Steven Frank on collecting vintage machines & other musings

I really enjoyed this recent piece by Steven Frank where he talks about his latest project:

When I decided a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to devote half of the guest bedroom to a selection of vintage computers, game consoles, and paraphernalia, there was no longer any denying that I’d crossed over from “Enthusiast” into the world of the dreaded “Collector”.

I don’t particularly agree with Frank’s negative connotation of the word ‘collector’, probably because I’ve always meant it in the good way he later talks about:

The key, I decided, is boundaries. What would mine be? A reasonable goal, it seemed to me, would be to stick to systems and consoles that have deep personal meaning to me; the ones that claimed years of my life: The Atari 2600, the Apple ][ series, and the Amiga. And for spice maybe I’d add a few things that, although I never owned them in their day, were particularly unique or iconic, like the Vectrex.

I also knew that I didn’t want a capital-C Collection of sparkling, never-opened, more expensive than when they were new items that I’d be afraid to take out of their boxes lest they devalue. I wanted something that I could plug in, tinker with, repair, and show to anyone who wanted to see. A living museum, not a stuffy tomb of priceless artifacts. Real live working interactive history, not skeletons under glass.

[…]

Collecting in this way suggests a level of commitment. You have decided to allow certain “things” to occupy space and time in your life. You want to maintain them, keep them running, and be able to explain to people why you care, if necessary. People don’t do this without a reason.

This is exactly the way I consider myself a collector of Vintage Macs and technologies. I haven’t even got a dedicated room for my collection — alas, I wish I had one — and if you could pay a visit to my apartment and home office, you’d have a hard time thinking I’m a collector. There’s nothing here on display, just machines that are hooked up and working. I have a wardrobe where I store my compact Macs and other vintage stuff, and I have created a rotation system that lets me use each vintage Mac for a period of some weeks before switching to the next, and so on. This way all the Macs in my collection receive the same level of attention and maintenance. The tablet device I use daily is a 13-year-old Newton MessagePad 2100, not to mention the eMate 300. Two items that amaze me constantly for their usefulness and seamless integration in my usual workflow.

Then Frank makes another very interesting point, something I’ve always maintained:

I have this theory — an untested theory, mind you — that I don’t talk about much. The theory is that your typical small, local retail or office business could meet most of their business needs (with the exception of the parts involving internet communication) with an Apple ][ or similar. Spreadsheets, word processing, database, invoicing, and accounts — all very achievable, although with the Achilles’ heel of scarce, decaying storage media.

Layer upon layer of hardware and software abstraction over three decades has made for beautiful, easy-to-use software that very often doesn’t really feel any faster for basic information management tasks than the 1980s equivalent. I bet you could write and print a business letter as fast (or faster) in Magic Window as you will be able to in Word 2025.

In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was to show that even machines that are more than 10 years old can still be useful for some tasks. Some examples (based on how I use my vintage hardware and on the few third-party contributions I received for my Classic Setup Series): distraction-free writing environments; scanning workstations; systems that can guarantee retrocompatibility with older devices, supports, file formats, etc.; backup systems; book databases maintained with the first versions of Filemaker Pro; fax and print servers; and so on and so forth.

And what I find ironic is that the enthusiasts and collectors (as Steven Frank and I intend) I’ve talked with, all agree on one point: they still use these vintage machines for their longevity and reliability — something that today’s technological progress doesn’t seem really concerned with, because the pace at which new products (or newer iterations of a product) are released on the market is so fast that a machine’s lifecycle gets dramatically shortened. Today’s hardware is quickly discarded and replaced by faster, more powerful hardware which, in turn, is produced to be able to run increasingly bloated software with stricter and more demanding system requirements, while keeping a decent-enough performance.

Steven Frank has created a Retro Room set on Flickr to document his increasing collection as new acquisitions arrive from eBay. If you love these things (and you do if you’re reading my blog), you should bookmark it. And please, go read the whole piece on Steven’s tumblelog, it’s really worthwhile.

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One thought on “Steven Frank on collecting vintage machines & other musings

  1. I like your emphasis on usefulness – because it’s one thing to be a collector (with or without a capital “C”), but it’s another to be an appreciator.

    Steven’s piece resonated with all of us, I think, because we’ve all been there: how do I justify having all this stuff, and how do I keep it so that it doesn’t take over?

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