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back to article The early days of PCs as seen through DEAD TREES

Thirty years ago, Time Magazine broke its 86-year tradition of naming a Man of the Year, and instead anointed its first Machine of the Year: The Computer. Time didn't deliver this news via www.time.com nor an HTML-encrusted email blast, but rather by macerated wood pulp pressed into sheets and coated with ink, cut into …

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The one I remember

is from Byte or PCW I *think*

when the IBM PC first came out.

Dark clouds filling the sky with a giant hand & arm piercing them with an IBM PC like a little toy in it's palm

with the caption "The jolly grey giant delivers the goods" or some such.

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Stop

the one I used from 1972 on

Each time I see a history of the personal computer I find that almost no one knows how it really began.

In 1972 both HP and Wang developed and sold a PC fully capable of programming in Basic and operating fully on the desktop. The HP unit even offered a letter quality printer (converted Facit typewriter), a high speed thermal printer (250 lpm and silent) plus an IO bus capable of addressing up to 15 IO devices including plotters, card readers and more. Even a modem.

It also offered a hard disc using a controller that would support two hard disc drives and four desktop units.

All from HP. Fully supported by HP.

Now you can get picky and claim it was not a microprocessor. And it was not. But, if you could program in Basic you could have it do just about anything you needed on the desktop. I did. Financial analysis. Word processing. You name it. It was a personal computer to the full extent of the meaning.

Yet, history is lost. Actually not quiet. See the HP museum web site. Look for the HP 9830A unit. Never even had a floppy disc because the technology was not yet developed and reliable enough. But, it did have a hard disc available.

I programmed one and had it fully operational in a law office by 1974.

Sorry for going all the way back. But, it was fun and commercial.

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@Lewis Mettler (was: Re: the one I used from 1972 on)

I have a nearly-restored IBM 1401, dated 1963. It's technically a "small business system", not a personal computer, but it only had a single user/operator, so if you squint it could be considered a PC ...

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Holmes

@Lewis Mettler - Re: the one I used from 1972 on

Wrote :- "In 1972 both HP and Wang developed and sold a PC fully capable of programming in Basic and operating fully on the desktop."

My company had one of those HP 9830As and I still have some print-outs of programs I wrote. Its built-in printer printed like a till roll, and I cut them into lengths and pasted them onto A4 sheets.

Don't know why someone downvoted you - do they think you were lying? Perhaps they didn't like you calling it a PC. They were a personal computer - if not a Personal Computer with capitals which was the term for IBM compatibles. I don't know about it not having a microprocessor - effectively it was one even if built from discrete components.

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Anonymous Coward

Old rags

Interesting, but it would have been good to cover the British mags instead... I don't remember any of these hitting our shores!

I was quite an avid fan of mags like Amstrad Action, Amiga Format and PC rags like Computer Shopper...

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Re: Old rags

Have an up vote for the Amiga Format reminder. It was an absolutely superb publication. Still got mine in the list somewhere... along with the Amiga.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Old rags

"I don't remember any of these hitting our shores!". ? Like many of us in the UK, I subscribed to Byte for a number of years. In fact I still have the Nov 83 edition "Inside the IBM PC" on a bookshelf somewhere. Sad...

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Re: Old rags

Amiga Power was my fave, it was so entertaining you could read it even if you only had a passing interest in computer games and still laugh out loud. Fond memories of the competition prize the 'sack of cack' :)

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Re: Old rags

I think "Your Computer" circa 1983-4 held the record for page count in the UK - must have had around 300 pages (80% adverts, to be sure) including such exotic material as type-in listings for TI-99/4As and Sharp MZ-80Ks.

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@Uncle Slacky

Not quite! Goes upstairs, pulls out 20th Anniversary May 1998 edition of PCW (RIP). Page count (including covers) = 750 - and all for £1.99 (special price, normally £2.95). I've also got a copy of the first edition from 1978, slightly smaller at 68 pages and cost 50p. Those were the days!

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Re: Old rags

I used to get Computer Shopper quite often. I can still remember the issue about the Pentium. The turning point for me was when I found anandtech.com. Then I found other enthusiasts websites. Soon enough, I never read Computer Shopper again. Why pay for last month's reviews? Plus I finally got tired of looking at all the stuff in Computer Shopper I could never afford.

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Re: Old rags

I read Computer Shopper until the late 90s.

Used to be useful with the free applications on CDs, good long reviews, different systems covered (I remember the mid 90s era when the Mac section was often amusingly meandering, waiting for Apple to shuffle off as another 'has been' 80s computer maker....), it was the width of a phone book with mail order listings.

I still have their 'Linux - the future of computing?' cover CD somewhere.

Stopped picking it up when I became a poor student and weighed the cost of a magazine vs 2 pints.

Flicked through it recently, looks like it's been on a diet, the cover CD is replaced by URLs, mostly PC news.

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Unhappy

BYTE

It was a bad day when BYTE hit the dust, that tending to me a more in depth and computer science-y magazine than almost everything else. The American PC World wasn't bad either. I was sad to see Personal Computer World just stop publishing though - they should have gone out with a great retro finale edition, but they just stopped :(

I still have a big pile of 1980s and 1990s BYTEs and PCWs stuffed in a box upstairs. Especially in the early 1980s, they came with really beautiful cover artwork, especially BYTE.

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Pint

Re: BYTE

Three words: "IS UNIX DEAD?!??!" (extra punctuation added by me)

Because in 1993, Windows NT was going to slaughter UNIX with it's spiffy Windows 3.1 interface and single-user experience. Yeap.

Byte was great once upon a time but around 1992 pretty much all of the computer magazines became mouthpieces for Microsoft.

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Headmaster

Re: BYTE

I took Byte's editorial position to be that hardware cost had dropped to a point where mass consumption was required to drive it down further, that Unix was in the way of that happening and that Windows would be the key driver. They never said Windows was any good. 19 years on and I think you're still misunderstanding the article.

Thanks to Windows we have cheap hardware and thanks to Linus we have free Unix so we should all be systems programmers, right? Enjoy Dr. Pournelle's somewhat optimistic response to someone whining, like you I suspect, that their sysadmin superpower no longer lets them rule over all humanity:

www.jerrypournelle.com/debates/secondrev.html

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Re: BYTE

>Three words: "IS UNIX DEAD?!??!" (extra punctuation added by me)

Linux was still a newborn at that time, and The BSDs had just overcome a huge legal battle. The commercial UNIXes were all proprietary and considerably expensive. It wasn't out of the question at the time that MS was going to kill UNIX as it was (and it did). BYTE at the time followed MS since that's where the money was. Even back then they realized that IBM/OS2 wasn't going to dominate the market. Between 86 and 97 Apple management turned gold in to poo.

In hindsight Microsoft did kill UNIX at the time, with lower hardware costs, cheaper licensing, and letting a large amount of piracy occur. They didn't win by making more reliable software, that's for sure. It wasn't Linux became popular that Microsoft considered any of the Unixlike operating systems a serious threat.

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@pixl97 (was: Re: BYTE)

"The commercial UNIXes were all proprietary and considerably expensive."

Proprietary, but not expensive. At home, I was running Coherent, by Mark Williams Company, in that time frame. Cost was US$99, and it came with a "Lexicon" that is still the best "how to use un*x" learning tool I've ever seen. It was a near perfect clone of AT&T Unix[tm], hand coded in assembler. Was super-fast on an 8Meg 386. There was no networking, but it came with Taylor UUCP. I switched to Slackware when MWC closed it's doors ... I still run Slack. But I still use the Coherent Lexicon to teach command-line administration out of, augmented with O'Reilly's "UNIX Power Tools" and the current man-pages.

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Re: @pixl97 (was: BYTE)

So good a clone that one Unix book claimed it was stolen code. Sadly, MWC never sued, because they had the word of Dennis Ritchie that it wasn't.

I agree about the manual.

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@Ian 55 (was: Re: @pixl97 (was: BYTE))

I've got a copy of the final MWC Coherent source[1]. I also have a copy of Bell Labs/AT&T UNIX[tm] source, and a couple versions of BSD source, right from the era that MWC closed their doors. All are legal, and no I'm not allowed to share ... dmr was/is quite correct.

UNIX was coded in C. Coherent was coded in assembler. BSD (at the time) had AT&T code in it. About the time MWC closed down, BSD, both NET & Free, were obviously AT&T free ... Remember "silver" & "raven" for Coherent stuff? And I think that demon.co.uk had a Coherent ftp site for quite awhile, too :-)

It wasn't a "manual", it was a "Lexicon". I collect them ... and pass 'em along to kids that I tutor who I think might actually have the ability to develop the skill-set to maintain my own Internet connection in my dotage.

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I missed a footnote, on purpose (was: Re: @Ian 55 (was: @pixl97 (was: BYTE)))

"[1] The mythical "edit button" does work ... cool! :-)"

Either it's still b0rken, or I missed the window by >< that much ;-)

(Apparently, I did miss the window ... Not certain how useful 5 minutes is.)

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Windows

Dead trees?

Myst-all-chucking-frighty.

I remember the arm-ache from carrying a folder of hundreds of fanfold sheets the 3 miles home for the microcode of a spectrum analyser that I was working on - make corrections, then in the morning, walk back with those "dead trees".

Guess why I coud've KO'd Tyson with my right arm, but my left looked like a weeping willow.

Then, someone invented the 8" Floppy...

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Pint

@Andus (was: Re: Dead trees?)

Ever drop a card deck? At the very end of the load? How about a hand-truck full of boxes of cards, after jarring your elbow at the top of the five steps into the glass room[1]. I still have nightmares ...

Something about "kids these days have no idea" is appropriate about here.

Have a homebrew, compadre :-)

[1] Back before data centers were built as data centers, they were raised off the existing concrete slab to facilitate cable runs between equipment.

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Holmes

@Jake - Re: @Andus (was: Dead trees?)

Wrote "Ever drop a card deck?"

In about 1975 I was doing a job (using their computers) at Imperial College, London. Walking outside into one of their squares, surrounded by the high buildings, a guy came round the corner with a 4-wheel barrow loaded with cards in the trough-like metal boxes they were carried in.

A gust of wind lifted the lot. They soared up to the full height (8 stories?) of the buildings and over, fluttering down over the entire area in their 1000's like giant confetti.

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@Nuke (was: Re: @Jake - @Andus (was: Dead trees?))

In 1974ish, I witnessed a student programmer dump the complete overnight first-build of BSD 1.0 over the observation deck of Berkeley's Campanile. Looked like snow. (Today, I'd call it "Beta build 0.96", and the kiddies would look at me like suddenly re-sprouted my late-70s blue & orange mohawk).

He didn't know we had the output of the run split to both cards & tape (was "tee" available back then? Or did we use more complex scripting? I can't remember, to much water under the old bridge ... and I can't be arsed to look). ANYwho ... we didn't actually lose anything from the rather spendy overnight run.

Reason for his protest? He didn't like the changes BSD 1.0 made in the UTSS 5/6 code, as he was working on what would become UTSS 7 ... Long & short, he was expelled from the school. But Berkeley being Berkeley, he wasn't expelled for attempting to fuck up several other Grad student's projects. Rather, he was expelled for littering.

There is a reason Arlo wrote the song, you know. And we'll all sing it, when it comes around again on the guitar. But I didn't come here to talk about that ... I grew up in a very funny time in (mostly) the Bay Area. And I think I'm a better man for it ;-)

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Journalist desperation

I watched the evolution of the computer magazine over that period, through Byte and PC World.

At the beginning .. there were genuinely interesting computers - Sirius, Apricot, anyone? Then along came the IBM Pc and all its clones.

I remember a review which wasn't called "Another 20 indistinguishable beige boxes" but should have been, and could hear the desperation in the writer's mind as he struggled to find something, anything to say about these boxes. Even the internal wiring came in for comment, and tiny percentage difference in the specification and performance made into column inches.

Since by then everything ran Windows, there was nothing else to distinguish one clone from another.

And yes, in those days you bought the magazines for the adverts, to compare specs and price up a new system.

While reminiscing - PCW used to run competitions that actually required thought and mathematical ability, usually involving 10 digit number so you couldn't use 16-bit ints or floating point. (Of course the BBC Micro had 32-bit ints which made it ideal for these puzzles!)

My favourite was the following:

Using the digits from 0 to 9, generate all possible permutations, and list the billionth. How long will it take take you to work this out either with pencil and paper or a 68000-class processor?

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Re: Journalist desperation

Competition part the second...

"calculate using non-linear math how long it will take the school bully to kick your head in when the fact you won said competition is hailed at school..."

it wasnt all sweetness and light, it still isnt, with kids hiding their talents for fear the walking mouthbreathing rump-grunt de la jour will pound them for it. The female bullies are worlds worse, the genetically endicked just hurt physically... We'd get a whole lot more done on this planet if schools stopped burping out 'computer' courses and started chucking out bullies. I wonder if we'd be in a eutopian society with warp drive and equality already if it wasnt for the god botherers weebling every time one of their kids beat on someone 'different' or that had a higher IQ than them, and that doesnt even mention the teachers (look up the story of Tempest Smith if you want to see how bad it gets today).

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Boffin

Re: Journalist desperation

I remember trying to make sense of Mike Mudge's Numbers Count in the mid 90s when I was doing A levels and just getting into computer science. It was usually way beyond me but it was interesting to see how maths could be used away from the classroom. A quick Google suggests he retired in 1999 and hopefully he's still having a happy retirement.

Another name sadly missed is Tony Tyler, aka Macbiter. He died of cancer in 2006. Imagine what he'd make of rounded rectangles, iDevices and endless litigation....

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Pint

had to take a look through my fire hazard stacks...

Compute!'s Gazette, Ahoy!, Run, Info, Power Play, The Transactor, TPUG, Amiga World, Commodore Magazine. Compute!, Home Computing, Family Computing, onComputing. Sigh. Yes it was a Commodore household!

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Happy

Ah the Exploratorium

I took the missus there on our honeymoon in 1981. I was always an incurable romantic (and she's still by my side).

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Childcatcher

I'm in TEARS

You brought back a time when I was only halfway through my single digits, yet I do remember my father proudly showing off his "state of the art" CAD system to me. It came with this newfangled thing called "a mouse" and everyone in the office had a hard time getting used to it.

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Happy

Fashion Victim

Rik,

Your picture reminded me of Starsky and Hutch.

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Re: Fashion Victim

Many of us looked like that in that era. Not all, probably not even most, and definitely not me ("disco" inspired everything still sucks) ... but many. The show reflected society, not vice-versa.

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Coat

7.8336MHz?

Being a complete nerd I stopped reading the article halfway through and tried to work out where 7.8336Mhz came from. After 30 minutes of work on Google & Wolfram Alpha, culminating in a C++ program to run the possibilities, I came up with the likely explanation that this is half the video clock frequency, and that it comes from one of the following possible video signal configurations:

(512+32)x(342+18)x80

(512+64)x(342+58)x68

(512+88)x(342+42)x68

(512+88)x(342+66)x64

Anyone know which one is right? :)

Hey, wait, everyone's gone to the pub. I should get my coat.

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Re: 7.8336MHz?

Per Inside Macintosh Volume 3, Page 18 (ie, Apple's official documentation):

"The pixel clock rate ... is 15.6672 MHz, or about .0642 microseconds (µsec) per pixel. For each scan line 512 pixels are drawn on the screen, requiring 32.68 µsec. The horizontal blanking interval takes the time of an additional 192 pixels, or 12.25 µsec. Thus, each full scan line takes 44.93 µsec, which means the horizontal scan rate is 22.25 kilohertz.

A full screen display consists of 342 horizontal scan lines, occupying 15367.65 µsec, or about 15.37 millisecond (msec). The vertical blanking interval takes the time of an additional 28 scan lines — 1258.17 µsec, or about 1.26 msec."

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Re: 7.8336MHz?

Thanks, I thought someone would know :) So, not an integer frame rate then (I make that 60.147Hz). So the precise clock rate still makes little sense, unless for some reason 15.6672MHz oscillators were commonplace and 15.6288MHz (for 60.000Hz) oscillators were hard to find!

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Computer Recreations

In the 80's, my gateway drug was A.K. Dewdney's column in Scientific American which led to the infinitely more addictive DDJ.

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Pint

Re: Computer Recreations

Yeah I remember the "Computer Recreations". My dad also had subscriptions to CACM and IEEE Computer ... these were drier but not any less interesting (no scantily clad ladies hawkin' wares!). I still have a few scans of "powerful add-on board" addys from back then.

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Speaking of smut,

I may have missed, did you get adverts for modems and hard disks and PC expansion cards being held out to us by cheerful Asian ladies in swimsuits, or was that a British and European phenomenon? For that matter I have an idea that the glamorous side of computing, in the "ladies in swimsuits" sense of glamour, was just across the English Channel. And, after all, computers' bits are made of silicon, which you find as sand on the beach, so perhaps swimwear was just the thing. Blokes tended to have suits on though.

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You missed my favorite

Micro Cornicopia magazine, published through the eighties, it remained one of the last true old school computer hacker magazines until its demise.

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Trollface

PCs are worse

Hitler only destroyed the lives of six million.

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Holmes

Re: PCs are worse

So PCs are like the Lenin/Stalin combo?

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.EXE magazine

I used to have a subscription to .EXE mag which featured the (now) infamous Robert Schifreen and the Reg's very own Verity Stob. It was a proper mag for programmers with hardly any ads.

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Re: .EXE magazine

I also remember Stob from Dr. Dobb's Journal. It's the only complete dead-tree magazine set that I still have, all 33 years of it. As a side note, discovering that Stob was writing for ElReg is what got me here in the first place. Not certain if that's a good thing or a bad thing ;-)

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Re: .EXE magazine

Hardly any ads.. but most of them were for dongles. I agree it was a good read though.

Has anyone scanned in the CP/M User Group UK's journal?

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Happy

Exploratorium, wow!

Well, being associated with the Exploratorium makes up for any amount of fashion failings in my book! The computers I was around in the '80s were mainly a couple TRS-80s, an Amiga, and my cousin's Commodore, so the articles don't bring back much for me, but the Exploratorium sure does!

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From http://regmedia.co.uk/2012/11/15/85_pcworld_okidata_large.jpg --

"...Advanced, Multifunction Printing For Under $700"

In 2012 dollars, that's about $1440.00.

Today at Walmart, I saw a huge pallet of HP printers. They were $19. Oh, and they were also full-page scanners.

19 freakin' dollars. From $1400 for crude-as-hell b/w dot matrix to $19 for full bleed glossy color.

(Out of curiosity, I checked the price for an ink cartridge to match the one that shipped with the printer. It was $34. I've joked before about ink costing more than printers, but I didn't think I'd see it happen *literally*.)

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Pint

A couple minor bugs to report.

"With the internet still years in the future, in 1987 soft-core smut was still delivered at the application level."

I was connecting to what we now call "the internet" ten years before 1987. From home. Even TCP/IP came online in 1983. That, and if you wanted porn (hard or soft-core), you connected to a local BBS in 1987, if you didn't have access to a Usenet feed.

Also, it wasn't a one-two punch. It was a four-part thing. Email, FTP, IRC and telnet. The Web is a johnnie-come-lately.

Good reminisce otherwise, though, thanks for taking the time ... Have a homebrew :-)

Out of curiosity, does anyone but me remember populating memory cards with RAM while standing naked in a bath-tub full of water? Sounds like over-kill to avoid static, but try to remember that my first 32K of RAM set me back around US$2,000 in 1978 (I *think* that was the price ... might have a trifle more), and the early chips were dreadfully sensitive to static. Yes, 32 kilobytes.

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Re: A couple minor bugs to report.

I think you're slightly ahead of me jake, I never had to resort to bathtubs because the 8K in my Acorn Atom was already fitted when I bought it.

What I do remember is taking the case off IBM PCs and pressing the RAM chips back into their sockets (with that slightly distressing crunching sound) to get the machine to boot. Thermal cycling used to make them creep up out of the sockets until one leg would lose contact and then the memory check would fail, so no boot. I think that mem check is still in some BIOSes today. Wonder if it checks beyond 256K these days?

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@gizmo23 (was: Re: A couple minor bugs to report.)

My boards didn't come populated back then. I couldn't afford pre-assembled stuff. Take a sheet of fiber-glass, coated on both sides with a thin layer of copper. Lay out the traces, then using a Dremel drill out the holes for the leads. Carefully patch any traces wrecked by drilling (if needed). Boil board on stove to remove excess copper. Get yelled at by Mum for messing up the kitchen (I don't know why she got mad, I always cleaned up after myself). Start soldering in components ...

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Mushroom

At least those glasses...

...are big enough to see through, and, important to those of us who are near-sighted, can gather in a lot more light.

Now I can't frames for decent size lenses anywhere.

Who knew ugly was going to make such a huge comeback.

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