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Frankenputer

When I was sixteen, I had a motorbike - a little Suzuki. It was one of those 50cc affairs that teenagers spent a disproportionate amount of money on trying to raise their top-speed. When they came out of the factory, they were limited to 30mph - and we did everything to ensure they didn’t stay that way. Exhausts were changed, rear cogs were replaced and engines were ported, anything to add a few extra mph.

Mine did just a shade over 50mph, but it didn’t really matter in the long run as I soon had an accident that wrote the machine off. Despite my relative inexperience as a biker, I wasn’t at fault. The local milkman (whose head was somewhere in the clouds) pulled out in front of me and I flew over the top of his Mark 1 Ford Escort, breaking my leg in two places and putting my first taste of independence to a rather speedy end. That hurt more than the injury.

I spent the next six months on crutches whilst my insurance claim very slowly plodded its way along. I got an initial payment and had designs of getting another bike and becoming mobile again - my girlfriend was getting a bit fed up with doing all the travelling. However, my mother wasn’t too keen on the idea and tried to steer me towards other ideas. Much to her joy (and the disappointment of my girlfriend), I eventually purchased an Atari ST, a computer that lasted me for many, many years.

Twenty-three years later and I’ve still got it. It was the computer that I cut my geek-teeth on. Apart from the obvious games, I word-processed, programmed, composed music and even wrote my own demos.

But does it still work?

The answer to that is yes and no.

A few months ago, I set everything back up again. Opening the box, I remarked on how (apart from a bit of graffiti) it was still in pretty good condition. I still had 300 disks full of software, but unfortunately the floppy-drive was knackered. The motor didn’t work, so loading any data was out of the question. However, the machine eventually grunted it’s way to the desktop and I had the joy of seeing that rather green-looking GEM screen, reminding me that we’re spoilt with modern GUIs, we really are - but its simplicity is still quite charming.

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The other problem is the result of our switch to digital television.

All TVs are digital now. They take digital signals and don’t have one of those lovely analogue RF inputs to enable you connect it to a screen. If you want to hook it up to a screen now, you’ll either have to find a television with a SCART signal that works (and not all do), or convert the signal to VGA and use a monitor instead. I took the latter option, had a trawl across eBay and found a ten-pound VGA box. It doesn’t give you the best picture ever, but it works OK.

And so after replacing the floppy drive, it’s all back in operation - here’s a screenshot of the machine playing my old favourite, Dungeon Master.

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It’s easy to ask why I’ve even bothered doing this, when I could have sent the machine to the tip like so many others have. The truth is that despite my own personal interest, retro-computers are increasing in value. A good Atari ST will still attract a reasonable amount of cash - and if you’ve got an Atari Falcon, well, you’ll probably pay more for one of those than a new computer.

Of course, the other reason I did it was for purely for nostalgia. I was quite a creative chap back then and it seems a shame to let all those bits and bytes fly into the ether, especially the unreleased demo material. I might have a go at trying to release something of consequence in the future. In the meantime, I’m just happy to play a bit of Oids and Dungeon Master in the way that Mr Atari intended.

The story doesn’t quite end there, really, as I’ve decided to go for the “Pimp My Computer” prize. There’s lots of things that can be done to max its capabilities - I can upgrade the version of TOS on the ROMs. I can attach a hard-drive and max-out the RAM. There are even instructions out there on how to connect it the web, albeit in a crude form. Plus, it’s a bit yellow with age - there’s a chap who’s concocted a really great cocktail of chemicals that makes it all look like new.

By the time I’ve finished, I want to have a fully-functional antique of a computer that people can use and learn from. We have too much of a disposable attitude to technology these days and it seems such a shame not to preserve it. My son already seems to be taking an interest in Helter Skelter, a wonderfully simple game. If he adopts an interest in technology (and I think he will), then he’ll probably find the whole scene to be quite fascinating - and of course, its a great project for me. I don’t have a garden shed to disappear to like most old men, but perhaps I’ll just construct a retro-computing museum instead.
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