Recently I exhibited our organization for the inaugural Captivate! Conference in Austin, Texas. My experiences underscored some of the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of preserving computer culture.
Our Apple ][+ was The Star
I featured one of our most recent donations, an Apple ][+, paired with an Apple Graphics Tablet. When we first received these items, we attempted to run the Graphics Tablet Software to test this rare peripheral, and found that it behaved poorly. It acted as if the input pen’s tip was always depressed, so we could not press the soft buttons on the tablet or draw discrete shapes.
Something about the air at the conference changed all this. As I was setting up the tablet and Apple ][+ on Day 1, I decided to test it out just for kicks… and it worked perfectly! I was elated, but of course no one else there could understand precisely why. Over the course of the next few hours we had over a dozen visitors come by and create original art works on the Apple ][. Insightful conversations, wonderful drawings, and some major nostalgia — I was in retro computing heaven.
For me, this underscored one of our core beliefs — functional hardware preserves the experience of computing like nothing else. The Graphics Tablet invited attendees to partake in an experience, and dozens of people said Yes. As earnest and nascent as this “simple” computer and digitizer appeared 35 years after their birth, they continued to empower a creative experience in concert with their users.
But Stuff Happens
After leaving all hardware exactly as it was the night before, I returned on Day 2 to a heartbreaking turn of events. The Graphics Tablet had begun exhibiting the same erratic behavior as it had before the conference. I troubleshooted it for the better part of the morning without success.
Worse, during this troubleshooting process the 5.25″ floppy disk masters that carried DOS 3.3 and the Apple Graphics Software started having issues. The Disk ][ drives would spin in their characteristic “I can’t read this thing” way, never loading the disks’ contents. Our FC5025 external drive is still not fully functional, so I could not troubleshoot the disks themselves. Nor did I have a head cleaning disk handy.
This, unfortunately, perfectly illustrated the priority that maintenance plays in our efforts. I’ll admit I was under-prepared to handle these sorts of contingencies. This is just stuff I either need to learn myself, or invite other volunteers to help me with.
Back to BASIC
Necessity is a funny thing. I’d always known the Apple ][ was exceptionally flexible for its era, but I never quite understood what that really meant until this series of failures. You see, every Apple ][+ shipped with AppleSoft BASIC loaded into ROM. This meant that even without a single peripheral, one could enter and execute code from volatile program memory. It wasn’t pleasant, and you couldn’t save anything, but by Woz you still had yourself a capable computer.Since the T, L, and Z keys on our unit were only partially functional, entering many lines of BASIC by hand was a tedious process — “PRINT” and “LIST” come up frequently. So I downloaded OpenEmulator and replicated our actual setup on my MacBook Pro. After tweaking a simple program to my heart’s content in this sanitized, modern, but infinitely more forgiving environment, I was ready.
It took me about 30 minutes to enter in a 50-line BASIC program. With a lot of text, some character speed manipulation, and a little GOTO magic, I helped my booth-mate tell its own story on my behalf. This freed me up to explore the other exhibitors at the conference as it faithfully executed my looping code for the rest of the day.
Despite coming away from the conference with dirty drives, possibly ruined floppies, and a non-functional Graphics Tablet, I also left with a stack of business cards and a box of brochures much emptier than before.
Roughly 150 attendees stopped by our booth over the three days of the conference. They shared stories of growing up with Apple ][‘s at school, programming in LOGO, or having old systems and disks tucked away in a closet somewhere. I learned of the SUMA Conectivo group in Argentina and their recent hands-on retro hardware event. I met a veteran Apple salesman who helped get thousands of Apple ][‘s into schools during the 80’s. Local musician Guy Forsythe even stopped by before his panel, grinning ear-to-ear as he recalled growing up playing Oregon Trail on his family’s Apple ][.
I’m smiling. We’re smiling. There’s something here, and we’re excited to take it further.
But first, I’ve got some floppy drives to clean…