Vintage computers have their groupies

January 20, 1999

The other day, at a garage sale, I stumbled on a great deal. There on a table, looking forlorn and deserted, was a Macintosh SE, circa 1990, and printer. I bought it all for $15. The former owner looked at me sympathetically. I'll bet she was thinking: Maybe he has a condition. Could be. During the past week, I realized how fun -- how subversive! -- it is to stay up until 3 a.m. performing a hard disk transplant on a computer that other folks had given up for dead.

Later, bouncing around the Web to see how I could juice this puppy up, I discovered a strange underground network of vintage computer fetishists who refuse to go along with upgrade mania, for reasons of the pocketbook and the heart. The language of new computers should have been a tip-off -- ram, turbo, it screams; computers are to us what cars were to our parents. Either we've got to have a new one with fins, or we tinker with a relic.

The gas in this tank, though, is an almost frightening depreciation. The old computer I bought would have originally sold for close to $3,000. Imagine a car dropping that much in nine years. (Other than the Chevy Vega.) "Computers are the new hot rods," says Michelle Klein-Hass ("that's Ms. Geek to you!"), a Van Nuys Web site designer and associate editor of the online Toon Magazine. "I'm sitting here in front of my 1993 Mac Performa 460," which runs at a glacial 33 megahertz (the newest machines operate at 400). "I use it as my main Web design tool."

Her supposedly outdated computer was pre-owned by the Spumco Cartoon Studio, creator of the TV cartoon series "Ren & Stempy." If it's good enough for Stempy, it's good enough for me, says Michelle. She also uses a Mac Classic II, a '91 doorstop model. Why does she stick with such archaic computers? Partly because she loves the aesthetics of the old Macs (most of the collectors seem to be Macaholics, but I'm trying to leave religion out of this), but also because the new machines "have so much power under the hood that the programmers can afford to write sloppy code, create bloated resource pigs requiring more and more horsepower."

Computer manufacturers, she says, "have us chasing our tails." And for what? One vintage enthusiast, Josh Rodefer, says, "Here at work I use a state-of-the-art Micron 450 MHz Pentium II. However, my Mac SE at home lets me type just as fast."

Some retro users collect old computers like your aunt collected stamps. "I just like to create my childhood dreams now that I can afford to. My paper route didn't pay very well," says one man. Abigail Morell, a member of the Vintage Macs mailing list, reports, "I'm collecting everything Mac-related I can get my hands on." She also collects old PC software.

Another collector writes, "The rest of my family doesn't see the fascination and wonders a bit about sanity, let alone money management skills." John Siple of Seattle says, "I have a Mac for each of my children. Extremely cool. I paint mine and make them look like art. They're perfect for kitchen work."

Some people make them into aquariums; one collector is building a custom wood case for his SE. He wants to collect every flavor of old Mac. "That's a long-term insanity project. Then I'll need a detached workshop with power and rations for three days." And a man with more eclectic taste reports that he found a rare Mac emulator, the Magic Sac, to use on his Atari 1040ST. "It worked!"

His wife thinks the computers are worthless. "Eh, so are her Beanie Babies!"

Seems to me these folks aren't just buying old gear; they're buying time. They're saying, in effect, that computers shouldn't be as disposable as paper cups -- and neither should we.

RICHARD LOUV'S column appears here on Wednesdays and in Family Ties on Saturdays. He can be reached by fax, (619) 293-2148; by mail, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA 92112-0191

Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.