Sunday, August 29, 2021

It’s my new project, Mac

If I’ve learned anything about managing my various projects over the years, it’s that it’s always good to have several non-important ones on the list. That way, when progress on important projects gets stalled, I can still have other projects to turn to. Idle hands, and all that. However, my latest non-urgent project takes that to a whole new level—breaking me into new and completely foreign territory populated with many new challenges and the chance to learn totally new skills. Or, it could all end badly. It should be clear which way it’s headed within a few weeks, when the project itself may end. Or, it may go on for ages. The not-knowing is part of the excitement.

I recently bought an old Macintosh Classic (manufactured in 1990) on NZ’s online auction site. I paid $63 for it (today, that’s about US$44) as is—no keyboard or mouse or power cord, and no promises it would work. If that seems like a weird thing to buy, I have my reasons.

It all started when I found an old “get started” disk for the “America Online” Internet service (I forgot to share that Instagram post here; oops). The box it was in also had “dozens (…and dozens) of floppy disks”, as I put it on my personal Facebook at the time. I knew I had a USB external floppy disk dive, so it should’ve been easy to check them, right? That’s not how technology usually works.

So far, I’ve found a total of 154 floppy disks, all but three of which I’ve checked. And that right there is where it first got complicated.

I plugged the floppy drive into my current Mac Mini, but it couldn’t read any disks. A little Googling told me that in October 2019, Apple eliminated support for the floppy disk file indexing system called HFS (Hierarchical File System) when they released their 2019 MacOS, Catalina. My new Mac Mini couldn’t read the floppies—but I thought my old MacBook Pro probably could.

That old MacBook still has an older (pre-2019) operating system, so it could read most of the floppies—but there were 45 it couldn’t read. Those disks were “double-sided, double-density” (also known as DS/DD or just DD), and they were the oldest of my floppies and, based on the labels on them, hold some of my oldest files. Those disks hold stuff that doesn’t exist anywhere else, including stuff from my activist days. I had those disks because in those days I was sometimes renting time using the Macintoshes of the day, and they often could only use the DS/DD diskettes. NOW I wish I’d copied the files to HD diskettes, but it never occurred to me back then.

I suspect, but don’t know, that the USB floppy drive Nigel had can only read the more “modern” HD floppy disk format. I couldn’t find any model number on the drive, and my attempts to find out through searching online didn’t solve the matter—but it seems the most likely explanation.

Next, I decided to try to access a bunch of disks that look like floppy disks on steroids: Zip Disks, something like mini-removable hard drives used in the peripheral Zip Drive. I have ten 100MB Zip disks, and I think the emails that Nigel and I sent to each other before I moved to New Zealand may be on those disks, along with other lost files.

The drive I have is a SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) device (SCSI is similar to a serial interface on a PC). I bought a cable that connects it to a USB port, however, it’s a straight pass-through cable, not an adapter, and it won’t necessarily make a modern computer able to access a SCSI device. None of my Macs can access it.

All of which means that I could access some of my files, those on HD floppy disks, but nothing else. I needed new options.

The wisdom of the Internet told me that a Linux machine might be able to read the Zip disks. Nigel turned our oldest MacBook (the white plastic kind) into a Linux machine, but it couldn’t access the Zip disks (or the DS/DD disks, which again suggests the drive can’t read them). Other advice suggested hooking it up to a PC running WindowsXP, but there are potential file formatting issues, and, anyway, I only run that on my old Hackintosh through emulation, and it doesn’t have a serial port. A dead end.

That’s where the Macintosh Classic came into the picture: It has an Apple Superdrive, the floppy drive they introduced in the late 1980s to read and write both DS/DD and HD diskettes. It also has SCSI—all of which would be useful.

The day the Mac arrived by courier, I grabbed a power cord and plugged it in to see if it turned on (photo above—the fire extinguisher in the background was because I figured it was best to play it safe). It seemed like absolutely nothing happened when I turned it on—the screen remained off, there was no sound of a hard drive spinning up, but then I heard the soft whirring of what I think is the cooling fan. This isn’t necessarily bad news.

There could be lots of different things going on, but I won't know anything for sure until I can open it up. I need a very long-handled T-15 screwdriver, a particular size of a Torx screwdriver with a very long handle. I have heads for that, but nothing with a long-enough handle. I'm pretty sure Nigel would've had one, but, I'm not entirely sure where it'd be (though I have ideas…). If I do need to buy one, I can't get it at Covid Alert Level 4, so there's nothing more I can do right now.

Once I open up the case, I may find that the battery exploded (a common thing, apparently) and damaged the logic board. If that happened, it may be irreparable, or, if it can be fixed, it’d be way beyond my capabilities. Another common problem, probably unrelated to the failure to start up, is that capacitors may have leaked, and they sometimes can be replaced—something I also don’t know how to do (assuming I could even get the right capacitors). Once I know what I’m facing, then I’ll see what things I’d need to learn to do, if possible.

As Steve Jobs might put it, “there’s one more thing”: Macs of that era used something called ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) to connect the keyboard and mouse. Those devices disappeared when USB was introduced, so now the only place to get them is from an online auction site (usually in the USA), and they often go for crazy prices (I’ve seen some keyboards going for more than US$200, which today is about NZ$285). I found a place that makes a true adapter (not just a cable) to connect a corded USB keyboard and mouse to the ADB port on the Mac, and it’s cheaper than many vintage keyboards. Still, no point doing anything about that until I know if the Mac can be saved/repaired.

If all else fails and I can’t get it working, it'll be a nostalgic object for me because it's basically the Mac Plus in new clothes, and the Mac Plus was the very first Mac I ever used—AND I used to do page layouts on the thing, but from here in the 21st Century, I have absolutely no idea how I ever did that. On the other, I saw a video by a guy who took out all the guts of a dead Mac Classic, mounted a modern LED screen where the old CRT monitor was, and put an older Mac Mini inside the case. It's—an option, I guess.

Meanwhile, I have other things to try. For example, I could try to find a used USB Zip Drive, which my old MacBook should be able to access. I also ordered a new USB floppy disk drive that can read both formats of floppy disk. That’ll arrive in a few days. In other words, I’m hedging my bets.

All of this is something I did because progress on my important projects has been stalled by the Level 4 Lockdown. I won’t have any room to move in my garage until I can get those 80 now-flattened boxes out of the way (something I’d planned to deal with the day we moved to Level 4). The horrible weather we’ve had lately (cold and lots of rain) has also meant I couldn’t do any of the preparatory work in the gardens. So, it was really good to have this multi-faceted technical project to work on, especially because so far it’s all cost me less that $100, which is pretty inexpensive as hobbies go.

There’s nothing in all this so far that’s new to me: I’ve been using Macintosh systems since the 1980s, so I’m very familiar with how they worked then as well as now. Even so, there’s plenty of stuff for me to learn, and maybe even a new skill or two to pick up. Most importantly, I enjoy it—even the incomplete successes.

To quote Steve Jobs yet again, there’s one more thing: All of these projects I talk about now have one thing in common: They’re all about me—what I want to do, what interests me, and how I want to arrange my life. Very few of my projects now are actually about Nigel, though the security alarm project was one he never got to. But even that was about what I wanted, and it’s part of the changes I’m making to things that were Nigel’s projects as I move to things that work better for me. I carry all the stuff I learned from Nigel, even from just watching him, but now it’s me taking charge of everything, willingly and on purpose.

It turns out, I’m my own biggest project of all, and so far that’s progressing well.

More on the Mac Classic: It was available October 1990 to September 1992 (the fact that the one I bought was manufactured in September 1990 means it’s among the original machines made). It has a Motorola 68000 8MHz processor, and the OS it could run was System 6.06 up to System 7.5.5. They usually had a 40MB hard drive, and had 1MB built-in memory, with a 4 MB maximum (!). They also had a 9-inch (23cm) monochrome CRT monitor, and that SuperDrive I mentioned. It originally cost US$999 to US$1500, and was the first Mac to cost less than US$1000. In today’s money, adjusted for inflation, that would be about US$2,087 to US$3,133 respectively (which would be NZ$2976 to NZ$4469 in today’s dollars; NZ inflation rates may not match the USA’s, and I don’t know the original list price here in NZ, so those amounts are indicative only). Modern Macintoshes are definitely a LOT more affordable now.


Andrew Dineley said...

Awww… love this! Yeah, if nothing else you get to have a gorgeous piece of industrial design/computer history on display in your home. About 25 years ago I did something similar and rescued one of these from the trash. It was covered in marks and stickers and didn’t work but I gutted it and replaced the screen with a piece of Perspex and made it into a lamp. During the process I also noticed mine was one with the etched signatures inside the casing of all the team involved, including Steve Jobs. It still makes me smile to this day seeing it sitting there in my mini Mac museum.

Speaking of the museum, I have several Macs that still read my USB floppy drive and also have a Zip USB drive too, so as a crazy workaround, if you never get to access your disks, send ‘em across the world and I’ll open each one and transfer the data back to you! It’s always fun looking back at old disks and seeing what’s on them. We used to use them to supply files to the people who prepared printing plates, so I have loads with zipped up folders containing Quark files, fonts and .TIFF files of artwork I now have only a vague memory of even creating. I hope you get into the files, such a trip down memory Lane awaits…

Arthur Schenck said...

The idea of sending my disks from the past into the past (compared to New Zealand's time zone) is kind of funny, but I hope I won't have to. Since I wrote this post, I've looked for used USB Zip Drives online and they are at absolutely insane prices (the highest I saw was $2000 (which today is about £1,018). Good thing I wasn't looking for real.

I think one or two of my Zip Disks came from printing customers back in the day, who delivered their files on them and never collected them. A lot of my HD floppies are the same. Most of my files were in PageMaker, and a very, very old version. It may be complicated to recover them, but I do have an old PC version of Pagemaker which may be able to open them, if all else fails.

I'm worried that this may start a new collecting passion. I wonder if there are any up for auction this week…