Building an Apple II Newsroom

This project came to fruition after collective tinkering sessions with my Apple II and various communications technologies that I use to interface the Apple II with the modern web. It’s pretty straightforward and I can imply (or just imagine) that this kind of set up was likely used as the earliest newsroom technology when the communications networks were strictly between institutions like communications between the AP and, say, the Washington Post.

I imagine back then they used unidirectional receiver teletype-like machines which clacked away like a typewriter when printing out wires from various services that informed the newsroom. I will be using an Apple-II-era-appropriate dot-matrix printer which, frankly, is just as loud (lol).

Now, don’t get too excited as I don’t mean to say we’ll be using the Apple II for modern day ‘Apple News’. The Apple II is obviously nowhere near equipped. BUT, what we CAN do is utilize the old communications application protocol known as TELNET to get some “live” data scraped from CNN or the BBC thanks to Francesco Sblendorio who put the work into bbs.retrocampus.com.

Apple II+ Prerequisites:
80-column card
Shift-key Mod
Super Serial Card
A dot-matrix or other printer with requisite interface card
*also assumes a healthy underlying knowledge of your Apple II+*

What is TELNET?

TELNET is a bidirectional, interactive, text-oriented communication facility using a virtual terminal connection. What does this mean? It means through use of serial communications, which has been embedded in computer systems since the late 70s and is still widely implemented today (though mostly for compatibility), we can “TELNET in” to an information service via the modern day computer via a TTY (the abbreviation for “teletypewriter”, if you’re curious) login.

Hardware Side

A TTY connection is implemented via a terminal program loaded into the Apple II which accesses the Super Serial Card which “talks” to the modern-day computer via a SERIAL>USB connection. The following is the most trusted and compatible SERIAL>USB cable I’ve ever used and it works without question across many vintage machines that need to interface with modern machines. You’ll need to step up the DB9 termination to DB25 as that is the connector on the Super Serial Card (confirm that the adapter is NULL MODEM not STRAIGHT THROUGH). But, other than that it’s pretty straightforward.

Drivers for this are widely available via the manufacturer’s website and they are all kept-up with as OS(s) change. These drivers are available here and work for Windows, Mac, and Linux making this truly the best cable available for you retro computer folks. (I even use this cable to ZTERM files into my Mac Plus from a Windows 98 Hyperterminal—the only way I have to get files into an old 68K Mac!)

This is the Apple Super Serial card. It’s widely available on eBay as I write this for $40-$80.

Apple’s Super Serial Card. I keep mine in Slot 2. Note the DB25 termination.

The modern computer gives us our link to the “internet” or rather the TELNET addresses that will send us the data we need in pure text form. This pure text form is known as ASCII, which is the formal acronym for American Standard Code for Information Interchange.

The final connection looks like this:

MacBook>USB2SERIAL>DB92DB25>SuperSerialCard

NOTE: This protocol of TELNET is widely considered no longer secure. This is because the data that is transmitted via TELNET is plaintext and can be intercepted or viewed exactly as it is coming in and going out to your terminal with no encryption. This isn’t a big deal because any sensible person just does hobbyist things or local network things these days with TELNET. But if you carry on to other BBS sites that require you to create an account, be sure you’re not using usernames and passwords that you use for “real stuff” these days. Just make some BBS-only users and passes as it’s all for fun anyways. AGAIN THIS IS FINE TO PLAY WITH JUST DON’T TYPE IN ANY SENSITIVE INFO VIA TELNET (likely not to occur anyways).

Software Side

Firstly, I’m gonna present this setup from the lens of a Mac running Big Sur. But rest assured, I have tried this on every machine I have and it works flawlessly. Windows comes with TELNET as a service still. For Linux, it’s easy to add. Just do a simple Google search.

The process for installing TELNET on a Mac running Big Sur is well detailed and successfully implemented here.

After that you’re going to want to watch this hour-long video from KansasFest where they instruct how to use your Apple II as a dumb-terminal for your Mac.

Just kidding… I’ve condensed the instructions here.

determine the '/dev' address of your USB to Serial cable with:
ls dev
e.g. mine is /dev/tty.usbserial-AM00MDHW
---
Open a Terminal on the Mac

enter this command:
screen /dev/tty.usbserial-AM00MDHW -s 9600

perform these key-presses:
CTRL-A and then SHIFT-:

a prompt appears in inverse text on the bottom left of terminal

enter this command
exec ::: /usr/libexec/getty std.9600

A login prompt should appear at this point in your terminal window and you do not have the ability to type in that window as what we have done is initiate a TTY connection over the USB>SERIAL cable and it awaits the terminal's (the Apple II) login.

You can close the Mac Terminal window now if you'd like, or not. We are utilizing unix's "screen" function here and there is no cause to keep the window up. But, you can monitor the Apple II's input if you leave it open. 

So what have we just done?

Well, in plain English, we have opened up a TTY terminal session at 9600 Baud and sent that out via whatever is on the other end of our USB>SERIAL cable. Here, that “whatever” is the Apple II running a terminal program.

That’s our next software step—the terminal program, as follows:

First download the Modem MGR terminal program from Asimov. This .zip file contains 3 .DSK images. We don’t need the “utilities” disk. But you will need to write the “install” and “work” disk to a double-sided floppy (via something like ADT PRO) to configure the program. Feel free to peruse the “utilities” disk. I haven’t yet.

Here I am placing Disk Side 2 or “Work Disk” into my beloved Apple II Plus. You could flip the orientation or use two disks. Don’t forget to notch the second side!

Second you will utilize the “install” disk which will take you through the process of identifying your hardware configuration. This will then ask you to flip the disk over as it writes these parameters to the “work disk”. All subsequent boots of the program will occur off the “work disk” and you won’t need the “install disk” again unless you change your hardware.

This is my hardware configuration. You may not have all these features. You really just need 80 columns, Super Serial, and a printer. Clock is optional.

Third you will boot the Apple II+ with the work disk side active and if all goes well this should be your screen.

The home screen of Modem MGR.

After you have successfully gotten to the Modem MGR home screen, you will select the baud rate for communications that we set earlier (9600). Press ESC-M to set this as indicated from the menu.

Clearly it is “N:9600” we want here. Thus, select N.

Immediately after, you should see the login prompt to your Mac such as this (you may need to hit RETURN twice).

(Don’t worry about my monitor, there is well-documented problem with old Videx 80-column cards that causes minor clipping on some monitors. It doesn’t affect functionality and I’ve gotten used to it. Moreover, when I output to a different composite monitor this doesn’t occur.)

You’ve come a long way, cowboy. Congrats. It’s almost over.

Ok, now we login to our Mac like its our Mac. Just put in your Mac username and the password you would use to unlock your laptop.

You’re in! It should look like a classic Mac bash at this point indicating you’re connected on a TTY connection. As follows:

Ok so if you’ve installed TELNET as instructed, you should now only need to type “telnet” into the bash. It will open a prompt called “telnet>.” On Mac you enter “telnet” again and it prompts you with “(to)” where you will input the address.

If you’re on Windows or Linux you’ll initiate at bash/cmd with “telnet,” just like Mac. But, on the second request you type “open *then the address here*” to open a telnet connection. I don’t know why it’s different. But, it is and there you go.

Here is what it looks like for Mac:

After hitting RETURN, you should be dialing up a BBS! Specifically, we’re dialing up retrocampus which features the aforementioned news-data scraping tool. No username or password is required for this service.

We will be greeted with this screen after successful connection.

Here we must pick our communications protocol. As you can see, this BBS would suit the graphics of a Commodore system which brings colors and graphics into play, among other protocols which have their varying features. But as this is an Apple II, we’re just gonna go with PURE ASCII W/ECHO or OPTION 4.

I know it mentions the defined APPLE-1/II set as options 2/3, but realize these are for 40-column terminal programs and I honestly can’t find one that works on the Apple II+. Thus we’re going with 80×24 Pure ASCII transmissions here which works a treat.

Next you’ll be on the BBS “homepage”.

Plenty of cool options here. Have fun and explore!

The homepage contains an “International News” section. The CNN and BBC selections extract headline data with a little blurb attached along with timestamp info. These headlines are “updated” on the Apple II automatically and change on the screen automatically (as well as manual “next” selection existing).

It’s this automatic refresh function that makes the printing so cool. We can just reroute the printing of the BBS data from the Apple II screen to the Epson printer we have connected via an Epson APL Parallel Printer Card in Slot 4. This was configured in the Modem MGR Install disk routine.

Press ESC-SHIFT-? to enter the Modem MGR menu at anytime. Then press key combo ESC-P to turn printing on. With the printer on, the next screen update should just automatically start printing to the printer as well as screen.

Every time the screen updates, the printer prints that headline. That simple. Moreover, anything else that the screen updates with will be printed: menus, messages, etc. Turn the printer feature off from the menu just as you turned it on if you just wanna navigate without printing each thing you do.

You can turn off your screen and leave everything connected and you will get a golden-age-of-journalism, 1970s “newsroom”-style influx of the world’s headlines right to your dot matrix printer.

Please be advised! None of this assures the news will get any better. But, at least you’ll have a certain joyful misery by viewing your news this way!

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and I hope it keeps you inspired to keep thinking of ways to interface that Apple II to your modern life! This same TTY connection to your Mac has myriad uses. Try SSHing into a Linux machine and ‘apt-get updating’ your machine from your Apple II+. Loads of fun!

3 thoughts on “Building an Apple II Newsroom

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