Welcome to This Old Tech, a new column devoted to vintage gadgets, electronics, computers, and video games. By “vintage,” I mean things that are generally at least 10 to 20 years old or otherwise obsolete. Most people throw this stuff away, but I know I’m not the only one who likes to keep the tech and their stories alive. I’ll be starting with a classic Toshiba laptop that served as my entry point into the world of primordial computing.
But first, a bit about me: I’ve been writing about vintage computers and classic video games for the past decade, first for my blog and later for many other publications, including PCWorld.
I started collecting old computers and video games as a teen. After 20-plus years—eons in tech time—my large collection (including associated media, accessories, and literature) fills a good portion of my garage. I also have a lot of old books and magazines—perhaps too many, as you may come to find out later.
It’s been an amazing privilege to play host to this mass of historical artifacts, but it’s also been tough keeping all of it from decaying into a pile of moldy rubber and steel. Thanks to hours of tinkering and research just to keep everything alive, I developed a deep practical knowledge of computer and tech history. I’ll share that with you as I dig into boxes and pull things from shelves for this column.
The invention of the digital computer will drive this column, but the computer (specifically, the microcomputer) has been incorporated into so many different types of products that my topic possibilities are nearly endless. So I’ll be covering video games, cell phones, and calculators, as well as various computers. I also may go into the technologies that made modern gadgets possible, such as the QWERTY keyboard on a typewriter.
What better way to start than with my first experience with an IBM PC-compatible machine: the Toshiba T1000.
A taste of Toshiba T1000
When I was a kid, IBM PC-compatible computers seemed impenetrably complex and daunting. As I watched my father use one at work, I often wondered, “How does he type so fast?” And most importantly: “How does anybody know what to type into the little blinky prompt to make it work?”
Enter the Toshiba T1000 laptop, circa 1989. My older brother taught me how to insert a floppy disk with Tetris on it, turn it on, type
DIR, then type
TETRIS to run the program. As mundane as it sounds now, it was a transformative experience for an 8- or 9-year-old kid. (I had previously played around on an Atari ST and a Mac SE, so I had the mouse down pat. But a command prompt? That was serious business.)
In 1987, Japanese firm Toshiba delivered the T1000, a 6.4-pound version of the IBM PC that could fit comfortably inside a briefcase and run on batteries alone for four to five hours a charge. It retailed for $1,199 in the US and included a 4.77MHz 80C88 CPU, 512K of RAM, a 720KB 3.5-inch inch floppy drive, and a 640×200 EGA-capable monochrome LCD.
At the time of its release, critics hailed the Toshiba T1000 as a groundbreaking innovation. It was the lightest PC-compatible laptop ever released up to that point, and the press considered it the MacBook Air of its day.
Like the MacBook Air, the T1000 shipped with a solid state disk: It packed MS-DOS 2.11 on a built-in ROM chip so it would be available instantly when powered on. For $549 more, you could increase the RAM to 768K, and use a portion of that memory as an ultra-fast RAM disk that retained its data as long as the main system battery didn’t discharge.
My dad apparently bought that 768K option when he got his T1000 around 1989, because I just ran across it today. It’s a tiny board plastered with RAM chips plugged into the motherboard. Here’s how it looked:
I took apart the T1000 because it doesn’t boot anymore. It has seen better days. The plastic has yellowed, and there’s unidentified gunk on the lid.
After a few years’ service as a personal machine for my family, this T1000 began its second life as a glorified serial terminal at my dad’s electronics company, where it was hooked to some sort of test machine for the next decade.
After his company retired the T1000, I rescued it and added it to my collection.
My dad passed away in 2013, so I can’t ask him for more specific details about the history of the machine. But it’s amazing how the stuff he touched and used provides tangible links to him in ways I don’t expect.
An assist from Radio Shack
For example, upon disassembling the T1000 today, I found out that at some point the unit’s internal Ni-Cd battery pack had been rebuilt—likely by my dad. It’s a clutch of four Radio Shack rechargeable cells, soldered together and wrapped in foam rubber and electrical tape.
(I’m very lucky this pack did not leak and ruin the T1000’s motherboard. Batteries are the bane of most computer collectors, as their acid eats away at circuitry.)
Upon seeing that rebuilt battery pack, a vague memory flashed: I think I remember when he built it. Tinkering definitely ran in my family.
After clipping out the old battery pack, I rigged up a 7-volt VPX lithium-ion battery pack from one of my dad’s old cordless drills. After a few smelly burps of ancient capacitors settling, then stirring to life, the unit powered up again for the first time in over 15 years.
Then I smelled something alarming: burning capacitors.
As electronics age, the second components to fail (after batteries) are usually electrolytic capacitors, which break down over time and either deform or leak. It’s a big problem.
A small puff of smoke accompanied the fading-out of the LCD screen. The bad capacitor was located in that assembly.
Luckily for me, the T1000 also supports composite video output, so I hooked it up to an old Apple IIc monitor I have on my workbench.
Can you guess the first program I ran?
Tetris, of course.
With a little help from borrowed technology, the Toshiba T1000 lives on to fight another day. I still need to fix the LCD panel, but it’s been fun playing that classic again—even if it is rendered entirely in green.