‘Retrocomputing’ sounds old. That’s exactly what it is: About systems and software from yesteryear and long before that. And since things change extremely fast in the tech-business, ‘retro’ must mean obsolete – with a scent of museum. But wait. Not everything changes all that fast. Some things hardly change at all – and continue to run the same old stuff forever. Who’s taking care of that?
I like to fix old computers. And to use them. Not because they remind me of the ‘good old days’, which they do. But because working with them forces me to think differently. They challenge me: What can you do, how far can you get with a 40 year old piece of hardware with minimal resources and a simple OS? The answer may surprise you: ‘To the moon and back.’ Even better: ‘Beyond the Sun.’
50+ years is a long time. 50+ years in technology is forever 5 times over. And 50+ years have passed since NASA’s astronauts travelled to the moon and back – assisted by something akin to a simple calculator. The Apollo Guidance Computer, created by Raytheon in 1966, was less powerful than your simplest remote (take a closer look here). How was it possible?
Fascinating, and trigger for a very interesting question: We have increased our capacities 5-7 orders of magnitude and still seem to be fighting many of the same problems. What happened? A question for another day and time…
But seriously – my Compaq Portable III was a marvel in 1986, with (pardon the tech speak) its 640k memory, 40MB harddisk, floppy disk, 12.5MHz 16 bit processor, plasma screen and 10kgs. A portable (aka ‘luggable’) powerhouse compared to what the astronauts had 18 years earlier, and a laughing stock compared to the RaspberryPi Pico I got in the mail the other day – for $8.
Still – with some smartness and ingenuity the Compaq can serve 3 – 4 users running email, networking and text processing with decent performance. Actually, it offers better response times than most users get from the net these days, where click and wait is the norm. Totally unacceptable 35 years ago, yet here we are.
I digress. Response time is not my point. Resources, abundance and scarcity is. And understanding: Why is it important that we – in 2022 – understand the technology inside old clunkers from the 80s and 90s? Surprisingly to most people, there are a number of really good reasons.
The first is a slow but clear message from outer space – literally. From Voyager 1 and 2, the now famous interstellar spacecrafts launched by NASA in 1977 that continue to work and send messages home, 45 years later. Born almost 10 years after the first lunar mission, their computer systems are a lot more powerful. Still, the capacity is dwarfed by your domestic TV remote. And unlike the Apollo Guidance Computer, the Voyager computers are still operating.
An incredible feat made possible by its simplicity and inherent robustness – plus a shipload of engineering ingenuity. Large components, lots of wires, few printed circuit boards, smart design and lots of redundancy (read about it here) and not the least: Except for the master system, they’re turned on only when needed. Not to prolong their life but to save energy. Longevity is a bonus.
Billions and billions of miles away, these systems continue to deliver. There have been bugs and problems, and they have been fixed – from earth. Which brings me to the point: In order to use, maintain, maybe change/update these systems, technicians and engineers have to understand them. The design, how they work, capabilities, limitations etc. Literally to the last bit. The kind of understanding you some times find in a car shop where this elderly guy listens to your car and tells you exactly what’s going on.
Where do we find the 3rd or 4th generation of engineers to fill positions like that? You guessed it, among new generations of retrocomputing enthusiasts. Those who would never leave an issue until they understood it completely. Nerds if you like. Fortunately, maybe surprisingly, there are quite a few of them out there: A new generation driven by interest in and desire to recreate vintage digital games – on any platform.
The voyager computers are esoteric and fascinating. Much less fascinating and a lot closer to ‘home’ are all the industrial environments that continue to use computer systems and software from the 80s and 90s. Such as BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit: Trains, many of them 40+ years old, are powered by their original computers, as reported by The San Jose Mercury News recently. If your first reaction is ‘this must be dangerous’ since old computers are notoriously unsafe and buggy, you’re right. By any internet-age metric, they are dangerous. But where they are, they’re safe enough – as long as they keep running.
Which is becoming an increasing problem in itself. The challenge stretches beyond finding the right expertise and includes tools, spare parts, even spare systems. Where do you get a Windows 98 system these days? eBay of course, which is where BART technicians are getting them. eBay and their cousins are important ingredients in the retro computing world – as I’ve had ample opportunity to find out while refurbishing systems like the Compaq mentioned above.
Obviously the outdated systems should have been replaces long time ago. On the other hand – ‘if it works, don’t fix it’ is hard to beat if there are no apparent problems whatsoever. Actually, in the BART case, the trains should have been scrapped, they’re long past their anticipated end-of-life date. Yet here we are, they work, they’re deemed safe and they’re needed. Major upgrades are out of the question at this point, and technicians (aka magicians) who understand the old stuff, the software and the hardware, save the day – every day. As the original support team reaches retirement, a new generation is recruited from the same pool as the Voyager technicians. The good ones are few and far between – which means they are getting well paid. Not a bad career path at all …
My final point is inspiration – the challenge I mentioned above. Actually, constraints (as in retrocomputing) and abundance (as in modern computing) work the same way although possibly not for the same people. In the abundance case it may go like this: “Hey we have all this stuff, what can we do with it?”. As an example, take a look at the explosive developments triggered by the availability of cheap digital ‘powerhouses’ like the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi. Truly incredible. The Raspberry Pi – even the tiny Zero and the even tinier Pico – are abundance in a technical sense. For their price and size, these small computers have incredible horsepower and capabilities.
In the resource constrained case (retro), it may go like this: “Hey we have this old system, let’s figure out what it can do.” Game on, and understanding the technology, the components and how they fit together is the path to some incredible results, like the Voyager computers or the BART systems.
Old technology isn’t inherently good, but some of it is inherently interesting, even fascinating – to some of us. Far out of sight for just about everyone, old technology is critical in keeping the world going. And it’s not going to pass. There is always going to be mission critical vintage technology out there. And there is always going to be a need for maintenance, changes, improvements, updates and more.
So – contrary to popular belief, while retrocomputing may be a pastime for some, it’s also a very attractive career path. Important, interesting, inspiring, rare… and challenging.
Did I mention emulators – software that ‘impersonates’ old systems? No I didn’t. Maybe unsurprisingly, they’re part of the same league. But that’s for another post another time.