I’ve mentioned before that we live in a golden age of retro computing. Never before has it been easier to learn about classic hardware. Thanks to online documentation archives, video demonstrations, and enthusiasts working hard to research and preserve original hardware and software, this highly-specialized and once esoteric knowledge is easily accessible for all to enjoy.
With all of this modern-day study into classic hardware platforms, there is a proliferation of emulation packages, allowing you to replicate nearly any old computer you can think of on your modern computer. Emulation allows you to take, for example, a game written for the Commodore 64 and load it on your modern MacBook or Dell. The emulation software recreates the execution of the game by interpreting the code and translating it to instructions that your modern computer can understand. It is not perfect, but it is darn close. There are so many emulators available today, that you can can even run an emulation of the ENIAC, the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer from 1945.
Emulation is great, but holding something in your hands is even better. It is no secret that I am excited about the proliferation of various kits that help you recreate old computers with modern hardware. A miniature PDP-8 in a box? Yes, please. While many kits recreate the experience by running emulation software on modern hardware, some go even further and actually implement the original hardware in FPGAs. Whereas an emulator acts as a kind of interpreter through a software layer, an FPGA recreates the actual circuits and layout of the original logic within a chip. The electrons are actually traveling in the same physical paths as in the original hardware, allowing nearly 100% fidelity. It is a great time for technology nostalgia.
But the thing about nostalgia is that it not only charms with recollections of the past, but it can also awaken all of your senses. We live in a world driven by the infinite scroll of content. Be it Facespace, Tweeters, or DingDong, it all boils down to the visual medium: photos, videos, and (distressingly less) text. Your friend’s tour of a technology museum could be cool to look at via photos on InstaPot. Playing Ghostbusters for the 64 on your MacBook using an emulator can be a lot of fun. But you are only experiencing it through a visual reproduction of sorts. The actual experience of using these old machines is so much more.
Using an original Commodore 64 was a feast for the senses. The power switch on the side gave not only a satisfying click when turned on, but you could also feel its distinct outline and knew it without looking. The chonky power button of the CRT monitor produced an unambiguous loud clack followed by the distinct buzz and hum of high voltage as the tube warmed. There was that distinct smell of cheap pulp paper as you read through the program listings in the latest issue of Compute! or Creative Computing magazine. The keyboard had actual, full-travel keys that bottomed out with a satisfying clonk as you typed. After you had entered your hundreds of lines of code, you would unwrap a blank cassette tape to the plastic aroma of freshly-torn cellophane. With a firm push of the eject button, the tape deck would pop up with an emphatic whack and after inserting the cassette, you’d close it with an equally satisfying mechanical latch. To save your program, there was extra force required to push down both record and play buttons simultaneously. When all was saved you would click the power switch of the computer and with an even louder clack, shut down the monitor. It was only when you heard the crackle of static on the powered off screen that you knew you were done computing for the day. The experience encompassed all of the senses and was immersive. Using old computers involves much more than the software and its output. It is also the ambience and the environment that informs the experience.
And it took time. Computing wasn’t casual in the era of the C64. You had to dedicate part of your day. You had to sit at a desk. You had to wait. Wait for the tape to load. Wait for the tape to save. Wait for the next issue of Compute! to arrive in the mail. And waiting teaches patience, which you had to have to type in those program listings and debug before the advent of Googling error messages. Time is arguably its own sense and an integral part of the experience.
Are these just the rantings of an old man? Perhaps. Are we demonstrably better off today with computers many orders of magnitude more powerful in our pockets or on our wrists? Of course. I am not arguing for a kind of Neo-Luddism and a return to eight bits. But I do appreciate what we can learn from using old technology and its use engenders nostalgia. And for me, nostalgia affects all of the senses. True satisfaction comes from using old computers as they were, with the accompanying sights, sounds, smells, textures, and wait times. It is part of the ritual.
I am never going to cast aspersions on emulation. Not everyone wants to bother with old hardware. It’s big, hard to maintain, and expensive. And I certainly appreciate the value of an emulator when I can test out old software in the emulator without having to power up my old computers.
But for me, to truly appreciate old computing platforms is to physically use them. Reading about them is great, and emulation brings a whole new level of understanding. But human beings instinctively seek out physical connections in order to understand. Just as a historian gains more insight into the context around an event when visiting a historical site, powering up an old system not only delights, but helps you truly understand what it was like to computer decades ago. It is magical.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to spend the afternoon figuring out why my DataMaster cassette drive isn’t working.