The oral history of USB

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USB had a rocky start indeed:


I have to admit USB came a lot closer to meeting this ideal than most attempts.

It would be nice if they had designed a plug you could stick in either way though just to avoid the classic USB dilemma:


Dunno. I sort of miss SCSI voodoo, where the order of the daisy chained devices and location terminators needed to work was new puzzle with every set up. I want to say it was more art than science, but, in fact, the methodical experimentation needed to figure out the right order was pretty much all science, just science without a good predictive model :slight_smile:


I’ve heard that apple’s use of a 25 pin scsi connector contributed to its flakey reputation. A 50 pin scsi connector might have solved things.

But by the time I was old enough to tinker with computers without getting yelled at, scsi was passé.

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Would have looked great on the original iPod :slight_smile:

I guess it’s safe to say that Firewire (used on early iPods) and USB are a part of what made early mp3 players practical.

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I used to to tech support in the old days of setting jumpers and IRQ conflicts and all that stuff.

I do not miss it at all.

You punk kids don’t know how easy you have it now.


Analog modems and RS-232 were their own special type of hell. Fortunately, by the time PCs came along, there was at least some semblance of standardization for RS-232 pinouts, but elsewhere, anything goes regarding pinout and even which (if any) control lines are brought through. Breakout boxes and testers were a necessity for troubleshooting.


Holy flashbacks, Batman!

Is it DTE or DSE? Can you use a straight cable, or a null modem? Do they both use the same pins for handshaking, or do I have to crosswire the CTS/RTS pins to the DTR/DSR pins? And do I have to wire DCD to something?




the ipods didn’t get USB until USB 2.0.

(and pour one out for old school HP…)


It’s increasingly vestigial(normally just RX/TX/GND at whatever voltage the logic deems convenient); but serial-resembling-RS-232 seems well on track to being the Eternal Serial Bus to USB’s Universal.

An authentic ±15v swing is pretty exotic these days; but we’ll probably still be using VT100 emulators to have a look when our quantum computers and brainstem implants are acting up.


Haven’t heard GPIB in a long time. I have a PC-XT 8-bit GPIB card in storage. It’s my backup retirement plan if my BitCoin position doesn’t work out. I’m waiting for some multi-billion$ measuring equipment to blow it’s interface and need mine…


Yes, the horrors. I one spent too many hours troubleshooting a full RS-232 link between a robot controller and a PC. With all the handshaking signals used. Turned out the manufacturer handily did the TX/RX swap inside the hand-to-open enclosure. Undoing my TX/RX in my cable.

To this day, my first test is swap TX/RX. Never hurts. Sometimes works.

And by this day, I mean 10 years ago when I last used an RS-232 interface.


Just as well. Original USB capped out at a max 12Mbps transfer rate while FireWire could do 400 Mbps. When you have a whopping 5GB iPod you need fast transfer speeds. Once 2.0 gained prominence with it’s 480Mbps transfer rates it finally became more practical. (And it was a hell of a lot cheaper and more ubiquitous than FireWire which is no doubt part of the reason Apple eventually abandoned it.)

Reminds me a little of getting USB support going on win95…

Installing the service pack that added USB support had roughly a 50% chance of bricking the operating system in my experience, fun times.

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USB had a slow and slightly rocky start. Poor early OS support, a lack of devices, and competition from FireWire…
In those very early days of 95-98, when only the OEM versions of Windows supported it, I did wonder what the point was. The only devices available were keyboards and mice, and being able to chain 127 of them seemed a bit pointless - especially as every motherboard had PS/2 ports anyway.

And even in the early 2000’s I saw my share of devices - mostly cameras and MP3 players - that had a USB cable with a standard connector on one end and a proprietary one going into the device. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

But these days I think that USB is the best change to happen in the PC industry. Partly because it’s plug and play, partly because people eventually came around to using standard cabling. But mostly because of device classes.

I remember when mice required their own drivers, and without them they were useless. Same for devices like zip drives and other external storage. Drivers were a pain. But USB fixed that. HID devices (mice, keyboards) just say that’s what they are and they’ll work. If it’s a keyboard that has 140 keys, custom lighting and is designed for gaming, then you’ll need the driver for the extra functionality. But it’ll still work as a basic keyboard from the moment you plug it in.

And the same for disks, which is the real godsend. Just plug it in and go. We expect that now. But it’s a luxury that I could never have imagined back in the early to mid 1990’s when I was getting started in IT.

USB is an unsung industry champion. For the everyday user, it’s the best invention since the WIMP interface. Kudos to these fine folks for their work on it.


Came here to find jests about a dentist implanting USB sockets.

Left slightly disappoint.

Will come back to see if someone rants about how USB-C is a mess of different standards coming in one shape.

ETA: one below, of we go!


It took them a while.