Retro Computing

I saw retr0bright, a hobbyist produced restorer for antique plastics go by on the geek newses(first via /.) today. It probably does do a little bit of damage to the plastics when used, but I doubt it’s much worse than another year of aging. I love antique computing tech, and this provides a flimsy excuse to ramble about it a bit instead of working on all the things I should be.

I’m specifically interested in retr0bright for restoring the plastics on the Mac SE I yardsaled some years ago. I picked it up partly out of waning to poke around in a one-piece Mac, and partly because the case information indicates it is +/- a few months of my age, which makes it a nifty conversation piece. The machine is a fun project box as well; Mac SEs have bays for two drives, either two floppy drives or a floppy and a hard drive, I mounted a small spare SCSI hard drive into the internal frame with a little bit of EM shielding, and kept both floppies. Having grown up on Macs (the formative computer for me was a Macintosh Centris 660AV running OS 7.1. The machine is still in my parent’s attic, but I’m fairly certain its video board has died. The SE is sitting on a shelf in my old room in my parent’s house, and when last I tried it was still fully functioning. People who knew me in middle and high school will remember that one side of my room was covered in a selection of aging Apple hardware, it was a big part in making me the hacker I am today.

I am mostly unimpressed by modern Macs (although I wouldn’t mind a Mac or a hackintosh to play with), but still sometimes pine for awesome old mac software; this is what Basilisk][ is for. Coupled with an appropriate ROM image and disc or disc image (both of which I keep around), Basilisk][ can emulate a 68k mac on a Windows, Linux, OS X (and possibly others) host. This lets me reminisce, and play with old software from my childhood without having to bust out any finicky old hardware. A lot of the things I keep on the drive image are games I remember from childhood, especially a couple of old Ambrosia software titles like Barrack (a particularly awesome jezzball-like game) and the first two titles in the Escape Velocity series (which are perfect non-classical RPGs). I also keep a copy of Word 5.1, which is in some ways still the best thing Microsoft ever made, and some other productivity titles from the time. It’s always neat to see what changes and what stays the same.

In the same vein as Basilisk ][, one of my other formative experiences in geekry was learning about emulation, staring with the Super Nintendo and snes9x. The joy of “You can play all those awesome old games on your computer” has always been an almost irresistible motivator, both for myself and for passing on to others. Emulation also provides a great outlet for compulsive behavior for lots of people, especially when you start to look into the world of ROM collectors (ROM in this case refers to software copies of games, which were traditionally stored on ROMs). My interest in emulation waxes and wanes, but I always keep at least a distant eye on the scene, and have always sort of wanted a MAME Cabinet (a standup arcade cabinet with a computer that runs MAME to allow it to be all arcade games in one. Maybe now with the hacker space I can interest some others in putting one together, so that I don’t end up with a full-sized standup arcade cabinet that I have to worry about moving around with me, but can still build and play with one.

While talking about retro tech, it’s important to mention the other computer really important to my geek development the Winbook XL my parents bought me when I started middle school. It is a bog-standard, if slightly cankerous, Pentium MMX laptop (intel chipset, yamaha OPL3 sound, Chips&Tech graphics, etc.) with an awful, awful 12.1” passive matrix LCD. The machine was my first serious experience with windows, with hardware and software upgrades, with system administration, and, most importantly, with Linux. My first distro was SuSE 7.2, I then bounced around for a while, briefly settling on Slackware, and eventually finding my way to Arch, which has been my primary OS for years. As for the machine itself, some of the port covers fell off in its first few years, and the hinges failed after about 5 years. A few months ago the backlight(or backlight transformer) gave out… but the bulk of the machine still works, and has BeOS (a wonderful, beautiful OS that is a perfect example of computing that could have been) and Debian systems on it. I get it out from time to time when I need another beater box to try something on.

Obviously computer history is something I love, from the truly early stuff, (Babbage, Lovelace) and even more the World War 2 era (Mauchly, Eckert, Aiken, Von Neumenn, Turing, Zuse…) into the 70s, 80s and 90s when computing technology really began to permeate the world. The best book I know of on the topic is A History of Computing Technology, 2nd Edition, if anyone knows of something better, especially for more modern stuff, please tell me.

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1 Response to Retro Computing

  1. Pingback: Learning Computers | PAPPP's Rambling

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