When I am being fair, I must admit that part of retro computing’s appeal is the nostalgia. The comfort of something known. The reminder of something formative. Or maybe the allure of a first experience. Nostalgia is powerful and retro computing is steeped in it.
But I continue to believe that the true power of nostalgia is the reminder of the experiences that you shared with others, rather than with the object of nostalgia. Is it a bit of fun to run Visual C++ 5 on my college laptop that has somehow managed not to completely fall apart? Sure. But the joy lies not in remembering the computer when it was shiny and new sitting on my lap, but rather in remembering the poor souls with whom I had to share a marathon hacking experience at three in the morning in the CS department’s basement, working feverishly mere hours before we had to turn in the project.
So it meant a lot to me when my old friend, Allen, called me up and asked if I would like to have his old Commodore 64. He was doing some cleanup of his parents’ house when he came across boxes upon boxes of hardware, software, and documentation. It was a singular delight to hook up the system on that old kitchen table and power it on for the first time in close to thirty years. Laughing at how terrible I now am at Frogger and marveling at just what a programming feat Legacy of the Ancients was for its time, we had a blast.
But truth be told, I didn’t spend much time on the C64 as a kid. I befriended Allen as PCs had already started dominating the personal computing landscape. He and my friend, Brad, were the ones who spent so much time as kids on the 64 and had the memories tied directly to the platform.
And yet the nostalgia caused by this computer still overwhelms. And it is not because of the tech itself, but the people and experiences we shared.
There is a photo hanging in my office of my best childhood friends and myself at my wedding. It has been there for years, but only after bringing home the bounty of the C64 did I notice it for the first time in quite a while. With a box of old hardware in my hands I realized that each of us in the photo were members of our high school computer club. A club we founded more or less as an excuse to use the school network to play Doom deathmatch. In retrospect, it was much more important as a support group for some of the biggest nerds in school.
Some of us grew up to work in tech. Some are tech-adjacent. Some are engineers. But what struck me looking at that photo was how we built long-lasting friendships through our shared experience around a computer of one kind or another.
I remember one freshmen biology lab session when Brad and I figured out how to get admin rights on the school network. It wasn’t hard. I forget what it was that we were trying to do, but we needed access to the file manager, which had been removed from general user access. A mild bit of snooping and we found a config file to re-enable it. We had no nefarious intention, but just wanted to see if we could do it. And the satisfaction of that minor accomplishment was addictive.
I remember all the time spent with Adam and Chris around my 386, hammering out writing projects in Microsoft Works. There were scripts that we needed to whittle down for forensics competitions and scripts we wrote ourselves for other competitions. And there were our own, twisted takes on otherwise stuffy world literature for various English composition assignments. Over those many boisterous hours we learned not only how to type, but also honed our sense of wit, and learned how collaborate intellectually.
I remember the afternoon I spent on the roof of Allen’s home when he decided to design and build his own directional, high-gain antenna. He had pored over old electronics magazines to figure out the necessary formulae and we used his dad’s CAD software to design it. Using those plans we assembled as much as we could in his garage and then had to mount it. As I stood on that roof, desperately clutching the chimney and looking over the hard driveway far below, I learned for the first time what it meant to take an idea from the drafting bench into the real world.
Be it first lessons in CompSec, the first collaborative writing experience, or bringing an idea to life, a computer seems to always somehow fit into these great memories. But only on the periphery. Always there but always secondary to the people and the experiences. Computers are the ever-present MacGuffins of my life.
So with hand on heart, I offer my gratitude to Allen for the C64. But just as importantly I offer my gratitude to all of my friends who share so many of my cherished memories.
The 6502 processor of the Commodore 64 is not very formidable by today’s standards, but as I turn it on and am overwhelmed by so much nostalgia, it is somehow still very powerful.