Retro Computing – the past and the future

I’ve written quite a few posts on my retro computer projects and during the course of that have met others that have had similar revelations that have turned into business projects related to inspiring a new generation of children to more fully understand computing.

I asked one of these guys, Mark Grogan, what getting into retro computing really feels like and what it means to him on a personal level. Is it just nostalgia for lost youth, or is there something more profound going on?

He and I have a particular thing in common – we were both Atari ST users in the late eighties and early nineties. The ST was a new breed of personal computer much more powerful than its predecessors (The ST stood for 16/32 bit processing. Current PCs are 32 or 64 bit so this was a big step up at the time) and many kids of the day progressed from their Commodores, BBC-Bs and Sinclair Spectrums to 16-bit machines such as the Atari ST or the Commodore Amiga (The Acorn Archimedes, the Sinclair QL and the Apple Macintosh were also available but much lower sellers). With these 16-bit machines we could of course play better games with better graphics, but the main attraction was that for the very first time we could do whole new things using a computer: desktop publishing was one and making music was another.  Today we take for granted doing these sort of things so why did Mark decide to go back in time to the dawn of modern computing?

“Around four years ago I decided to get back into Atari STs, I’d left them back in 1994, as did many of us as we progressed into a world of multimedia PCs and Windows. (Windows 98 is still one of my favourite PC eras, being a former computer shop owner in 2001). 2016, was when the spark happened. I was working with Zach Weddington, producer and director of ‘Viva Amiga: The Story of a Beautiful Machine’ – a documentary about the Commodore Amiga 16-bit computer produced from 1985 to 1996, I was asked to take care of the web marketing in late 2016 ready for the launch of the film in early 2017. Then the whole vibe around tapping into your computing past clicked with me with memories of my own Atari ST. I started looking for one from ebay and from then on that was it, I went down a rabbit hole of vintage computer collecting, restoring and curating. 

“I enjoy the whole process from start to finish, from finding broken and unloved ones that no longer work, to receiving the packages, finding more broken machines, until eventually having lots of parts lying round which enables me to start harvesting working parts into full machines. This takes me back to my days as a computer shop owner, so I’m always happy tinkering with hardware, but the vintage element really is something else, like I’ve never experienced before. 

“In late 2017 I ended up working with one of the most exciting UK projects where we brought computing history into schools as a business called The Code Show, taking working vintage computers into schools for a day and letting the kids get hand-on experience with them. We were the first to do this in the UK and I essentially felt like I become part of a larger cause. As well as my work, the contacts that I have made from this, as well as combining my own Atari ST passions has allowed me to fully appreciate the retro community in it’s full glory – a community of historians, collectors, teachers, documentary film makers and video producers, demo-sceners, video game industry veterans to name just a few. It’s a collection of some of the most interesting, eccentric, supportive and helpful people you could ever ask for and we all do our bit to keep these machines and the history of them alive and we do it because we care. My own personal collection of STs up in Newcastle is called the Atari ST sanctuary – they come here and I keep them alive.

“I get a lot of joy and liberation from these machines. When I take some downtime from work, then there’s nothing better, take yourself back to your childhood. There’s something transcendental about the whole experience I’ve always found: the green GEM desktop has a certain meditative quality about it. I often leave Atari STs running for the same reason that people like having tropical fish tanks in their living rooms, the whole experience of switching on an Atari ST takes me right back to 1989. If you’re looking for the best way to travel back in time to your childhood then I think vintage computing is a great way to go if you were there. Today they are like mystical things of wonder, the way they look, the chip music that has a sound that is only from that certain era in time along with the metallic graphics. I remember the first time I saw the ST and that was exactly it: the metallic graphics combined with that YM sound, it had a every oriental sort of sound and feel on the ST and that was always something that made me curious about the machine from the start. Cosmetically, when you lay them out on the bench, they remind me of Star Wars toys from the 1980s, they are manufactured the same sort of way the Millennium Falcons models were, with care and attention to detail. 

“As well as The Code Show, I have started working on, with a local electronics engineer friend of mine, is ViCE North East (Vintage Computer Events). We aim to launch our first event at Newcastle University around the summer time (with August penciled in), initially as a place for like-minded vintage computer people to get together and share ideas but going forward, to look at opening it up for the public if all goes well.

“This sort of personal time travel help you join the dots backwards. It’s always important to remind yourself where you’ve came from (and as a computer person then I think it’s important to keep in touch with your computing roots). Is there a link between spirituality and computing? I think there could be, you just have to take a look at Silicon Valley culture today and trace its roots back to things like the Whole Earth Catalogue, but that’s another story. This dynamic that has worked well for me, working within computer history and combining my passions and interests of vintage computing really has had some big advantages for my life.”

– Mark F. Grogan

My thanks go to Mark and once the current situation settles down I’d definitely be having the Code Show visit my school at Fyling Hall.  Read more about the Code Show here. Visit his 16-bit Creative business here.