INNER GEEK: HEATHKIT PRESERVATION PROJECT

by Mark Garlanger

When many people look at 30-year old computers, they just see a useless old system, with 5.25” floppy drives, slow processors, and little memory. However, I see unique computers created by the pioneers of the computer industry. Their innovative designs helped shape the entire computer industry and made it possible for the systems we enjoy today.

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Over the last 7 years, I’ve been collecting old Heathkit computers, peripherals, and software. This adventure started when I saw someone had a Heathkit H89 ‘All-In-One’ computer available. Seeing the H89  brought back memories of when I was a teenager and built an H89 with my father. We would be on that system for hours and playing games. I taught myself how to program, on the H89. Since then, my collection has grown dramatically with the help of some generous donations and, of course, by spending way too much time searching eBay.

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My collection now includes Heath Company’s early computers – H8, H11, H89 and H100, many of the peripherals (external drives, modems, printers, etc), and a large collection of software that was available for these systems. Part of the fun, is getting these systems operational. After 30 years, the systems all require cleaning, and a few of them, need more extensive repairs. Thanks to extensive documentation and very detailed schematics, which were included with each system, I am able to repair many of them.

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My son has helped in the cleaning of some of these systems, too. And once they are operational, we run the original programs. When using this old software, I am amazed to see what programmers were able to accomplish with such limited hardware. Most only supported 64K of system memory, had a floppy disk drive that stored about 100K, a user interface through an ASCII terminal, and the main processor running at only 2 MHz. The serial interface between the computer portion and terminal portion of the machine operated at about 1000 characters per second. Yet, they were able to write spreadsheets, word processors, programming languages, and even, what they called at the time, ‘Fast-Action’ games. These programs operated in  about the same amount of memory, as used by a desktop icon, on a modern computer. Programmers were able to utilize character-graphics to create some very enjoyable games.

Photo4Back in the early 1980’s, there were several third-party companies, which offered graphic add-in cards to provide black/white bit-mapped graphics for the internal CRT. One company even offered a board that would drive an external color monitor. Although, I’ve only used one of the graphic cards, they appeared to be designed for generating a picture, instead of playing games. Some of them had speeds that would be easier to measure in seconds per frame, instead of the frames per second. 

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My goal is not only to collect these items, but also to help preserve the history and information about these systems and to save as much of the software, as I can. Many of the companies that produced software for these early computers are no longer around. And the few which are, no longer have the original software, that they wrote for these systems. When software disks are found (eBay or from other sources), it’s important to transfer the software from the 30 year-old floppies to a modern machine, before the data deteriorates any further on the disk. This allows the software to be backed-up and also to be used on an emulator.

In order to preserve this information and make it easily available, I’ve created a website for classic Heathkit computers. I plan to add a lot more information, pictures, and software. Another project, that I’m working on, is a Heathkit H89 emulator which will allow anyone to experience these old computers without having to find working hardware and software. More information and screenshots of the emulator, can be found on my site. I hope to have it ready for release soon.