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Old Computers

2014/10/08

I've had these things gathering dust around the shop for a while. Decided the other day to dust 'em off and see if they'd boot and by jeez, they both do.

First we have a Commodore PET 2001 from the early '80's. Thirty-two kilobytes of hot screaming computational power waiting to be released. Kind of like an Arduino at 1/16th the clock speed.

In their day, these were considered a decent, reliable computer with a well-engineered single-board design.

That is, the design was mostly well-engineered. These computers were built with mostly TTL chip technology, meaning they used a lot of power. They also used a bipolar power supply, meaning they got hot as hell. They'd generate as much heat as a tube radio, which may not mean much if you've never seen a tube radio.

Commodore computers were often used in labs as they had an IEEE-488 bus interface that could directly connect to a lot of lab equipment.

Other than that, they were a damn boring computer. Exactly what you'd expect to find in school, which is where you would find a lot of them. I was once responsible for the maintenance of several hundred of these devices in the Ottawa school system.

Ahh, here we go now...

...a "real" computer: an Apple II. This one's got 64K of memory, which was the full gallon in the salad days of 8-bit computing. Limitations of the hardware required that 8K of that be bank-switched with the system ROMs, so it's really more like a 56K computer.

To put that in perspective, that amounts to slightly more than 1/3 of the program memory of a present-day TI-84 CE graphing calculator.

Strictly speaking, this one's not quite real. It's a clone. A dead knockoff of the Apple II design with a few clever improvements. This was probably assembled in a bay in an industrial mall in the suburbs of Montreal, and it was purchased in a bay in anonther industrial mall in the suburbs of Ottawa.

The degree of piracy and copyright violation involved in the production of these devices was truly breathtaking. You'd be burned at the stake if you tried anything like that now. I suspect the reason Apple didn't go after these brazen pirates tooth and nail was to avoid drawing attention to the fact that many of the clones were markedly superior to the 'real' article.

These things were iconic. They were everywhere in the '80's. Equipped with a (clone) Z-80 card, they were the lowest-cost machine available that could run the CP/M operating system. CP/M made it a "real" computer. You could do boring office-type things like accounting and word processing with it.

With the addition of a cheap 300 baud modem, you could engage with the nascent online culture on the dial-in bulletin board systems that abounded in those pre-Internet days.

As far as prices go, my guess is that between the two of them, you're looking at in the neighbourhood of $6,500 CDN in 1983 money.

The Apple clone, as I recall, came in at around $4,300 with two drives and a comprehensive load-out of expansion cards. For that price, at that time, it felt like we were stealing it, which we kind of were, actually.

These days, a TI-89 calculator for $169 would stomp either one into little bits and then piss on the shards. Or both of them together, for that matter.

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