On Resurrecting My Family’s 1984 Macintosh 128K

By October 7, 2011

I wrote the entirety of this article on a computer that is older than I am by about six years. My father was something of an “early adopter” of the whole “personal computer” thing, way back in 1984, when Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh 128K. My mom, the incorrigible packrat that she is, didn’t get rid of that first computer. Yeah, I’m writing on the first one.

I think it’s best to just come right out and say it: Steven P. Jobs was and is a personal hero of mine. I am genuinely awed by his creativity, ingenuity, and singular focus. As many of the articles posted around the internet on Wednesday said, Bill Gates might have put a computer on every workplace desk, but Steve is responsible for putting one in every dorm room, bedroom, and living room in America and elsewhere.

Another admission: I took my dog for a walk Wednesday night and shed a tear or two, silently. I walked past a woman and she asked me what was wrong, and I showed her my Twitter feed. She squinted at my iPhone and stepped back, and her face crumpled a bit. Take a second to let this sink in: here I am, a rather diminutive 21-year old man who walked past someone concerned for my well-being, told her the news, and made her cry. And we hugged too. She said that this was kind of like 9/11: she’ll always remember where she was when she heard about it.

Before you dismiss her as a crazy person, it just so happens that she is a manager at an Apple Store in the Chicago suburbs. And she, like me, has a tremendous reverence for Steve Jobs.

And with this bit of obligatory emotional narrative about Mr. Jobs out of the way, I can proceed to what might be the most fantabulous device review I will ever write. It’s fantabulous not because it’s well-written, because it isn’t. Nor is it because the machine I’m reviewing is particularly fun or flashy or review-able, but because toying around with my parents’ Macintosh, and writing this article on it, was an incredibly engaging experience.

By the time I first used a computer — when I was 5 — the Macintosh I’m writing on was relegated to a closet. The first computer I used was the family’s Apple Quadra, running System 7. (I was a beast at Castle, for the record.) I distinctly remember using Apple computers when I was in first grade, and I’m 90% sure that they ran System 6.

When you read what follows, it should be noted that in my 21 years of existence, I’ve never used this computer. (e.g. the Macintosh)

On Wednesday, I called my mom and asked about the computer. It was still in the closet. I fished it out Thursday morning, dusted it off, plugged it into the wall, attached its peripherals and powered it up. Queue a blank grey screen.

As any modern Mac user knows, a persistent Grey Screen of Death indicates that something’s seriously wrong with the innards of the computer. I thought to myself, “Dammit! Now I’m going to have to write the article on my iMac! And I can’t even review this relic of computing history, because the thing’s dead.” But up popped a black and white floppy disk with a question mark in the middle. I knew this story, it couldn’t find the startup disk.

But after all of four minutes of browsing around the Internet (on my iPad, for the record), it dawned on me. (If you’re older than I am, you’ll giggle when you read this.) “OH MY LORD! THE OS ISN’T STORED ON DISK! Good heavens! It’s stored on a floppy disk. This thing doesn’t have onboard storage!” And thus commenced a 20 minute search for the 400k floppy disk. I found it and inserted it. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever used a floppy disk.

The Macintosh 128K’s 32-bit, 8 Mhz CPU boots System 2.2 in around 30 seconds, which is impressive. Somewhat disturbingly, upon insertion of the System disk, whizzes and buzzes issued from the machine. My dad reassured me, back in 1997, that nothing untoward was happening, that this was the sound of a machine deep in thought.

A smiling computer greeted me.

And there it was, in all its black and white glory. A blank grey desktop rendered on a 72-dpi screen. The black “System” floppy disk icon was on the upper right, and the trash can was on the bottom right. Nothing else.

I clicked on the System icon, and opened one of a couple applications which came bundled with System, a word-processor called MacWrite. I quickly realized that I couldn’t use more than one application at a time, so I closed MacWrite. I opened MacDraw. I squiggled and wrote in big Courier font, “Hello World!” And having at this point run out of applications to use, I relaunched MacWrite and wrote this review.

It was a little anticlimactic. I called my dad and asked where the other application floppies went. “Hell if I know.” Thanks, dad.

In researching this, I found a few awesome tributes to the Macintosh 128K on YouTube. So you’ll be able to see what this thing should be capable of. I can only say that for such a low-powered machine, this thing must have provided a near-magical user experience in its day. It’s hard to imagine that this computer was my parents’ first experience with a graphical user interface, concepts like “the Desktop” and peripherals like the mouse. Because nobody had ever used a mouse before, Apple included a training cassette tape with the Macintosh. To think that at some point in time people weren’t simply hard-wired to use mice as a way to navigate a “cursor” about a screen boggles my mind, because I’ve never had a conscious experience in all my computing life where I can remember this being foreign to me.

Heck, I’ve long ago learned a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, because using the mouse (an Apple Magic Mouse, mind you) is slow. I watch my mom using the family’s Mac Mini and she holds onto the mouse for dear life. This is the digital divide.

With the benefit of hindsight, I could write a book about the limitations of this machine. It doesn’t do color, nor does it process graphics terribly quickly. But I sit here in the downstairs study of my parents’ house and see in this computer, this tidy beige machine, the ancestor of the 2011 iMac sitting on my desk. Although Pages gives me a wider range of word processing options than the original programmers of MacWrite could ever imagine, I sit here, typing away, staring at the essence of word processing. I find the limited number of fonts strangely comforting. I know my limits.

In a weird way, I find writing in MacWrite more natural than writing on my iMac, whether in Pages or OmWriter or TextEdit. The lack of bells and whistles is almost charming.

Granted, for any class of application other than word processors, this machine kind of sucks. But again, this is with the benefit of hindsight. And I’ve been somewhat spoiled by Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and Apple’s Final Cut.

It’s also kind of nice to think that there is no possible way this thing could ever, ever connect to the Internet. It is truly a personal computer. It’s just me and my thoughts, and a floppy disk on which I could store every necessary bit of software the computer needs, and carry it around in my pocket. And there’s this little beige box in front of me, radiating heat, running silently, save for the occasional reassuring whizzes and pops. It’s still thinking.

I feel as though I’ve experienced something important. I don’t often think of my shiny new iMac as a “machine”. I don’t really know what I’d call it. This Macintosh is a machine. It has working, moving, mechanical parts. For the layperson, it’s easy to think of a new iMac as some kind of otherworldy device, due to the etherial silence of the machine. Putting myself in the shoes of my mom, or my dad, or the hundreds of people gathered in some Silicon Valley theater when a young, bow-tied Steve Jobs unveiled this thing to the world, the Macintosh must have been truly astonishing. The people stood up and cheered and waved their arms. This thing changed everything. Literally. That man, in my books, is the world’s greatest magician.

One thing I didn’t consider when sitting down to write this non-review/personal essay was how I planned to get the data from the Macintosh to the iMac. We don’t have a floppy drive. My mom’s physical therapy office, which technologically is somewhere in 2002, gave theirs away long ago.

Without the distractions of music, other applications, a huge desktop with considerable clutter, and the Internet, one tends to write a lot. And I figure the only way I can get this essay from the Macintosh 128K to my iMac is through an intermediary device. Yes, I have to get my iPad out and transcribe this entire thing. But I leave with this thought: the ghost of Steve Jobs is in this machine, as it is in all of Apple’s products, and in our modern culture writ large. And, the ghost of this machine is in all its decedents on our desks, in our bedrooms, on our laps and in our pockets.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Jobs.