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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My mystery machine: Mercator, Turnkey, CSI, or what?

It occurs to me that I can post a question here in hopes of finally finding the answer. It might also serve as a way to get the answer online in a way that it can be indexed and shared with others. I tend to have a lot of dumb little questions about bits of the past which are poorly documented in our modern online world.

With that in mind, here's my story about some weird old minicomputer.

One of my uncles runs a business refurbishing and repairing old computer systems. He'll go into a place and tear it out when they're shut down or move to something else, and then take the parts, clean them up, and use them to support other customers. He'll support them well after the original manufacturer has moved on, been bought, or folded. This kind of support keeps them in business without having to migrate every time the computer industry finds a new shiny thing to pursue.

Anyway, back around 1988, he came across a cache of hardware which was being auctioned off near where I lived. He was on the other side of the country, so he asked my family to do him a favor and pick up the stuff. We went down to this dirty office which was clearly showing the scars of a business that's going under, and picked up a bunch of stuff.

I hardly remember most of it, but I know there was a big box which was obviously "the computer", plus at least one old-school terminal with a keyboard and a dot matrix printer. We tried to ship this to him, but UPS balked at being told the truth, which is that the box was full of computer equipment.

So, we were stuck with it for a while. Somehow, I managed to hook up all of the parts of this system, and it came up. Here's what I remember about it.

First, I'm pretty sure the name "Mercator" was on the box. I've done research in recent times and found out there was a company called Turnkey Systems Inc (TSI) and they had a product with that name back in the 70s or 80s. Then they changed their name to Mercator Software along the line.

Snoopy

What I'm trying to figure out is exactly what kind of system I had there. I seem to recall that it had this menuing system with things like "accounts receivable" and "accounts payable", and some kind of cosmetics (I think) company name attached. I don't remember it having any actual data inside, so it's possible they had cleaned it up. It's also possible this was a demo system, and the "company" was actually a fabrication just to show how things would work.

There are a few other interesting tidbits I can remember. While writing this post, I remembered that I probably had a copy of an ancient Snoopy calendar from this system in a box. I went digging and found it! It's a crazy ASCII rendering of Snoopy yelling at the Red Baron. The whole thing spans four 8.5" x 11" sheets of fanfold paper that is still stuck together somehow after 25 years.

Calendar

Notice the huge letters made out of letters just like the Unix "banner" program. It reminds me of the old "burst sheets" where you'd get your username spread out in huge letters before your job.

Details are really sketchy here in my head, since I only really had access to it for a relatively short time. I have this vague recollection of encountering some kind of BASIC interpreter on there and using some of my VIC-20 knowledge on it, but it's hard to be sure.

Another random nugget of data is that I seem to recall a three-letter acronym or initialism popping up all over the place in the menus. It may have been TSI, for the company which made it, but who knows. The calendar itself has "C S I" on it for some reason. That might be what was in the menus, or it might be something else. I don't know any more.

I don't remember if the system itself had any sort of removable media. I think it was possible to plug in up to four terminals, but I only had one so I can't be sure. I do think that terminal used a modular jack like a phone cord for its keyboard, though. I found that amusing.

I would love to hear from anyone who might have some idea of what this system was. It would allow me to satisfy a few incomplete memories if nothing else.