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Thread: Where does a baby retro computer geek start?

  1. #1

    Default Where does a baby retro computer geek start?

    Hi everyone. I'm a totally blind computer history enthusiast and i'm wondering what the place of blind people is in the computing community. I feel like there's only so far I can go here and am just an observer.I want to do retro mod builds for people like me who want a real computer without all the nonsense. Is there an oldschool blind geek or two who can tell me where to start. Is it worth getting my hands on an Apple IIE and relearning it? I love the podcast you put the heart and soul back in computing. Oh and I'm fascinated by the Amiga, can an Amiga talk too? Thanks guys. Oh and just so yall know I'm not a script kitty, I believe in first principles so am starting with linux and unix. Thoughts stories and questions are appreciated. No worries you can't offend me I've heard everything you could possibly ask the blind lady. Hell people are still amazed by a blind person using one at all.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Apr 2011
    Central Virginia, USA


    First principles are a good place to start. Not sure about Linux, it's not that old. It's going to be hard to do much with hardware if you can't see the blown capacitors or leaky batteries. Soldering is hard enough with bifocals. Vintage software is cool, if you want first principles there you should look for some of the old Don Lancaster books. His Guru's Lair website is a bit odd these days (Water Soluble Swimsuits? Really?) but his 1980's Machine Language books are great. Hopefully not too heavy on the diagrams.

  3. #3


    Quote Originally Posted by ablindgibsongirl
    ...I want to do retro mod builds for people like me who want a real computer without all the nonsense.
    Might be better to define a reasonably ideal system with features that would be best.

    Its probably easier to define a new retro system than to do add-on on vintage systems... and with a new design, its got a lot more use left in it.

    Things that may affect such a definition of features:

    Voice storage and playback and synthesized sound isn't too expensive and we have cheap integrated circuits that can store unbelievable amounts of that sort of data. So listening to an computer Operating System is practical.

    However talking-in commands is not as successful today. Some may counter that Dragon brand-software running on a melt-down core processor can do a good job, but if we're talking vintage, we're really not talking about that much processing power.

    Accelerometers are much better than the ones applied in WII games, the problem with using motion based input is that acceleration isn't something that people really grasp in all aspects; its a fast car to most people. And relating acceleration to motion is not as direct as most assume.

    An optical motion tracking detector is probably more sensible. A collar-mount camera could track hand motions via a ring or bracelet on each hand... if it has a blinking infrard LED... all the easier.

    A keyboard is a good text input device, I seldom look at the screen when I'm typing (and I have the typos to prove it).

    Perhaps a mouse that gives relative position by two changing tones - perhaps X axis by changing frequency and Y axis by changing amplitude of another tone... easy to synthesize. When the mouse pointer crosses over an icon the operating system could sound it out... until another icon interrupts and starts its Id. A quick shortcut would be to lead with a short click tone-pattern ID indicating the icon type so when you hear that, you immediately know if its not what you're looking for... a quick audio shortcut.

    - - -
    Its an interesting idea too, because a sound.display would allow working some vintage type applications with no monitor display. That would add to mobility ease, particularly with a bluetooth earpiece... i.e. working on a subway with no monitor for display... I could imagining entering firmware code with a pair of keyboard mittens instead of a bulky keyboard while listening to the sound.display and mouse.
    Last edited by JDallas; August 20th, 2014 at 09:45 PM.

  4. #4


    Quote Originally Posted by ablindgibsongirl View Post
    Oh and I'm fascinated by the Amiga, can an Amiga talk too?
    It sure can! If I'm not mistaken, the Amiga was the first commercial computer to ship with speech synthesis as a standard feature.

  5. #5


    Yes, Amiga Workbench up to version 1.3 ships with a speech synthesizer (it was removed from later versions due to licensing issues, but will still work fine if manually installed.)

    This is a really interesting subject; I'm curious to hear more about accessibility on vintage computers.
    Computers: Amiga 1200, DEC VAXStation 4000/60, DEC MicroPDP-11/73
    Synthesizers: Roland JX-10/SH-09/MT-32/D-50, Yamaha DX7-II/V50/TX7/TG33/FB-01, Korg MS-20 Mini/ARP Odyssey/DW-8000/X5DR, Ensoniq SQ-80, E-mu Proteus/2, Moog Satellite, Oberheim SEM
    "'Legacy code' often differs from its suggested alternative by actually working and scaling." - Bjarne Stroustrup

  6. #6


    Hmm, I had a vague notion to the effect of using a braille display and guidance tones to get around a system, sometimes I challenge myself to see if I can get my machine to boot without turning the speech on. I used a notetaker for years and grumbled when teachers asked me to turn the speech on. I like the idea of a mouse using tones to get around in a gui environment. I know too that accessibility like linux is not very old and we've come a long way and yet there is still more to do. I think the best I'll be able to do is get an old portable case and put new hardware in it, yeah, I know, hipster mod but it will actually do something. For my needs I'd like something that can handle just a basic text mode and with the toggle of a switch the raspberry pi gets put in to media mode and off to podcast or youtube we go. Listening goes to a different part of the brain than reading does so computing in braille would be a huge win. Collaberating with other blind hackers would help me to know what is possible. This is fun.THe closest I've seen to a guidance system where you talk to it and it talks back is Emacspeak it seems to give a great deal of control to the user and you feel like your in charge of the computer. It requires a great deal of initial skill so is not the place to start for the beginner, kinda like bash linux.

  7. #7


    Some old systems wouldn't have software screen readers or enough free resources to run one in the background but you could output the video to an external device that runs optical character recognition software. I'm sure there's an OCR smart phone application that can take a photo of a screen and try to read it but something with a composite video input would be better.

  8. #8


    Hi ABGG,

    This reminds me of a mailing list that I used to frequent back in the 90's. It was called SURVPC because it was about getting older computers to survive, and computing minimalism. Most people there used DOS which is pretty basic but worked for most things back then, even though others had moved to the Windows GUI. Some people were not keen on wasting resources on a GUI and thus another reason for the mailing list.

    What I discovered after a little while, and it really surprised me, was that a number of members were blind. They didn't usually tell people that so it wasn't obvious. What was clear is that the text environment worked really well for them. I was amazed at their skill.

    I still use DOS on a regular basis and can vouch for the fact that it is still very functional in 2014. There are many things which you cannot do, but what can be done is very useful. In fact last year, I spent a couple of months using almost only DOS, and that included browsing with my favourite browser - lynx.

    This post made me all nostalgic and I just went and Googled myself and came up with a funny post. Click here and check out this post. Haha!

    No doubt you can find some other threads. They might be an inspiration. I don't know how easy it is for you to use the search box there, but I just put "blind" into it. Click here to see the search results. There's some relevant ideas in those threads.

    I've set up numerous DOS machines for people with all kinds of disabilities back in those days. Let me know here, or e-mail to if you want some help in that regard.

    WANTED: Cardinal 2450MNP modem.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2011
    Blog Entries


    Quote Originally Posted by commodorejohn View Post
    This is a really interesting subject; I'm curious to hear more about accessibility on vintage computers.
    This makes two of us. I am excited to see how this project pans out. I wonder if there are vintage braille displays for a reasonable price that are just waiting to be put to use again?

    Regarding using Linux or UNIX, I find the notion of using a modern UNIX on an old computer exciting. I have successfully ran unstable (i.e. the most recent code in their repositories back in May) NetBSD 6.99 on a 50 MHz 486- with a SSH and SFTP server. By no means is it fast, but it is certainly usable. NetBSD also has ports for old 68k Macintoshes and 68k Amigas. So such a setup can certainly be done.
    Looking for: Needham's Electronics PB-10 Microcontroller Adapter (yes, still looking after 2 years :P).

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    Chicagoland, Illinois, USA
    Blog Entries


    I wish I had more to contribute to this fascinating discussion, but the only anecdote I can share is the experience of one of the users I used to support at Mark Williams Company, which made a UNIX clone called Coherent for 286 and 386 PCs (this was before Linux). This user was able to use our product through the use of a serially-attached speech synthesizer (turned up to very high speaking speed). I don't recall if he piped output to it on a command-by-command basis, or if it was somehow part of the serial terminal pipeline so that it received every single thing sent to the display, but however the hookup, he was able to take full advantage of our unix system.
    Offering a bounty for:
    - The software "Overhead Express" (doesn't have to be original, can be a copy)
    - A working Sanyo MBC-775, Olivetti M24, or Logabax 1600
    - Documentation and original disks for: Panasonic Sr. Partner, Zenith Z-160 series
    - Music Construction Set, IBM Music Feature edition (has red sticker on front stating IBM Music Feature)


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