Rediscovering Old Computers

When I was in the USA a few months ago, I watched some episodes of a ‘reality’ (and I use the term loosely) show on A&E called ‘Storage Wars’. People’s abandoned storage lockers auctioned off and explored, to find ‘the treasures within’ (and in the case of the TV show, to try to make money out of selling them).

I’m one of those people who likes to keep (or: finds it hard to throw away…) old computers and computer related bits and pieces. Watching ‘Storage Wars’ was the catalyst for me to arrange to empty the contents of my own storage facility in Adelaide, into which I’ve put various old computers and related bits and pieces accumulated over the last two decades of starting and growing Internode.

The contents of that storage facility are now in a larger room, where I can start the process of figuring out what I have, what to keep, and what to throw away. There are a lot of unopened boxes in there!

Most of this stuff has no commercial value – but it is not (and it never was) about that.

People who have the tendency to keep this old stuff from their past (and I know I’m not the only one!) do it for emotional reasons. This stuff contains mental triggers and talismans. Things that we spent countless hours using, in various ways, and that became a huge part of our thoughts and our lives in the process.

In today’s terms, the total computing power in the room would be dwarfed by the iPhone in my pocket. But it all had a purpose, and it all did something good.

Some of these computers held all of our customers’ email and web pages at Internode – in an era when the computers were so expensive that you couldn’t have redundancy in the modern sense (with many low cost nodes). There was generally only one of most things, and those things were cared for very closely, maintained carefully, and spares were held for fast repairs should something fail.

These old computers will mean little or nothing to my kids, for whom computers are merely and unemotionally ‘tools’ to be used, games to be played, communications paths – just ‘things’. Things not really worthy of caring about, in terms of how they work or why they work. Things with a very short life cycle, compared to the old devices in this room.

I found the process of looking over this old stuff has been quite emotional for me. My personal investment in time and effort with these things was just so massive.

My sentimentality for this stuff is a product of the era – the era in which the only way to obtain a useful outcome from computers that operated at these (low) speeds with storage at this sort of (low) density was to truly understand how it worked, and hence to use it so efficiently that sensible outcomes could be obtained.

These didn’t feel like limitations to be overcome – these devices were magical, and the magic is still in there for those (like me) who used and relied upon these devices for so much of what we achieved.

These days, technical efficiency is barely a consideration in the use of most modern computing devices. Massive compute and storage, and incredibly large amounts of working memory in the cheapest of devices mean that software problems are routinely solved with brute force rather than elegance.

Thats not a criticism, even though it probably comes across as one. When you live in a world full of abundance, efficiency for its own sake is often quite literally a waste of time.

But those of us that grew up with this stuff – and that grew with the growth in the computer capacity concerned, gradually and progressively, still retain (I claim) a love of the elegance that remains possible in the solution of computing problems, as and where that opportunity still exists.

Echoes of that past exist today, in the rise of tiny, very low cost computers to solve problems, using software, that used to be the realm of custom solutions using hardware.

This evolution has been very well described and explained by my friend Simon Bisson in his story software with everything.

Reading that story really brought home, for me, the extent to which the world of analog and even discrete digital electronics is over. Now we’re using CPUs and software to replace these physical things with software emulations.

We code up a new version of a sledgehammer into a dedicated micro-controller to crack every new nut, because these virtual constructions are cheaper than buying a ‘real’ sledgehammer!

Its no surprise to anyone, I’m sure, that I’m a big fan (and supporter) of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. This is an absolute Aladdin’s Cave  of the artefacts of the history of the industry that has hugely shaped my own life.

I wonder whether my own kids will ever care about this stuff. Probably not. I guess it doesn’t matter if they don’t – but it definitely still matters to me, and to many people in my generation whose lives were wrapped in and around this stuff.

I feel the same draw that I know some others in ‘my generation’ still have, to get some of this old gear working again, to allow some of this very old software to be cranked up and to briefly be in the world again, running in the aged and dusty shells holding old, low density and often hand built computers.

The thing that is embodied in these old dusty computers is the efforts of the working lives of their creators and users. The echoes of all of that effort remain somewhere inside the boxes, quiescent now, but still capable of brief moments of life when the magical electricity is applied to the circuits concerned.

As my children build their own lives, with none of the huge emotion I feel about the echoes of my working life that is wrapped up in all these old boxes, I wonder what new things they will create, by standing on the shoulders of all of this technical evolution.

My brain is still full of technical details about computers that I no longer need to know…

Locations in the memory map of an Apple II that trigger clicks of the speaker or changes in video graphics modes.

Programming information and file data structures used to drive the operation of the quite superb VMS operating system.

The capacity to flip numbers from decimal to hex to octal to binary in my head – and appreciating the aesthetic beauty embedded in the alternative base representations of various numbers.

The introspective pleasure of single-stepping assembly language code through a debugger to find that elusive memory leak at last.

Having got this stuff ‘out of the vault’, I can now look forward to a day when I try to fire up some of these computers again, just in the hope that one or two of them might still work.

I’d like to boot up my old and much loved Apple II, the computer that was a key to discovering that I had a huge aptitude in this realm. I’d like to see if I can fire up an old game like ‘Choplifter’ again (if the disk drive will still work), and watch the code make pixels dance across the screen again, unaware that it has all been in stasis for around thirty years…

I’d like to boot up one of my old Vax/VMS systems and see if it still works, full of the thoughtful and powerful mechanisms that made it (and still make it) one of the best operating systems I have ever used.

By opening these boxes, I find that I can remember a younger man, working away under a desk trying to get a coaxial cable ethernet link to work, so the handful of people in the back of a sub-let room in 1991 could share a 28k modem link to the Internet. An Internet that then consisted of email and telnet and where it wasn’t yet clear that the World Wide Web would truly change the world. Words like Gopher, Usenet, VT100 and Kermit were in the daily lexicon, and neither Facebook or Twitter yet existed.

Somewhere between then and now, I grew up. My business, against all the odds, succeeded.

It has cost me a great deal of my life and a great deal of stress, but it has also delivered me a massive reward in so many ways (and the financial aspect is only one of many and varied personal rewards).

Much of my adult life experience – both in business and personally – has been interdependent with the evolution of all of this technology.

Could anyone have predicted the outcome, for me, all those years ago, when I was a schoolboy at the Angle Park Computing Centre, marking cards to feed into an IBM 360 … writing code that went in on cardboard and came out on fan-fold paper? Probably not.

In the prophetic and wonderful words of Jonn Lennon – ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’.

On a related topic,  I just finished reading a work of fiction called ‘Ready Player 1‘, given to me by a friend who thought I’d like it. Its really an exploration of the 1980’s era of video games and old computers, built on the classic science fiction storytelling substrate of a world-spanning metaverse computer system. If you are, like me, a ‘hacker of a certain age’ – I think you’ll enjoy that book as much as I did.

And so … here are some photographs of what I have been looking at today. Only the outer fringes of all the boxes of stuff is currently visible. There is much in there to explore, on another fine day.