I’ve been a retro-computing hobbyist pretty much since I was a kid when I we got a bunch of old equipment from the school that included either an IBM 5150 or 5160, a couple Apple IIs, a TI-99/4a, a Mac Plus and some other random old equipment. Sadly when I was in the Air Force(and thus didn’t have room to take all the stuff with me), my mother assumed it was all junk and threw it out. While there was a bit less of a gulf between all that 80’s technology and what was current then in the late 90’s early 00’s than there is now, the differences that did exist (especially on computers weren’t direct ancestors to modern PCs) were always fascinating with the strange expansion ports and being able to load and save software with ordinary audio cassettes. I especially like the old computers that had BASIC baked right into ROM allowing you to start programming and really get to know the computer right out of the box. While those old computers weren’t my first foray into programming, I do think they did help shape my perspective on computers as something that you could really make do what you want rather than operating in the predefined boxes of ordinary software. It’s just a huge cognitive shift going from my Windows 95 computer(or even when it was running Linux) and needing to track down compilers and figure out how to get things to compile and generally spend a lot of time just to get started as opposed to being dropped directly into a BASIC prompt and the computer practically begging you to program it.
As someone who does “computer stuff” professionally, the different feel of old computers gives me a way to play with computers that doesn’t feel like. I know some people can essentially do the same thing for their work and hobby, but I need at least a small context switch, so you’ll probably never see me writing kubernetes stuff in my spare time after work. Since I deal mostly in software at work now that everything is cloud based and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done real work in an actual data center, the hardware aspect that comes with dealing with real retro computers(as opposed to emulators, which I’ll get to in a moment) is very appealing and gives me a feeling that I’m guessing is similar to how people who work on old cars feel. It’s very satisfying to take an old computer that maybe hasn’t worked in a while, and perhaps in poor cosmetic shape and then cleaning and fixing it up. The feeling is a small but subtle difference than building something new, at least for me.
Finally there’s the nostalgia aspect. For me it’s not all about nostalgia since I’ve never owned many of these old computers that I have before, but there are a couple of pieces that do. Yesterday I fixed up and old iMac G3 that’s a couple models older than the one I had and is a different color, but once I got it up and running, I was instantly transported back to 2002 when I’d used money from my summer job to buy my first new computer that would be my own( the old computers were mine, but weren’t usable for general use) and taking it off to college. And even just seeming something close enough can work, as I also got a good nostalgia bump when I first turned on a recently acquired PowerBook running MacOS 7.6. While I never owned a PowerBook, my families first computer was a Macintosh Performa 410 running System 7.
That brings me to emulators. For that pure nostalgia bump, emulators are a great way to go without needing a lot of extra space or hardware skills. Even though I like the hardware side immensely, I play around in emulators a lot, either for systems I don’t have or just for ease of doing something without having to drag out a physical computer and getting it all hooked up. For me, emulators largely end up being about games usually a Raspberry Pi with RetroPi plays NES and SNES games on the TV or sitting in DOSBox playing old favorites or even games I found way after the fact. I’m also finding emulators to be either a great testing ground to find what systems I may want to collect next, or a dangerous tool fuels my habit and causes me to keep buying more old junk I don’t need, depending on if you ask me or my wife.
After a long hiatus in the hardware side of the hobby(aside from an old game console here and there), I’ve jumped back in with both feet and maybe have started a little too enthusiastically, but I’m sure I’ll get that under control ( please ignore the three book cases full of Warhammer models, surely that was a fluke and I’ll be able to control myself with this hobby). As it stands right now, I’ve got the following:
- Commodore 64
- Compaq Portable 1
- Osborne 1
- PowerBook 3400c
- PowerBook G3 (Wallstreet)
- iMac G3 (Summer 2000 Indigo)
- iMac G5 (17”)
The TI-99/4a and Commodore 64 work perfectly, while the iMac G3 and two PowerBooks are mostly functional. The Compaq and Osborne are nearly working, but just need some minor work while the iMac G5 needs capacitors replaced. Now the hard part is queuing them up for repair/restoration in an orderly fashion rather than trying to do everything all at once.
While I’m not done collecting, I’m not currently seeking out new specific stuff, just keeping an eye for for good deals, but for the most part wanting to get the majority of my current collection restored before moving one. My current wishlist is actually pretty short. I’d love and Apple IIgs, an Amiga, and some old Unix workstation. Those are my only solid “wants” right now, but I’m sure I’ll pick up plenty of things in the future that catch my eye and look neat.