atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#5899: Thinking about the old machines

It's been a while since I last wrote anything about the old computers, so why not?

Down in the basement I have the old computers which were not Intel/DOS/Windows machines. I'm not sure how many C-64s I have--three is my estimate--but I think I have three 1541 disk drives as well. A plotter, a couple of modems, and a printer interface round out the classic Commodore hardware. One is the machine given to me by my parents in 1983. I'm not sure about the provenance of the other two. I have over a hundred floppies for it, but God alone knows whether any of them is still any good. The plotter--it no longer works because the gear that moves it in the Y direction split. That was decades ago, in 1986 or 1987 as I recall. It's a simple nylon gear, pressed on the shaft. I bet Og could tell me where to find a replacement, but where would I get the pens? And the paper?

Then I have an Amiga 500. As far as I know there's no memory expansion. I don't have much software for it, either--assuming I have any at all. With the Amiga 500 I got a 1084 monitor. It may or may not still work; it got drenched when we had that shower curtain fail. I bought that machine from a coworker, in 1995 or 1996, with some other stuff including a C-64.

Of course I have my Atari ST. The ST, I got in December of 1987. For quite a while I didn't have a disk drive for it. I bought a used one and was able to go to town with it, but the big problem with the ST was that it had a crappy, crappy keyboard--keys too close together--and so it never really made it as a writing machine for me; the keyboard on the C-64 was much better. Software was hard to find, as non-PC compatibles began falling out of favor in the late 1980s, and I could simply do more with the 64 than I could with the ST. Even in 1989, when I worked at Software Etc--they had ST software but the selection was...thin.

In 1997 or so I did an experiment: I butchered the ST's floppy cable and hooked it to my NEC Multispeed laptop, which had an external floppy controller port, allowing me to connect an external machine to the laptop's floppy drives. It worked--at least I was able to get the computer to recognize that it now had two double-sided drives attached--but the major problem here was that PC drives can't read ST floppies. Double-sided ST drives can read PC floppies, but not vice versa, because the write current levels are different, and the magnetic domains written by ST drives are invisible to PC drives. So I patched the ST drive cable back together (badly) and it worked, but I have no idea if it would still work today or not.

In 1993 I bought a used Macintosh SE for about $400. It's got a 30 MB hard drive in it. Big problem here was "no software" and "weird interfaces". I did have an adaptor cable so I could plug in a 9600 baud modem to the thing (at a time then 28.8k modems were typical) but I had no printer I could connect to it, and I wasn't going to shell out another $400 for an Apple printer. In 1996 I hooked it to the Zip drive and that worked pretty well, but I never powered it on after that. The keyboard and mouse went to Iowa with me, but the CPU never did, and then they came back from Iowa with me seven years later.

I've got a TRS-80 Model I that I was given in 1992. I haven't turned it on in twenty years, but it worked the last time I tried it. No software beyond what I typed into it; somewhere I have a cassette tape with those programs on it but it'd be a miracle if the machine would still load them.

I also have a TRS-80 Model 100. That one, I turned on much more recently than that; it takes 4 AA batteries and it's really nifty, but--same sad old song--no software beyond what's built into it.

Here's the funny thing: thanks to the Internet you can get software for all these machines. The sticking point is in getting the software from one computer to the other. Let's face it: you're not going to plug a USB WiFi dongle into a C64 and go to Googe, not without some serious hardware hacking first just to get the WiFi dongle working. And where do you get a browser from, for the C64, when you need a browser to find the software?

What I intend to do, this winter, is to buy an interface which will allow me to copy (or try to) the C64 floppies onto a modern computer. That will let me put those disk images onto an SD card; and then I can get an interface which allows the C64 to access the data from that SD card, or even just use an emulator running on the modern machine to read the C64 disk images. My hope is primarily to preserve all the writing I did on the 64 (if it has not already perished) but there are some games which I have never, never, ever seen anywhere else but in my C64 library, and I'd wager some abandonware web sites may want copies of those disk images.

That's a project for when it's -2° outside, though.

Ideally, I'd like to do the same for the Atari disks. I don't have nearly as much material in ST format as I do in 64 format, but it'd be nice to know it hasn't perished.

...I stopped using anything but PC/intel/DOS/Windows in the early 1990s. Work was with PCs, and most of the computer stuff I did at school was PC, as well. I couldn't very well turn in my Pascal (and later, C+) lab work on a C64 disk, so after I got the MultiSpeed, and got it working, in 1990, when I fell behind in labs I'd do my hacking on the MultiSpeed and move it to 5.25" disk at work, because my NEC had 3.5" 720k drives and the school computers were all 5.25" 1.2MB drives.

1990--first trimester, in fact, and I remember that only because the guy who gave me the variable power supply I used to get the MultiSpeed working, first time, was a "one-tri wonder". He worked for Dial, and had intended to go to school to get his degree, but "politics" were a problem for him under those circumstances, and he quit the school after that first trimester. He was a good guy.

Eventually I found the MultiSpeed's correct power supply in a filing cabinet at work--from where I'd bought the computer for the princely sum of $5.33 with tax--and was able to ditch the variable one (which, sometimes, would cause the computer to spontaneously reset). That variable supply is still knocking around the basement, and will be incorporated in my electronics bench if I ever have time to set it up.

All of this came to mind because I saw a couple of YouTube videos about a guy who got an Amiga 500 and restored it; that made another video come up about a guy who took an A500 system board that had been savaged by monkeys (or something) and made it work. The funny thing is, if I wanted to, I could build a C64 from components; it's actually a really simple machine and I have the circuit diagram for it. It was included in the C64 reference guide, a thick manual sold by Commodore with all kinds of useful information inside. The hard part of doing that would be getting the right ICs and then troubleshooting the wire-wrapping.

But of course why would I build one? They're all over the place on eBay. And I have three as it is.


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