Building A Bridge Computer

I’ve learnt that an important requirement for Retro Computing is to have one or more ‘bridge’ machines.  It’s all very well having the latest Windows 7 PC or iMac but they ain’t gonna talk to your retro machines, certainly not politely, smug gits.

In my case most of the retro machines I’m using hark from the early to mid 80’s and were therefore designed to talk to DOS and usually via either the parallel or serial ports.

Realistically then I needed a PC running Windows 98 or earlier as Windows 98 was the last iteration that would allow you to drop into DOS when required.  If like me you tend to hoard things you’ve probably got a pile of old PC’s somewhere, however if also like me you tend to butcher them for parts the chances of having a complete working system may be less likely.

Originally I managed to dig out an old Fujitsu Pentium machine running Windows 95 that much to my surprise booted up successfully.  However it has been a tad unreliable, understandably, and the system fan really is on its last legs plus I really wanted a machine with USB support.

In fact I decided the specifications for my perfect ‘Bridge’ machine would be as follows:-

  • Ability to run Windows 95/98
  • Parallel and Serial Ports
  • 3.5″ and 5.25″ Floppy Disk Drives
  • Network Card
  • CD Drive
  • USB Support
  • Reasonably Quiet/Reliable
  • PCI & ISA Slots

I therefore decided to return to another box, namely a Dell Dimension XPS D300 which with its combination of PCI slots, ISA slots, parallel and serial ports, plus 2 USB ports seemed the perfect bridge machine.  With no hard disk, floppy drive or memory things didn’t look promising.  However I found a suitable 32 MB stick of memory, an IBM 80GB IDE hard disk and pulled out the floppy drive from the Fujitsu.

Once assembled and powered up the machine requested a BIOS password?  Mmm, I thought, I’d certainly never set one and could only guess that this had been triggered by a flat CMOS battery.  I had a search online and found this following Dell XPS support information.

Changing the jumper allowed me to get into maintenance mode which in turn allowed me remove the password and confirm that the CMOS was definitely flat.  I had hoped the disk drive might have had either Windows 95 or 98 on it, but no such luck.

This of course led to the next problem, did I still have any suitable installation disks?  Amazingly I was able to dig out two OEM Windows 95 CD’s and a retail Upgrade version of Windows 98, both with product keys.  Cue next problem, the machine would not boot from the Windows 98 installation CD despite claiming such ability in the BIOS.  Another quick root around and I found a working Windows boot disk I’d created in 1998.  Soon the Windows 98 installation was underway, things were looking very promising.

Then for some reason that I’ve been unable to fathom the machine died and no amount of fiddling has bought it back to life.  Some of this process is quite enjoyable but when you’re time limited failures such as this can be very irritating.  Moving on, next in line a home built Pentium III 700 built around an Abit motherboard and case.   This machine fulfills my requirements save for a lack of network card.  I swapped all the parts over from the Dell and successfully installed Windows 98.

Fingers crossed this machine will now do reliable service as my ideal bridge computer once I’ve found a suitable network card to install.

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