The VideoBrain Family Computer and France’s Old Regime
Among its few claims to fame, the VideoBrain Family Computer Model 101, was the first cartridge-based computer and the first computer with four joystick ports. Its sleek design belies its 1977 origins, albeit with a keyboard of unusual configuration (to be fair, there was a minor movement in that nascent personal computing era to get away from the shackles of typewriter origins that the designers of the VideoBrain likely were at least sympathetic to). While I’ve written quite a bit about this system in the past, and, as a modern day collector, own a fairly complete setup, I continue to be surprised and delighted by information about this system that I’ve either forgotten or never knew of in the first place.
One such bit of info was revealed to me the other day when Paul on the Channel F And VideoBrain Yahoo Group (a mailing list; you should subscribe if you have any interest in either platform) noted an eBay listing for a page from a 1978 Aldens mail order catalog (never heard of them myself), complete with nice scan. Of course this scan was archived and recovered on the list, with Adam Trionfino, who runs Bally Alley (an Astrocade archive), recovering the text. Here’s the ad page:
And here’s the text:
You'll Wonder How You Managed Without It
$20 Monthly. See credit terms, page287
All This Included:
* Compact Computer * 2 Joy Sticks * Educational Cartridge * Action Game Cartridge * Cartridge of Your Choice * AC Adapter * RS Switchbox
The computer age is here . . . and VideoBrain is the computer for use in your home or office, to provide the services of a teacher, a secretary, a financial advisor or simply as an entertaining companion. VideoBrain is a powerful computer your whole family can operate simply and easily. All the programming has already been done and permanently stored on cartridges. Each cartridge instantly lets you do something new with VideoBrain such as learning music, balancing the budget or learning and playing new challenging games.
Connect VideoBrain to your TV and it's ready for use. "Speak" to VideoBrain in plain English by entering messages on the keyboard. Directions. questions and responses show on TV screen. Includes: computer. 2 joy sticks. AC adapter. RS switch box. 3 cartridges (Wordwise I vocabulary game; Gladiator I - action games with 384 variations; and return warranty card to VideoBrain for the third cartridge of your choice. 14x11x51/2-inches high. 35 Y 9950W*-Shipping weight 10 lb..499.99
ADDITIONAL CARTRIDGES AND EQUIPMENT to expand VideoBrain's usefulness to you.
EXPANDER I. Microprocessor with 2K ROM memory. Includes: 2 cables with plugs to control and exchange data with two tape recorders; cable with plug for RS232 printers, cable with plug for teletype or telephone. 35 Y 9951W* - Shipping weight 2 lb.....149.99
EXTRA JOY STICK SET. Lets you draw on screen or make moves in some games. Set of 2. Video-Brain accepts up to 4. 35 Y 9952* - Shipping weight 1 lb. 3 oz...24.99
HISTORICAL SIMULATION/FRANCE - THE OLD REGIME. Teaches history, economics a new way. 35 Y 9954*-Shipping weight 7 oz........39.99
MUSIC TEACHER I. Learn to read and write music -use your computer to "play" any melody. 35 Y 9955*-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
MATH TUTOR I. Gives personalized instruction in math at four skill levels. 35 Y 9956*-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
LEMONADE STAND. A business simulation using sound and graphics to teach basic economics and business management skills. 35 Y 9957*-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
WORDWISE™ II. For ages 12 and up. Teaches typing. Also has Cypher, a word game for 2 teams. 35 Y 9958*-Shipping weight 7 oz........19.99
VIDEO ARTIST. Learn to draw, right on screen. 35 Y 9959*-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
FINANCE I. Analyzes loans, mortgages, savings, accounts, etc. Determines net present values, rates of return, accumulated interest/principal and Interest rates. 35 Y 9960*-Shipping weight 7 oz.........49.99
CASH MANAGEMENT. Keeps records of finances-enter new data each month. Summarizes your financial status monthly, with year-to-date totals of income and spending. 35 Y 9961 *-Shipping weight 7 oz........59.99
INFORMATION MANAGER keeps a running record of information on credit accounts, appliance warranties. medical records, subscriptions, etc. 35 Y 9962*-Shipping weight 7 oz........49.99
PINBALL. 1 to 4 players. 35 Y 9963*-Shipping weight 7 oz........19.99
VICE VERSA, The ancient oriental game of "Go" with your choice of computerized opponents. 35 Y 9964-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
CHECKERS. Old favorite for 2 players. 35 Y 9965*-Shipping weight 7 oz........29.99
BLACKJACK. Game of chance, played Las Vegas style for one or two players. 35 Y 9967*-Shipping weight 7 oz........19.99
*Warranted by Manufacturer.
For details, see page 282.
Paul described the find as follows:
"It's from a 1978 catalog from Aldens, an old mail order company, and it's probably most interesting for having descriptions of carts which were never released, so far as we know. Of course you could actually place an order for these carts, so I suppose it's possible a few got into the wild, though if I had to guess, I'd say anyone who ordered them just ended up getting their money back.
I suspect that "Finance I" and "Cash Management" ended up being released as "Financier" and "Money Minder", respectively. There's also a description for "Information Manager", which has turned up as a prototype--"keeps a running record of information on credit accounts, appliance warranties, medical records, subscriptions, etc." So, that gives a good idea of what this program is intended for. These productivity programs were expensive--$50-$60. Some of the game carts go as low as $20.
There's also a brief description for "Historical Simulation/France - The Old Regime" -- "Teaches history, economics [in] a new way." I've always thought this cart sounded interesting. Being listed in the catalog makes me think it was at least near completion, if not finished."
“HISTORICAL SIMULATION/FRANCE – THE OLD REGIME” also caught my eye. Knowing the VideoBrain fairly well like I do, I never recalled seeing such a title. Based on the catalog page description, I thought it might have been an early attempt at a reference work on cartridge, a predecessor to the 1982 release of Visible Solar System for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, the earliest such reference on cartridge I could think of.
Adam countered with the following:
"The title ... reminds me of the old BASIC (text-only games) like "King," "Kingdom" or "Empire" from the 1970s. Here's a version of the game from "BASIC Computer Games," published by Creative Computing:
My response was this:
"Hmm, I should have searched before I typed. It seems that "Historical Simulation/France - The Old Regime" (and several variations of the title--I've seen no consensus) has been flagged as one of the rumored, but not confirmed titles. You would think having it in a catalog would mean that it was available to purchase, but that most likely is not the case (and we know was not always the case given catalog lead times), as I'm pretty certain it was never actually released.
Interestingly, said search shows up Adam's own Bally Alley PDF excerpt of Steve Ditlea's excellent historical reference (it too does not contain 100% accurate info, but has proven a valuable resource for obscure systems for me nevertheless), A Simple Guide to Home Computers, where on page 115 there's this mention: "...and Old Regime (a Stanford History professor’s simulation of pre-revolutionary France)." So yet another alternative spelling. Of course in the very next sentence there's a mention of STRUCTURE BASIC, which we know does not exist, only the lightly released APL/S, which, as we all know, the few individuals who own a copy do not wish to participate in having it dumped.
So, I think you're right, Adam, it was probably meant to be in the BASIC kingdom/economic simulation category rather than an actual reference material, lik I incorrectly assumed the name implied."
Paul pointed out the rest of the unreleased titles, again, most likely lost for good, assuming any actual work was ever done on them:
VB-1100 Budget System
VB-1200 Information Manager
ED07 Music Teacher 2 or Musicianship I
ED08 Number Cross
ED09 Historical Simulation — France in the Old Regime
EN07 Challenge Racer
EN08 Music Programmer
EN09 Programmable Football
EN10 Computer Life
In any case, when info like this gets uncovered and discussions like this take place, I think it’s easy to see why I and others like me have such a passion for the history of computers, videogames, and technology.