Legacy computing: Is FreeDOS truly free? I think not (Trigger warning: nerd, geek, MS-DOS)

09 Feb

Apologies to the non-geeks. This week’s post will strike you as rambling, jargony, and probably more than a little boring.

So last week’s post about uncovering ancient (but deadly) treasure on old computer disks got me to thinking:

What if I hadn’t been able to find that old Zip drive in the surplus store?

What if I had waited another twenty years to find and dig through those CDs and DVDs?

How long does any storage standard / medium have before it fades into obscurity, leaving you with lumps of useless plastic that contain priceless historical artifacts that you will never be able to access?

Will I ever be able to read these again?

They say you can judge a man's penis size by the diameter of the magnetic media he uses to store information
Sadly, I missed out on the truly golden days of floppy media – 12″ disks. But my father told more than a few ripping yarns about those!

So I decided to build a legacy computer.

Little known fact - before the mouse pointing device, computers used a cat pointing device.
Truly the king of legacy computers, AND the father of the LOL catz craze. (Picture is from the cover of my PC-Write manual, circa 1986.)

In fact, for the last few nights, I’ve gone to bed with images of my childhood DOS computing experiences replaying themselves in my head.

I’ve never claimed to have exciting dreams or aspirations, just to have them.

Sadly, finding a monochrome CRT monitor, a desktop case with dual 5.25″ floppies, and RAM you plug into the motherboard one chip at a time is not something one can do easily or cheaply these days.

Well, maybe cheaply, but the guys at the surplus store give you such withering stares, like building old computers is some sort of extreme porn fetish.

I ended up settling for an early 2000s-vintage AMD Athlon tower case system I had collecting dust in my garage.

It came with a 3.5″ floppy drive, but no hard disk or CD-ROM drive.

Those I ripped out of a donor Dell desktop.

I also found a 5.25″ floppy disk drive, but no cables and no way of knowing for sure it worked.

I didn’t let this stop me.

I’ve been an adult for a long time now, so I don’t often go poking around inside computers. I’m at a point in my life where I just want the things to work out of the box.

But in grade school, high school, and college, I was quite the hobbyist. I remember reading the Computing section of the newspaper every Sunday, scrutinizing the computer store ads, building lists of the components I needed and figuring out the cheapest combination.

They were mostly mom-and-pop stores, which don’t exist anymore.

My first computer, which I really would have loved to rebuild for this project, was a 12MHz Turbo 286 with monochrome monitor, two 5.25″ floppy drives, a 40MB hard drive, and no operating system. Total cost: ~$1100 ($400 of which was the hard drive).

I think I initially ran it on DOS 2.something.

I loved that thing, even though I couldn’t afford EGA color graphics at the time.

Yes, EGA. I am old.

I would spend hours poking around inside my computer case, moving cards, installing memory, cutting notches in my disks to double their capacity, and setting jumpers.

Yes, you young whippersnappers – tiny, easily dropped into the bowels of the machine physical jumpers on cards and disk drives to get them to work with each other – it’s the public library equivalent of the card catalog, another throwback to the past I truly miss.

And hours more prodding the outside, installing programs, dialing up BBSes, parking the hard disk drive head with a program before shutting down, to prevent damage.

In the early days of computer, everything was still done manually.

For this project, I ended up spending a great deal of time putting things into that case, pulling them out, connecting and disconnecting cables, and gouging my knuckles on the pins extruding from the backs of some of the cards.

It brought back such happy memories.

Only after I was mostly done did I discover the fat-bodied black spider that had been hanging out in the case.

Some things never change.

Now in order to justify the amount of time and (moderate) expense spent on this, I had to cook up some practical application for the Missus. I settled on saying it was for the kiddos. I’d build them a computer that they could use to watch They Might Be Giants YouTube videos without bumping mom off her machine.

She bought it.

This also explains the keyboard, which I had to buy as ‘proof’ of my kiddo-entertaining intentions.

At first, I though this was some sort of physical-world Tetris game.
Turns out my kiddos have abnormally large hands. And, thankfully, they are color-blind.

But in addition to installing Win XP, I also put Linux and FreeDOS on it.

Ah, FreeDOS. I only recently discovered you, and yet you are a marvel. Now I can install PC-Write and Telix and Qmodem on you, not feel like I’ve stolen software from Microsoft, AND pretend it’s still 1986.


I won’t go into the pain of trying to update a Win XP install without any service pack and only IE 6, and Firefox refusing to install without SP2. It took hours and involved incompletely rendered web pages.

WTF, Microsoft? You design web pages that only work with your latest software? It’s almost as if you want us to upgrade.

The Linux install went OK too, once I figured out that I had to tell the BIOS to detect the USB keyboard rather than leaving it to the OSes I was trying to install.

The FreeDOS install took longer, but only because my kiddos, seeing I was up to something, got very excited and decided to help.

Usually by hitting the power button on the front of the computer.

While standing directly in front of the monitor, their noses touching the screen.

Asking me why I keep using those naughty, naughty words mommy gets mad about when they use them.

I lead a charmed life.

Now while I have a working computer, I’m not completely done with this project yet.

I still need to find a cable for the 5.25″ floppy drive.

And the 3.5″ drive made a great rending noise when I tried to read a disk in it.

But substance aside, the outward appearance, while a trifle too modern for me, is not half bad.

While they wait for stuff to load, the kiddos can pretend to drive along the roads on the coffee table cover
In every way, shape, and form, this computer corner is the antithesis of feng shui.

Plus the kiddos love the games on the Linux partition. They are scary good at using the computer, considering they can’t read or write yet.

And I think I already know what my next project will be.

Now we just need a tape player and audio cables so we can load games onto this thing. Or crap, cassette tapes as data storage media! How will we ever manage that???
True fact: In one draft of my will, I left my Timex Sinclair 1000 computer to Hell.
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Posted by on 9 February 2013 in Technopocalypse


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