DEC VT320: The Classic 1987 Library Computer Terminal


[soft synth music] [music slowls intensifies] [terminal turns on] [beep] [LGR intro sounds play, music cranks up] Greetings and welcome to an LGR thing! And today we’ve got this lovely piece of
retro tech, a DEC VT320 terminal. [power switches on, successful beep] [keyclick sound] Yeah beyond those little beeps here and there,
the VT320 is pretty much silent. There are no fans, no hard drive, disk drive,
or really any storage at all beyond a bit of RAM. And that’s because it is… what it is. A computer terminal, not a personal computer. Meaning that it relies almost entirely on
connecting to another system to do much of anything at all, either a local host computer
or something more remote, like the bulletin board system being displayed here. And back when this came out in 1987, Digital
Equipment Corporation charged $545 US dollars for the pleasure, or about $1,200 adjusted
for inflation. Which, despite its later than expected release
date, was shockingly good news at the time, costing 31% less than its VT220 predecessor
and hundreds of dollars less than competing terminals from companies like Wyse and Hewlett-Packard. And seeing as Digital already dominated the
world of computer terminals by 1987, it’s little wonder the VT320 caught on and became
one of the most widely-adopted models of the late 1980s and on into the 1990s. That’s speaking from experience too. In the 90s almost every single library I visited
had at least a couple VT320 terminals connected to the computer card catalog, providing access
to the contents of every library branch in the county and even letting you reserve and
renew borrowed items. A lot of these accessed an integrated library
system called Dynix, though I haven’t been able to verify what exact version I used back
then. It’s been probably sixteen years since I
last used one of those terminals at all. But whatever, I’ve got one now! And even though I don’t have any card catalogs
for this one to peruse, VT320s were frequently used as library terminals and that’s the
biggest reason I wanted one. In particular, I grabbed this VT320-C2 assembled
in August of 1988. While I don’t know the precise meaning of
the C2 suffix, one thing that sets this model apart is the fact that it doesn’t have an
RS-232 serial port. Instead there’s only these 6-pin DEC-423
ports using MMJ connectors, with the printer on the left and the communications port on
the right. So you’ve gotta convert things over if you
wanna plug in standard serial devices. Accomplished using something like the DEC
H8571-F adapter, which takes a 25-pin serial device and lets you connect it to the VT320
using an MMJ cable. But yeah, other than that there’s nothing
too strange happening on the terminal itself. The built-in CRT is a 14-inch monochrome display
capable of outputting 80 or 132 columns and 24 rows of text, with the 25th row reserved
for displaying a status bar. And in this case, it uses a vibrant amber
phosphor to provide that glowing golden-orange hue, exactly the same as the library terminals
I used as a kid. Ah it’s nice isn’t it?
It’s nice. Over on the left-hand side of the terminal
is the power switch, pretty self-explanatory, that. Underneath there’s a plastic tilt mechanism
with a deceptively strong spring attached, letting you adjust the screen angle with pleasingly
little effort. And the right-hand side of the unit presents
a pair of grayish-brown knobs for brightness and contrast adjustment, as well as another
DEC connector for plugging in the keyboard. Speaking of keyboards, mine came with this
variant of the classic LK201, originally introduced for Digital’s terminals back in 1982. It uses the 105-key DEC ANSI Layout, also
known as VMS Layout, a common sight with DEC VT terminals and their clones throughout the
80s. So common that it had some influence on later
PC keyboard configurations. Things like Caps Lock to the left of the A
key, groups of function keys along top of the board above the number row, and an inverse-T cursor key arrangement to the bottom-left of the numpad. All of which differed from most PC keyboards
of the early 80s, but was eventually adopted by a range of manufacturers. Including IBM with the introduction of the
Enhanced Keyboard, better known as the Model M. Considering there was a Model M terminal board too I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising. But back to the LK201, which on closer inspection
has an admirably funky set of keys in addition to the usual stuff. What exactly these do depends very much on
the context of their usage and the system being accessed though. There are also four green LED indicators,
with ‘hold screen’ signalling a pause to whatever’s on screen, ‘lock’ for
caps lock, ‘compose’ for typing in sequences of special characters, and ‘wait’ showing
that keyboard input is blocked. And while the keycaps feel pretty decent,
it is not a mechanical clicky keyboard. [clacking of keys] Instead it uses these cruciform pegs to hold
the keys in place and guide them down onto a membrane underneath. Pretty robust but not exactly the most pleasant
to use. It does at least generate this cute little
keyclick sound, I’ve always liked that about these things. [dainty artificial clicking sounds] Keyboards with speakers make me happy. Anyway, once everything’s plugged in, all
that’s left is to turn it on! And from here, well, there’s not much you
can do yet. Typing won’t do anything before you take
it online, but pressing the setup key on the keyboard does at least provide a handy handful
of menus. You can do things like adjust the number of
on-screen columns, change between light and dark backgrounds, adjust data transmission
speeds and various communication options, and switch between multiple terminal modes
for emulating older DEC terminals and displaying various character sets. But yeah, since I can’t connect to a library
card catalog anymore, let’s take it online. And for that I’ll be using this Wifi232
wireless modem, something I’ve covered before and still enjoy the crap out of honestly. This plugs into the aforementioned serial
adapter and, once powered by USB, emulates a modem and can be used by pretty much any terminal. It makes use of Hayes-compatible “AT”
commands to communicate using telnet over wifi, so as long as you have a wireless internet connection and a BBS to dial into you’re good to go! Create yourself an account, lurk around the
message boards, ogle the lists of door games, or simply browse the menu system and watch
with glee as text pipes in and scrolls upward with a mesmerizing smoothness. Yeah that’s another thing I love about these
terminals, the smooth scroll option is downright pleasurable to watch do its thing. This VT320-C2 may not be able to display all the extended ASCII characters that a lot of bulletin boards use, but the stand-in characters still result in a visual style that I love interacting with. And the fact that some of these boards provide
access to external applications, like Level 29’s Twitter service? Mm, that’s icing on the amber-tinted cake
right there. Tweeting on a DEC terminal is one of the LGR-est
things you can do I think. And ah dude, don’t even get me started on
how it is playing multi-user games on this thing. Games like Legend of the Red Dragon, Usurper,
Food Fight, and Trade Wars 2002. The moment I got the terminal online it kicked
off a door gaming binge that I was simply unwilling to quit for a good couple days. Connecting to a bulletin board system using
an actual terminal from the 80s, much less a DEC VT320 at 2400 baud? It’s hard to describe how satisfying this
is to do in the modern day. I know there are easier and cheaper methods
of emulating such an experience, but this is just such a specific type of nostalgic
nonsense that completely losing myself in it is a guarantee. It’s an intoxicating combo of logging into
a remote system using this particular keyboard with this specific terminal, with that glowing
amber display and those soft little keyclick noises emanating from the keyboard speaker. No doubt this is amplified by my own rose-tinted
memories coming back to life, but there is a kind of retro magic about it. Optimistically, I’d like to think that it’s
just a fun time regardless of past experiences. I know every time I show this to anyone who’s
played Fallout New Vegas they do a double-take and ask if they can try hacking into a Robco
Industries sentry bot or something. And others are simply amused by its lack of
internal drives or removeable storage, or even an operating system. And that’s fascinating on its own really,
with its reliance on an Intel 8031 microcontroller and 16 kilobytes of RAM ensuring that anything
displayed on the terminal is a only a temporary thing. The only way to save anything on-screen would
be to print it out on paper, otherwise everything you see scrolls on by, eventually beyond the
limits of memory, never to be seen again. As a result, each activity feels that much
more special and helps ground me in the moment that much more. But yeah, regardless of how anyone else sees
it, I’m more than happy to finally have a DEC VT320 in my collection and once again taste a few morsels of childhood library-flavored memories. As much as I enjoy the convenience of browsing
BBSs through modern web browsers, or even through a terminal emulator on an IBM PC,
having a standalone device that exclusively acts a window to out-of-sight computer systems is something I cherish more and more as time goes on. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to work on
leveling up my death knight skills in LORD. [CLACK] [jazzy outro commences] And if you found this episode terminally enjoyable
then great! I’ve got a bunch of stuff like this on LGR
with new videos coming along weekly. Either way though, thank you very much for
watching.

100 thoughts on “DEC VT320: The Classic 1987 Library Computer Terminal

  1. My campus computer labs had, I think, TeleVideo 955s, with little green-monochrome CRTs that tapered back like swivel-mounted square funnels. Students would spend hours in the labs just typing at each other on the chat system, sometimes mostly conversing with other people in the same room–you'd see them look up over the monitors and chuckle every so often. I remember most of the terminals had some semi-functioning keys before too long, from being bashed to hell and probably having stuff spilled into them.

  2. In the mid 90s when my Mom used to work at Hampton University, I would go there during the afternoon after school and hang out in the computer lab. They had some old terminals there, though I don't remember if they were the same kind. Sadly none of them worked. The system admin (Bill) said that the big computer that ran the config for the terminals had broken down and it would be too complicated and expensive to fix, so sadly, I never got to use one. Not too much of a disappointment though since they had Doom on the network in a shared folder, so I still had it made!

  3. I used to use these in the university library for checking my email or MUDs , connected to a VAX system.

  4. I used to use these at my college. you could write DCL code blinking double sized characters – yummy

  5. They had better smooth scrolling over 3 decades ago.

    Of course..

    Also damn that intro was nice. Besides it being wholly thematic, it actually felt really old to the point it could've been in a movie from the 60's-80's.

  6. It's just asking to be attached to a Raspberry Pi or something

    Apparently this also supports the Sixel protocol for graphics as well, so please try this out!

  7. Nice terminal, love that Amber glow and the super smooth scrolling. It would be fun to see portal – still alive end credits running on it. Anyway, great video.

  8. I share your fascination with these. Back when I had more time for hobby programming (~10 years ago), I wrote telnet servers so I could monitor & control systems via a terminal emulator, just for fun. I even spent a weekend doing this for a system I was working on as part of my job at the time, making lo-fi recreations of its modern javascript graphs with ASCII block drawing characters. I would have loved to use it on a real terminal like this one. I showed the telnet service to colleagues, who were split into those who didn't see the point, and those who loved it and wanted to use it over the "real" thing.

  9. I worked a lot with VT220's (green ones), and we had 2 VT320's (amber ones). I always hated those key-beeps, but you could turn them off… 🙂 Lovely video, brings back some memories. Thank you.

  10. The C2 means amber, B2 means green and A2 means white. The European model have another letter between letter and 2, ie. CH2. The North American model does not have a RS 232.

  11. OMG i love that machine i rly wont this in home … ❤ That monitor have super cool "amber color" moust uniat CRT in the world… I love this… Can i buy someware another c64 or amiga 500 version? I have working green crt version commodore monitor but i still look amber version… OMG Legend of the red dragoon bring memory thanks…

  12. In the late 90s/early 2000s i was a unix sysadmin, I'd buy these things up on ebay for $25 and hook them up to serial port switchboxes for reliable system access. When things got weird, a dumb terminal always saved the day.

  13. Now – The soft glow of the amber screen. How inviting and comforting.
    Back in college – Hurry up you piece of crap!

  14. Funny that you posted this. I had a urge for a terminal last fall and ended up buying an IBM 3151. If you want to venture beyond BBSes, retro terminals like these work very nicely as primary input terminals for Linux or BSD machines. You know, if you want to play some local terminal games too (nethack anyone?)

    Pic running Dungeon Crawl: https://zerker.ca/photos/#15430860758953/15430845131622

  15. Question, were there terminals in libraries with green screens? I seem to remember back in the 90's at my library, their computers were green and I've always wanted to check out old computers like that.

  16. Oh my god, that sure takes me back. I used to sit in front of one of these for HOURS, back when I was taking computer science classes at our local city college. We had a lab full of them hooked to, of all things, a VAX. I LOOOOVED the amber screen, MUCH better than the black and white screens on the IBM PCs in the neighboring lab. And honestly the keyboard wasn't bad either. I have fond memories of sitting in front of these for many hours at a time working on various projects, and often overstaying the official closing time of the lab (I was friends with the lab manager.)

  17. DEC. What a company. I worked for DEC years ago. Look at Thrust SSC land speed record car. On the side of the car it says Thrust SSC holder of the land speed record & DEC Alpha holder of the CPU speed record

  18. I use this color in my terminal on Windows and Mac. If you want to set it up yourself, it's very easy. The color is R: 255, G: 176, B: 0. It looks best against a background that is not entirely black, so I recommend R: 15, G: 15, B: 15.

    On Windows ( https://i.imgur.com/o0QyfyR.png ) you can set it in Command Prompt. Just launch cmd, click on the left top corner icon, click on Properties, click on Colors, select Screen Text and use the values above to set up a custom color. Then do the same for Screen Background.

    On MacOS ( https://i.imgur.com/4TXIrqo.png ) you can set in in Terminal. Launch Terminal, in the top menu click on Terminal, click on Preferences, click on Profiles, click on whatever profile you are using (such as Basic,) click on Text, click on the color button next to the word Text, enter the values or set them via sliders.

  19. Brings back memories of hunting down every book and journal on computers as a teen in the 1980s. And those terminals were so high tech compared to going through the old file drawers.

  20. When I was a very young kid in the late 90s the library had two or three of those in the children's section. I remember getting it to repeat letters and phrases over and over again with the smooth animations… it was so simple to entertain me back then!

  21. Oh God please don't get me near anything that can allow me access to Door games, that's a 2 week long rabbit hole I would fall down easily and happily. ;P

  22. Computer I've never seen before turns on to an amber calm of 'wait'

    Me: actually tearing up "It's, so beautiful."

  23. We still use these things in VAX production environments where I work. These old terminals (and VAX/VMS systems) are hands-down some of my favorite pieces of tech to work with and enjoy. Not sure if you’ve ever done a video on OpenVMS, but that is a true gem from memory lane. Excellent production quality btw; keep doing exactly what you’re doing!

  24. Love this, was at college in the UK in 1988 and we had these. The college was sponsored by DEC and we had a room with about 10 of these terminals hooked up to a VAX server that ran DOS on a giant laser disk! Later did work experience at DEC for a while repairing those Keyboards and 5.25inch FDD's. Happy days.

  25. in my city of Bitola in Мacedonia this system from the 80s in the city library was in use until 2010

    And it was much better than the current system

  26. I used one these in the 90s when I was a VAX COBOL programmer. The company I worked for developed their own software system for library management. I ended up with a VT420 with an amber display. Gorgeous.

    Having dual sessions on a terminal was the killer feature – it let me log onto the mainframe twice and I could flick between the sessions – great for debugging – have the debugger running in one session and the application running the other. The 420 had that but I think the 320 had it too? You should be able to run two online sessions with that 320 at the same time. There will be a session key on the keyboard. for toggling between the two.

    I can't remember which keyboard I had but I remember it having a special "Gold" key for extra functions. Smooth scroll was lovely but I usually used character scrolling for speed.

    When PCs came along we used the KEATerm emulator which is a great piece of software – will emulate any model of VT screen and has its own full featured scripting language that lets you read the screen contents and send key sequences. Happy days.

  27. I got to get me one of those serial WiFi boards! I’m still dialing into bbs on my retro hardware but it’s always long distance, too unstable, and they are killing the dial-up method in favor of accessing over the internet.

  28. how can it work with twitter, on this old terminal? win98 have problems to use internet, the most websites make errors.

  29. Get a USB to Serial adapter, a Raspberry Pi with TTYUSB0 set as a console (or even one on the header pins)… I was even able to find a Discord client for commandline as well as the standard Links, Lynx, Vim, emacs and other commandline experiences for Linux. Bam, who needs a computer. Just use the terminal.
    Related, I actually had a Wang terminal set up for a roommate's FreeBSD computer back in college, and I'd use a text talker to hang out with online friends from it. I miss those terminals.

  30. Hey, is the keyboard XT or AT? If I want to use a XT keyboard with the modern PCs, what should I do or what I need to buy?

  31. Our local library probably used Dynix in its infancy, but I mostly remember Dynix PAC for Windows, which at the time (1998) was made and sold by the library services division of Ameritech (yep, the phone company).

  32. My high school had a VAX and a few computer labs. I think they scrapped it, sadly, in 2002 but in 1999 I was using Lynx to browse the web. There was also a really good Tetris program that everyone played instead of learning how to code Pascal. The image on these monitors is probably the best i've ever seen. Sharp, crisp and not at all fatiguing.

  33. I used one of those terminals in a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley back in 1987; where the software package it used was for purchasing and accounting functions; along with a dot-matrix printer for making hard copies of purchase orders.
    The software was ill-suited for the functions with the company; but the CFO thought it could crank out financial reports to satisfy the CEO . . . and like everything else the CFO did, the endeavor fell flat on its face; as the CEO couldn't make heads-or-tails out of the financial printouts. Geez! That company was a financial black-hole!

  34. I shouldn't watch this channel. I'm a college student and I live in a small apartment. I have absolutely no need for an old ass terminal but now I want one. Damn it

    Edit: hell it really doesn't help that it's not really that expensive. They go on ebay for like $150

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