Passion for Computers Drives Today's Techies
By Glenn Gaslin - Daily Press
Copyright (c) 1995, The Daily Press, Inc.
Twenty years ago, the scene at Harry Winter's house would have been impossible. The Virginia Beach man was then in his 40s and still in the Navy, and he had never heard of a computer called the TRS-80.
And as a result, you could actually move around his house without tripping on a printer cable or bumping into what he now describes as an "infinite number of computers."
But that was before the birth of PCs in 1975 and the creative boom of the late '70s and early '80s. That was before the country got hooked on hacking, and a new generation of techies defined themselves by their first computer.
The bundles of radical technology from that era have now become novelties and antiques. Those who discovered computers a decade before Netscape and Windows 95 have invented a new form of nostalgia, and the hardware of their memories has become collectible.
Many still swear by their aging monochrome monitors and tape drives. Others have moved on, but fondly remember their roots. And a man in Williamsburg is building a museum of sorts.
But few people can match Harry Winter's passion for things considered modern 15 years ago.
"I'm not well," admits a grinning Winter, now 69 and setting up a computer on top of his dryer - for lack of a better surface.
His counter tops, tables, halls and rooms are packed with the hulls and innards of ancient machines. Any space not occupied by a decade-old Radio Shack or IBM unit is covered in gray cable, unplugged phones, naked green motherboards, remote controls, paper bags full of keyboards and piles and piles of disks.
Standing in one spot you can see at least 18 monitors, some glowing, some dark and shoved beneath a table. You can also find a few dozen printers and a couple of acoustic modems, the kind with two rubber circles on which to place the phone receiver.
The two giant Digital magnetic tape drives don't even stand out. The three-foot high storage devices - they look like machines from top-secret government buildings as depicted in a '60s science fiction movie - almost disappear into their surroundings.
So Winter, with a cordless phone in one pocket and four pens in the other, demonstrates a vintage 29-pound "portable" computer on top of the dryer.
"I probably have about 12 of them," he says, pulling a keyboard from the sewing machine-sized beige box. A black-and-green screen displays "The floppy disk drive is not available" in English, German and French.
"They're pretty tough machines," Winter continues. "This thing's still running after 11 years."
To anyone unfamiliar with the classic gadgets known as TRS-80s, Winter and his dense gallery may not make sense. But to the growing crowd of computer curators, the stuff is priceless.
Users groups still meet in Hampton Roads to celebrate the beauty of circuitry wired a decade ago. The monthly TRS-80 group, of which Winter is "Dictator for Life," even attract an occasional new member. And another camp in Gloucester concentrates on one of the most popular computers of all time, 1982's Commodore 64.
"It's kind of a neat nostalgia," says Tom Carlson of Williamsburg, who maintains an Internet site called "The Museum of Obsolete Computers."
His collection applauds the simple beauty of the 8-bit era of the early-'80s, when the big names were Tandy and Commodore and Atari, when games like Defender and Zork were all the rage. (Of course, you can't even cruise Carlson's museum with the machines pictured there. Most don't have the speed or memory to handle the Internet.)
"I can have a museum of things that came out when I was alive," he continues, "and I don't have to be an old man or a rich man."
Carlson, 30, who could still pass as a college student and wears an "Iron Man" comic book tie to work, has very little to be nostalgic about except computers. He works with state-of-the-art equipment as a technology analyst for National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, but reminisces about "the old days."
That's when people who caught on early - who worshiped tape drives and joysticks and daisy wheel printers - first developed a relationship with the circuitry. The machines demanded a deeper knowledge from its user than do their 1990s descendants, which require only two skills: pointing and clicking.
"They are easier to hack," Carlson says of the virtual antiques he acquired over the years: the Vic-20 (a $300 marvel for which William Shatner did the TV ads), the Plus/4 (a disappointing sequel to the Commodore 64) and the portable TRS-80 model 100 (a laptop smaller than most made today).
"I get a real kick out of businessmen with multithousand-dollar laptops, and all they're doing is writing reports," he says. "I bought this one for $200."
Carlson explains the almost biological relationship he had with machines like these. If he didn't like the word processor, he could open up the program and rewrite it. Improve it. Hack it.
Today, he says, the programming languages have gotten more complicated and the general public more ignorant of them. The average Commodore 64 and TRS-80 user probably knew a little of the simple language Basic, but only an elite few in the modern crowd can script in C++.
"Sometimes I miss those days," Carlson says, comparing classic computers to early automobiles. "If you're going to own a Model T, you had to know how to fix it."
Or you have to know Rudy McDaniel. His Denbigh computer repair business specializes only in the extinct, outdated and still-abundant Commodores and Amigas.
What was 12 years ago the most popular computer on the planet still haunts McDaniel, who keeps a his garage and attic stocked with hulls, microchips, monitors and spare parts. He's got everything from a Commodore PET, sold in 1977 as one of the first home computers, to six Amigas, Commodore's radical and sophisticated last effort.
"Why do I need to upgrade?" he asks. "This does everything I need."
McDaniel gets a call or two a week from someone who bought a Commodore 64 at a garage sale. Or from somebody who needs a keyboard, a disk drive, memory expansion, whatever.
"This is basically the inside of a Commodore 64," says McDaniel, pointing at a slim green rectangle pocked with a sparse grid of microchips. "As you can see, there's not much to it."
Compared to a typical new PC today, the Commodore had about 1/100th the memory (64K) and ran at 1/70th the speed (1 megahertz). But many folks like McDaniel and Carlson still consider it one of the best game, graphic and sound machines ever made. And it only cost $600 new. (That was cheap, even in 1982.)
"This is part of my life," McDaniel says about his orderly shelves of electric body parts, his Rubbermaid bin full of motherboards. "It's not an obsession."
He'll defend his beloved machines against the trendy technology rage of CD multimedia, Internet access and Microsoft worship. He can make his Amiga run like an IBM compatible, a Macintosh or even, if he wants, a Commodore 64. And a German company plans to start making "The 64" again, he says, and sell them in China.
Even Harry Winter's dusty Tandys can be trained to work in a modern world. He rails on computer neophytes with "more money than brains" who boot up systems choked with America Online and Windows 95 and then complain, "I double-clicked and nothing happened!"
Winter has one of those new PC set-ups, but can't keep the older machines switched off. The days of simpler machines, the ancient era of less than 20 years ago lives on in his home.
"Einstein would have loved to have a TRS-80," Winter says, defending his passion. "He would have been in hog heaven with a simple 64K machine."
AT A GLANCE
For more reminiscing, visit the "Museum of Obsolete Computers," created by Tom Carlson of Williamsburg, on the Internet:
Send comments to here! (Note the new address. Lots of space to hold photos sent my way.)