Category Archives: old machines

Connecting an Apple IIe to the TV set

When I was young, my parents purchased an Apple IIe. My sisters and I played some games on it, and I did classwork on it after I figured out what a word processor was (intuiting the need for such a thing, I had attempted to program my own in Apple Basic. Imagine my simultaneous delight and disappointment to discover Apple Writer II).

Last year, I found the old machine in my parents’ garage, along with its disc drives. The monitors and dot matrix printer had not survived. I did not want to buy a replacement “composite” monitor, and it was unclear to me which, if any, of the “VGAbox” type devices on the market might allow it to talk to one of my computer monitors, so the Apple IIe sat in the basement until I realized today that it could probably be attached to our television via the RCA jack on the front of the screen. Indeed —

Apple //

Apple //e on a large high definition screen

Unfortunately, while the machine booted and the drives spun up, they would not load an operating system. I pulled the disk interface card and tried to reseat the chips, but this ended up frying the card entirely. Sigh.

A question you don’t want to hear from your wife when tinkering with old hardware —

“What’s that smell?”

A replacement card is coming, courtesy eBay. It would be nice to salvage some of the files on my old 5 1/4″ discs.

Apple Lisa team jacket

Once upon a time, the Computer History Museum was located in Boston, near the tech powerhouses DEC and Wang. It has since moved to the Silicon Valley. Anyway, in 1994 the Museum sold off a few items as a fundraiser, and I picked up an Apple Lisa team jacket.

In 2006, I checked with John Couch, who had been the head of the Lisa project at Apple Computer. He recalled that these jackets had been given to members of the Lisa engineering team as a “thank you” when the design of the Lisa was complete.

Engineering did produce the red jacket as a “thank you” for the completion of the Lisa project. It has words on the back that are now found in the EBC at Apple computer. Not sure about the blue jacket, may have just been a few.

Couch recalled that there were both red and blue versions of the jacket, for the engineering and marketing teams. There is nothing of interest printed on the front of the jacket. Can anybody tell me if the words on the back,

renaissance man
knowledge worker

are still on the wall of the Executive Briefing Center at Apple? It doesn’t seem like Steve Jobs’s style.

This is the only example of the jacket that I have ever seen.

Bringing an Apple Lisa online

The Apple Lisa operating system does not include a network stack, so there is no way to bring one online in the normal sense (it might be possible under Lisa Xenix, but I don’t have a copy to work with, and the lack of a graphical user interface means it probably wouldn’t be much fun anyway). However, all versions of the Lisa come with a serial port, the Lisa 7/7 operating system includes telecommunications software, and Mac OSX can act as a server, intermediating between the Lisa and the web.

The Lisa will be interacting with the Mac at the “darwin” level, and only software available to the Mac OSX Terminal will work. Therefore, start by installing on the Mac the software you will want available from the Lisa. A few things, including text editors like vi are available by default. I used Fink to set up an irc client and Mutt, which is a mail client.

  1. If you haven’t already done so, sign up with Apple as a developer. It’s free
  2. Download the XCode programming tools.
  3. Download and install Fink, per their instructions.
  4. Install the Fink packages you want; you’ll see irc-ii in the photos below.
  5. In recent versions of the Mac OS, you can set variables and aliases for the Terminal in a file at ~/.profile.

Get a USB-to-serial converter and a null modem. The converter will probably have a 9-pin serial connector, and the Lisa has 25 pins, so you’ll probably need a 9pin to 25 pin adapter too. Connect the USB adapter to the Mac, attach the null modem to the end of that, then stick on the 9-to-25 pin adapter, and finally attach the remaining end to one of the serial ports on your Lisa. Then boot the Lisa.

Go to the Lisas’s preferences, select Device Connections, and tell it there is a remote computer attached to the serial port (make sure you identify the same serial port to which you had attached the null modem).

You may need to reboot the Lisa for it to recognize the serial connection properly.

Then launch LisaTerm, and go to the Setup menu, and the Computer Compatibility item. Set speed to 9600 baud, terminal to VT100, and communication to “On”.

Now we are going to create a slave terminal on the Mac, using a variation on the instructions at

  1. Find the device name of your usb-to-serial adapter.

    $ cd /dev
    $ ls tty.*

    Look for the response with a name that mentions USB. On my system, it’s tty.usbserial
  2. Use screen to connect and run getty

    $ screen /dev/tty.usbserial
    Ctrl-A, Shift-: and then exec ::: /usr/libexec/getty std.9600
  3. Switch back to the Lisa keyboard; anything you type into Lisa Terminal now should be sent to the Mac Terminal, with the output displayed on both, allowing you to read e-mail, chat online, surf the web, and do anything else you can do in a Mac OSX Terminal.

When you are finished, you can quit the screen program by typing control-A, then control-\.

The Lisa’s vt100 emulation is pretty lousy, and will produce scrambled output if software tries to place text at specific locations on the screen. Matching the terminal dimensions and forcing the Mac terminal to vt100 mode doesn’t seem to help. It’s good enough for bragging rights, though. Any putz with a credit card can bring an iPad online. The Lisa is something more special.

Resurrecting an Apple Lisa

I own three Apple Lisas, collected in the early 1990s from the closets of people and organizations that no longer wanted them. The collection includes a Lisa 2, a Lisa 2/5 and a Lisa 2/10 (slash Mac XL, the hardware was identical). At one time all three worked, but the Lisa 2 broke down about 15 years ago and I haven’t used any of them since. David Pogue recently published a piece commenting on the tenth anniversary of his technology column in The New York Times, saying that we should “forget about forever, nothing lasts a year.” Allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole, this may be true in a commercial sense — technology and standards are quickly replaced. However, we have nothing to celebrate in this constant obsolescence.

I refer not only to the waste associated with constant upgrading, but to the lack of character associated with new gadgets. People think they define themselves by their purchases, but anybody with a credit card can get an iPhone. The only objects that really express our characters are the ones we make ourselves, or have made for us. And while not quite so distinctive as something you’ve made yourself, objects abandoned or unappreciated by others, but kept vital through your efforts, say a lot more than any new portable computer/laptop/notebook/netbook/handheld/tablet/whatever.

I sometimes print with a 1983-vintage “letter quality” printer. I doesn’t have a sheet feeder, so I’m forced to keep letters short. And last night, I decided to try to bring the Lisas back to life. In an initial survey, it looks like one of the three power supplies still works (1.8 amp, luckily; the 1.2 amp models were never great even at their best). The dual parallel port card works. One of the internal hard drives works (10Mb), as does the external profile drive (5Mb). The third drive fails with “error 82.” Unfortunately, I have no application software on the working internal drive, just the Lisa “office system” operating system, and the external profile is blank. So I either need to bring the third hard drive back to life, or create Lisa floppies for reinstalling the “7/7” application suite and hope I have a working floppy drive, or use an x/profile drive replacer. I have not yet been able to get a keyboard to work with the one working machine, so I either have bad keyboards or something wrong inside the box where keyboard input is processed.

Apple Lisa

Apple Lisa 2/10, November 2010

If I can install LisaTerm, get a keyboard working, and secure the appropriate cables, I will bring the Lisa online as a terminal. Pogue may say nothing lasts a year, but it will soon be 28 years for this machine and I think I can make it work.