I have been into computers since I was young. A prescient gift from my parents to a restless pre-teen, my first computer was (I am convinced) instrumental in both productively occupying my time and absorbing my boundless hyperactive energy, but even more, it served to stimulate my imagination. The logical systems of a personal computer (to say nothing of the modular components) were like LEGO on another dimension. They too could be played with, built with. I had years of incredible experiences with my Apple computers and unsurprisingly even now, those early days loom large in my technological and childhood memories, nostalgia blending seamlessly with that sense that I was ‘on the cutting edge’ somehow. Logic, Art, Imagination and ‘Maker’ culture all combined in those early days of personal computing, and the impact on me continues to inform my scholarship and my mindset.
One specific manner in which those halcyon days of personal computing persist in my twentieth-century technological work (and scholarship) is my interest in ‘retro-computing’ – the restoration and use of old, arguably obsolete software and hardware in a modern computing context. After a few years of retro-computing I can honestly say I’m completely hooked. And from Space Shuttles to computer software, ‘retro’ is decidedly ‘nowtro.’
Part 1: Restoring the Apple II+
In the late 70’s, my parents invested in an Apple computer for me. It was an Apple II+, with 48k RAM, a monitor and that brilliant contribution among many of the Apple computer – the Apple Floppy Disk Drive. I moved aside the toys and books and games, and made a real workspace for it – a desk chair, a shelf for the diskette cases and manuals, cables tied neatly. Something about the experience meant ‘productivity’ – I knew ‘work’ was being done – but it also meant ‘creativity’ – I knew I was building, making, achieving something in this new environment. The future would be defined by a loud whirring fan, blinking green characters, and primitive beeps and buzzes.
The history of Apple and of the Apple II Plus computer has been detailed very well, but among the many huge leaps forward the machine offered was the presence of 8 expansion slots. This ‘open door’ to hardware enabled a series of innovations on the Apple platform that deepened my computing and educational experience tremendously. And as much as each of these expansion/upgrades was designed to be ‘user-installable’, incorporating each new hardware peripheral into my little Apple both required and taught a delicate, agile hand and fostered an increasing confidence in myself and in computers.
First, I had been determined to save up for a thermal printer (the Silentype).
Never one for penmanship and frustrated by the limitations of the typewriter, the printer was a practical choice that, once incorporated into my computer system (it was plugged in via a circuit board into one of the ‘expansion slots’ in the machine), helped me understand and master the promise of word processing. I could reassemble text and print it for use in the ‘mundane’ world, and then change the text and re-print it… putting me light years beyond the everyday world of Prestige Elite and white-out.
Another innovation was the joystick:
This hand-held little beauty meant more than just arcade madness (which it most definitely provided) – I could control images on-screen with my hand directly, the motion of the stick being converted into instructions to the software. This led to all kinds of experiments as I quickly began designing games and little routines that demonstrated various properties of this human/computer interface. I began consuming voraciously the various programming languages that were becoming available to me (eg BASIC, Pascal, and LOGO) in building games and my friends would come over and we would play each others’ games together… and it was in this way that another profound change came in my rich new computing world.
The need to have friends come over in order to use the computer with me (and the dangers of acquiring parental approval for the bike rides across town to their houses, to say nothing of the rare and difficult-to-secure parent-facilitated car drive) grew as the sociality of the computer deepened. Eventually, the inconvenience of what would be later called the ‘play date’ was an effective cost/time justification for the addition of a modem (modulator-demodulator) to my system.
The modem connected to the Apple via an expansion slot – but it also connected at the ‘other’ end. Plugging a telephone handset into its coupler, I could use the phone to connect my computer to my friends’ computers remotely, achieved in a fascinating orchestra of tone signals (explained well here)! Even more fascinating, Computer Bulletin Board Systems had begun to appear (there was even one in my town)! The game playing, socializing and collaborative creativity began to really take off as I found myself in a computer network, a community of computer enthusiasts of all ages and ability interacting through (and sometimes about) the personal computer. I joined ‘CompuServe’ and ‘The Well’, and got my first-ever email address at age 12.
As the technology moved ahead, my Apple II+ would become obsolete, its perch usurped a mere 7 years later by a whole host of Apple Macintosh computers (more about my first Macintosh later). However, I couldn’t bring myself to sell that original Apple II or that original Mac, or throw them away, even as they yellowed with age. Given what they had already done for me, surely each had an ongoing function to fulfill even as they slowly receded into obsolescence?
As if to answer my question, in the last few years there has been an innovation of programs and websites able to emulate and run Apple II software, a lot of those nostalgic sparks were rekindled – but yet over 30 years later, after a restoration much like this one, I still find functions that only my beloved, venerable old Apple machine itself can serve. Yes, it is a relic of an older time, underpowered, and barely able to accomplish what modern computers can achieve effortlessly, but it reflects concepts and practices that have become hidden by interfaces and icons, it is of its time but is also capable of relevance in the modern world – through the use of emulation hardware.
Emulation hardware allows older computers to interface with modern ones – to send and receive information on the Internet, to access file systems and to function in a modern context. Obtaining a ‘CFFA’ card for my Apple II from a community of retrocomputing enthusiasts, I was delighted to see that my old Apple no longer had to rely on the floppy drives, mechanical elements of the system that (while they had been at the heart of the Apple II’s contribution in personal computing) were among the most vulnerable to the degredations of time. Using the CFFA card, I was able to plug a USB thumb drive or Compact Flash card into my Apple II+ and have any of the images on the card function as if they had been inserted into the floppy drive as hardware diskettes!
Using my modern PC, I can assemble ‘disk images’ (.DSK and other formats) on a removable drive, and boot the computer into those diskettes automatically. By plugging a cable between the Apple II+’s serial card’s “modem” port and my modern mac’s USB slot, I could connect the two machines and use the modern one as a ‘bridge’ of sorts, giving my Apple a window into the world of telnet and text-based Internet browsers.
Not just in the use of new hardware, this new relationship between the ‘retro’ and the ‘nowtro’ is also about the development of new software – developers have begun to code new programs to run on the Apple II, bringing the Apple new features and connectivity even while confronting the severe memory and storage limitations of these older platforms. This does more than (merely) increase the utility of these beloved, venerable computers – it is an exceptional learning exercise for programmers and technologists, who are often ‘spoiled’ by the comparative availability of storage and processing capacity. Working with 16k RAM and other capability restrictions of 70’s era computing forces one to explore clever and economic ways of writing code and handling user input, an entire of tradition of computing that has largely gone dormant. More than point-and-click user interfaces or dazzling graphics, in this era of computing such skills of economy and logic were those that characterized the very best developers, those who could ‘do more’ within the Personal Computer than mere users (or even their fellow developers) thought possible. And in a fascinating flip, there are lots of new and exciting examples of developers working on combinations of retro-computing elements in hybrid definitions that blur the line between emulation and native, hardware and software, modern and vintage.
My Apple II+ remains an active member of the modern computing community – besides merely being able to run a vast Internet trove of Apple II software on my original Apple, I can surf the web, chat on IRC, check my email and (next up) even tweet from this lovable old computer. It is a reassuringly and refreshingly single-tasking environment, unlike my vintage 1984 Macintosh – which ushered in a whole new world of graphical interfaces, symbolic thinking and multi-tasking. More on my restoration of that machine in the next installment.