Thideras' PPro Machine

Old Computers: Vintage or Garbage?

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I was at a classic bike show recently, organized by the Lothian and Borders Classic Vintage Motorcycle Club and held at the Drill Hall in Peebles, Scotland. I don’t ride myself – I haven’t the time or the money to get my license or buy and run a bike. I do enjoy shows like these, though: the sheer amount of effort put in to restoring these classic bikes is breathtaking. One of my favorites is pictured below; a 1953 BSA C11 (250 cc) owned by a Mr. Joe Stark was recovered in an awful state from a barn. The paintwork and chrome are all beautiful and the bike almost looks like new. The bike is 57 years old and at least as popular now (if not more popular) than when it was first made.

Classic bikes are beautiful, but what about older computers?

Classic bikes are beautiful, but what about older computers?

It struck me, as I walked through the hall that contained 40 of these wonderfully restored and cared for bikes from 1927 to 1990, that we really don’t take the same care over computers. My father and I both have hobbies: mine is computers and his is motorbikes (of which he has three). Despite the almost fanatical way both hobbies are followed by thousands of people, old computers are rarely sexy. Typically beige boxes that used to run ugly operating systems – and slowly –  fill garbage dumps around the world. There are rare exceptions: pre-x86 computers such as the ZX Spectrum and others are often cherished by their owners but could never draw the same crowds as a classic motorcycle show. For reference – this show is in Peebles, a small town in the Scottish Borders, and people flock here from a hundred miles away to show and to see these motorbikes.

Yet, as I type this, I do rather like older computers – but exotic ones. I often browse Ebay looking at older Sun and SGI machines. For some reason, I’d rather like to have one. I have no idea what I’d do with it. To be honest, they just seem different…special. I’d love to get an old Sun machine, fix it up, put Linux or Solaris on it and probably run SETI or Rosetta on it (for the mere credit per day I’d probably accumulate).

There are some examples of exotic machines on the forums, mainly multi-CPU Pentium Pro machines. Thideras posted some details of his 5-CPU Pentium Pro server recently to quite a reception from our users. Another member, 3line, has built and benchmarked a dual PPro machine recently and got a stunning SuperPi 1M time of … 9 minutes 36 s.

Thideras' 5-CPU Pentium Pro machine.

Thideras' 5-CPU Pentium Pro machine.

3line's dual PPro machine.

3line's dual PPro machine.

I’d be interested to hear from readers on this topic. Do you think it’s worth time and effort repairing and tweaking older machines? Feel free to post your thoughts below.

David

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Discussion
  1. Age is just a number! Usefulness is another thing. If it's no longer useful in one way or another, no use in keeping it around. Software disks I can see keeping around longer mainly because it takes up less room. Old hardware is cool, if you can still use it!
    There is always people that will feel this way. to just about everything cars houses, computers you name it someone feels the need to throw it out when it gets old or obsolete. i have a 1965 mustang that i drove as a daily driver for a year or so and some of my co workers where constantly asking me why i did not drop that car at a junk yard and buy a new car. they didn't care that it was a classic or a part of "Americana" or that it was in stellar shape. it was OLD and there for junk in their opinion. i still have that car today its not a daily driver anymore but i still take good care of it because of what it mean to me not to anyone else.
    I miss my old Pentium 100 w/ 16mb RAM..... This was the perfect system for running DOS era games..... Wish I'd kept mine instead of junking it.

    I remember leaving my thumb print on the CPU after operation. The darn thing worked fine even without a heatsink!

    Spent may hours playing stuff like DOOM, Wolf32 and Strike Commander on that thing. The other thing often forgetten is how noisy these ugly old systems were.

    Mind you, my desk at work is cluttered with old items like boxed and unopened coppies of MS DOS upgrade, Windows 95 etc, purely for nostaligia reasons.....
    I get that feeling - wanting some hardware you have no practical use for...

    If I could get one piece of computer hardware back that I've let go in the past, hands down I wish I still had my 3dfx Voodoo 5500. Maybe not so antique, but it was a cool era for overclocking, and there wasn't anything else quite like it at the time - it was MASSIVE!
    I enjoy old hardware. I am a firm believer in minimalist computing, and keeping a system around as long as it meets your needs.

    After all, we do the same with software. Look at how many people stayed on XP during the Vista days. XP is over 10 years old!
    I keep a couple of old PCs around to run DOS and early versions of Windows and Linux. Comes in handy as the newer hardware often can't run the older software and some of that legacy stuff is our written history which is getting lost unlike the print versions of journals.
    computers depreciate in value faster than anything else so old machines have no financial value the vast majority of the time. i wish cars advanced at the same rate. i'd love to pay a couple hundred bucks for a car that could break the sound barrier while getting 1000 mpg.

    old machines can still be useful though. i run a file server on a pentium pro motherboard in a cardboard box. anything with a pentium 2 or equivalent can run a full desktop linux os.

    old laptops tend to be junk because of battery degradation but they too can be repurposed as small scale servers or modded to become a digital photo frame. i guess you can find something useful to do with pretty much any computer that still boots.
    Old computers may not have the same usability as today’s machines, but anything old can spark a sense of nostalgia in people. Whether or not something is still usable often has little to do with whether or not its collectible. People collect all sorts of things from the past (stamps, coins, watches, sewing machines, even beer cans). There usefulness today has little to do with their value as a collectible item. Given enough time, anything that people associate with fond memories, or has some historic value, could become a collectible item.

    You don’t have to have ever owned a 1953 BSA, or 1957 Chevy, to appreciate that these were beautiful machines in their day. Compared to what’s available today, these machines would be considered unreliable gas guzzlers. To a collector, those negative facts do nothing to detract from their charm, or their historic value. Like old cars or motorcycles, old computers fall far short of today technology. Most of them today are junk, not worth the space they use. Someday, a few of these old machines may be salvaged from peoples garages, or closets, and put on display like that 1953 BSA pulled out of some ones barn.

    The day will come when some from younger generations will be interested in seeing these old computer relics to learn how their parents and grandparents lived. Only time will tell what it is about these old machines that will peak their interest. It may be the bulky CRTs, which were as hard on the eyes as the manual crank was on the wrist of model T drivers. It may be the Operating System, which only responded to input from a keyboard or mouse. It could even be ghastly yellowish beige color that everything came in, much like the first Fords were only available in black.

    Given enough time, almost anything becomes valuable.
    Where cars win over computers is that you can rebuild them and they can still work well. They may not be as fast, but they can still run. If you were to rebuild a car that could only go 2mph, it would be worthless. Think of an old computer as that 2mph car. It's so slow an elderly man could walk faster than it's performance. I know that's an exaggeration, but you guys see the point I'm trying to make. Rebuilding or repairing an old computer is senseless.

    To simply put it, old computers are worthless. Junk. Trash. You can come up with other names for them. A good example is this old Macintosh computer that my college had bought back in the late 80's or early 90's. It cost them thousands of dollars, and the best use we can put it to now is a nice (not to mention heavy) doorstop. Then again, my view that ANY apple computer is best served that way, but that's beside the point.

    Cars may be getting better and better like computers are, but at least older cars can run at an optimal speed.