Collecting Vintage Computers, Part Three

When I started collecting old computers, I started with the idea of collecting items from three systems I used in my youth — the Commodore Vic-20, the Commodore 64, and the Apple II line of machines.

Apple II+/IIe systems were introduced in my school when I was in grade three. I grew up in a farming community, and the school boasted a whopping 140ish student count from kindergarten to Grade 12. The lineup to use those first couple computers was immediate and long and of all ages. Everyone wanted to play a game, or at the very least get on a machine and do something, ANYTHING…having a machine at your fingertips that you could command, that you could give instructions to and then almost immediately watch the results (including syntax errors…ahh Basic) was like some kind of drug for many of us. Though it had it’s quirks, the Apple II line of computers was eminently programmable and hackable, in both a software and hardware sense, and it was well built.

After two years of bugging my parents incessantly, they bought a Commodore Vic-20 system for at home. It was at the time the cheapest system available in our area, and on sale everywhere — ours was bought at Canadian Tire and included a ‘Datasette’ and a complimentary Canadian Tire branded cassette tape with some games on it. For those not familiar, the Datasette was an interface for some of the Commodore computers that allowed the saving and loading of programs on a regular cassette tape. Because of the interface it used with the Commodore machines, I think it was a step above those systems that relied on a normal desktop cassette machine with analog audio I/O. At the time, the Datasette it was around $60.00, much cheaper than the $400.00+ 5.25” floppy drive you could also buy. I loved that machine, and the user manual that came with the Vic walked you through some basic Basic programming, quickly bringing you to the point where you could create music, change the screen colours, and make simple games. It had it’s limitations as well with only 5KB of RAM (Yes, 5 Kilobytes…only 3.5 Kilobytes actually available by default to the user) and I would literally run out of memory when writing even some simpler programs. It was still a fantastic machine, and I still have my original machine.

A couple years later as I grew into my teens, I wanted more power, so I saved my money and bought a used Commodore 64 system while on a shopping trip to the big city (Saskatoon) one Saturday. If it had not been ten years before the release of the movie Hackers, I’m pretty sure my thought would have been the quote from said movie ‘You’re in the butter zone now baby’, as this system came with a floppy drive. The C64 introduced me to the concept of sprites as I tried to code games at home.

I used the Commodore 64 for many years, until in the early 1990s after moving to the city for university and work I bought myself a 486 PC system. Even then, I couldn’t let those older machines go, occasionally setting them up and playing my favourite old games on them. By the time I met my wife in the late 1990s, I had a small collection of items specific to those three systems. It all fit nicely into a corner of an average bedroom closet when packed up. She knew I was serious about our relationship when my computer equipment started migrating to her condo.

When we sold the condo and purchased a house a couple years later, we each had some criteria with regards to hobbies. I wanted a hobby room (if possible) somewhere in the house for my computers and electronics. My wife wanted a place to put her digital piano, and space for the eventual purchase of an upright piano. We were fortunate enough to find a place that allowed for both, and my serious collecting really began.

Vintage computer and video game collecting can often lead to interests in other areas of technology as well. Many collectors work in a contemporary I.T. field, or in a related field. Computers, communications, electronics, all go hand in hand and very powerful and some very interesting projects can be conceived by bringing them together. Ham radio operator? Perhaps you would like to integrate an old Apple or Commodore system into your on-air setup to serve some specialized function. Embedded software or hardware engineer? Perhaps you would like to utilize some of those old systems for automated control projects, or interface them with modern microcontrollers. The possibilities are limitless.

Personally, I concentrate on the personal computers and hobby systems of the 1970s and 1980s. Though my focus remains on the Commodore/Apple systems, I have expanded my collection to include many others. I have an interest in the pre-personal computer era as well, but money and storage space limits my ability in that area, and so I have made the decision to collect what I enjoy most, and use emulator programs to ‘play’ with the systems that I can’t physically obtain.

Emulator programs (programs that run on a contemporary platform to mimic as exactly as possible other older systems) are an entertaining and educational resource, and my respect goes out to those who have the programming ability to create them. The field of emulation is another area entirely to itself, as a quick search in your favourite search engine will uncover, and it is a fantastic way to work with vintage systems in a software sense if you don’t have the money or space to obtain the actual machines.

The vintage computing and gaming arena plays host to some of the most active and engaging collectors found anywhere. Information is plentiful and freely available, and the communities are more often than not very willing to accept new people and very open and friendly. I have found a great deal of enjoyment, satisfaction and knowledge in this hobby, and hope that other people will continue to or will newly discover the same as I have. Though I do not consider myself an expert by any means, I am always willing to talk, learn, and share what I know.

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