The Retro Lab: Introduction

Welcome to my latest series of articles, The Retro Lab, where I will be detailing my excursions into the art and hobby of retrocomputing.

This article will serve as a general overview of what I hope to accomplish, and a bit about my background and why this will be fun for me 🙂 If you just want to see the meat of this, skip to the section “And now, in the present”.

My history with computers

When I was very young, my family had a 386 running DOS and Windows 3.1. The only thing I cared about were the games, of course. I don’t remember a lot from this era, because I was so young.

When we were with my grandpa, I loved to play on his XT clone. It was a Leading Edge Model D with 20MB disk running DOS. I inherited this computer when he passed and it is still in my closet. I treasure it. Some of the games it had were a text adventure game called “CIA” and Wheel of Fortune. The real magic for me, though, was in the BASIC interpreter. It was amazing to type in some commands and see this big huge loud complex machine do what I tell it! This is what hooked me on programming and is why I chose the field I did.

The next computer we had was a Canon StarWriter Pro 5000. I’m not sure what hardware it has – and it’s also in my closet, so a careful tear down may be a future article! – but I know it ran GEOS. I loved to write little comedy skits and song lyrics as a child, and it was cool to have all of them on a single 3.5″ floppy disk instead of taking all the paper in the house.

The real life changing moment, however, came on February 22, 1997. It was the day we brought home The Pentium. What a beast of a computer: 133 MHz, 24 MB RAM, and an 8 speed CD drive! It was a Compaq Presario 4712, and it came with Encarta 97, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopaedia, The Yukon Trail, Magic Carpet, PGA Tour ’96, but most of all: 15 free hours of America Online.

AOL was amazing to a second grader. They had Nickelodeon online! You could download little sound clips from Nick and Nick at Nite shows. They had games like Slingo (still one of my all-time favourite takes on slot machines, 20+ years later). And they had a graphical portal to Gopher/WAIS. The local school district had uploaded text files full of fun activities for us children on their Gopher server.

That computer was also where I first used Telnet to a computer running Solaris. A few friends and I used talk on it to have our own small chat rooms. My aunt ran an IRC channel and we talked on mIRC. We ended up with a webcam and talked with family using NetMeeting. Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, Infoseek… so many things.

Programming and desires

Enough with the ‘net reminiscing, at least for now 🙂

Something else important to mention is that my grandpa also was an Important Person at a facility, and one of the things he did was computer purchasing. He had catalogues from Compaq, IBM, and various other vendors in his house for that reason. I loved flipping through them and looking at all the cool stuff.

Something I always wanted back then was my own server. It seemed so cool. I was especially attracted to the ProLiants and AlphaServers in the Compaq catalogue. Windows NT and Tru64 looked so cool when I looked them up online.

The other thing that was very attractive back then were the Power Macintosh computers. My Mum was a digital artist back then. The Quadra was a nice system but didn’t compare to what I saw the Power Macs could do!

For my birthday in 1998, I received Visual Basic as a gift. It really cemented my desire to be a programmer. This was such an exciting time and part of the VB6 software was a one year subscription to the MSDN Library. From that library I learned about all the different servers one could run, all the different types of NT, the different programming languages of Visual Studio…

And now, in the present

In the past few years, as I am able and as opportunities arise, I have amassed quite a collection of hardware that I want to set up and enjoy:

A Compaq Armada e500 laptop. This is a Pentium III from the year 2000 and is likely the newest system I want to have in my Retro Lab. It runs Adélie right now; I’ll likely remove the hard drive and install another to run period-accurate software. I will likely run Windows NT 4 or 2000.

A beige Power Macintosh G3 with the Bordeaux personality card. I will be inserting a 10 GB disk and installing Mac OS 8.6 on it. This will run all the classic Mac software that I have collected over the years. It will be one of the main focuses of the Lab.

A few AlphaServers. Most are earmarked for Adélie so I can’t really use them in the Lab, but there is a single DS10L that was set aside for my personal use. I’ll likely install NT 4 on this one, but I need to investigate further on the hardware.

A Sun Ultra 60, Netra T1, and Ultra 10. These are all from ’98-’99 and will make great Solaris systems, to relive the glory days and experiment more with what was my first real Unix. I would like to run CDE again and possibly do some Java tinkering with these. It would be very fun to run a Retro Lab network off of the AlphaServer and Netra.

A Power Macintosh 7100/80AV. More fun Mac stuff awaits on this computer, though I’m not sure exactly what I will do with it yet.

A Compaq LTE 5150. This is actually my original laptop from high school, ca. 2004. I’d like restore it to its former glory and use it for Windows 3.1 and early 95 software. It can also run OS/2. The screen probably won’t do well for most games, but I do have the docking bay to connect it to an external monitor…

An SGI Indy. This will need an SCSI2SD adaptor to reach its full potential since the hard disk died many years ago. I would love to dual boot IRIX and a BSD.

A Dell System 316LT. There are a few older DOS games I have that would run much better under a CPU of this speed. It needs some love; I seem to recall it had an issue booting up the last time I had it out. I could also try and run GEOS.

A Compaq Presario 4850. This is, to my knowledge, the oldest original computer I have that still fully functions. We purchased it on my Mum’s birthday, 1998, for her graphic design software. This, along with the Beige G3, will likely be the centrepiece of my Lab. I plan on running either Windows 95 or 98 on it, and also various other OSes of the era: BeOS, OpenStep, maybe early Linux. I know that the Rage Pro functions in high res in Win3.1 and OS/2 from prior hackings. It’s also the first computer I used to tinkered with XFree86 modelines. It has a factory original Hitachi DVD drive.

Don’t forget the accessories!

Oh yes, I have some great period hardware for the tinkering as well:

HP ScanJet 5s SCSI scanner. Drivers for Windows, Macintosh, and IRIX, at least. I believe there is an attachment to scan photo negatives as well, but I can’t remember now.

Aiptek webcam. Yes, the original one from the NetMeetings of old that I talked about in my history section. Should be very easy to bring up under Windows. I am curious about Macintosh support.

HP CD Writer Plus 7200e. This is a parallel port, dual-speed CD writer and rewriter. One of the cool features I found on this back in the day is that if you send multimedia commands and have speakers connected to the external headphone jack, you can power off the computer and still listen to the CD until it finishes! I found this out one day when Win95 crashed while I was listening to Garbage’s Version 2.0.

My MSDN Universal archive. In 2002 I found an MSDN Universal subscription at a flea market for 15 USD. I activated it and have all the CDs, and also sent a special request for them to send me the Archive CDs which included BackOffice 4.5 and a few other goodies.

Unfortunately my back and neck are not up to carrying a CRT. I have a flat panel from 2006, a 17″ ViewSonic, that seems to be very close in specification to what we could have had in 1998 for way too much money 😉 Hey, with everything else being so accurate, a little cheating on the monitor isn’t so bad!

In conclusion

This was a lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but it also covers a lot of ground. Over the coming weeks, I hope to bring up a few of these computers and document the processes. Until then, happy hacking!