Classic Computing

As I only started setting this website up at the beginning of November 2021, it — and this section in particular — is still very much a work-in-progress. For more detailed technical information and/or information about what systems and services I'm currently offering, you'll probably want to visit the site I'm working on which is actually dedicated to this theme:

That said, I guess I will still write a few paragraphs here for completeness' sake, and to provide at least a few insights into what was, in earlier times, a serious interest of mine; what I have done in this area; and what I'm still doing to try and support the preservation and appreciation of machines from an era of greater diversity, personality, wonder and constraints…

'Portable Computer', by Kayla Lahti (

Time was, I had plans to build up a comprehensive enough collection to be able to curate temporary interactive exhibits that explore various dimensions of the history of computing such as processor and storage architectures; operating systems; the nature and speed of their user interfaces and interface devices; computer sound and graphics; programming languages; and educational games, simulations and tutorials — both as they developed through time, and as moment-in-time snapshots (or comparisons) that show, not only the richer diversity we once had, but also how concepts and technologies have tended to move from one generation of computers to the next, and from larger and much more expensive environments to the home user.

In recent years, it'd be fair to say that I've more or less moved on from the 'History of Computing' as a focus, however, I still have quite a few machines from vendors including DEC, SUN, SGI, HP, IBM, Commodore and Apple, and covering the time from the mid-70s to the turn of the millennium (and more than a few semi-specialised pieces of test equipment), and thus I've started retesting, repairing and selling off the rarer and more interesting members of my collection, and designing and producing (on a very small scale) certain spares and/or alternatives necessary for their proper use, but which are either no longer available, or whose prices have become prohibitively high.

The other project I will mention here is a YouTube channel I setup nearly ten years ago now. Bits and Bytes was an educational television series produced by TV Ontario and starring Luba Goy (as the instructor) and Billy Van (as the total newcomer). Its first season aired in 1983/84 as part of a(n even more) comprehensive programme called The Computer Academy, and it was syndicated and/or rebroadcasted in other countries, including in Australia (where it was broadcast until, iirc, 1994).

At this time, computers had really only just started to enter the 'mainstream' (and therefore, the home), so this season served not only to demystify personal computers, but also to introduce the 'average person' to the foundations of computer use, and more importantly, computer theory. Indeed, this show first aired in Australia just after my parents bought me my first computer (a Commodore 64), and looking back, it played no small part in setting me down a path that has seen me working in the fields of Computer Science, Information Technology and Electronic Engineering, as well as in the Research and Development, governmental and commercial sectors.

And it's interesting to note that, although the technology (i.e. the computers and their peripherals) has well and truly aged to the point of quaint nostalgia, many of the underlying principles — and their explanations — remain relevant to this day; indeed, this short clip on the differences between interpreters and compilers (yes, this is the kind of detail they went into in this show), still elicits comments and messages of appreciation, even from university students — no small achievement for an introductory computing show from the 80s :-)

Truth be told, I also quite like the show's sound design and original music (pardon the tracking problem of the first clip):

(The second season aired in 1991 and featured Billy Van, now in the role of teacher, however between the fact that it focused on the much more sterile world of 286 and 386-based PC systems and my lack of personal connection to this show, I'm really only just mentioning it here for completeness' sake.)

In putting together this website, I came across a post I wrote back in 2008; while it'd be fair to say that my priorities and foci have changed quite a bit in the intervening years, it still captures the essence of what originally drew me to classic computers, hence my including it here…

If you've made it this far, you probably have at least some vague notion of why people like me love to collect and tinker with older, or classic, computers. (And when I say 'classic computer' I usually mean a minicomputer from the 1960s and 70s, their descendants, or a microcomputer that came out somewhere between the mid-70s and the late-80s.)

Reasons such as nostalgia, and the propensity to collect and hoard things probably come to mind, and you'd be at least partly right — but, for me, it goes way beyond that. The purpose of this posting, then, is to try and explain some of the reasons behind the unusual (and at times frightening) lengths that fans of classic computers go to in rescuing, collecting, using and preserving these “elegant tools from a more civilised age” (with apologies to George Lucas).

In a nutshell, I'm fascinated by older computers because:

  1. as a generation, they have character — they embody their creators' desires and design quirks;
  2. they are idiosyncratic — back when there were literally dozens of different models to choose from, you had to make an effort to learn their dialects, and to tailor your software to your combination of hardware;
  3. they are tangible — the operator or user had to change tapes and disks, swap cartridges, or even toggle code in via a programmer's panel;
  4. they are the classic and minimalist works of their field, they demand compact and efficient code, they encourage elegance and good hacks, and there is usually very little between the user and the core of the machine;
  5. they can be understood, hardware, kernel, software and all;
  6. they are amongst the best and purest of hacking platforms — not only are they fun to explore, but new programming techniques and hacks can be discovered that push the hardware beyond what it was designed to do; a corollary of this is that small hardware hacks can significantly improve a system's performance or capability;
  7. they complement the computer hobbyist; to put it another way, they can be personalised, not just customised — these changes might be as simple as adding a reset button or as complicated as designing and building a completely new memory management scheme;
  8. they are from computing's age of innocence — a time when computers were still novel and a little rough around the edges, when people wanted to share their knowledge, excitement and data;
  9. they foster communities — around them (as with microcomputers), within them (as in multi-user minicomputers), or even between them and their users — very few people collect beige boxes, much less form communities or sub-cultures or 'cults' around them;
  10. they can be great conversation starters — every time I've taken an old Mac or serial terminal onto public transport, I've been approached by a curious passer-by or a nostalgic commuter;
  11. and yet, in many ways, they are more reliable than the majority of today's PCs.
  • Last modified: 2021-12-09 10:38
  • by Peter