While I have long been a computer hobbyist, I began the Retrocomputing Lab out of necessity in 2012. While completing my dissertation, I discovered an “Afterword” by William Gibson to his Sprawl trilogy (the Russian website where I found this is long gone–sometimes it is referred to as the “Foreword” instead of the “Afterword”–A copy is on the William Gibson message boards here). However, I could not find his “Afterword” in any printed edition. Luckily, I stumbled upon this entry in WorldCat for the Voyager eBook-on-floppy-disk edition of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, which was said to contain this special essay by the author. While I could have simply accepted the text as it was circulating on the Internet, liberated from its obsolete media format, I felt that I needed to 1) verify its authenticity and 2) experience the text in its original form.
Experiencing Gibson’s essay in its original form became problematic. While I was able to obtain a copy of the floppy disk via interlibrary loan from the University of Michigan, I could not locate a Mac with 1) a 1.44 MB, 3.5″ floppy disk drive and 2) capability of running older 68K code. There simply wasn’t a Mac anywhere within 100 miles of Kent State University that I could find after numerous emails and phone calls. So, I turned to eBay and purchased a Powerbook 145 (an earlier model of my first Mac–a Powerbook 145B). With this Powerbook, I was able to experience Gibson’s essay and first three books as they were intended for a portable Macintosh computer.
What excited me about reading Gibson’s nonfiction and fiction on the Powerbook besides finally confirming the origin of the essay was that the software enabled me to do more with the text than read–I could bookmark and search the text. Had I seen this when it was originally released in 1992, it would have blown my socks off!
Simultaneously, I was using textual analysis tools on my MacBook to help me in my research and I was reading/searching eBooks and PDFs of secondary material on an iPad 2. This began my thinking about how we read on screens, how that reading differs materially and hapticly than on printed matter, and what effect these different ways of reading and interfaces of reading have on the human brain.
It was the convergence of these two threads–reconnecting/recovering/reviving old media and reading/researching/reflecting on computer screens–that led to the founding of my Retrocomputing Lab.
Over the past two years, I have expanded the lab to include Macs and PCs of various vintages. There’s a variety of software and hardware configurations that I can deploy depending on the need of my research. For example, I can install a specific OS to have the experience of using that interface and its affordances/features, or I can swap SoundBlaster sound cards (I currently have four ISA SB16 cards) to enable specific aural experiences from games.
Below, I have briefly sketched the machines and software that I have in the Retrocomputing Lab. If you are interested in collaborating on a project, contact me on Twitter or by email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu.
The Powerbook 145 is a tempermental machine (owing to its bad battery and poor AC adapter connector) with an easy to read monochrome screen. It doesn’t have a lot of horsepower with a 68030 processor and no FPU. Nevertheless, it got me over the hump at the end of my dissertation journey and gave me access to an earlier form of cyberspace locked away in a floppy disk. I set it up behind me on a podium during my dissertation defense. Its cackles and clicks emboldened me while discussed computer minds and human brains and the relationship between the two. I am glad that this Powerbook, which helped me tremendously when I needed it during my research, was able to share the moment with me in the reading room of Satterfield Hall at Kent State University.
I found the Powerbook 180c (color vs. the monochrome screen on the 145) locally on Craigslist after my dissertation defense. I purchased it, an external SCSI hard drive, and software from a longtime Mac enthusiast. It is as tempermental as the Powerbook 145, but it is a good machine. I hope to get both of these Powerbooks in better working order, but I might need to enlist a friend who has superior soldiering skills. Notice how much smaller its screen is than the Powerbook 145’s. Color screens were a premium back then. Additionally, this Powerbook 180C’s case is more fragile than the Powerbook 145’s case. This could be due to the way it was cared for by its previous owner instead of a structural flaw. Nevertheless, I am learning about the greater difficulties involved in maintaining and repairing older laptops over the less difficulties involved in maintaining and repairing desktop computers.
This Pentium 200 MHz computer is currently configured for booting into MS-DOS (3.5″ boot disk) or Windows 95 (hard drive). This is my only AT case and power supply, too, but I can swap the Pentium’s motherboard (which supports PCI video) with a 486 DX2 66 MHz Vesa Local Bus (VLB) motherboard and video card. My first IBM-compatible PC (following my Tandy Color Computer 2 and Commodore Amiga 2000HD) was a locally built 486 DX2 66 MHz monster with a Video Blaster expansion card and 8 MB RAM. One of my worst mistakes was selling that computer and beginning my first year at Georgia Tech with my Powerbook 145B. We connect with others via our technology–how might I had made different connections had I had different tech?
The bulk of my computer manuals, software manuals, and software collection take up four shelves of a bookcase. I keep many of my floppy disks in a cardboard box, but I leave disks and manuals in their boxes if those are available. Since I am particularly interested in the experience of using computers and reading on computer screens, I have software ranging from interactive video games (especially those that have an important reading element, which encompasses pretty much everything from first person shooters to flight simulators to adventure games) to eBooks on CD-ROM (e.g., Baen’s CD-ROM series available on Archive.org) to interactive encyclopedias (Grolier’s, Compton’s, and Encarta).
Finally, I use these two computers for most of my daily computing, research, and writing tasks. The desktop computer is a Customac running Mac OS X 10.9 (I wrote about it here), and the laptop is a MacBook Pro (Retina, Mid 2012). I carry the MBP with me to campus and I use the desktop Mac when I am at home. However, I rely on having the two computers available during my research, because I can have them presenting different information on their separate screens as easily as I can have them doing different things with software independently.
Update: I traded a friend an old, beige AOpen ATX case for my Corsair C70 case. Am I crazy? Maybe, but I sure do like having cutting edge power and massive storage in a late-1990s/early-2000s ATX case.
Before moving to Brooklyn, NY, I donated four of my vintage computers to the Georgia Tech Library Archives. Learn more about my collaboration with the Georgia Tech Archives here, and find out about the donated computers here and here.