Bringing History Back to Life

This section of the website is dedicated to journalling the computers I bring back to life (or my failures in doing so, where appropriate!) I got into this in early 2019 when I determined it was time to revive my original Mac Plus that has traveled the continent with me for two decades, slowly losing its will to live. I learned a lot doing that — and managed to avoid electrocuting myself — then decided it might make a fun and profitable hobby. As you’ll see from the entries, profit is rarely to be found, but restoring these little bundles of computer history has other rewards. Plus, having a hobby keeps me (and Nicole!) sane.

You can scroll through the post history in the section, and see them all, or use this index to jump to your favorite machine…

Apple IIGS

Apple IIc

Macintosh M0001

Macintosh SE

Mac Plus

20th Anniversary Mac

Color Classic

Atari Mega ST2

Work in Progress:
Apple IIC plus
Atari 1040 ST
NeXTStation 1100
Mac Classic II

Got an old computer you want restored? Or some data on ancient floppy disks you’d like to see again? I love a challenge — contact me!

Continue reading “Bringing History Back to Life”

Atari Mega ST 2

When I was young, my parents wanted to encourage my interest in computers, but couldn’t afford a new machine, so they bought a used Atari 800XL from a friend, and mostly let me have my way with it. My dad writes about being shocked when I took it apart. Of the many things I learned how to do with that Atari, war-dialing BBSes was one of my favorites. It was through these proto-online experiences that I learned about the Atari ST computers. I remember being shocked that the “1040” was a computer more powerful than mine — because my floppy drive had the moniker “1050.” That year, I asked a mall Santa for an Atari Falcon.

For more than two decades, I’d lusted after these fabled 16-bit Atari machines, but their relative rarity in North America meant they were too expensive to justify. I finally found a fellow nerd who traded my restored Apple IIGS for his Atari Mega ST 2. My excitement faded fast as I figured out why Atari didn’t survive as a purveyor of home computers…

My Mega ST set-up came in stackable parts: the main computer, an external Megafile hard drive, and a high resolution gray-scale monitor. 2 of 3 parts were very yellowed, but in otherwise great cosmetic condition. The monitor sprang to life clear and sharp, the hard drive spun true, and the Atari itself booted quickly — but screamed the whole time. I figured this would be an easy repair, if that was the only issue.

Dissembling the monitor proved too difficult to be worth it, so I tried a new retro-brighting technique: mostly a pure sun bath, combined with periodic painting on of some lightly diluted 40v liquid. The color was mostly restored, and there was no bleaching or staining. The Mega was easier to take apart — save for the ridiculous amount of metal shielding. The keyboard was similar, although I was horrified to find that each individual key-cap had its own separate rubber plunger, most of which rolled away and had to be chased across the rec room. My standard gentle retro-bright bathe cleaned these parts up nicely, and the color match with the monitor was spot on. While they were apart, I re-capped the logic board and power supply, and check continuity on the keyboard solder points and cable — since the screaming sound appeared to be a “stuck key” indication.

Next came the hard drive. Amazingly, the case color was still quite close to original, and even more incredible, the factory warranty stickers were unbroken. I decided it was best not to mess with it, and settled only for a warm cloth wipe down, and a gentle baking soda rub on a few stubborn spots.

Once everything was dry, I re-assembled it all and powered it back up. Same quick response, same screaming sound. I purchased a new keyboard cable from someone online, and waited to try again. Weeks later, same result. After repeated attempts, I found that 2-3 times in 10 boots, there’d be no scream, but any text entry field would immediately fill up with garbage character input from the keyboard. And 1 in 10 boots everything would work fine. Occasionally disconnecting and re-connecting the keyboard after booting would solve the problem.

A YouTube video indicated a possible short or unintended ground on the logic board might be the culprit, but running the Mega bare on a static mat had no impact, and a close inspection with a loupe could find no bad traces. A fellow nerd suggested maybe a bad oscillator crystal on the keyboard, but swapping that fixed nothing. A replacement keyboard could only be sourced from Europe, at great cost, and with significant delay due to the pandemic’s impact on shipping. Finally a member of a Facebook group who’d purchased a previous restoration from me volunteered to send me a cap-less junk keyboard that I could use to narrow down the problem. Sure enough, the Mega was happy with that keyboard… unfortunately, the caps from my bad keyboard were not a fit, so I couldn’t combine them. Instead I swapped every significant electrical component from the working-junk keyboard with the bad-but-beautiful original. No change.

Determined that this project wouldn’t be a complete loss, I purchased a hard drive emulator (unfortunately dubbed the “UltraSATAN”) so I could load up some games… only to find that the disk would get corrupted within minutes of use. Discouraged, I found and purchased an Atari 1040ST to try to compare and isolate this problem. Eventually, I learned through forums that reliable hard disk access would require an OS upgrade. Incredibly, Atari’s approach to software updates was to replace ROM chips inside the computer — I ordered some from eBay, and after two tries, got a set that worked. I found a decent list of games that claimed to work in high-resolution mode, and curated a hard disk image using the Hatari emulator. About half the games were playable, but even less were fun. Oh well, maybe I need a color monitor for the fun ones…

This, it turns out, required an expensive custom cable, so it was back to eBay for an Atari video to SCART cable. Fortunately, I had an SCART to HDMI adapter that had served me well in the past. Unfortunately, the hand-made cable arrived with a short in it, and within minutes of plugging it in, smoke was pouring out of my HDMI adapter. The seller replaced the cable, and I bought a cheaper adapter on Amazon… which only showed one color. I returned it, and bought the more expensive adapter again. Finally, Atari in color on a modern monitor… at this point, I was so far in the hole on this project, that it was impossible to justify it to my wife/accountant.

My original goal had been to play with some MIDI software. I used to play piano quite well, and remember when I first learned about MIDI keyboards and got excited about this union of two of my interests. While our current Clavinova does MIDI, its of the USB variety, and adapters from USB to classic MIDI are unreasonably expensive. The only use case left was to try out some more games… unfortunately, the Atari joystick that had been in storage since my youth only had one working axis. Off to Amazon to order a replacement.

We did finally manage to try out a few games and have a little fun with the beast, but most of the joy, and all of the excitement was gone. Off all my restorations, this one is most clearly a failure. The Mega ST 2 looked and ran nice, and I found a buyer for it who already had a working keyboard, so I’m sure he was happy. The Megafile hard drive worked great, and another buyer got a decent deal to add to his collection. After selling, I got close enough to the break-even point that the boss allowed me to continue with other projects. And I still have the monitor and the 1040ST to play with… but those are another blog post.

Macintosh Color Classic

The Color Classic was the compact Mac that the fans wanted… almost. It unfortunately ended up with a slightly crippled system architecture — something only addressed in the Color Classic 2 (which was unfortunately never sold in the US.) Still the Color Classic (CC) was a cute and modernized take on the design that made the Mac famous.

Running the penultimate non-PPC Motorola CPU, the 68030, but limited to a 16-bit data path, the CC is poky on later versions of System 7, but runs well on 7.1. Its display does 256 colors, but at a non-standard resolution that prevented it from playing a significant subset of color Mac games (although its possible to work around with a pretty heavy-duty hardware mod that ups the display to 640×480). The CC shares a logic board design with the 68040-based Performa/LC 57x series boards, allowing a drop-in logic board upgrade dubbed “Mystic.” For those who don’t mind losing the back cover, the “Takky” upgrade involves installing a logic board from even later Macs, including PowerPCs, but requires some modification.

I chose to leave my Color Classic as close to stock as possible. It came from someone on a Facebook group who had two dead ones he was looking to unload. He sold it to me for $100 shipped, and it arrived yellowed, and covered in stickers and sticker residue, but with almost no damage to the case — and no clock battery leakage. Of course, none of that good news meant it would turn on. Cleaning the logic board and leaving it plugged in for 24 hours resulted in slight signs of life, but I couldn’t get it powered up until I thoroughly bathed the logic board (then thoroughly dried it.) After that, it booted exactly once — then the hard drive failed completely.

Still, that was enough to suggest it was salvageable. The fact that washing the board had an impact meant that the surface mount capacitors were leaking. This being my first experience with SMDs, I watched a solid two hours of YouTube videos covering a variety of techniques for removal, then practiced on a garbage board. I settled on the “snip, twist and pull” approach, to minimize the chance of trace damage. Soldering new ones on was a little more delicate then through-hole caps, but nothing I couldn’t handle. A full set of replacements was done over the course of an afternoon, and after another 8 hours plugged in, some cleaned drive heads, and a carefully built floppy boot disk, it was back to life!

Next came the analog board — the need to be plugged-in for a long time indicated that those caps were at the end of their life too. While getting the analog board out was a pain in the butt, re-capping moved quickly. While I retro-brighted the case back to something closer to it’s original color, I re-capped half the board, and marked the ones I’d replaced, and tested it out. Everything worked, so the next day, I started the second half. With the final set replaced, I re-assembled my Color Classic and was delighted that there was no “charge up” period required — the Mac chimed instantly… then the screen turned a bright white, with lines through it. I yanked the power in terror, took it apart and quadruple checked the rating and polarity on every single capacitor, then re-assembled and tried again. I got the same result, but this time I put the boot disk in — and found that Mac whirred away at the floppy, booting happily. I was puzzled, and felt defeated. Soon afterward, my health took a turn, and the Color Classic ended up left in pieces on my work table for two months…

Not a happy Mac

Finally last week I felt up to re-visiting this project. I found someone willing to sell a replacement analog board, if all else failed, but I was determined to figure out what had gone wrong. I knew everything worked after 2/3rds of the re-capping was done, so at least the potential surface area for error was small. I fired it up again, and watched the slow floppy boot, then set up my multimeter to try to read voltage from some of the ports. As I did, the Mac settled into the desktop and the faintest shadow of the Apple Menu appeared in the top left corner of the screen!

It turns out I hadn’t made an error at all. Some previous owner had cranked the display voltage (probably to try to extend the life of the old capacitors). A careful high-voltage adjustment with a plastic tool, and the picture resolved to something useable. More adjustments were needed, but the Mac was alive — and had been the whole time! All that was left was to find a working hard drive. Most SCSI drives of the era either have failed, or are about to, so I decided to go with a SCSI2SD v5.1. I loaded it into an external enclosure, and after some fiddling in Lido and some back and forth loading some bits from my Mac Plus, the Color Classic was happy. I had to 3D print an adapter to get the SCSI2SD onto the drive tray, but it fits in there solid, and provides more than 4GB of solid state storage.

I found an Farallon PDS network card on eBay, along with a driver floppy, and quickly got the Color Classic onto my AppleTalk network so I could pull some apps and games off my other Macs. I also loaded up a Recovery partition with the System 7.1 installer and necessary System Enabler — since it had been a pain in the butt to find. After a solid 8 hours of burn in, and a few more screen tweaks, this classy Color Classic runs like a dream. A few days later, it found a decent price, and a good home, with an eBay buyer who’d been trying to get a Color Mac of his own for quite some time.

A classic game on a Color Classic Mac in 256 beautiful colors!

The Golden Thread

Somehow the math still works. Things may be a dumpster fire here, but the economic situation is strangely detached from reality: the US dollar still has $0.34 on the Canadian equivalent, real estate in Ohio remains significantly cheaper than any Toronto-area bedroom community, and my salary is almost impossible to find on the Ontario job market — and trust me, I’ve been looking!

While Covid-19 shows no signs of slowing down within US borders, and our home country shows no signs of being interested in having their unruly neighbors come over to visit, a few things have improved a little since my last post.

Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star: Canada-US border

First of all, there are signs of cognitive activity in the President: he called masks “patriotic” and admitted the virus is getting worse. I’m not sure if this is the result of polls showing that the other bigoted old white dude is real competition for November, or if this is just how long it takes for someone like Trump to learn anything new — but we welcome this rational thinking. Hopefully the red hats will follow his lead.

Second, my employer was able to file a correction to our entry stamps. Apparently its not a cheap legal maneuver, but they undertook it on our behalf. Our entry records now show the correct expiry in 2022 — aligned with my work Visa. The correction means we can travel home if/when we need to, and not worry about getting back. The virus related travel challenges remain, but at least 50% of the problem is solved.

We’re 40 this month, and this may prove to be one of the most unusual years of our lives. The debate rages on about a return to school in the fall, and I have a persistent, although minor, medical issue, that may require a follow-up surgery. We don’t really know what the rest of the year will look like, but we’re provided for, safe and mostly healthy, so we’re grateful — despite grumbling to the contrary.