dalliard.net

retro-computing

As you might’ve gathered from this site, I’m a fan of old computers. Some people restore art, cars and houses - I keep old computers going, keeping them as close to "out of the box" as I can manage. I do this for a couple of reasons. Environmental reasons aside, it's a good way of showing people what computing was like many years ago. I’ve got a few machines in my collection, so I thought I'd create this page to serve as a sort of virtual museum.

Personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s marked an interesting stage in our development and relationship with technology. Unlike the connected-to-everything Macbook Air that’s currently sat on my lap, the machines of that generation were different. I remember the amazement at getting “online” to bulletin boards and exchanging e-mail through FidoNet, which now seem so basic. At the time users were at the edge of a frontier, experiencing something new which we’re very unlikely to experience again in the same way.

If nerd-books interest you, an interesting read that documents the period quite well is a book called "The Cybergypsies", by Indra Sinha.

Anyway, enough rambling - here’s my collection.

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The Atari ST is iconic, heralding a time of primitive communications when the UK was an Internet-free zone. Games were wonderfully playable and brought out the fanboi in any teenager that saw its rival, the Commodore Amiga. I wasted months of my life playing Dungeon Master with every possible permutation of characters, used a 2400 baud modem to make expensive calls to bulletin boards, composed music and even wrote my own demos. It was a machine that I used to its full potential, despite having a much more primitive desktop environment than today's machines.

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I collected a vast amount of software for it - over 300 discs worth. However, around that time I got into bigger machines like my RISC PC (see below) and so it gathered dust for a while. In a lapse of sanity, I sold it to my sister in-law - but a little later, she felt she couldn’t do the vast amount of software I'd collected for it justice and kindly gave it back.

At that point in my life I moved house quite a bit, so for a few years I kept it in storage, still in its original cardboard box. When I eventually was a bit more settled, I dug it back out.

Unlike its successor, age had been kinder to my Atari. The only moving component in the computer was the floppy drive, but after so many years it had given up the ghost. The elastic band (no joke) that connected up the drive spindle had disintegrated, so I looked for a replacement. Finding one wasn't hard as there was a very active scene of people who were restoring their machines back to their former glory. I tracked down an eBay seller who sold specially modified replacement drives - and for ten pounds I was up and running again. Amazingly, a large amount of the original floppies still worked, which is interesting given that they're magnetic media, subjected to years of hot, cold and damp in storage!

These days, I switch it on quite frequently and have a play. Of course, because TVs have moved on you can't just hook it up to any telly as a lot don't have SCART or arial connectors - so I use a VGA signal conversion box in conjunction with a regular monitor. The results aren't crystal clear, but they're good enough to play, as you can see below.

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With so many working discs, I’m getting the chance to rediscover lots of games all over again. One game I wished I'd investigated further, Carrier Command, is an amazingly complex offering for the time and I'm only just starting to appreciate its depth. Additionally, I've still got all the source-code to an unfinished demo that I never released. Perhaps I should complete it sometime?

The machine is a completely unmodified STFM500. Whilst many people put in extra RAM, hard-drives and all sorts of other goodies, mine is as pure as they come and still has the original box, mouse, manuals and a crappy old microswitch joystick. Playing Helter Skelter on it's a bit like playing with a chicken drumstick - but it’s still fun nonetheless.

And this is the machine that succeeded it…

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I always look back on my RISC PC with a sense of fondness because it served me so well. If you look at computers as tools, then my RISC PC was the best one I've ever had. Whilst Acorn made some fairly unreliable multi-sync monitors back in the day, their computers were solid beasts. In fact, the only time mine stopped working was when I stopped using it for a while. Having now got it back in working order, it works as well as it ever did and is still eminently usable, a pretty amazing achievement for a computer that was manufactured back in 1997 - nearly twenty years old.

In recent times, I’ve been trawling around for spare parts to upgrade it. As it currently stands, here’s the system specification:

  • RISC PC 700 (ARM710 CPU) and 486/40 second processor,
  • 161MB Memory (1x 32MB, 1x 128MB and 1MB VRAM),
  • 4GB HD, CD reader and floppy drive,
  • RISC OS 4.39,
  • Original keyboard and replacement mouse.
  • i-Cubed EtherLan 600 card.

At some point, I’d like to find a cheap StrongArm processor and a 2MB VRAM module to max things out nicely. The computer's capable of using 258MB of RAM and there's StrongArm cards out there that would boost the speed by a factor of fifteen.

Whilst the machine isn’t a gamer’s delight, there’s some good stuff out there to play. My outright favourite has to be StarFighter 3000 and the decidedly low-tech Moria which I used to play under DOS emulation - it’s funny how we can be entertained by the simplest of games. In terms of productivity, though, RISC OS machines were rock-solid and the system excelled at DTP. For a couple of years I ran a magazine and my Acorn performed the task flawlessly. I used to scan photographs in with my black and white hand-scanner (remember those?) and I still know my way around Impression Style, a great piece of software that hasn’t really been beaten after all these years, providing huge functionality in a small footprint. Apple’s Pages tries to emulate it, but doesn't quite succeed in the same way.

I run Windows 95 on the second processor card, which is a wonderful device for retro-gaming. In addition to that, I’ve still got my old college software development environment on there, using JPM Modula-2. RISC OS allowed for data exchange between the two OSes, running Windows in a window. The system was ahead of its time, before the term virtualisation became a thing.

The machine is connected to the internet via the Ethernet card and I use NetSurf as my browser of choice. Admittedly on an ARM710 processor the performance isn’t exactly lightning fast, but with a selection of e-mail clients out there it’s still a good productivity box and Impression Style is still my favourite word-processing package of choice. Software is still being developed for the OS, which has had a new lease of life since the Raspberry Pi came to fruition - and the arrival of the !PlingStore means that whilst it won’t exactly rival iTunes, it does at least have a 21st Century software delivery mechanism.

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I'm always on the look-out for spare parts to keep my machines going. If you've got anything that might be of help, feel free to drop me a line.