We Heart Vintage PowerBooks
A rogues’ gallery of vintage PowerBooks lives on at ^GeneW’s desk. In this week’s installment of #whatsgoodweds, have a look at what happens when one man’s mania for Apple laptops meets the modern day.
A Little Bit of History
Come in the front doors of Griffin Technology’s headquarters in the Sawtooth Building in Nashville. Take the lefthand hallway at the receptionist’s desk. Go about halfway down the long corridor and turn left into the desk space belonging to Gene Wright, Griffin’s Analytics Manager. What you’ll see on Gene’s desk is a row of laptop computers. Not an unusual sight in an office cubicle at a technology firm… until you consider that the newest computer in that group dates from 1997. They are all Mac PowerBooks, and they are all still running.
“My first Mac, bought during graduate school, was a 512K Mac. I have had quite a few others since then, but always wanted a 128K Mac.”
Gene has a passion for old tech, but laptops have always had a special attraction for him. Especially vintage PowerBooks. On Gene’s desk today:
A PowerBook 520c. The 500 series’ codename, “Blackbird,” was a reference to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet, as a nod to how speedy it was. (25 MHz was mighty fast, in those days.) The PowerBook 500s claimed many firsts, among them: the first laptop to use a trackpad instead of a trackball; the first with built-in Ethernet; the first with 16 bit stereo sound and built-in stereo speakers; the first with an internal PDS expansion bay; the first with “intelligent” NiMH batteries and a 4-hour battery life. And, unique among laptops, the 500s had an upgradeable CPU chip mounted on a daughtercard. The 520c was the passive matrix little brother of the 540c, offered because of the expense and difficulty of making active matrix displays without stuck pixels. With its innovations and ports for plugging in external drives, monitors, keyboards and mice, the PowerBook 500s were the first viable replacements for desktop computers, and became the defining standard for all modern laptop computers.
Next to the 520c on Gene’s desk is an example of the last of the 500 line, a PowerBook 5300c. Though it was the first to offer hot-swappable expansion modules for things like internal Zip drives, standard PC-card slots, and an IR port, the 5300 was plagued by shortages and delays, and was among those laptops of the period that took a PR hit when their lithium-ion batteries overheated and caught fire. Apple responded by recalling about a hundered 5300s and replacing their batteries with tried and true NiMH ones, but these and other problems turned the 5300 into a black eye for Apple.
Apple ended the 500 series after the 5300, replacing them in 1996 with another machine represented in Gene’s collection: the PowerBook 1400, Gene’s being a top-of-the-line 166 MHz model. The 1400 was notable as the first notebook computer that was available with a built-in optical drive.
Topping out the vintage lineup on Gene’s desk is the 1400’s big brother, the PowerBook 3400c (codenamed “Hooper”), which, with its 240 MHz processor and active-matrix display, lived up to Apple’s “wicked fast” marketing line. It was, for a time, the fastest laptop in the world.
A glance at this lineup of vintage silicon has a way of putting the present in context. These machines reflect the state of the art in consumer-level computers, not so very long ago. They show how far we’ve come, as well as the most important steps along the way. To stand here and gaze at these machines, all running recognizable versions of Apple’s Mac OS, with recognizable apps like Photoshop and Word, is to be in the presence of history.
Gene also collects vintage scientific calculators, “with scientific defined as able to do trigonometry calculations. I have a working model of every red-display LED calculator HP ever sold other than a four-function adding machine. I have a large number from Texas Instruments, Commodore, Bowmar, Aristo, Unisonic, etc.” Why collect these? He shrugs, “These were the first computers I was exposed to in high school and gave me my first programming lessons. Fond memories.” He has but one requirement in his collection: they must be working machines. “No boat anchors.”
Gene adds, “I love donations of working Mac laptops. And, if someone has some old red display HP calculators, I’ll give them a good home too.”
Gene Wright lives and works at Griffin Technology in Nashville, and credits, as an important factor making his collection possible, “a very patient and understanding wife!”