@Retrochallenge – Getting Started

Windows 95 98

I have one definite project that I want to complete this year, building a multi-boot bridge machine.  This is more of an enabler than a full on retro project and will likely prove far from taxing, hopefully taking only a few hours.

Once achieved however it will allow me to seriously de-clutter my workspace and this in turn will hopefully allow me to get on with some other retro goodness without the continual hindrance of being surrounded in junk.


Choice Of Cases

Due to the ubiquitous nature of MS-DOS and the various subsequent flavours of Windows most of the retro computers in my collection rely on connecting to Wintel machines to facilitate file transfers.  Some of the software provided is very specific about which version of DOS/Windows it will play ball with.  I therefore have a collection of machines running early versions of DOS through to Windows XP.  My aim is to narrow this down to one machine.

Helpfully Microsoft still provide minimum specifications for Windows For Workgroups and XP.

Windows For Workgroups:-

  • 80286 microprocessor or better for version 3.1
  • 80386sx microprocessor or better for version 3.11
  • 2048 kilobytes (K) total memory for version 3.1
  • 3 megabytes (MB) total memory for version 3.1 (2 MB with no network installed)
  • 3 megabytes (MB) total memory for version 3.11 (4 MB is recommended)
  • 6.2 MB of hard drive space (14.5 MB recommended)

Windows XP:-

  • Pentium 233-megahertz (MHz) processor or faster (300 MHz is recommended)
  • At least 64 megabytes (MB) of RAM (128 MB is recommended)
  • At least 1.5 gigabytes (GB) of available space on the hard disk
  • CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive
  • Keyboard and a Microsoft Mouse or some other compatible pointing device
  • Video adapter and monitor with Super VGA (800 x 600)or higher resolution
Choosing A Motherboard

Choosing A Motherboard

I delved in to my collection of motherboards and cases and decided to pair an Abit BH6 motherboard with a 300 MHz Pentium 2 ripped from a dead Dell Dimension.  The BH6 has a good combination of ISA and PCI slots, USB, standard serial and parallel ports.  It’s had an interesting few years, some of them spent hanging on the wall as decoration (regularly vacuumed in a non sympathetic manner) and the last 2 or 3 in a pile of other MBs in a damp, non heated shed.  I was therefore a little sceptical as to whether it would still work.

I also found an Nvidia TNT 2 graphics card, two 128MB sticks of PC100 RAM, a 3.5″ FDD and a CD-ROM drive.  I assembled all of the components into a suitable case and was somewhat surprised when greeted by a successful POST.


Compact Flash Cards

I decided in advance that the easiest way to boot into various OS’s would be to use Compact Flash cards.  I have a number of them lying around in various sizes from 32MB up to 16GB and have had great success with them in the past.

I had therefore ordered an IDE to CF adapter with a back plate fitting so that the card could be swapped out easily. In retrospect a 5.25 Bay model would have been even more convenient so I may yet get one of those.

CF Adapter

CF Adapter

Once fitted and hooked up with a suitable cable I set about installing Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95 and 98 onto separate cards.  The installations went pretty smoothly, I put DOS 6.22 and WFW on a 32 MB card, Windows 95 on a 1 GB card and 98SE on a 4 GB card.  One other useful aspect of this method is that the cards can be easily removed and inserted into a card reader on another machine allowing easy transfer of files.


Installing Windows For Workgroups

Having discovered some old floppy disks whilst rooting around for components for this machine it wasn’t long before it was called in to action.  I installed a 5.25″ FDD into a spare bay and inserted the Windows 95 CF card.  Once booted into Windows 95 I set about attempting to recover some old files as detailed here.

The build has therefore been successful,  I’ll also do an XP installation and then I’ll be able to simply swap cards and boot into whichever OS I need.  I shall also add an internal CF adapter with a 4 GB CF card onto which I will install all of the retro software that I need so that it’s always available to each OS.


Pentium II & Heatsink

The machine is reasonably quiet as the Pentium is passively cooled although the graphics card has a small fan, I may therefore root around for a fan-less model.

A sound card would be nice but not essential and I may see if I can hook up the two Voodoo 2 3D cards that I used to run in SLI mode.

@Retrochallenge 2012 – Under Construction

An illness in the family has rather curtailed my retro activities this year.  Any grand projects are unlikely to reach fruition, however I’m still tinkering with odds and sods.

I finally got around to Telnet enabling my Nostromo BBS, which was previously dial-up only.  Trouble is I may now therefore actually get some visitors and that in turns means I ought to add some content.

I hadn’t realised, but my Broadband supplier at work, Demon, actually furnishes me with a static IP address so the process was very simple.  I had previously assumed it was a dynamically allocated address.  I also still have my original ‘tenner a month’ dial-up account with Demon, purely to retain the associated e-mail address.  Next year will mark twenty years since I first signed up for this account and it occurred to me it would appropriate to create a suitably retro-style website on the included web space.

So you can now visit the hand coded Nostromo BBS Website replete with snazzy background, marquee, page counter and other early 90’s Internet goodies.  Twenty years, I can’t believe it!

@retrochallenge 2012 – Acoustic Coupling

Since contracting this retro computing bug, after prolonged exposure to Urbancamo, I’ve had a yearning to try to recreate one of my earliest and fondest computing memories.  That memory, when recalled, still has the ability to send a little shiver of excitement down my spine.  Picture the scene if you will, a musty old office in the maths block of my local upper school.  Two spotty teenage boys, myself and the aforementioned Urbancamo.  In one dingy corner of the room an ASR 33 Teletype, on the window sill an acoustic coupler and telephone and on a piece of paper, a phone number.

ADC 212 Internals

Thinking we were Matthew Broderick from WarGames we eagerly dialled the number inserted the handset into the coupler and waited excitedly for the Teletype to burst into life.  Sure enough the ASR 33 started clanking away and we were in!  Not NASA or anything like that you understand, but a nearby college upon which we were able to play a game called Shark Attack!  A momentous moment in my computing history and the first and last time that I ever used an acoustic coupler.

Epson CX-21

I have for some time therefore been on the lookout for a working acoustic coupler that I could use to try to recreate some of that experience.  After failing to bring back to life a very old Anderson Jacobson ADC 212 model, I was recently lucky enough to sport an Epson CX-21 on Ebay.

It’s in lovely condition, and the original NiCad battery even appears to hold a reasonable charge.  It came with an Epson HX-20 in a custom-made case which no doubt accounts for its excellent condition.  There was a little blooming on the rubber cups but I cleaned this off with a mild detergent solution and the whole unit looks almost new.

I will of course also need an old telephone with suitable handset and fortunately we still have a couple of 1970’s models at work that thankfully were never thrown out. These old BT models were built to last and the one I chose cleaned up really nicely, in fact it looks so cool I may use it in place of our current home set.

CX-21 Battery

The CX-21 only has two options to select, half or full-duplex and answer or originate mode.  It has a standard DB25 port and I have the appropriate cable to hook it up to my PX-8, an Epson 724 cable.  This is a modem cable with DB25 at one end and an 8 pin Mini DIN connector at the other.  I have two options for terminal software on the PX-8, both previously downloaded, Kermit and Mex.  The PX-8 does have a rudimentary terminal application on the built-in ROM but I’ve never had much success with it.

After charging the CX-21 and PX-8 I hooked up the TF-20 FDD and copied over all the software I’d need to the PX-8’s RAM disk so I had the minimal amount of stuff to take home from where I would be calling back to the box running my BBS.

Epson PX-8 With The CX-21

I then spent rather too long trying to get my head around whether I was originating or answering the call, clearly I was originating it and the BBS box was answering but for some unknown reason I’d convinced myself that the coupler would have to ‘answer’ the handshaking attempts of the remote modem.

Nevertheless once sanity had been restored I set the coupler to ‘originate’ mode at full-duplex and dialled the BBS with the telephone.  After several attempts the ready light finally illuminated on the coupler and it seemed a connection had been established. However once I’d connected via the terminal software all I received was a screen full of garbage.

I checked all my settings, made sure background noise was minimal and continued to make many more attempts to create a good connection.  Eventually I discovered that contrary to my instinct to push the handset more deeply and securely into the coupler, lifting the mouthpiece end slightly out of the cup resulted in a much better connection!  Whether the proximity of the transducers was causing some sort of distortion I don’t know but whatever the reason I now had a working connection and was reliably able to re-create it.  There are still a few erroneous characters coming through but I can live with that.

I shot a quick video showing the process below, all I need now are a couple of ASR 33’s.