Overview of the Astrocade and Its Relation to the UV-1 Computer

By Adam Trionfo

(April 18, 2001) Michael White (who I've been talking with recently about the Astrocade) told me about the UV-1 computer. He didn't know much about the machine, but had heard rumors that it was used for development at Bally to create cartridges. The "rumor is that it had a switch for 16K and 64K." He DID emphasize that this was just a rumor and that he didn't know much about the machine or ZGRASS. He never "bought into that."

Being unsure just how much this UV-1 machine is related to the Astrocade, I began investigating the connection of the UV-1 with the Astrocade. I have already run into some surprising and informative information.

I have received responses from two people that worked with the UV-1, and another from Tom Defanti himself (the primary author of the GRASS language and more). Following are the responses they gave to me. You will find my comments on this information after the last email.

I separate each email with five indented apostrophes followed by who wrote the email and when it was received. Though these emails were NOT conducted in an interview-type manner, but I have presented some of them this way (it makes reading them easier). Finally, I have done little editing of these letters, save for some very minor typos.

***** Jane Veeder (Part I) - April 16, 2001

Jane - Boy, what a Pandora's box you have opened! Who are you and what is your interest in the long forgotten early days of computer graphics???!!??

After one of em appearing in the SIGGRAPH 2000 History Exhibition, I finally threw away my two zboxes last summer after carting em around for twenty years as well as a couple of videogame cabinets, etc...boy that old stuff was heavy...I just had to move on...

Adam - I have been searching for information on the UV-1 (late seventies, early eighties) computer and I found your name connected with it. Is there anything you can tell me about it? The UV-1 was a graphics machine, can you tell me anything about the graphic capabilities of this computer. Did you program in ZGRASS? Do you remember how much RAM it had? The UV-1 cost, I think, ten-thousand dollars; was it a personal computer, or more than that? How were programs saved (other than NTSC video)?

Jane - ZGRASS (Graphics Symbiosis System for the Z-80) was developed in Chicago in the late 70's. It first ran on the "add-on" - actually it was an add-under - to the Bally Arcade. Then a little company called Datamax was created to manufacture the UV-1 which was based on the Bally Chip set and the electronics designed at Dave Nutting and Assocs. in Chicago.

I bought the second UV-1 manufactured early in 1980. I was part of the community of people who worked with Tom on writing documentation, creating demos, developing the language, designing apps, and making art. It was a rare time which created interesting career trajectories for everyone who participated.

Adam - If you used the UV-1 only as an artist's tool, you may not be able to answer any of these questions.

Jane - ZRASS was a descendent of GRASS, developed by Tom for his doctoral thesis at Ohio State. It was developed FOR artists and designers based upon Tom's brilliant thought that such people could program if they just didn't have to use Fortran. This was a time (reverb) BEFORE APPLICATIONS......>:) If you wanted it to do anything, you had to write it. In those days, artists and designers who wanted to work with computers HAD TO PROGRAM because that was the only way to communicate with them. Think about this: The zbox was released when the paint program was a RESEARCH topic.....

A few applications were developed for the machine by Real Time Designs, the startup created to foster the UV-1 and ZGRASS, and a few other people, but mostly those who used it created apps for their own special purposes, including interactive art installations, drawing programs, animation development, etc.

It think it cost about $3-4K and worked with a Lear-Siegler terminal and graphics monitor and eventually a graphics tablet, a floppy disk drive, digitizer, Winchester drive, etc. I don't remember how much memory it had, but my installation WARPITOUT filled a 192K EPROM board which was developed to fit in the zbox and ran it like a videogame.

The language interpreter (you could also compile your programs for faster performance) lived in eproms and incorporated a rudimentary operating system adequate for storing and retrieving programs, etc.

All this, in a particle board case with wood-grain Formica....

Adam - Regardless, I have never seen ANY animated work completed on the UV-1. Do you know where I might be able to see some-- to buy some?

Jane - BUY SOME? HAHAHAHA. Sorry...I laugh because at the time this was all done, there wasn't much money in hi tech startups or computer animation...>:)

Adam - The UV-1 interests me because it is a relative of the Bally Professional Arcade, a computer marketed in late 1977 by Bally. The Bally unit was rumored to have an add-on (unreleased) that would have some of the capability of the UV-1, and I am trying to follow the muddled history of the UV-1 machine.

Jane - Yes, we all started out learning to program in Tiny Basic (developed by Jay Fenton, one of the founders of Macromind (now Macromedia) and now Jamie Faye Fenton) on the Bally Arcade and then graduated to ZGRASS.

Adam - I hope to hear from you soon.

Jane - I've attached a couple of images from the zgrass days. [I have placed these two excellent images in the file area of the message board-- Adam]. I am in the slow process of getting a bio website together and will have more on that. Montana was also recently shown at MOMA-NY as part of a historical series (it's in their permanent collection).

Good luck with your adventure...

***** Tom Defanti - April 14, 2001

Adam - Is there anything you can tell me about the development and use of the UV-1? When was it finally released? In what numbers? The UV-1 was a graphics machine, can you tell me about the graphic capabilities of this computer? You created ZGRASS, right (and earlier GRASS)?

Tom - Oh, there were maybe 300 made. It had the high-res (320x204x2bit) version of the chipset in the Bally Arcade, which was also used in the Wizard of Wor and Gorf games (right Jamie?). A bunch of us wrote Zgrass, including Jay, Nola Donato, and me. I was the primary author of the PDP-11 based Grass language in the 70's. We started Zgrass in late 1977 and continued to work on it until about 1982. (It then was rewritten in C as RT/1 and worked on IBM PCs with Targa boards and Macs. Work continued on RT/1 until 1987, culminating in a major museum exhibition, The Interactive Image, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago which ran late 1987-early 1988, and then was cloned a bunch.)

Adam - The UV-1 cost, I think, ten-thousand dollars; was it a personal computer, or more than that? How were programs saved (other than NTSC video)?

Tom - As Jane notes, it started about $3,000 and ramped up to $20,000 with every bell and whistle possible, like ram disks, video digitizers, hard disks, etc. It used 5.25" floppies (192K if I remember correctly) and had 32K of ram, standard, including the 16K of video ram. Like the Bally Arcade, it produced just fine NTSC video, something the Apple II never did.

Adam - I have never seen ANY animated work completed on the UV-1. Do you know where I might be able to see some-- to buy some?

Tom - The SIGGRAPH video review early issues have some pieces (see www.siggraph.org). If you are really interested, I'll go look up the specific issues for you.

Adam - The UV-1 interests me because it is a relative of the Bally Professional Arcade, a computer marketed in late 1977 by Bally. The Bally unit was rumored to have an add-on (unreleased) that would have some of the capability of the UV-1, and I am trying to follow the muddled history of the UV-1 machine.

Tom - We definitely produced an add-on. Copper Giloth's Skippy Peanut Butter Jars piece was produced on it. It was the low-res version, of course. We made about 7 of them. They had the most amazingly forgiving audio tape recording and playback software. When Bally bailed and sold the Arcade to Astrocade, we also started up the Datamax company which produced the wood grain formica UV-1 versions of Zgrass with essentially the guts of the commercial videogames Bally was producing with the chipset.

Adam - If it interests you, I have a site dedicated to the Bally Astrocade at www.ballyalley.com

Tom - Cool. Give me your postal address and I'll send you some stuff next time I'm going through the archives.

Tom - Here's some relevant papers... I'm sure many of them are out of print. The ones before 1978 are on the Grass System.

***** Jane Veeder (Part II) - April 16, 2001

Jane sent me this response after reading what Tom had to say.

Jane - In response to Tom's mentioning the SIGGRAPH Video Reviews (ongoing videotape journal founded by Tom which documents the history of computer graphics) where you can see some Zgrass/UV-1 work, here are some of the issues which I know include examples of animation and other work:

There are probably more, but I can't find em right now. If you can find someone locally who has the tapes, you could at least look at em. To purchase the tapes you should look at the www.siggraph.org website under 'publications' (note that there are many items on each tape from many sources gleaned from that year, so it's not all Zgrass stuff by any means).

***** Joe Reitzer - April 14, 2001

Joe's email is more like a letter, so I have not included what I wrote to him (I did ask about a Vortex voice-synthesizer chip being inside the UV-1). Following is his reply:


I used the UV-1 extensively from 1981 - 1990's. I own one and maybe a second in working condition. Almost full-blown. The basic system used a Z-80 processor, 1 graphics buffer, NTSC & RF Video output, mono audio out, RS-232 port, parallel port, 2 contact switches, dumb terminal. This was basic basic. Most people worked with this configuration, all of the above but also a 5.25 floppy drive (Micropolis 2 dual sided 400k), Summagraphics bit pad one, RGB monitor or Trinitron monitor. Some systems had the capability of a video digitizer (video input from a sync b/w video camera), and a 5 meg hardrive.

OS ranged from different versions of ZGRASS. ZGRASS was blown into a chip and was hardware booted. The system took up 32k of memory. Available ram was 32k also but was different then the OS ram. 1 screen buffer could hold an image of 320x240 with a 4 color display, software capable of 8 colors, and I think the video digitizer faked 16??? A full screen save took up 16k of memory. A better system usually had 16 frame buffers instead of just 1. This meant you could cycle or address any buffer in any order. Thru programming you double buffer and write on 1 screen and display another. Very cool for realtime graphics. Another screen (buffer) option arrive in around 1986-1988(?), 64 screens. Audio output was a basic game chip used in Bally systems from around at that time. I believe it was capable of 3 Voices, 1 LFO, some other stuff. you programmed it like a regular analog synth of the time but without patchcords. No it did not come with the Vortex. I do though remember using a Vortex on a soundpiece "Love Electric". It was a standalone box that was programmed via RS-232. It was pretty cool. All in all it was a very cool box. There are somethings I remember it could do I miss and wish they were available in other systems. As I am sure you are aware the system was based on ZGRASS, a port of the GRASS programming language that Tom DeFanti wrote as his PHD thesis at Ohio State, Charle Csuri's first PHD student I believe. GRASS was the system that the first computer graphics used by the movie Star Wars (the training holographic projection for the trenchs on the Death Star programmed by Larry Cuba) it used a DEC PDP 11/45 or something like that. I worked with UV-1s at the School of the Art Institute and also UIC. I have had owned 1 since 1984 or 1985. Chicago was the hub of ZGRASS.

Normally I do not respond like this to emails from unknown people but the "zbox" was a Cool machine and holds a special place in my digital memory.

Joe Reitzer

***** Comments on this information

These responses from people involved with the UV-1 really do speak for themselves. There is little to comment upon, but a will mention a few things.

The UV-1 is more than what I expected. I thought it was basically an Astrocade with more RAM and the ZGRASS language.

The three emails (Tom's in particular) clears up the mystery of this little-known computer, the UV-1. Though there were only about seven add-ons for the Astrocade, to learn that about three hundred UV-1's were made was surprising. I had always thought that it would be less than five, certainly no more than a dozen.

The specification of the machine is about expected from previews of the Add-Under in the Arcadian, excluding extras like the hard drive, digitizer and some others.

I need to follow-up on some of the references that Tom made to papers that he wrote (and videos to be seen). More information is will be gleaned from them.

Joe's email is full of enthusiasm, for he was a die-hard user, having used the machine until the nineties. He still even has two machines.

I am very pleased that Jane sent along two pictures. Make sure to take a look at them on the Astrocade message group, under the Files section (as a reminder the group's URL is https://groups.yahoo.com/group/ballyalley). When you take a look at "Montana" and "WARPITOUT," you'll be able to reaffirm that an artist really makes hardware shine.

This information on the UV-1 settles loose ends on the history and involvement of ZGRASS with the Astrocade, but it also opens some others up. There definitely is more on this topic to be discovered before I am satisfied, but Bally Alley's target is the Astrocade, and chasing all the spin-off's of the machine will quickly make the job of documenting the Astrocade heavy indeed. Rest assured, after the core of Bally Alley settles down (that is most scanning and uploading of PDF files is complete), I will look more into this machine.

(Originally posted to the Bally Alley Discussion Group)

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Email Adam Trionfo: ballyalley@hotmail.com