REMembering Vintage Computers

First Published:
Date Published: 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Kevin Savetz

10 REMembering Vintage Computers
20 TOPIC$="Collectors long for 300 BPS modems, floppy disks, and BASIC"

When choosing a computer, most people would opt for the latest, the fastest, the most powerful machine they can afford. But there are some of us who go in the opposite direction: collectors of vintage computers look for machines that are obsolete, slow, and utterly incompatible with modern PCs.

In the 1970s, and '80s, the proto-geeks that would become today's Web gurus and dot-com millionaires were cutting their teeth on computers from Atari, Commodore, Sinclair, and Spectravideo. On these machines, a floppy drive was a luxury and a 5 megabyte hard drive was impossibly expensive. Programs didn't come on CD-ROM; instead, you might insert a cartridge, load it from a mind-numbingly slow cassette tape, or type in the program yourself from the pages of a magazine. If your buddy had a computer from a different manufacturer, you could bet they were totally incompatible. To classic computer collectors, modern PCs -- more or less identical apart from the logo on the front -- are dreary by comparison.

The most popular early computers are still quite easy to find in online auctions, yard sales, and thrift stores. The Commodore 64, the first computer to sell a million units, is inexpensive and easy to find. The many models in the Apple // and TRS-80 families are also abundant.

Bob Kolk, of Cleveland, Ohio, collects "first generation" personal computers, like the Apple //, Atari 400, Timex Sinclair, and IBM XT. Every collector has a favorite -- and chances are that his favorite machine is the model that served as his first introduction to computers. Kolk's favorite is the Texas Instruments 99/4A, a funky silver box sporting 16 kilobytes of RAM and personal computing's first 16-bit processor. "It was my first computer. I was nine and got it as a 'get well' present. I loved programming and stayed home from school to type in those long programs from Compute! magazine. At 10, I made my first computer consulting money on the TI, an invoicing system for a local company."

Isn't it just a bit geeky to collect, of all things, computers? "Oh, yeah," said Kolk. "It's never something you mention on a first date, but being in the multimedia business I have many colleagues that think it's very cool. They love to reminisce about the 'old days' and some even donate items to the collection."

Once word gets out that you collect computers, people come out of the woodwork, offering to donate their old machines. Once you accept a dusty box of computers and 8-inch diskettes from an acquaintance (who is all too happy to be rid of the junk,) you won't be sure who is doing the favor for whom.

There are even people who actually use these old computers for real work, not just the occasional game of Frogger. George Martin bought an Apple //GS on eBay last year -- not to fortify a collection, but for bookkeeping in his manufacturing business. The computer replaced an Apple //e that had been running the show since 1982.

The reasons for collecting these old machines range from technical to nostalgic. The glow of a green screen and angry growl of a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk drive can evoke fond memories of a youth spent playing games like Ultima and Lode Runner. "I find looking back to the old technology makes me appreciate what we have today," Kolk says. "As a multimedia programmer, I marvel at what companies like Activision and Lucasfilm had to go through to make those computers do 'complex' tasks like character animation or background music. Today's machines are unbelievable, but I wish that software companies would take the approach of the early programmers and try to push more out of the technology. Instead they rely on lighting-fast chips to make up for sloppy code."

It doesn't matter if you started your computing career in the '60s, '70s, or '80s: chances are good that your first computer is for sale in an online auction. Start your search in eBay's vintage computer category ( and the Antique Computer Hardware category at Yahoo! Auctions. (

Sidebar: Turning Old Macs into Fishbowls

Apple implores Macintosh users to use their computers to "Think Different." Some owners of older Macs are taking that motto to the limit -- by gutting their Macs and turning them into aquariums. The unique all-in-one shape of the original Macintosh (and the computers that followed in its wake, like the Mac Plus and Mac Classic) makes them the perfect housing for a "Macquarium."

There is no one recipe for creating a Macquarium: it is apparently an art as tenuous as keeping goldfish alive for longer than a month. However, the idea of the Macintosh-turned-aquarium is not new. Back in the dark ages of computing, 1992, esteemed forefather and Macintosh writer Andy Ihnatko created what historians believe was the first how-to guide for building a Macquarium. Available as a Microsoft Word document ( it is an amusing read, even if you prefer to leave your Mac unmolested.

Check out The Mac Aquariums, ( a gallery of fish-fortified Macs built by various individuals with more free time then sense.

There's even a company ( that sells kits for fishificating your Mac. If you're a lizard lover, take heart: they sell terrarium kits as well.

Sure, it sounds like fun, but be warned: In the words of Andy Ihnatko, turning your Mac into a fishbowl "may violate your Apple warrantee or AppleCare extended warrantee."

Articles by Kevin Savetz