Being a big fan of ancient computer systems, I like to talk about them and share my interest, and during various conversations and travels around both the online and offline world, I often encounter the following:
Why? What’s the point? Isn’t that hardware useless now? You could buy a modern PC for what it costs to buy one of those. What would you use it for? My smartphone is 1000x more powerful, and it fits in my pocket!
I thought it might be prudent to opine upon the topic and invite Famicoman, one of my retro cohorts, to join me in doing so – you’ll find his musings a little later in the article.
To begin with, I can’t call any of those questions stupid, they’re are absolutely valid. Some of the computers I’m interested in certainly are computationally useless in modern terms, they’re massively underpowered, they eat electricity, they’re often loud, heavy, expensive and require obsolete and difficult to obtain parts and data storage media. But I don’t consider them useless scrap.
Why not? What are they good for?
The first point I would make is that they’re historically significant. Sure, a 1988 laptop is only 26 years old, and in the grand scheme of things that’s barely 5 minutes ago, but the computer industry and the existence of mainstream home multifunction computing devices is barely older than that. If you consider these machines in that context, they’re practically from the Iron Age (not Big Iron Age, that’s a little earlier). That’s a historically important period. Early computing is as important to our culture as a broken pot fragment or a cache of Roman currency, and it should be considered as such. There’s not an awful lot you can do with a stone spearhead on a stick that you can’t do better with a rifle and a bayonet, but we still consider those spearheads to be noteworthy in the timeline of human existence. It gives us clues as to where we’ve been and how we got here, it shows us the evolution of technology within the last 40 or so years, it’s an important learning tool. Which leads me to my next point of interest…
Immediate raw programming power.
Back in the early 1980s there was an explosion of early home computers, the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64, the Apple II and all those who are/were lesser known and sold poorly (of which there are a great many). These machines all have several things in common which modern consumer computers do not: they were tinker-friendly. They booted directly into a built in BASIC interpreter, encouraging programming the moment the machine turned on. I’m sure those of us who have used these machines remember our early days of computing, staring at a flashing cursor and experimenting with the machine, reading manuals, inputting commands to make things happen. Things we made happen. Not just some technologically anonymous application we downloaded, shrouded in DRM or obfuscation, packed into an indecypherable binary, but something we created.
Granted, that’s still possible now in some senses, it’s fairly trivial to download a compiler or interpreter for modern day machines, and a lot of people only used those old machines for pre-written software on tape or disk. The difference is that the option and the encouragement was immediately there right in front of us to actually cause the machine to do our bidding, because if you didn’t learn even a little then the machine would do almost literally nothing. If you couldn’t afford a new game (or blank tapes to copy one from a friend) then you could write your own, all the tools were there, right in the box. You didn’t have to go and download/buy a game engine or learn how to beat DirectX into submission, you didn’t have to worry about missing libraries or versions of compilers. It just worked. Everybody was on more or less a level playing field too, one guy and his friend could create a game as good as or better than something you’d walk into the store and pick up off the shelf. That’s not really viable these days, not in the era of Call of Duty and Battlefield, it takes huge amounts of time, effort and skill in many different aspects of game creation to accomplish what some of the AAA blockbusters accomplish today. It’s easy to see how a beginner might be discouraged knowing that they can no longer create something which is considered top notch, when once upon a time they very well could have written the most advanced game of their era.
You’re also very close to the metal, and there’s really nothing to stop you from directly twiddling bits in memory or shoving values into a peripheral address, there’s very little abstraction. This is in contrast to a modern PC, where you’re an onion’s worth of layers away from the host hardware, probably via several frameworks and APIs and any protection the OS itself puts in place to prevent you from really screwing up.
On the other hand, there’s not a lot of that metal to go around, so whilst you can take full advantage of the hardware, you have to be very aware of its limitations, it inspires creative ways of getting around problematic limits and (hopefully) teaches patience, something I needed a lot of, trying to transplant OSs via failing floppy disks because I had no CDROM drive and forcing modern programs to run on long-forgotten machines.
Another advantage, leading on somewhat from the previous point about abstraction, is that the hardware is vastly more simple. You can’t plug a Pentium 4 into a breadboard and start wiring up a PC, it’s simply impossible. The CPUs now are so incredibly complex, have so many pins, have a huge instruction set, require incredibly high speed buses and aren’t even remotely experimenter friendly. This goes for the rest of the machine too, where we may have once used parallel or serial ports we now have USB and Thunderbolt, where we used to have ISA and IDE buses we now have PCI Express and SATA. Great though they are for the purposes for which they were designed, they’re awful technologies for those trying to understand how a computer works.
In the 8-bit era, it was relatively trivial to tap into an accessory bus or build your own joystick interface or control some sort of external device. The connectors were nice and chunky, easy to access and the signals on them were of a reasonable speed and not particularly complex.
This has all but disappeared as a feature in home computers. We now have things like the Raspberry Pi, which is inspired by the BBC Micro, and the Arduino, but neither are quite the same as your main PC being equipped right out of the box to handle these tasks. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but they’re something extra to buy and they don’t solve all the problems. The Pi, whilst it has GPIO pins and open source operating systems, is still a modern, complex machine, it has a BGA mounted GPU/CPU combo which you can’t easily replace in case of damage (which is entirely possible, given that the GPIO isn’t designed to survive when signals are applied which exceed the intended voltage of 3.3v), can’t tap into and can’t easily learn the internals of. The Arduino is closer to the computers of yore, with its relatively simple AVR core, but out of the box is lacks the rest of the machine, you must already have a computer to write code for it, it has no TV signal output or keyboard input.
Another of my many reasons for being enthused by retro is that I get the chance to own and experience equipment which in its native era cost more than I could’ve possibly fathomed, perhaps even that which was intended for professional use and never sold in stores. Computers weren’t cheap all those years ago, the Apple PowerBook “Wallstreet” featured in the photo at the top of this article would have set you back a credit card busting $4,400 (or $6,400 in today’s money), and that was only 1998. A decade earlier, a similarly high end laptop could’ve left your wallet lighter to the tune of $5,400 (a Compaq SLT/286, costing a mammoth $11,000 in current day dollars). Is it a shallow reason? Perhaps, but it allowed me to use computers which I couldn’t have dreamt of being able to afford, which has broadened by experience dramatically. Which is important because…
Breadth of experience.
There’s something to be said for modern day consolidated platforms, chances are you’re either a Windows user or a Mac user, or perhaps if you’re so inclined, a Linux user. Most people only get to experience one, maybe two at the most. That’s great for economies of scale and software/hardware compatibility, but I think there’s a downside, it can leave you single-minded. I realise not everybody needs to dedicate themselves to learning 20 different operating systems or the quirks of half a dozen different machines, but I enjoy the opportunity to experience so many methods of taking on the challenge of interacting with a computer. One day I might play with Amiga Workbench, another maybe RISC OS, then MSDOS, Mac OS, whatever the case it keeps me aware that there’s no single way to do things. Sometimes there might be a better way, and other times you might just want to write a piece of software that works on more than one type of system, but it gives you a choice of methodologies, the option of something you can connect with rather than just put up with because that’s the way it’s done. Granted, in the long term there were a lot of people who backed a lame horse, whether out of choice or because it’s what their parents bought them, but it promotes an acknowledgement that there is no one way to do things.
Finally, the obvious: Nostalgia.
I vividly remember the first computer I ever got to touch, a BBC Micro, one of many lined up on tables in the computer room at school. I didn’t realise at the time what it would eventually mean to me, this vast array of identical machines in their cream, black and red glory with metal-cased Microvitec Cub monitors stacked atop a keyboard cubby, but I soon got to learn of these wondrous machines and how they were awaiting my every command. Later, British schools moved to Acorn Archimedes series machines, then to RiscPCs, and eventually to the almighty PC – often provided by RM or Viglen via Computers for Schools schemes.
My first family computer was an Amiga 500+, complete with GVP Impact II sidecar hard drive, which I learnt on and played with until said drive had whirred its last. By this point I was beginning to be able to buy some of my own computers, albeit extremely outdated machines of various vintage and platform, but functional, if in need of a little TLC. Some of the favourites among the number were a ZX Spectrum, several Amigas including 600HD and 1200, an IBM PS/2, an Amstrad PPC512, and a Toshiba T3200. I had a particular soft spot for 286 era laptops too, in all their hefty monochrome glory.
I think emulation is worthy of a mention, not only because it has allowed me to experience some of the computers I haven’t owned, but because it played a part in the computers I have had the pleasure of using. Compatibility was problematic when the computing world comprised so many different systems, so emulation (and hardware computer-on-a-card boards) held a very firm and useful place if you needed any kind of cross-compatibility. My first introductions to the concept of running things on a computer when they weren’t designed for it were on the Acorn and the Amiga. For the Acorns there were BBC Micro and PC emulators released by Acorn themselves. On the Amiga side, with the family’s used Amiga 500+ we received a large number of floppy disks, one of which was labelled “KCS Power PC Board”. I’d somehow got the gist of what the disk was for (it was an install disk for a PC “emulator” board), but sadly the hardware was not in the machine we owned. Eventually my curiosity would be satisfied though, as I eventually ended up running the software emulator PC-Task very very slowly, to enable me to run MSDOS programs.
Some time later, a V-Tech desktop I’d swapped for a mobile phone became my first gateway to console emulation, I attempted Gameboy emulation on it, using no$gb, it was barely up to the task but it did demonstrate the concept to me, it also allowed me to dabble briefly in programming for consoles when I found a Gameboy SDK online. The internet was something I lacked, so I had to visit the public library with my stacks of floppy disks to courier downloaded software back to my computers at home (hoping that the disks, as old as they were, were not corrupt when I tried to retrieve the contents).
My parents invested in a new family computer a little later on, a K6-2 powered PC which wasn’t of a premium spec by any stretch of the imagination, but it was where I experienced more console emulation, the most complex of which would have been PSyKe, the Playstation emulator. The K6-2 would later acquire an nVidia TNT2 graphics card, and try its hand at emulating the Nintendo 64 via Project64. I was eventually given this machine as my own, due to a parental panic induced by my running caseless 486s on my bedroom floor, fearing that I would electrocute somebody or burn the house down.
Just as a neat little emulation bonus, here’s RPCemu running the ROM from an Acorn set top box, because it’s another thing I wouldn’t have seen without emulation and an interest in obsolete hardware (click it for animation):
From that point on I’ve climbed my way up the technology curve under my own steam, eventually catching up with it, but along the way I well remember all the computer which helped me along the way, from that BBC Micro and workhorse Amiga to my current PC, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Would I voluntarily deprive myself of those (or future) moments, memories, sights, sounds, smells, textures, clunks, clicks, beeps, whirrs and crashes?
Not on your nelly.
Why retro? There isn’t a clear cut answer here. Not for me at least.
I’m younger than most people interested in vintage computing. My first computer was a Compaq Presario my family purchased in (what I believe) was 1997 or 1998. This box ran Windows 95 and later Windows 98 (just barely), and I spent hours and hours just exploring it. I was first drawn in by the games. The computer came with a 3-floppy set of arcade game ports and a stripped down version of Sim City 2000. I played these games for what felt like ages. Any time I had free time after school, you could find me sitting glued to the screen, immersed in the world the computer created for me. Eventually though, I became bored of these games. We didn’t have an internet connection yet, and new games were expensive. I remember nagging my parents whenever we visited the wholesale grocery store for a title in one of the large mesh bins that lined the open layout, but ultimately never got one of those expensive games. I decided to make the computer my game. I’d explore the nooks and crannies of the operating system, see what happened when I deleted or moved files, examined every option in the control panel, and launched every program on the desktop (sometimes at once).
Through this, I taught myself. While I did end up learning how to do some interesting and tricky things, I also learned a lot of what not to do. I learned how to break things, and later, I learned how to fix them.
I’ve never considered myself to be part of an up-to-date family. Growing up in the ’90s, other kids had CDs, Gameboys, and the newest trendy toys. I on the other hand had a turntable, a Sega Pico, and vintage radios to keep me busy. This wasn’t because we weren’t as well off as others in the neighborhood, this was because my parents were both collectors. We would spend the weekends out at yard sales and flea markets, looking for those hidden gems and interesting-looking items. These are the things I grew up with.
When I first started getting a little money of my own to keep and save up, I started to buy slightly more expensive things for myself. I started out with vintage video games. Why? These were the hand-me-down games I would often play at friends’ houses when I was even younger. The games were cheaper than the newest and best, and it wouldn’t be hard to build up a library. I started with a Super Nintendo for about $40 and progressed to buy more and more consoles and games. In the few years I was deep into game collecting, I amassed over fifty consoles with a nice game library to boot.
From here, I slowly transitioned over to collecting vintage computers. They weren’t necessarily as fun as games to me at that time, but they offered a world of potential. When I got my first retro computer, a Vic 20 in box for $10, it didn’t come with any games. I took it home and plugged it in. A minimal blue screen greeted me. I would later learn that on this 8-bit Commodore computer, I could write programs in BASIC. At first, I did simple things like repeat my name over and over, but later I crafted my own crude animations and text adventures. I went on to collect more of these computers. Every little box had a different personality- A different set of ports, a different interface, a different story to tell. I learned all their stories, and when I did, I became fascinated. I couldn’t get enough. My mouth would water over images of Altairs and videos of PDP-11s I would see floating around online in the coming years. If only I could get my hands on them and see what they could do.
I felt like I was part of a club. While my friends learned to use a word processor and point-and-click graphics tools, I learned how to program and how to solder. I knew things about machines that nobody my age would know about, and likely not want to know. In my last year of grade school, we got our first computer lab, loaded with shiny Macintosh computers. I would quickly finish my work and help other students, as well as teachers, troubleshoot hardware and software problems on their assigned machines. I was always eager to learn more and challenge myself with problems I hadn’t already encountered. I always wanted to learn.
When I first started using the internet back around 2000, I quickly fell in to a few vintage gaming communities which were deeply mixed in with vintage computing. While the atmosphere was inviting for people wanting to talk about their machines and make polls about which classic title was the best, there were also sections for people doing down-and-dirty hardware modifications and those who wanted to create and craft their own games on physical cartridges from scratch. I looked on with wide eyes. These were things I hoped I’d at least understand how to do one day, if not do them myself.
As the years went by, I became more entangled with computers. The first computer I was the sole owner of was a Windows 2000 box I must have purchased in 2006 for around $15 at a local flea market. From here, I went on to get faster and more current machines and eventually ended up building my own. However, my love for retro technology didn’t stop. I became known as someone interested in old computers- there’s at least one of us in every neighborhood. When someone was going to toss something electronic, they’d usually just drop it off with me instead. Whether it was an Atari 8-bit computer or a no-name Pentium II powered box, I got it. The oldest hardware became a chance for me to learn more about computer history. The newer hardware became a chance for me to test and try out new and interesting things with cheap gear. I may have never learned about Linux, or firewalls, or networking if I didn’t have a stack of boxes to play with. I may have never become a software engineer if I had never toyed with those vintage 8-bit computers manufactured before I was even born.
To me, retro computers are just plain interesting. The only way we can move forward is by first looking back to see where we came from, and this certainly applies to retro technology. While today we move to mobile phones with more processing power than could have been contemplated fifty years ago, it is interesting to see how things were different when computers were less widespread. We take a lot for granted today. Many people would go insane if they didn’t have access to their phones for more than a day or two, but just 30 years ago computers cost several thousands of dollars and weren’t in many homes. Even earlier, computers were for use by folks wearing white lab coats, situated in large buildings, locked away from the public eye.
As computers became more commonplace, we saw the technology grow to keep up with the demands of the users. We saw things getting smaller and smaller, devices connecting with others, and interfaces becoming more friendly. Technologies we use every day like networked email or even using a mouse as an interface weren’t staples of computing when it first entered homes and offices. A lot of these early machines had keyboards, monochrome monitors, and a single board populated with transistors and other electrical components and gizmos. These machines were simple. They weren’t like dense systems of today with complex motherboards laying host to different types of daughter boards, multiple flavors of serial bus, and a slew of graphics options.
Consider a common microprocessor for some of the first home microcomputers, the Intel 8080, used in machines such as the Altair 8800 and the IMSAI 8080. These chips, costing a few hundred dollars at their inception in 1974, can now be had for mere dollars. Intel 8080 microprocessors are simple. Even later processors had this appeal. Consider the Zilog Z80 from 1975, popular in many personal computers and even arcade machines. These processors were straightforward, adaptable, and available to a wide amount of people for use in a multitude of projects. In the 1970s and even today, hobbyists consistently use these and other processors to build their own amateur computers at home. You don’t need a whole team of engineers. This is hardware that you can work on as a weekend project. This is something where a quick fix means de-soldering a faulty component to swap in a new one, not sending the whole motherboard back to a factory where it is likely just swapped for a fresh one from the line. Personal computers were more personal.
Simplicity isn’t the only thing that drives my curiosity. While many people had an Apple ][ or a Commodore 64, how many people were able to take home a BeBox or an SGI Indigo or an Altos 586? There are an incredible amount of computers out there, each with their own features and downfalls. Some of us may never lay eyes on these machines, known for their innovation, strange quirks, or ultimate failure and cause of downfall for the company. We get to see what people, teams of people, did and how the decisions they made left an impact on our society. We learn from their successes, and more importantly, from their failures. We learn which ideas worked, which didn’t, and which slipped past the public eye, just waiting to be rediscovered and reapplied in new and interesting ways. Who knows what killer app coming out in the next decade will be the result of a re-imagining of someone’s musings from the 1980’s.
With retro, it’s always a fight to save what we know and preserve what we have. Somewhere down the line, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, the last CRT display will burn out or the last floppy will fail to be read. Through my own personal work and interests, I only hope I can rescue what I can and share what I find with others. Part of me will always be that 15-year-old kid, slaving over an old computer, trying to make it do something new. Luckily, part of me has moved forward to find people who share my interests. I’ve found people, offline and online, whom I can work with, ask questions to, learn from, and teach.
Retro may not be for everyone, and some may write it off as a pointless pursuit. For me, retro will always be a part of my life. I can’t change that, and I would never want to.