whole, incredibly lucky at how the state of in-browser emulation, built on open standards and persisting through most modern browsers, allows us easy insight into historical software and either experiencing or re-experiencing these bright lights of brilliant code. But we must also realize that a lot of what we are interacting with in the present day are, top to bottom, towering piles of shortcuts and “we’ll just skip ahead”, trying to accommodate a type of user that has no time or patience for how things were once. And this new type of user, ignoring or unaware of the lost minutes any choice could be, find it harder and harder to relate to what came before, the environment that those creations were made in.
Perhaps if you have a spare few minutes, a lull in your day, you might consider browsing the stacks of the Ultimate Tape Archive and finding a compelling cassette tape cover, look over the JPG scans of the cassette inlay and printed instructions, and “press play on tape”, feeling some moments of anticipation as another gifted person’s efforts provided you with a chance to experience a very complex joy emanating from a very simple machine.
The start of the pandemic in 2020 had immediate effects on the Internet Archive, especially regarding the San Francisco-located headquarters.
A bustling building full of many dozens of simultaneous projects and conversations became an empty shell. The whole world was grappling with the new situation, and for the Archive, it meant many of the all-hands meetings were moved to strictly online, using Zoom conferencing. We learned fast to be online-first, where we remain currently.
There was one small glimmer of light in this darkness.
It was decided to hire artists to give pre-meeting musical performances at our weekly all-hands. This would add a bit of uplift to the morning gatherings, and allow musicians who had lost access to public performances to make a little income and share their music with a grateful audience of dozens of Internet Archive employees. It was a rousing success, and performances were added to our Friday Lunches as well.
The variety of musicians and performances have been amazing: Instrumentalists, Singers, Dancers, and a breathtaking spectrum of styles and acts have made an appearance on our (virtual) stage.
As was covered in a blog post in 2020, all sorts of great stories and opportunities to learn about these artists have been added to the record. The artists were asked if the Archive could archive their performances, and many have agreed.
Some performers are clearly adjusting to their new circumstances, while others have created entire “online stages” for their performances. All of them show remarkable talent and resilience in willingness to do this strange “gig”, and we’ve even had repeat performances over the years.
We continue to enjoy the creative spirits that start our all-hands, and if you didn’t know about this growing and enjoyable collection… you do now.
Stop by anytime. And note that many of these performances have links to directly support the artists; please do if you can.
It’s time to add another family of emulated older technology to the Internet Archive.
The vast majority of platforms within what we call The Emularity happens because of the work of MAME Team, which has spent over 25 years adding support for tens of thousands of machines, platforms, and tools to their breathtaking system. The amount of arcade machines and computers they now cover is so huge, a site exists just to keep track of what they don’t emulate… yet.
The Calculator Drawer is smaller than these other collections, but they possess a hearty collection of graphing and simple Calculators, emulated in MAME and with an additional layer of presenting the calculator itself, as a clickable graphical object, which you can then do math and graphing on. (You also need to turn many of them on, so look for the “ON” button to get things going.)
If Graphing Calculators were not a part of your childhood or previous life, they may be a bit of a steep climb to get to understand. If you still want to mess around with them, a stash of manuals for most of the models in the collection has been provided.
So, go forth and literally multiply.
However, if you wish to stick around a little bit longer…
The main reason you can do this wonderful “click on an image of a calculator as if it was a real object inside the browser” is because of a feature in MAME called MAME ARTWORK. It is one of a couple solutions to a major problem in emulation, especially of handheld devices, or tools like synthesizers or plastic toys.
The problem is that the actual “emulated” part of many of these machines are a tiny set of LED lights, or a line of LCD numbers, which is where all the circuitry presents its output, while the vast majority of the item is a static piece of metal or plastic with paint, labels and physical heft to the item. Compare, for example, the output of The Little Professor, emulated:
…to what the actual form factor of The Little Professor was:
We can all agree that while one could make the keys for 0-9, OFF, ON and so on “work” on a keyboard input, it would be so much nicer if a representation of the Little Professor calculator was on the screen to type into, pressing keys by a touchscreen or via a mouse (while leaving the keyboard option active).
MAME has two different ways it can render an emulated device that needs “additional” drawing to augment the part of itself that’s reflecting the screen or lights of the device.
One is to have the MAME system itself do a line-drawing of the interface the machine is using. That is, actual vector-based drawing of the buttons, screen and other decorations to help users understand what they’re looking at. To provide a counter-example of The Little Professor, here’s a Chess-Master Diamond system in the plastic realm:
…and here’s what you’ll see when you boot it up in the MAME system:
..definitely pretty sweet, for sure!
And while it’s very nice this option exists, there’s something compelling about a photograph of an original item being shown on-screen along with interactivity, and the best part is how it doesn’t require a deep lore of programming.
It’s called The MAME Artwork System, and while it’s not completely easy to get a hang of, it’s been refined since being introduced in 2006, and it could use help.
There are some amazing efforts that have been done to make these “layout” files for items emulated by MAME, with the best clearinghouse for seeing this work at Mr. Do’s Arcade. By leafing through the collection of artwork made so far, you can see how much better the interface is with a graphical addition. There’s over 1,400 different systems that have gotten the Artwork Treatment, a major success.
But that’s still a tiny percentage of the systems that need to time, focus, and skills of volunteers to make them come alive in this way.
People are often inspired to want to help emulation efforts, since they’re the future of software’s history, but it can be daunting to find a place in, to ramp up to the mass of intricacies and standards of a decades-long project. But perhaps, out there, is someone, maybe even you, who would find it a delight to help acquire excellent photographs of vintage hardware, and collaborate on designing the layout files for them.
This effort will allow us to add more calculators, devices, and hardware out of MAME to be playable at the Internet Archive, and you’ll join the immortal names of the creation of this longstanding project.
A developer came to me a week ago with a project they’d been working on for over a year. The proposition of what they offered and the importance of what it would mean to historical software at Internet Archive was so compelling that within 48 hours, we’d announced it to the world.
More than a fascinating site, though, it represents some philosophies regarding the Archive’s stacks that are worth exploring as well.
The first thing that strikes a visitor to the site is either how strange, or how nostalgic it looks. The site is strikingly simple and references the first few years of the world wide web, when backgrounds were grey by default, and the width of the screen was almost always under 640 pixels. Same with the link colors, and use of (to the modern era) small icons next to the words and links. This is a version of the world wide web long gone.
However, underneath this simple exterior beats the heart of a powerful search engine and an astounding amount of processing that has analyzed millions of files to make them easy to interact with. If your area of research or interest is vintage/historical software, we’ve all been handed a top-class tool to discover long-lost files and bring them back instantly.
A Quick Reminder about CD-ROMs
From (very roughly) 1989 through to the early 2000s, CD-ROMs (and later DVD-ROMs) were one of the primary ways to transfer heaps of software or large-sized programs to end users. Instead of spending hours or literal days transferring software you may or may not have wanted after you received it, you could go to stores or on-line and purchase a plastic disc that contained between 600-700 megabytes of information on it.
The potential of this, in fact, was so strong, that there was an entire industry of providing databases, news summaries, and even all-digital magazines using this format. Booklets of CD-ROMs became resplendent, and libraries could allow patrons to check out these discs to do research with them.
Besides these more institutional compilations, an industry rose up of companies compiling software, artwork, music and more and selling them to end users. Companies with names like Walnut Creek, Wayzata, Valusoft, and Imagemagic would have catalogs of CD-ROMs to buy. Starting out with software from bulletin board systems and gathered from FTP sites, these CD-ROMs quickly ran out of easy-to-find material to fill, and an era of “shovelware” began, allowing these products to claim “thousands of files, gigabytes of materials” while pulling from more and more out-of-date sources.
As websites, torrents and other means of transport brought the era of physical media for software to a close, the world was left with a finite, contained pile of titles that had come out on CDs. And, as luck would have it, people have been uploading those out of date files to the Internet Archive for years.
The Final Piece
Therefore, sitting on the Archive, are tens of thousands of these CD-ROMs of the past. And for a very long time, it’s been possible to download a Disc image, analyze its contents, search for useful or potentially interesting items, and then find a way to make them work again.
That last piece, in fact, is the hardest – not just knowing where the files you’re looking for are located, but to be able to browse them without a massive host of helper applications scattered to the four winds. There are dozens of archive types, dozens and maybe hundreds of multimedia formats, and, even more frustrating, archives within archives – making everything that much harder to find.
DiscMaster has fixed this.
Within the search engine is the ability to find millions of files, categorized by type or size or date or extension, and then be presented them instantly. Three decades of computer software with layers upon layers of obfuscation are brought immediately to the top.
The developer wrote applications to grind through the contents of a CD-ROM and present them with previews that wouldn’t require anything but a browser to see. This can take hours to pull out of a single CD-ROM, but the results are breathtaking.
Audio and music files play in the browser. Flash, IFF, Bitmaps, Fonts and more display in preview. Macintosh, PC, Commodore, Atari and more are presented simply, without a mandate to track down the proper utility to figure out what they are.
In other words, vintage and historical software is back from the obfuscated darkness.
In the short time that Discmaster has been online, success stories are appearing. Authors are finding shareware programs they lost track of decades ago. Original versions of software that were thought impossible to track down just pop up in the search engine. And organizations dedicated to creating catalogs of now-dormant formats are suddenly handed a thousands-of-items to-do list on a silver platter.
The Philosophy of the Support Site
The ramifications and discoveries from Discmaster are going to be coming for a very long time – even if a researcher has a light memory of something they’re looking for, the search results will guide them in the right direction faster than ever before.
But beyond that, this site shows a different approach to the Internet Archive’s materials that’s worth seeing more of.
With over 100 petabytes of data, representing a mass of materials with all sorts of containers, metadata, and approaches by contributors, the Internet Archive has to be as general as possible. This generality extends to the presentation, search engine, and storage of the items.
It is a major effort to ensure the data stays secure, the metadata is searchable, and the ability to upload nearly anything results in a usable item details page.
But that’s kind of where it has to stop.
It’s asking an awful lot to both maintain an entity like this, and also design, say, a specifically-geared site for a relatively smaller set of people and needs. It can be done, but when energy and funding are limited, it’s sometimes best to stick to basics.
Perhaps seeing Discmaster in action will encourage others to interact with the Internet Archive as a pool, a container of resources that could receive some of the powerful analysis along specific lines. If they can then be fed back to the Archive at the end, even better; but let a hundred supporting sites bloom.
After this announcement came out, a not-insignificant amount of people have come forward to ask some form of:
You’re the Emulation In The Browser People – will DISCMASTER allow you to emulate the programs that are found in these floppies and CD-ROMS?
The short answer is no, there are no current plans to do emulated previews.
The longer answer is that the wonderful emulation in the browser that the Internet Archive has covers over the amount of work that needs to be done in selecting, refining, and in some cases modifying original programs to make them work. If a program requires all of Windows 3.1 installed, for example, someone went through the process of determining that, configuring the item to know to load Windows 3.1, and then added custom settings in the item to ensure it would all boot up correctly. Often this work can be automated to a degree, but the time involved is considerable.
Multiply these issues by the dozens of platforms that are emulated, and you can see why it would be more trouble than it would be worth. Additionally, some programs just don’t make sense to be emulated – running a printer utility “in the browser” will probably just show a prompt and nothing else, as it is loaded in the background – many, many programs of the past don’t make sense without additional context.
A much more likely scenario will be DISCMASTER revealing long-lost vintage software that is so interesting and/or fun that it will get uploaded to Internet Archive separately and those configurations done to allow it to be played in the browser.
If you find interesting items along DISCMASTER’s millions, feel free to contact me, Jason Scott, or take a shot at uploading the program yourself and doing the configurations.
There are parts of technology history (frankly, any history) that are thought to be critical to telling the story, and utterly lost. Pieces and fragments will rise up out of the darkness, but a cohesive collection of what once made up a chapter will be thought gone forever.
Compuserve is considered to be the first major online service in the United States. Founded in the era of “time-sharing” services (paying to use a computer during the main owner’s quiet hours), this subsidiary of Golden United Life Insurance moved from 1969 to 1979 in the kind of obscurity befitting a simple business-to-business service providing access to PDP mainframes.
This all changed in 1979 with the rebranding of Compuserve Information Service (CIS), which marketed itself to mainstream computer users, providing chat, games, and storehouses of information for an hourly fee to who ever could afford the phone bills and equipment to do so. It is here that Compuserve (and later services like The Source, America On-Line and Prodigy) brought a bulk of folks online for the first time.
This service flourished through the 1980s and 1990s, and in what should be considered a reductive and surface description of the situation, slowly broke apart via acquisitions, shifting priorities and the dominance of the World Wide Web providing many aspects of what Compuserve had previously done exclusively.
By the time this 2000s-era chapter was over, Compuserve was more a brand and a memory. But it had still reigned in the minds of many as the beginning, the launching pad for a lot of what people came to expect the online world to provide.
It was assumed most of the history of Compuserve was gone – the hardware, software and documentation scattered to the winds.
Among these items that have been recovered are documents that are being given to the Internet Archive to scan and place online – instructions on how to operate a Compuserve service.
These opportunities to recover assumed-lost materials are extremely rare, but hope springs eternal that in rooms, attics and file cabinets around the world, there possibly lurk further discoveries, and happy endings. Almost like a movie.
Therefore, the Internet Archive shall receive a $1,000 donation from Mr. Keith and Mr. Haughey ($500 apiece), provided from an escrow account that has held the funds since the day of the wager. (We shout out to the Bletchly Park Trust, a worthwhile historical organization, who will not be getting the donation but who are deserving of yours.)
It would be easy enough to declare it a win for the idea of “the web” and that regardless of concerns brought up about the Internet’s ongoing issues, we can still find hope. So certainly, let us all applaud that things worked this way, and the URL’s 11-year consistency is a bright beam of light, online.
In many ways, however, the bet is at best a bittersweet victory, and at its darkest interpretation, a small oasis in a desert.
To understand The Long Bets, you need to understand The Long Now.
The Long Now Foundation is a non-profit meant to be an organization geared towards projects and approaches to thinking that chronologically leave the average human lifespan in the dust; focusing on 10,000-year timelines and solutions to problems of sustaining cultural contexts for a hundred lifetimes and beyond.
Currently, the Long Now and its ideals are expressed in both a very nice performance and drinking space called The Interval, and a number of stylish projects and websites to bring this realm of thinking into focus.
The most prominent and first major project was the Clock of the Long Now, a project to make a time-accurate clock that would function for 10,000 years. The as-yet incomplete project goal is to build a clock deep in a mountain range and set it off, ticking occasionally (but on time, doing so) for the next ten millennia.
It is a facilitation of long-term thinking, of providing a neutral, fair and equitable way for years-in-the-future bets to be made between parties, each contributing funds towards the prize. It is traditional that the recipient of the prizes be organizations not run or controlled by either bettor.
Browsing the betting page, the bets range from the humorous to the aspirational, from specific sports outcomes to predictions around space travel, vehicle autonomy and economics. They’re a joyride of thought and conversation starters, as they’re meant to be.
And among them is Bet #601.
Jeremy Keith and Matt Haughey are both veterans of The Web as it has historically been described; each has had their voices heard to crowds online and off, describing the nature of websites. Their careers have (deservedly) benefitted greatly from the power of interlinked websites.
They both recall the start of the world wide web, as well as internalizing the rules and mores that followed its birth. They were well-qualified to debate on the longevity of URLs and the position that a specific URL would hold across time.
That said, Keith was skeptical. Haughey was optimistic.
Like a lot of its neighbors, Bet #601 is too clever by half; the bet states that it is won or lost depending on the availability of the bet at the URL the bet is hosted at. That is, two situations exist to judge the outcome: Either the URL https://longbets.org/601 exists, at which point the bet is lost, or it does not exist, at which point the bet is won.
(Strikingly, if the bet had been won, the Internet Archive would possibly be the only place to browse the site in its original form, where it would have then helped prove the funds should go to Bletchly Park Trust. The continued reliance on the Wayback Machine as the vault of the Web’s lost memories would have persisted, in a very sharp and slightly less financially-beneficial way. Such is the price of memory.)
For the record, here are the statements made by each bettor about their arguments for the wager:
Jeremy Keith: “Cool URIs don’t change” wrote Tim Berners-Lee in 01999, but link rot is the entropy of the web. The probability of a web document surviving in its original location decreases greatly over time. I suspect that even a relatively short time period (eleven years) is too long for a resource to survive. I would love to be proven wrong.
Matthew Haughey: Though much of the web is ephemeral in nature, now that we have surpassed the 20 year mark since the web was created and gone through several booms and busts, technology and strategies have matured to the point where keeping a site going with a stable URI system is within reach of anyone with moderate technological knowledge. My oldest sites are going on 13 years old at the time of this bet and the original URL scheme still functions via 301 redirects to a final format we selected about six years ago.
This should be it.
But it’s worth noting how the context of this bet has changed over time. And issues with the continued evolution of the web strike at heart of the point the bet was trying to make.
The Long Now Foundation, intending to maintain its footing for as long as absolutely possible, has a very vested interest in its URLs staying stable. Between hosting structure, the setup of the webpages themselves, and maintaining clean, static URLs (longbets.org/601 is a very simple address, lacking any ornamentation or dependence on programming language extensions or dynamic rendering). The domain name longbets.org is registered until June of 2022 as of this writing, but was registered in June of 2001, twenty years ago, which bodes well for continued survival.
If you’re going to bet that a URL is going to stick around, on a website run by an organization that expresses its character by the longevity of its projects, staking your bet on a specific URL from that organization is a pretty safe bet.
Both of the parties in the bet clearly think of “the web” as being a set of interacting links between websites, but even by 2011, the idea of a “website” was beginning to experience direct collision with the ever-centralizing, ever-shifting audience of online life. Mobile access is a quirk in the 1990s, an oddity growing into a majority in the 2000s, and now, in the present day, phones with screens are the “home computer” of vast percentages of internet patrons.
In the interconnection of the world, it is harder and harder to think of a “website” where “platforms” rule the roost. A user is more likely to have an account name, or a public identity, than to ever utter the phrase “http” in their daily activity, or maybe even their year. The clear goal of many firms is to dissolve the consideration of the URI or URL, with many of the previous protocols of the earlier Web forgotten. The question becomes less of “will this URL survive” and more of “will the idea of the URL survive?”
THE IDEA OF LONGEVITY AND CHANGE FOR DIGITAL DATA:
Finally, the overarching fact of the situation is that sites like Long Bets are part of a philosophy of the web that is rapidly shrinking. Points of data and dependable signifiers of content and individuals were once the destination. That’s long changed; they are but stops along the way, flotsam and jetsam that ride in nebulous platforms that dominate online life. While Jeremy Keith and Matt Haughey maintain personal websites, they have rapidly become like homesteads that jut out in the center of towering skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Future generations will think of “the web” as much as they think of “the roads”; intensely interest to a few, below the watermark of consciousness to the rest.
As we move into this even-more-ethereal version of the Web, where objects, materials and locations possess data as much as pages and links we ever did, the Internet Archive will do its best to keep up and grow to match the challenge.
The Jackpot Lounge is much more focused and refers to one specific group of coin-operated games: Gambling Machines.
Not too soon after video games began replacing mechanical coin-operated games on the midway, bars and other locations, games with a gambling theme or straightforward gambling payouts began to arrive. The same arguments for video games taking over (cheaper maintenance, more dependable, easily upgradable) applied to these potential replacements for slot machines.
While such games would exist in a grey zone for a few years, Poker and Slot/Fruit machines of a video game nature quickly fell under the jurisdiction of gaming authorities in different countries. In some cases, however, it is clear looking through the code of these games that a select few cheated or ended winning runs quickly.
Still, there was little to compete with the complete automation and dependability of these machines, and over time they took over gambling houses and areas where games of chance were legal. Even the venerable and charming mechanical horse-racing games began to fall compared to a simple horse-racing videogame like Status Fun Casino:
As more and more pressure came down to ensure the slot and poker machines had dependable random number generation and payouts, the games became more homogenized, only reflecting changes in sound and visuals while letting the rules stay dependably the same.
From those early beginnings, the increase in quality of sound and video with videogames extends to gambling machines – the colors are bright, the sounds intense, and all are intended to catch your eye and bring you over to play “just a few rounds”.
Reflecting that we are now closing in on a decade of emulation at the Internet Archive, it seems a good time to bring in this class of machines, which have at the start of each game a very complicated start-up process. Reflecting that actual money could be involved with a machine and the tallies of what it was paying out for the day would be very important to a casino, these games have very complicated processes for starting up. By pressing these keys, you are simulating Audit and Jackpot keys being inserted, sign-off buttons are being pressed, and that the metal “cage” door of the machines were closed and locked. Thanks to a set of volunteers, however, these extremely un-intuitive keypresses have been documented for you.
Because of the nature of this genre of machine, many of the 500+ machines will look rather similar: made by the same companies, with only minor modifications to the code to reflect different rules or providing compatibility with gaming commission chips (which would not be manufactured by the game companies, but supplied to them under authority of the commission). Others, however, will seem like strange one-off creations that you can’t imagine attracted anyone to play them – except they did.
One particular fascinating set of machines exists in this collection: Stealth Gambling Machines, meant to look like one kind of video game, but secretly playing another, based on when a secret switch (or secret coin slot) was used. In countries where hosting a gambling machine of any sort held severe penalties. For example, this game acts like Breakout but is actually a poker machine.
And finally, let’s just remember that sometimes, the game is out to get you. The game Tetris Payout will wait until you are winning a bit too much, and then intentionally throw the worst pieces at you to ensure your game comes to an end early.
So go ahead, check out the lounge, and walk through decades of electronic coin-operating casinos. You can’t win real money…. but you can’t lose it, either.
A very large thank you to Xarph and others, who played through these hundreds of machines to learn the by-machine instructions for getting them into a standard playing mode. The process was weeks of work and incredibly appreciated.
If coming into contact with gambling machines causes stress or issues for you or your family, contact Gamblers Anonymous.