Tim Fraser's collection of old machines

a row of old computer equipment The end of an era: Here's how I described my collection of obsolete computer hardware back in 2002 -- the heyday of my retrocomputing hobby:

I collect old UNIX workstations, X Terminals, and dumb terminals. DEC VT dumb terminals are my favorites. Many of these items are in day-to-day use in various parts of my house running Debian GNU/Linux. I'd call it retrocomputing, except that these old machines are running the latest applications, doing the latest things. There's nothing quite like browsing the Web on a classic Digital VT102 terminal - a workhorse that was many a hacker's window onto the universe more than 10 years before the Web burst into prominence. (Or whatever it's burst into.)

a row of old computer equipment
a stack of old DEC Alpha workstations Although I still have all of my old hardware, 2004 was the last year I had any of the machines in constant use. Now they're all lined up on display in my basement. The HP/Apollo X-terminal and its massive 1024x768 pixel monitor was a workhorse for quite some time, even though it didn't have enough RAM to display the default Gnome desktop environment. I relied upon a Multia workstation for NAT and DHCP duties for even longer. But, with some reluctance, I eventually replaced all of these with smaller, quieter, and less power-hungry appliances, laptops, and palmtops.

Left: three Digital Equipment Corporation Multia workstations on top of an Alphastation 250. Right: A NeXTStation.

a NeXTStation
DEC VT102 terminal I regret retiring my Digital Equipment Corporation VT's the most, but now that I carry my computers around with me rather than racking them in the basement, not even I can find an excuse to use them. The VT102 at left remains the pride of my collection, with its rounded futuristic case design. Right: note the huge three-conductor plug on its keyboard cable! DEC VT102 keyboard
HP/Apollo 720 workstation (left) and 700/RX X-terminal (right) The HP/Apollo fixed-frequency monitors must have been sensational in their time with their 1024x768 pixel resolution. Although their diagonal width is 19", the viewable area is only about 17", and the severe curvature of the CRT display makes it somewhat unpleasant to read text on the edges of the screen. These monitors each weigh more than I can comfortably lift. I have two, on top of the Apollo 720 workstation and the smaller 700/RX X-terminal, pictured at left.

I didn't understand what "full height" meant when I ordered the refurbished SCSI hard drive on-line pictured at right. I didn't have a case big enough to hold it until I stumbled upon an empty Compaq tape drive enclosure at a hamfest.

a full-height hard drive

a Sun Ultra/5 workstation The saga for the Sun Ultra/5: The Sun Ultra/5 workstation pictured at left has an interesting story: I used to work for a company that did contract work for the US government. Often these contracts would include funds for buying computing equipment. Although the company would have the use of this equipment for their contract work, the equipment itself was still considered government property. Humorless government inspectors would regularly come out to the company's site to make sure all the equipment was still there and clearly labeled as government property. Rumor had it that one inspector even insisted that every removable peripheral (mouse, keyboard) have its own "Property of U.S. Government" tag.

In theory, the government could take back the equipment at the end of a contract and lend it to another contracting company, but since the machines were generally no longer state-of-the-art by that time, the government never seemed to want them back. As years went by and contracts began and ended, old machines began piling up at the company's site. Regulations forbade the company to sell, give, or throw the machines away, as they were still government property. Eventually, the space wasted on old machine storage became such a crisis that the company finally managed to get some relief: the government would allow the company could sell the old machines -- but only as scrap metal to a recognized scrap metal dealer.

In their eagerness to be free of storage problems at last, the company decided to scrap some machines that were still reasonably new -- including a number of Sun Ultra/5's. It seemed absurd to me that these machines should go to scrap, but the law was the law, and the company couldn't give or sell one to me. However, it was perfectly acceptable for me to phone the scrapyard and make a deal directly with them. Once the machines were out of the company's building and officially sold to the scrapper, I handed a check to the scrapper's truck driver and one Ultra/5 and a rather good PC were mine for only $40US apiece. Considering their low value as scrap, I think it was a good deal for both of us.

Here's the list of my old computer equipment. This list does not contain entries for the many consumer-oriented home computers, Macs, and PCs that I've owned over the years. I got my first Apple //c in 1986, and my first Intel i386-based PC in 1990. PC's are so easy to convert into parts, it's become difficult for me to tell where one PC ends and the next one begins. Similarly, the list does not contain entries for machines that I've given away.

Model Make Use CPU Built Bought Cost
VT102 DEC glass tty ? 1983 1998 free
Multia/UDB DEC desktop Alpha 21066 1995 1999 $200US
Multia/UDB DEC desktop Alpha 21066 1995 1999 $200US
VT420 DEC glass tty ? 1991 1999 $5US
NeXTStation NeXT desktop Motorola 608040 1991 2000 free
Apollo 720 HP desktop PA7000 (PCX-S) 1991? 2001 free
Apollo 700/RX HP X terminal PA7000 (PCX-S) 1992? 2001 free
AlphaStation 250 DEC desktop Alpha 21064A 1995 2001 $120US
Multia/UDB DEC desktop Alpha 21066 1995 2001 free
Sun Ultra/5 Sun desktop UltraSparc-IIi 1998 2001 $40US
VT520 DEC glass tty ? 1994 2002 free

Here are some pictures of the keyboards that belong to some of these machines, provided at the request of one keyboard enthusiast on the Net. Click on the thumbnail images to retrieve higher-resolution images.

HP/Apollo 720 keyboard NextStation keyboard
VT102 keyboard VT420 keyboard


Tim Fraser's homepage at the WPI alumni site

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