Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Super-secret Project: YOMP2

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on what I dubbed my “Super-Secret Project”, one that’s related to several projects, one way or another. Mainly, though, this project is a stand-alone one that’s connected to one other, but is nevertheless a project all on its own: It’s basically YOMP2.

In August of last year, I talked about buying a vintage Macintosh, and I went on to nickname that project “Ye Olde Mac Project” (or, YOMP). I did a couple updates, one on September 2, in which I talked more about the reasons I was doing the project at all, and another later that month about buying a vintage Power Computing Mac keyboard. In that post, I foreshadowed what would become YOMP2. I said:
…in my first YOMP update post, I talked about not being able to access old diskettes. I said that “somehow getting access to a working vintage Macintosh” was an option if I can’t get the Mac Classic working. The jury’s still out on whether that Mac Classic will work or not, but I made progress on the back-up option, something I’ll talk about in a few weeks (those same Covid restrictions are delaying the completion of this mysterious development). But I think it’ll be a good development.
A few days before that post, I’d bought a newer vintage Mac, an LC575 (photo above right), on our online auction site. I was so vague about it because those Covid restrictions at the time meant I couldn’t go to Auckland to pick it up, and I had no idea when I’d would. Then, the restrictions eased a wee bit, but I still couldn’t go there, so my niece was able to pick it up for me. However, even then I still had no idea when I’d be able to get the Mac—and I didn’t even know for sure if it worked (though I knew the screen worked). I didn’t want to talk about it until I knew more.

Then, things got worse: Auckland got locked down until just before Christmas and there was absolutely no way I could go pick it up, or for family to bring it to me. In the meantime, my niece moved to a new place, and that delayed things further.

I finally got it January, and I started it up. The screen showed a question mark in a drawing of a diskette, which means it couldn’t find the operating system. I checked the logic board and it looked fine: The battery hadn’t exploded (less likely than for the Mac Classic) or leaked, and none of the capacitors needed to be replaced. I thought it looked a bit dusty, though, so I bought a can of compressed air, which I mentioned at the time, adding, “It’s for a super-secret project that soon won’t be secret, but dunno whether it’ll turn out super or not (I’m optimistic, though).” And that’s where things stayed.

I don’t have any reasons, or even an explanation, for why I didn’t work on it, apart from having so many (too many, probably…) projects, and then there was that whole fatigue thing to contend with. I do think, though, that I was also afraid that it, too, might be beyond my abilities to get going again.

It wasn’t just a vintage Mac that I bought, it was a vintage bundle: It came with two keyboards, a mouse, and a Colour StyleWriter 2400, a thermal inkjet printer that Apple started making in September 1994, about the same time the LC 575 was made. While ink for the printer is still available, it’s hopelessly out of date: It printed only 3 pages per minute in black and white, and 0.3 in colour. If I was a collector of Apple products—and, by default, I guess I am—it would be a “nice to have”, but not something I needed or sought. Everything else was useful, though.

However, one of the two keyboards was damaged in that move, but that didn’t really matter because if I ever get the Mac Classic (the first vintage Mac I bought) going, I’ll now have a keyboard for it (because I’d already had that Power Computing keyboard). All that’s good, but then it got even better.

The seller later offered to give me some USB Iomega Zip Drives, and some used Zip disks they had. I told them that those drives have value (they can be quite expensive if in working order and good condition), but the seller didn’t want money for them, especially because they knew the Mac was going to someone who really wanted it. That happened after my niece had already collected the Mac for me, so the seller dropped the drives off, which is probably how they got separated from the stuff I’d bought.

I got those drives recently, after my niece found them in a box, and I plugged one into my current Mac and was able to access one of my Zip Disks. I couldn’t get any other disks to read, however, I didn’t know if the drive was faulty or if, like with floppy disks, my current Mac was too new to access the files.

The next step, I decided, was to to see if I could get the LC575 itself running again. My idea was to plug my own SCSI Zip Drive into it. It took a couple goes, but I eventually got the LC575 to boot up; there were a few old-timey things I needed to do (using long forgotten techniques), but the important thing is that it had been so long since it was last used that it took the hard drive some time to start spinning again. Once it did, it was fine.

The first task I took on was checking all those 800K floppy disks I hadn’t been able to read before. Out of the 45 I’d found, I checked 35 (the other 10 had software files on them), and of those, 17 had files I wanted to have (most of the diskettes were either blank or had files I didn’t want, like software updates). I was, right, though, that among those 17 were some of my oldest files—but not all of what I wanted.

I’d discovered that I didn’t have the correct SCSI cable to plug my Zip Drive into the LC575 (I think I still have it somewhere, though), so instead I plugged one of the USB Zip Drives into my old MacBook Pro, and I was right: It was able to access all the files on the disks. By that time, I’d found 11 Zip Disks (I’d found another one since last mentioning them). Two of them were Nigel’s files, and appeared to be Windows updates, but the other nine had files I wanted, including the biggest prize: Our emails to each other from before I came to New Zealand the first time, in September 1995, and from during the time between that visit and when I moved here in November. I still have even larger disks to access, but I can’t do much with them because of the limitations of the LC575.

The problems I face are, first, that the LC575 doesn’t have a network connection. In those days, Macs generally used a networking protocol called AppleTalk (later called LocalTalk), often using phone cables with special connectors. In fact, at my first job in New Zealand I set up and maintained such a network, though that one used coaxial cables. The LC575 had an expansion slot, as most later Macs had, and the LC575 takes a card that plugs into the Processor Direct Slot (PDS) to provide an Ethernet connection, and that’s what my wired home network is.

That matters because I the larger external SCSI storage device I have is called a SyJet, sold by SyQuest Technology, a company that at its height was THE way to transfer large files (or lots of files). The Syjet cartridges held 1.5GB each, and was a competitor to Iomega’s Jaz Drive, the cartridges for which held 1GB. I bought the Syjet Drive not just for the larger capacity cartridges, but also because Jaz Drives were notorious for their failures—the infamous “click of death”. Both companies are long gone, and their products are rare. The advent of CD writers and FTP made the Syquest and Iomega products unnecessary and obsolete.

All of this matters because unless I can connect the LC575 to my ethernet network, it’d be an absolutely HUGE job to transfer files. If one of the Syjet cartridges was full, it would take more than a thousand floppy disks to move all the files, however, because the LC575’s hard drive currently only has around 40MB of available space, I’d have to do lots of small batches over and over and over.

In the interim, I’ll check the Syjet cartridges for any files that I want right now. There may or may not be any files like that—I simply don’t know. But finding what’s on them is at least possible now.

The Super-Secret Project, then, was really just a joking name for a revised version of the original Ye Olde Macintosh Project, and it exists for the exact same reason as the original: To get access to my oldest files. But that’s not where this ends.

I have lots of games from that era, including one of my favourites from that time, like “Marathon” from Bungie software (it was a forerunner of their later “Halo” series). It’ll be fun, in a nostalgic kind of way, to play those games again (although parts one and two of the “Marathon” trilogy were ported to Apple’s iPadOS, I find it too difficult to play without a keyboard). In true Apple fashion, there’s one more thing.

The Macintosh LC575 is the model that Nigel had before I came to New Zealand, and for some time afterward. I brought my own Mac with me, and I have vivid memories of us both sitting in the room we shared as an office, him on his LC575, and me on my Performa 637. We both upgraded many times in the years afterward, going back and forth between Windows machines and Macs, before we both ultimately settled on Macs. Nigel’s LC575, then, was an integral part of making it possible for there to even BE an “us”. I didn’t buy the LC575 because of that—I knew it was a good machine for its era, met all my criteria, and as an all-in-one Mac, and that meant I wouldn’t have to find a vintage monitor or work out how to adapt a newer one to work with a vintage Mac. Even so, the fact it’s an LC575 is definitely a nice bonus.

This project, whether it’s called YOMP or YOMP2, isn’t completely finished and done, but I have accomplished the main driver for this whole project: I now have the old files that were the most important to me, especially those 27-year-old emails. And that feels bloody awesome.

More on the Mac LC575: It was available February 1994 to April 1995 (the one I bought was manufactured in August 1994). It has a Motorola 68LC040 33MHz processor; the “LC” in the processor name means it had no Floating Point Unit, which affects graphics, and the same processor with an FPU would be labelled 68040. The LC versions of processors were used in Performa Macs and in LC models. It could run up to MacOS 8.1, and shipped with System 7.1. They started with an 80MB hard drive (the one I have has a 250MB hard drive), and had 4MB built-in memory, expandable to a 68MB maximum. They had a built-in 14-inch Trinitron colour CRT monitor, a 2x CD-ROM drive (read only), and a SuperDrive for floppy disks. It originally cost US$1,699. In today’s money, adjusted for inflation, that would be about US$3,049. The 2022 US amount would be around NZ$4993 in today’s dollars, which can be compared to current models: The new Mac Studio with an M1 Ultra chipset would cost NZ$3,999, but without a monitor, and the more comparable 24-inch iMac with maximum memory and internal hard drive would be NZ$2499. Modern Macintoshes are definitely a LOT more affordable now, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it.


Roger Owen Green said...

In a micro way, it's like the James Webb telescope, looking back in time. Though 27 years isn't as far back as millions of years, but far more personal to YOU.

Arthur Schenck said...

It is, and there are actually files that ever older, though I haven't yet found many of those.