TRS-80, a Bit of Computer Nostalgia

TRS-80 Mod IV with dual floppy drives and a whopping 64K RAM. Note the front edge of the keyboard. Radio Shack was notorious for this battleship gray paint they used on their computer cases that started to rub off almost immediately exposing the even uglier plastic underneath. We went through this for something like 4 generations of computers before RS finally just started using colored plastic like everyone else.

I have a lot of elderly computers laying around that probably should have gone to recycling long ago, and probably will. I hang on to some of the because of nostalgia, like the one up above. That’s one of two TRS-80 Model IVs that have been kicking around here for ages now. I worked on a lot of these dopey things in the early 1980s, along with its predecessor the Mod III. All things considered, it was a pretty darn nice computer for its day, if a bit on the expensive side. And they did have some “issues”, as they say, thanks largely to some quirky design decisions made by Radio Shack that were probably done to save money.

Not exactly what you’d call a ‘high tech’ video system, even for that era. Basically it’s a cheap, generic black and white television without the tuner or audio.

They were made as cheaply as they could possibly be made (The TRS-80 Mod I came with a video display that was literally an old RCA black and white television with the channel tuner and audio circuits stripped out of it, for example.).

Yummy yummy RAM chips! Guacamole dip costs extra. Despite the Tandy Corporation brand, they were made by Motorola.

I had a couple of Mod III computers, and basically the Mod IV was little more than an enhanced III. And they were expensive. The III sold for, I think, about $800 with a whopping 16K RAM, and RS wanted an arm and a leg to upgrade it to a full 48K. (That’s all you could add to the Mod III) I don’t remember exactly what RS charged to upgrade to 48K, but it was a ridiculously high price. $180 sticks in my mind for some reason. Anyway, you could easily do the upgrade yourself for about a quarter of what RS charged. RS was selling the exact same RAM chips in blister packs at their stores. Total cost for that was about $30-$40. All you had to do was open the case, pop the chips in, and that was it.

The interesting thing is that you actually couldn’t use all of that memory even if you had it, so the memory claims were very misleading. The system ROMS (the computer’s basic operating system) were mapped into the system’s memory map, replacing the first 16 of RAM with the ROMS, so you actually only had access to 48K. If you used a disk drive, then TRS-DOS, the disk operating system, sucked up even more memory. Unless you used a non Radio Shack OS, you couldn’t use more than about 32K – 48K (which was the maximum you could have on the Mod III). So why load the computer up with memory you couldn’t use? Because RS was trying hard to push the computer at the business market, and a lot of businesses were running CP/M. RS didn’t actually sell CP/M for the Mod IV (at least I don’t think they did) but you could get it from other companies. But this was also the time when CP/M became obsolete thanks to the introduction of the IBM-PC and MS-DOS. Radio Shack/Tandy started out as a leader in the personal computer business, but because of an unwillingness to spend money on serious R&D they quickly fell behind and were desperately trying to keep up until they finally washed their hands of computers all together.

RS/Tandy sold the Xenix OS (a UNIX clone) for their business models like the Mod-6. They were bigger, better, faster, had 8 inch floppy drives and you could get hard drives for them. But they were expensive, clunky, and non-standard in just about every way. I have a Mod 6 and a Mod II laying around somewhere too and one of these days when I get bored enough I’ll open one of those up.

Speaking of floppy drives – my, aren’t those dirty… Actually the whole thing looks like it’s been sitting in a barn for the last 30 years. For all I know it was. Or is this the one that got soaked when my 50 gallon aquarium broke one night and the water poured through the floor into the storage area in the basement?

See? Didn’t believe me about the cassette tape, did you?

Those are some real pieces of junk, gems, those drives up there. Genuine single sided, double density, 5 1/4 inch floppies, those are. And holy fright they were expensive when they were being sold! I don’t know what the ones for the Mod-IV went for, but the drives for the Mod-III were ridiculously expensive. But then floppy drives were expensive across the board back then. The Mod-III was mostly sold bare bones when it first came out. You could get it ‘fully loaded’ with dual floppies and 48K of RAM but not many people bought the drives at first because they were so expensive. The ‘standard’ configuration was 16K RAM and a cassette tape player was used to store programs and data. Seriously. Cassette tape. You can imagine how well that worked.

The first drive, which contained the required floppy drive controller adaptor, sold for about $1,200. Adjusted for inflation that’s almost $3,000 today. The second drive sold for about $800.

These floppies are single sided, double density, so they could store a whopping 180K on a single floppy disk. That’s 180 thousand bytes. Not even enough to store a single average sized JPEG photo.

Oh, and did I mention that floppies back then cost up to $5 to $10 each? The company I worked for back then sold genuine IBM brand floppy disks. They sold for “just” $10 each. We’d give you a deal, $95 for a box of ten. I just paid about that much for a 4 terabyte drive for pete’s sake. But at the time I was selling 5 megabyte hard drives to businesses for a cool $5,000 each. Considering what prices were like back then I’m surprised anyone ever bought one of these things. Adjusted for inflation that hard drive would sell today for over $12K.

This is what ran the whole show, the Z80 CPU. Most of the really popular computers of the day like the Apple ][, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, etc. used the 6502 processor in their equipment. They used it not because it was good (it wasn’t), they used it because it was cheap. The Z80 was more expensive, but it was also more powerful. It had a better register system (it had some 16 bit registers which the 6502 lacked), more registers, better indexing, better instruction set, etc. It was more expensive, yes, but it more than made up for that with its capabilities. I’m not sure why RS decided to go with the Z80, but they did, and they kept using it for a rather long time. It served as the primary processing power for the Mod I, Mod II, Mod III, Mod IV, and the Mod-100. RS did use other processors as well. It used the 6809 in its “toy” computer, the Color Computer (ironically, the 6809 in their toy color computer was a much, much more powerful processor than the Z-80 used in their ‘professional’ computers)

The picture above shows the main board of the Mod IV. This was the first time I’ve had a Mod IV open (back in the day Mod I, Mod III and Atari were the ones I mostly worked on. By the time the Mod IV came out I’d switched to the Color Computer and OS9) and I was a bit disappointed when I saw this, well, mess is the only way you can describe that board. If you look closely at that photo you’ll find jumper wires hand soldered to various points all over the board. The backside of the board is just as bad. More wires running everywhere. And most of those don’t look like repairs or modifications, they look like they were done at the factory. When I see a main board with jumpers running all over like that it makes me nervous. It means either the circuit board was badly designed in the first place, or they found serious bugs in the hardware after it went into production and they had to pull them off the line and do some pretty serious rewiring to get them working, or they were trying to make modifications without bothering to redesign the circuit board. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if I’d opened up my brand new Mod IV and saw this it wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Radio Shack/Tandy sold a lot of computers back then, but it also made a lot of mistakes, some of them serious. Once the IBM-PC was introduced, RS tried to compete in the business market with the Model 6, which was, for the time, a very sophisticated, multi-user system that sported a 5 meg hard drive, and the Xenix operating system. But it was also very, very expensive and if you wanted to do anything that couldn’t be done with the very limited selection of software available for it, required you to hire a professional programmer to write it for you. They brought out a line of PC clones which had a whole host of problems and were generally more expensive than other equipment with the same specifications. Basically they did just about everything wrong that they could do, and ended up abandoning the computer business entirely. Now the company is gone completely, for the most part.

That’s all for now. One of these days I might talk about the Tandy Color Computer. That was the Radio Shack computer I was the most involved with back in the day. Despite the fact most people looked at it as little more than a toy, it was an amazingly sophisticated computer once you got past the ridiculous operating system Radio Shack crippled it with. Most of us back then chucked Radio Shack’s OS in the trash and ran a multitasking, multiuser operating system called OS9

Chilton Antique Tractor Show and Well, It’s Been Busy…

… here over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what the heck happened after I retired. I was supposed to have all this free time to play with amateur radio, do gardening, dabble more in photography, go fishing, etc. Instead it seems I have less time than when I was working full time. Oh, well.

We did go up north last weekend to visit some friends, although we did run across this —

We came across the rolled over milk tanker about 10 miles from the house. Fortunately no one got seriously hurt. I think he was empty because there was no leakage when we came across the scene just after it happened. It was on a roundabout, and this happens on a regular basis with these big trucks. They hit the roundabout too fast and flip over trying to make the corner.

The annual Chilton steam engine and antique tractor show was this weekend and that’s something I try to get to every year even though it makes me feel so old sometimes to see equipment that I used to run when I was a kid or teenager now classified as “antique”. Although to be fair a lot of the equipment we had on the farm back then was probably already antique by the time we got our hands on it.

This year the big surprise was this —

Now if you’ve never seen anything like that before, it’s for a good reason. They never made many of these, and there are only three of them left in the world from what I learned talking to the guy who was operating it. When I first saw it, it was largely blocked from sight and all I could see was part of the front with the engines and I thought someone had lugged a Shay type locomotive to the show.

Yes, it’s fully operational. This isn’t just a static display, it actually runs.

What the hell is it? It’s a log hauler that was used up until the 1930s to pull huge sleds carrying logs through the woods during the winter. Only about 175 of them were ever built. It could pull up to 300 tons of logs on as many as 25 sleds at a time. I ran across this when I was looking up more info on it-

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must cost to keep that engine repaired and operational. It must be incredibly expensive. I’m very glad they do, though. If it weren’t for people who support the preservation of equipment like this all we’d have are photos. They show it at Wabeno, where its home is, but they also take it out to at least one of these shows a year.

As I said, sometimes it makes me feel very old when I go to these and run across equipment I used to use, like this Massey 44. I used one of these when I was a kid. For a long time it was our primary tractor that did everything from hauling out manure to chopping feed to plowing. And while it may look pretty and make me feel nostalgic, when it comes down to it it was a nasty, nasty tractor to actually use. The front end was too light. Those front wheels would be entirely off the ground as often as not when it was pulling a heavy load. It was difficult to steer. It had mechanical issues. The engine was decent, but ours tended to overheat and the transmission wasn’t very good. And it sucked gas like you wouldn’t believe.

What I like about these shows too is that it gives us a glimpse into what life was like for our not so distant ancestors. Just the simple job of washing clothing was a major operation not that long ago.

Yes, that’s a washing machine being powered by an ancient gasoline engine. And while that engine might be a bit elderly for this setup, washing machines running off gasoline engines was not uncommon in rural areas. You have to remember that a lot of rural areas didn’t get electric service until the 1930s or even later.

On the amateur radio front, I’ve been fiddling with antennas again. Well, sort of. I’m finally getting around to getting the Gap Titan vertical finished and hooked up.

It successfully survived the winds we had during the recent storms. After 60 – 70 MPH winds hit us during those storms I more than half expected to see it laying on the ground when I got up the next morning, but it made it through unscathed. We almost forgot to put guy lines on the thing. If we’d neglected that I’m sure it would have come down.

I got the counterpoise/ground plane installed finally and, well, it takes up a wee bit bigger area than I thought it would. Going to be fun mowing lawn through there. But that area is going to be part of an extension to the existing flower beds anyway so I only have to worry about it for the rest of this season.

And I still don’t have the dopey thing connected. I got started, got all the tools out and began to work on putting the connectors on the coax and… Sigh…

I had the wrong one. I needed a female and only had the male variety, so I either needed a female or an adaptor. Not a big deal, but mildly annoying nevertheless. In any case, I didn’t really like the style connector they sent with the antenna in the first place. Thankfully, Farm and Home, the big hardware store down in Chilton has a big electronics section (used to be a Radio Shack store) and they’ll probably have what I need.

As for the weather – this has been one of the wettest summers I can remember. The lawns should all be brown and dormant from a lack of rain this time of year. Instead they’re all lush and green, as you can see from the photo there. I’ve only had to water the gardens about three or four times all summer long so far. Most summers watering is something we need to do every two days or so.

The rivers and lakes are all abnormally high around here because of all the rainfall.

This is the river down by the old stone bridge the other day. Normally this time of year the river is so low and stagnant that it’s choked with algae and weeds, and so shallow it would hardly be halfway up your shins if you tried to walk through it. It’s a good four feet deep or more, though, and had more than enough current to keep the algae from accumulating.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully by the next time I get around to writing something I’ll have some amateur radio stuff to talk about. I should have that antenna finally set up. I should have the new Yaesu 818ND up and running with the laptop using FT8, JS8Call and PSK.

And hopefully I’ll have made some progress in moving all my equipment down into the basement. MrsGF found a matching set of old, heavy duty tables at St. Vinnie’s that might make good work benches. They’re about 4′ square with heavy duty 4″ square legs. They’re beat up but look solid, and I can get ’em for $5 each, so I’ll go take a look at those on Tuesday.

Still have to make a decision on where the electrical outlets are going to be placed down there, but I didn’t want to do that until I had an idea on where the work benches were going to be, how tall they were, etc. Probably at least 4, four outlet boxes fed with 20 amp circuits, plus at least one 240V outlet for amplifiers. And need to rewire for better lighting. Want to put in LED lights to replace the existing fluorescent tubes that are in there now.

Cleaning Up, Snow, Evaluating the Gardens, And Stuff…

MrsGF and I set aside Saturday to clean up the last of the gardens around here. We’ve had several hard frosts now and almost everything has died back so there was no reason to put it off any longer. So, of course, this happened…IMG_0056

Yep, that’s snow. Saturday was pretty miserable. Temperature around 38 degrees, 30 – 40 mph winds and then it started snowing. Oh, well. Ah, Wisconsin weather…

 

IMG_0055We got out the winter coats, hats and gloves and went at it anyway because, well, it has to get done. It wasn’t exactly a fun job in that kind of weather, but we did get it done. There was no point in putting it off because this time of year the chances of the weather being much better are pretty slim.

We ended up filling the entire back of the old truck. It’s amazing how much debris we ended up with after cleaning everything up. And this is just half of it. We already had taken out the remains of the tomatoes, squash and a lot of other stuff over the last few weeks. Good thing we live just down the street from the town’s compost site. That makes this a heck of a lot easier.

The snow didn’t stick around. It was too warm for that. But the wind did, with gusts of up to 40 mph all day. That kept us from raking up the leaves in the yard, but we got that done on Sunday. So we have just about everything cleaned up outside now.

All things considered, the growing season was pretty successful this past season. The tomatoes and peppers were ridiculously prolific. Our little lettuce bed kept us supplied with greens when we needed them. Some things weren’t very good, and some of that was our own fault.

We keep trying to plant onions and they never seem to make it to maturity for us. They start out good, but as they mature they seem to just stop growing before they get anywhere close to full sized. I don’t really mind that too much because my main interest is in having fresh green onions, not in full size bulbs for storage. So while that crop might look like a failure, it really isn’t because I get what I want out of it.

The squash disappointed. The acorn squash never developed fully at all and were a total loss, and while we did get a few absolutely beautiful butternut squash (wow, they tasted good!) they didn’t produce as well as they should have. We aren’t sure why because they were in the same place they’d been last year where they’d done really well. We’re going to have to reconsider planting squash. The stuff takes up a huge part of the garden and if all we’re going to get for it is three squash, well, there’s not much point in planting them and we need to look for alternatives.

Our rhubarb plant wasn’t looking too good towards the end of the season, but we think that’s the fault of the squash which were planted nearby. It was getting shaded by the huge squash leaves and wasn’t getting enough sun, so we’re hoping it will come back.

I raise that rhubarb more for nostalgic reasons than because I like it. For me, a little bit of rhubarb goes a long, long way. But I have fond memories of playing under the huge rhubarb plants we had when I was a little kid on hot, summer days, and whenever I see that thing in hot, summer weather it brings back memories that make me grin. So yeah, I’m going to grow rhubarb if I can even if I don’t particularly like eating it.

Let’s see, what are we planning on changing — I’d like to put in more raised beds if I can find a good location for them. Those two 4 X 8 raised beds I put in a few years ago are ridiculously productive. If I’d known how good they were going to be I would have built them long ago. Just those two beds provide more vegetables than the rest of our gardens combined some years. The problem is where to put more of them. We just have too many trees so finding a spot where there will be direct sunlight for more than 4-5 hours a day is difficult here. About the only decent location is on the south side of the house and there isn’t much room there any more.

Of course that could change if the pear tree doesn’t survive the damage it suffered. I figure about a full third of the canopy of the tree went down because the limbs were too loaded with fruit to be able to handle a thunderstorm that rolled through here. I’d hate to lose that tree. We planted that, oh, about 17 years ago, a couple of years after we bought this place. It’s not a very good looking tree, it leans at a crazy angle, but wow, it produces some of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had.

But on the other hand, if we do lose it, it would open up a very large area that could be garden with full sun. So if it does have to come down, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

With MrsGF retiring in March she’s trying to figure out just what the heck she’s going to do if she isn’t working full time any longer. Right now it looks like as soon as she pulls the plug on her job she’s going to be dragging me along into the Master Gardener classes. Well not dragging, to be honest. I’m rather looking forward to it. We’d talked about getting into the Master Gardener program for a long time but we never had the time to do it. So now is the ideal time for it. She’s been on-line looking to get us signed up for the classes next year. And being able to tack on “certified master gardener” on the byline up at the top of this website is an added incentive because, well, hey, I’ve got an ego too, you know <grin>.

The other thing that is (probably) going to happen after she retires is all of my electronics gear, test equipment, radio equipment, etc. is going to get moved out of the office/library/workshop and moved into what used to be eldest son’s work area in the basement, and the office space is going to be her’s. She loves sewing and craftsy kinds of things but she’s never had much time to actually do it. Right now her work area for that kind of thing is in a small room upstairs. But it’s hot up there in the summer, cold in the winter, and she has difficulty getting up and down a lot of stairs because of her knees. So the solution to that is turn the office on the main floor over to her and have me move my stuff out.

I am not looking forward to moving. Eldest son’s work area down there is still crammed full of old computers and other equipment that somehow never got moved when he moved out years ago. So all of that has to be moved somewhere. Hopefully out of our house and into his house. Then I have to buy or build suitable work surfaces for all my stuff. Then tear down all of my equipment, move all of it down to the basement. Then I have to re-route all of the antenna cables, ground cables and other stuff to the new location down there. Then install a new electrical system down there including 240V lines to run some of the equipment like the amplifiers. Then try to figure out how to set up all of the equipment again because by that time I’ll have forgotten how everything was set up originally. Move all of my computers… Like I said, I am not looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve bored you long enough with this. Time to go.

 

A video experiment not sure if this is going to work

Let’s see if I can do videos on this thing… I keep forgetting the iPhone can do pretty good videos.

Wow, seems it actually worked. Well, if I can put up with the 350 kbs upload speed. 350 kbs? Really? I’m supposed to have 7 mbs upload according to the info the cable company keeps sending me. A wee bit of discrepancy there…

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Went to the antique farm equipment and steam engine show at Chilton on Sunday. It’s an annual event they do every August and it’s always interesting.

Oh, and in case you can’t play the video for some reason, here’s a picture of a butteryfly so this hasn’t been a complete waste of time for you:

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The Urge

It’s early spring, and that means the urge is starting to kick in again.

I never used to be much of a traveler. I was always a homebody. I hated traveling, hated the discomfort associated with it, hated staying in motels, hated having to try to find someplace to eat. I hated everything associated with traveling.

The result was that for the first 50 years of my state I’d hardly been more than a hundred miles from the place I’d been born, and I was quite content with that.

Then something, I’m not sure what, happened. That’s when the — the urges started to kick in. And suddenly the guy who hated traveling, hated being away from home, was finding himself in places like, well, like this:

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Or like this…

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Or this

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Or these:

So what happened? How did someone who hates traveling so much end up doing exactly that? I have no idea. It’s weird, really, this urge to go wandering, traveling.

I was starting to think that I’d got it out of my system. I wasn’t going to go wandering very far from home this year. If I went anywhere at all it was going to be less than a day’s travel from the house.

But now that the weather is getting warmer, things are starting to grow again, that damned urge is coming back… Same thing happened last year. Wasn’t going to go anywhere, I told myself. Nope. At least not very far, not more than a couple of hundred miles. If that. And ended up spending over a week out in the Black Hills…

This year I’m not going anywhere though. I am going to stick close to home. It’s too expensive, too time consuming. No sir. Not going anywhere.

But then there are those damned urges. Don’t know where they come from.

Personally I blame allergies.

The War On Weeds

So, let’s talk farming. I ran into this article about weed control over at Agweb and it’s actually pretty good so go take a peek at it if you have the time.

Differentiate fact and fiction as you plan your weed control strategy. Source: Myth-Busting Weed and Herbicide Rumors | Agweb.com

Now, the reason this article has popped up (and I’m sure you will see others in the ag press similar to this in the future) is that there are a few new GM crops coming on-line now, modified to work with a couple of new blends of herbicides in an effort to deal with increasing weed resistance to glycophase. The herbicides aren’t really new, though. They are simply blends of previously existing herbicides with glycophase. They incorporate either 2,4-D or dicamba, both of which have been around for decades already. The only thing new about the system is the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate 2,4-D and/or dicamba.

And they aren’t going to work any better than glycophase alone did. At least not in the long run. Sooner or later weeds will eventually develop resistance to these new blends as well, and we’ll be right back where we are now. In fact, there is already resistance to both of those herbicides “out in the wild” so to speak, because both have been in use for some time.

We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon a system of weed control that we know is eventually going to fail. So, if we already know that these reformulated mixes are going to eventually fail, why are we bothering with them at at all?

Part of the reason this isn’t going to change any time soon is that over the last few decades we have adopted almost across the board farming techniques that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to change.

 

How did we do it in the “good old days”? Well, like this:

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Oliver 70 with cultivator attachment

Now, if this text editor has managed to put the image in the right place, that is an old Oliver 70 with it’s optional corn cultivator rig. I used to drive one of those when I was a kid. For hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And.. Well, you get the idea.

It was boring, tedious, took huge amounts of time, huge amounts of fuel. And with how expensive fuel is these days, how expensive labor is, if you can even find labor, how time consuming it is… Well, it isn’t surprising that the agricultural industry has always been looking for something, anything, to try to eliminate weeds that doesn’t involve so much time, labor and expense.

But some alternative to this never ending cycle of herbicide failures is going to have to be found. We’re running out of options. No matter what kind of chemical intervention we may come up with, sooner or later nature will figure out a loophole to work around it because that’s just how nature works.

 

I wish I could tell you that there is a solution to this, but there isn’t. People are experimenting, yes. But so far all of the efforts I’ve seen in trying to get out of this dependency on herbicides have involved techniques that simply can’t be scaled up. I’ve seen flame throwers to burn weeds, steamers to steam weeds, “cookers” that scoop up soil and literally cook it to kill weed seeds… All of them are tedious, time consuming, and worst of all, very energy hungry.

There are some new robotics and AI technologies that are looking promising. I suspect that may be one possible solution; machines that do the cultivation for you using cameras, LIDAR, GPS to guide them. Even systems that can identify weeds by sight and mechanically remove them, leaving the desired plants alone.

But those are years away, maybe decades. But who knows? Maybe there is some kind of “magic bullet” out there. Ah, well, no, there isn’t, but we keep looking for one, don’t we?

Changes…

Despite the name of this blog, it isn’t really about farming. I guess it’s more like a journal where I write about things I find interesting, curious, infuriating, irritating, fun. But I often return to talking about farming because it was such a big part of my life for so long. But this one is about farming for a change.

What does that have to do with changes? A lot. I was reading an article about new ag technologies, automated and robotic systems to replace human labor. This has been going on for some time, of course. Robotics and automation have taken over product assembly, car manufacturing and a whole host of other industries. Ag has been slower to adopt robotics because it requires above average intelligence, dexterity, strength and gentleness and a lot of other qualities that are difficult to do with robotics. Until now. New advances in software, AI systems, new engineering, new materials and a lot of other technologies have sprung up that are making fundamental changes in how we grow food over the next couple of decades.

Neat, I thought. But then I thought further and realized that this has been going on my entire life. The pace of change has accelerated, true, but when I look at what farming was like when I was a kid and what it’s like today, it’s actually a bit mind boggling.

When I was a kid we still had a crank style phone. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in second grade. Electricity service went out so often we still had old kerosene lanterns laying around ready to use just in case. A lot of the equipment we used looked like some kind of steampunk nightmare, to be honest.

We still had a few farmers in the area who were harvesting grain with grain binders,dscn1419 shocking it, and running it through threshing machines, for heaven’s sake. In case you’ve never seen one, here’s a photo of a grain binder from an antique farm equipment show I took some years ago. And yes, that thing over there that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of old string, wire and old barn boards, is an actual commercially made machine. It was pulled by horses (that’s why there’s a seat on it). It cut the grain off with a sickle bar, put it in a bunch, tied the bunch with twine, then dumped it on the field. Workers would come along, stand the bundles on end with the grain heads up so it would dry. Then it would be loaded onto wagons and taken to a threshing machine.

And in case you’ve never seen a threshing machine, here’s one. Well, it’s sort of a dscn1422threshing machine. This is actually a special machine designed specifically for threshing or hulling clover seed, not wheat or oats, but the principle is the same. Workers would throw the bundles onto the elevator over on the left where it would run through threshing bars, fans, screens, etc. to be separated from the stalks and hulls. The hopefully clean seed would come out one pipe to be bagged, the straw would blow out onto a pile. The whole thing was originally powered by a massive steam traction engine via that long belt you see extending out the left side of the photo. Steam engines were replaced in the 1920s or so by gasoline powered tractors, but the threshing machines themselves remained in use well into the 1950s in some parts of the state. There were still a couple of farmers in the area who were using this setup when I was a kid. These things hung on because as long as you could get inexpensive labor it was cheaper to keep using it than buying a combine.

Then there were tractors. Take a look at this beast, for example. Believe it or not, when I img_0279was a kid we actually had one of these beasts, this exact same model. And we didn’t have it for some collection, this monstrosity was an actual working tractor at the time. The only thing we used it for was running the blowers to blow grain or forage into the barns or silos, but it was still a working tractor on the farm. And dear lord we hated that thing. Trying to start that beast… Oh, my. It started by manually cranking it with that big lever  you see just below the radiator. That connected to the crankshaft to turn the engine over. And if you didn’t know what you were doing when you tried cranking it, it would gleefully break your arm. Seriously. It would if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Lest you think we were weird or something, the rest of our tractors looked like this.

A modern (at the time) Oliver 1655 and a 1950s era Oliver 77. (That 77 actually belongs to my eldest son.) So why did we hang onto that old monstrosity? It was cheap power. You could buy them for little more than scrap metal price.

Almost all of the changes that have gone on in agriculture have occurred for one reason: money. They did something that improved the profits of the farm in one way or another. The old threshing machines hung on as long as they did because for some of the tiny farms around at the time it made more sense to keep running them long after they should have gone to the scrapyard than to drop thousands of dollars on a modern combine. Same with the old McCormick tractor. It was cheap power, good enough to run a forage blower, but for nothing else. As soon as it was no longer economical to hang onto the thing, it got dumped. We ended up buying another 1650 to replace it.

Just in my lifetime we’ve gone from grain binders and threshing machines, to GPS guided computerized combines. Harvesting crops by hand to a facility in New Hampshire that raises lettuce that is never touched by a human during its entire life. From planting to harvesting and packaging, everything is done by automated systems or robots.

Changes… Sometimes I look at the world around me and think I’m living in a science fiction novel.