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I > ISC (INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS CORP) > CompuColor II


ISC (Intelligent Systems Corp)
CompuColor II

A mine of information from Bill Freiberger:
This was my first computer. We formed a company (FREPOST Computers), and manufactured add on RAM cards, and ROM cards. Towards the end, we were the repair depot for the US. They would show up on my doorstep with a note that said "Please repair or throw away". Usually took about 30 minutes and $1 worth of parts to fix the problem.

The designers (Isaac someone down in Norcross, GA) had left a 4K hole in the system ROM for expansion. You could buy an assembler and a couple of other things from Compucolor (at hideous prices), snap the module in,  and hit CTRL-Z to jump to location 4000 hex. We built a board which had space for 8 banks (and one had 16 banks) of Roms, and found there were three bytes of RAM unused (they had been reserved for the seconds or 10ths of second in the clock). You would hit CTRL-Z, and up came a menu by which you  would select assembler, debugger, disassembler, basic editor, formatter, whatever. We had this wonderful old fellow by the name of M.A.E. Linden who wrote the most  incredible Basic editor, the likes of which I have not seen to this day. When we asked him for 3 bytes (of the 4K) for the menu, he came back in about a week, with the 3 bytes available. And six more features. Incredible recursive code, all in 8080 assembler.

The machines were a technical nightmare. The power supply would occasionally not start, and smoke several components. The addition of a resistor and capacitor to kick start the switching power supply solved the problem. Until we wrote a formatter, you had to BUY formatted disks from Compucolor. Also, if the -12v supply exceeded -12.5 volts, the CRT controller chip which was more the heart of the machine than the processor would go. Also, the disk drive used soft sector formatting, and the speed of the drive was set by using a strobe disk. We ended up putting a trimmer on the front of the machine that you dialed to get the thing to read. Our formatter had a screen display that you set the speed before formatting, egad.

After the Compucolor II, which was just an RCA color TV with the  main board on the bottom of the case, and a disk drive where the tuner would have been, they built  the last model into a very nice sleek display case with the keyboard attached. I had two 8" floppy drives attached. There was one serial port for printers and modems.
A note on the CRT controller... I believe it was made by AMD. Compucolor cheaped out an bought the chip which had a mask programmed ROM area instead of one that could use external ROM. When the supply of these custom chips ran out, the machines were doomed. I remember contacting the manufacturer about some more. He said that they had to fire up an entire run, and I could have one chip for $10K, or 5,000 chips for $2 each.  Compucolor would not release the contents of the mask programmed ROM, so when the last CRT controller died, so went the last Compucolor.  I remember when it went, it was like the night they watched the last  Passenger Pigeon die, and the species became extinct. Her name was Martha, by the way.

Intelligent  Systems Corp was at  the time the world's largest manufacturer of color display terminals. I saw a shot of some refinery in Saudi Arabia, and in their control room most have been 50 of the newer style beehive terminals. All white color screens. Compucolor once shipped a computer, and on power up, the screen filled with gibberish. After a while I figured out they had sent me a FARSI character ROM

The Compucolor keyboards were incredible. The original 8001 keyboard used a light source and photocells, the individual keys shadowed the lights into  the optical sensors in a BCD encoding scheme. I took two of them and rewired them to PC keyboard controllers. I am using one to type this. There has never been a better feeling keyboard.
I really miss those things, they were a lot of fun, and to this day I still program better in Basic and 8080 assembler.

Interesting information from an anonymous visitor:
Charlie did steal microsoft basic. But then he colorized it and sped it up about 20 times and then when Bill Gates got after him, they settled by Charley allowing Bill to use his modified version of the Microsoft basic which was much superior to Bills.

The compucolor, with an 8080  2.8 meghertz cpu , could outrun the TRS 80 with a 8 or 10 megahertz ,Z80 cpu by about 10 to 1. The compucolor used a single byte command structure while the trs 80 used a 3 byte command structure., thus the speed. They also had better programers. ISC after the first 6 months sold their formating program as well as some of the top software programs  on the market at a pretty cheap price.

I ran the club which traded programs.If you sent me one program I would return you about 5 programs and thusly built up quite a library. I was one of their first dealers and still have some of their machines.

When the machine first came out (Also as a KIt) it was the Compucolor and had a 19 inch screen.
It then became an  Intecolor, with the 19 inch screen. The last models ran cpm and could use quite a bit of additional memory by using paging.

You could not destroy the intecolors no matter what you did. Later they put out the new compucolor which you picture with a 13 inch tube.  Next came out the 3650 with a $600 high resulution tube.  Next came the 25 inch model, which I had a copy of. I sold quite a number of them. The ones I sold could not be destroyed. I added one resistor and two diodes to the power supply and they became bullet proof. Non that I made this modification to, ever failed to my knowledge.  I do not care what you pluged into any port. But then again I have quite a bit of experiance with power supplies.

I was the authorized factory service for the company in the la area. But I only serviced what I sold. Those who bought them at discount elsewhere had to send them back to the factory for service.
The main problem with the internal 5 inch drive (They were Shugarts) was that it was close to the High voltage and had to be shielded by MU metal, which generally worked if you put the shield in the right place.
I believe the 13 inch models used am modulation but they had floppy disks when every one else was using cassets and they loaded a program in a couple of seconds compared to about 10 minutes for any of the competitors.

They had the potential to be the biggest computer company with the likes of Fereydoun Taslimi on their engineering staff but they did not live up to their potential.

Dr IDO reports:
In one of the ads for the compucolor II that I saw in a magazine they also advertised it's "bigger brother". From memory it had a 19" color screen and 8" floppy drives. It was still in a woodgrain style case, and it used the same multicolor keyboard. I really wanted one of these, but I've never actually seen one. I'm guessing they're even rarer then the CompuColor II.

Peter Da Silva reports:
The Compucolor-II computer from Intecolor was deliberately brain-damaged to keep it from competing with their low-end color terminals. It was possible to make the machine smoke from a simple BASIC program: FOR I=0 TO 255: OUT 6,I: NEXT
I don't know what port 6 was hooked up to, and I never had the guts to run this test to destruction, but it did produce high temperatures inside the box, complete with smoke and burning smells. You had to pull the plug to get it to stop: the DC power switch didn't seem to be effective in autodestruct mode. We used to joke about using this feature in a security system.

Maury Markowitz reports:
I still have a couple in the basement. They used an 8080 microprocessor, a very nice (for the time) 64*32 13" color display and a 52K floppy drive. The drive was by Phillips but Intercolor did their own electronics, it wrote ones and zeros like a magnetic tape recorder using a high speed "test mode" on serial chip they used.
They weren't the most reliable things on the market, you could output bytes to the video interface that would cause the flyback to smoke on the earliest units. They put a warning in the manual about not doing this, probably not their brightest idea because the manual usually sat next to the computer at the dealer's, lots of dealers sent them back when smoke started pouring out.
Poor reliability, somewhat improved on later units, and a real commitment to poor marketing did them in. They tryed to control the floppy market by refusing to sell a disk formatting program, even people who wanted to sell software were expected to pay list price for blank disks. A couple of third party formatter programs eventually forced them to market their own but by then the developers had moved on to other machines, I seem to recall that only about 4000 machines were sold.

Raymond Curci adds:
At the time I worked with this equipment 1981-1986, ISC was a holding company owned by Charles Muench. I believe Charles was a former engineering professor at Georgia Tech. Under ISC were several companies including Intecolor (8001 series 19" dumb terminals, 8053 19" computer with FCS, 8064R 19" CP/M computer, VHR-19 computer, and the consumer level Compucolor), Printacolor (I believe this was the first color ink jet printer company who retooled some Siemans b/w inik jet printers to use color ink), ColorROCS (color Xerox product).

Most models had text modes with 48 lines with 80 columns but could also be put in a double-high character mode where you got 24 lines by 80 columns. Each text cell at 48x80 characters had a byte with ASCII code or speicial plot code that was a
special character set with 8 positions that could be used to draw lines. Each also had an attribute byte with 3 bits indicating foreground color, 3 bits for background color, a blink bit, and a bit to choose beween ASCII and special plot character set.

Some systems were custom made with a special delete character that had alternating dotes so that by setting the foreground and background you could make 27 unique colors instead of 8.   Later models added a high resolution color graphics capability that provided 640x480 resolution dot addressable. The system ROMs had subroutines to do things like draw a line or circle that were impressive in computing which pixels to activate using only Intel 8080 integer arithmetic.

All the Intecolor models that we used had dual 8" floppy disk drives housed in a separate enclosure that plugged into the main unit which was a combination 19" monitor and the computer.

Ken Hughes was a programmer at Compucolor:
I used to be a programmer at Compucolor (straight out of high school).  IIRC, we did eventually sell a format program.  Also, the programmer (Greg Whitten) who reverse-engineered the BASIC interpreter later was hired by Microsoft; he is responsible for GW-BASIC.
Also, Intecolor and Compucolor were divisions of ISC.  The first Compucolors were therefore sold by Intecolor until the company was spun off in 1978 or so.
I don't know about the 8-track tape; never heard that story.  I know the original prototype had a very nice 5-1/4" drive and was rock-solid, but cost about $5K.  The tape-like floppy solution they ended up with was much cheaper, but really unreliable due to:
(1) it was right next to the CRT, with lots of electromagnetic interference,
(2) no speed control of the motor.  Speed could be adjusted by a potentiometer, but you had to open the case to get at it.  So if the speed drifted, floppy became unreadable (since effectively the baud rate changed).
They later fixed this by putting some phased-locked loop circuitry on the drive to monitor the speed, and blanking the screen whenever the drive was accessed.

Ken Orford sent us:
In the early 80's I was a software developer with Nortel (then Bell-Northern Research) while I owned a small company called Colorware, based in Ottawa Canada. I hand-assembled a version of the Forth language for the CompuColor II and sold about 100 copies of it world-wide. In addition I was responsible for the "5 cent Y-killer" fix, a problem where the keyboard scan lines interfered with the operation of the parallel printer interface by causing spurious "y" characters to be printed.





 
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