NABU Network Reconstruction Project at YUCoM

Introduction

In 2005, the York University Computer Museum began a reconstruction project and online collection devoted to the NABU Network. The NABU's public launch in 1983 marked the creation of the first commercial computer network to provide high-speed access to information, software, and digital entertainment directly to homes of personal computer (PC) users. It was a technologically and culturally significant achievement, yet the YUCoM project is the first and only historical attempt to analyze or fully document the NABU Network technology.

Fig 1. NABU Network Adaptor

The NABU Network

The NABU Network was designed and implemented by a Canadian company NABU Manufacturing between 1981 and 1983. The underlying idea behind the network was to link home personal computers to cable television networks which would supply a continuous, high speed stream of computer programs and information (at the rate of 6.5 Mbits per second) to almost an unlimited number of users. Cable television was a uniquely ideal technology for NABU to deliver software and data to home computers because of its high bandwidth and networking capabilities.

After the official launch on Ottawa Cablevision in October of 1983, the NABU Network was introduced by Ottawa's Skyline Cablevision in 1984 and a year later in Sowa, Japan, via a collaboration between NABU and ASCII Corp. NABU Network subscribers could rent or buy a NABU PC and dedicated network adaptor, and use an ordinary television set as a display monitor. Once connected to the network, a user could choose from various application programs and services in categories including entertainment, information and guides, education, and professional programs. Dedicated NABU magazines, newsletters, programming guides, and user groups provided subscribers with supplementary information and support.

Fig. 2. NABU Network head-end computer

Described as "the most innovative, daring, and least appreciated venture in the Canadian computer and communications industries" by some (D. Thomas), and "the `Internet' -- ten years ahead of its time" (follow this link)), the NABU Network was an innovative attempt to radically reshape the principles of personal computer-based public access to information and entertainment. Financial difficulties lead NABU Network Corp. (formerly NABU Manufacturing) to close down operations in 1987 but the ideas which once powered the NABU Network are reemerging in more mature forms backed by Internet-based technologies.

Fig 3. NABU Network Ad (1984)

Reconstruction and Online Collection

  • PH1. The first phase of the project was the collecting of hardware, software, technical, and historical information about the NABU Network. The result of the first phase is a collection of original NABU hardware used by subscribers and some of the hardware used by NABU developers. The collection also includes some NABU technical and promotional documentation as well as interviews with NABU engineers.
  • PH2. The purpose of the second phase of the project was to reconstruct and describe the communication protocol between the NABU PC (NPC) and NABU Adaptor (NA). The NABU network operated by broadcasting application programs and data to every authorized subscriber on the cable system from a high-speed head-end computer (see Figure 2). Authorized subscribers could access information through their NPCs connected to the cable system via an advanced communications adaptor NA (see Figure 1). Programs and data were loaded into NPCs memory and processed/executed by users. NA was continuously receiving the NABU channel and demodualting and digitizing the signal coming down the cable. On the NPC side, NA was in two-way communication with the NABU computer. It was responding to NPC's requests for downloading data and application programs from the cable. The result of the second phase is a documented communication protocol between NPC and NA. The knowledge of the protocol allowed us to emulate NA using a standard PC. In this way we can fully communicate with NPC using a standard PC.
  • PH3. The current phase--phase three--is the development of an operating system for NPC and of the Main Menu software. Once an original NPC was connected to an NA and turned on, it requested from NA two software items to be located on the network and sent to NPC. One was the operating system. The other was the Main Menu software that allowed a user to navigate the network and to select and download the selected items.

Can you help?

The original technical literature describing the NABU Network (manuals, technical reports, schematic diagrams, software listings) constitutes the primary historical source of information about the network. The success of the reconstruction project hinges upon having an access to these primary sources. While YUCoM has collected some of this material, most of the NABU documents still cannot be located.

YUCoM is actively searching for any information that could help to locate NABU documentation. We are also interested in any undocumented information about the network, in personal recollections, newspaper articles, and other NABU related material.

YUCoM is also looking for volunteers who could join the project. We are specifically looking for programmers (Z80 assembler) and "vintage" game designers. If you can help, please contact YUCoM by sending e-mail to
m u s e u m @ c s e . y o r k u . c a


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