Happy Birthday, Mac

It’s thirty years since the Mac first went on sale, and twenty-two years since I replaced my MS-DOS PC with one.

It wasn’t that Macs were unknown to me, my uncle had had a succession of Macs (starting with a Mac 128k) by the time I woke up to the revolution. One of my dad’s friends had a demon fast IIfx (paid for by his work, the lucky devil). My dad was firmly in the Microsoft camp though, and that informed my own computing choices.

My PC of the time was a Dell 486, a real rocket ship compared with the 8086 and 286 powered computers that most of my friends had. It ran MS-DOS (mostly for games and programming with Turbo Pascal) and Windows 3 (mostly for work), and I was quite happy with it. I didn’t really need a new computer, but a lecturer at university recommended that we have a computer with a 68000 processor to learn Assembly language. He advised that we buy a cheap single board computer, with a serial interface to upload programs that we’d written on our PCs. I didn’t like that idea. Some of my friends recommended the Atari ST, still others recommended the Commodore Amiga. Better – but still no. Any computer of mine had to have a hard disk. In the end I chose a second hand Mac SE/30, for which I paid the princely sum of £500 – that’s the equivalent of nearly £900 in today’s money. I caught the train down to Orpington, in Kent, from where I was living in Stafford. It had no bag, and it was a bloody uncomfortable journey carrying it across London on the tube.

300px-Se30On the face of it, the SE/30 was distinctly out-specced by the 486. It had a lowly 16MHz processor, compared with the 486’s heady 50MHz. It had a black and white 512×384 pixel screen vs. the Dell’s 256 colour 640×480 pixel screen. On the other hand, it could manage multi-channel stereo sound (the 486 could only go ‘beep’), it had SCSI (for hard drives, scanners and so forth) and it could have its memory expanded to a gargantuan 128MB.

Wow. That little Mac was so responsive. Specifications can be so misleading because the little SE/30 was up and running almost before the 486 had completed its power on self test. The SE/30 was fast. It was also crash happy – run a bad program, or one that wasn’t quite compatible with the 68030 processor and wallop. Restart. That might sound intolerable to you but it was no different to my Windows PC. In those days, Windows used to fall over like a clown with its shoelaces tied together.

My lecturer had the solution to the crashiness though – and it has shaped my computing environment ever since. The first part of the solution was a very costly memory upgrade to 16MB. I seem to remember that the memory upgrade cost me about £150 – and that was with a discount. The next was a new hard disk – a 160MB Quantum Prodrive. Finally, the icing on the cake, Apple’s professional A/UX operating system – installed using a borrowed CD-ROM drive. It was Unix, with a Mac OS shell on top. Mac OS X, 1993 style. The little SE/30 now had memory protection and pre-emptive multitasking – and I’ve been besotted with Unix (and later also Linux) ever since. Sure, if I was running a Mac (rather than a Unix) app it would still crash – but it seems to me that even then it crashed a little less often. Most importantly, it didn’t need to entirely restart (only the shell needed to reload), and my Unix apps remained untouched by the malady that the System 7 shell had suffered.

Crash protection was vital. My assembly programming skills were a good deal less than Jedi (although certainly no worse than they are now!), and so I regularly crashed the Mac when I wrote software using Fantasm (which didn’t benefit from memory protection or pre-emptive multitasking, because it ran in the ‘traditional’ Mac environment). A/UX came with an assembler though, which ran as a Unix process and produced Unix executables, so my Mac stayed running even when I mucked up.

My mum hated computers. She particularly disliked my PC, and vowed that she would never use a computer. My little Mac melted her heart though – Bing! Welcome to Macintosh. No scrolling text (not even when booting A/UX). No mess. She wanted one then. She could see how this was the first really useful computer. She’s now onto her sixth and seventh Macs, a 2006 model MacBook and a 2010 model Mac Mini, and there’s no way that you could separate her from her computers.

My dad? He was converted by a G3 powered indigo iMac. He hasn’t used a Microsoft product since – not even Office. He loves iWork, which he runs on his 2012 model Mac Mini and on his iPad.

I still have that SE/30. It’s had a few upgrades since then. A new, hacked up, ROM to make it 32bit clean. An upgrade to 32MB RAM. A 4GB hard disk. Ethernet. Most recently, all the capacitors were replaced – just to keep it safe and working for another quarter century. I still use it too – with A/UX, just as I did all those years ago. It sits on my network, alongside my newer Macs, and even gets used occasionally – mainly to design custom typefaces.
I can’t remember the name of the lecturer. Brian, maybe? Whatever it was, and wherever he is now, he has my thanks. I am eternally indebted to him.

Happy Birthday Mac – and here’s to the next 30 years.

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