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March 2, 2017

A Relic I Cannot Get to Work

Filed under: Main — Tags: — admin @ 12:01 am

I have quite a few antique computers laying around. Why I keep them, I don’t know, but the list grows longer. One of the beasts is the original Osborne computer, called the Osborne 1.

The computer was named after its creator and one-time computer book author, Adam Osborne. (He founded Osborne Press as well.) The Osborne had everything you needed in one, portable (later called “luggable”) package: A Z80 CPU that ran the then-popular CP/M operating system, 64K of RAM, two 160K floppy drives, a 4-inch CRT monitor, and a keyboard, shown in Figure 1. The thing retailed for just over $2,000 and it included bundled software — a first at the time.

Figure 1. My Osborne computer: Two hulking, full-height floppy drives flanking a 4-inch CRT. Check out that keyboard, too; no Backspace key! Those were the days.

What doomed the Osborne was its successor, the Osborne 2. The company announced that product too early. Sales of the Osborne 1 stopped as consumers, not being dumb, waited to buy the second generation. The company folded soon after the Osborne 2 appeared.

I never owned an original Osborne, but I remember it well: I went out to buy my first computer. With $1200 in my pocket, I intended on purchasing an Apple II+, but the salesman spent all his time with an old geezer who was buying an Osborne. He basically told me to get lost, so I marched across the street and purchased a TRS-80 Model III instead.

The reason I have an Osborne computer is because it was cheaper to buy the computer than to buy a photo of the computer.

When I wrote the first edition of Laptops For Dummies, I wanted a chapter on laptop history. The Osborne is part of that chronology, which was desire to go portable. Rather than pay the licensing fees for a photo of the Osborne (several thousand dollars), I turned to eBay and picked up a used unit for $100.

Unlike other computers I bought for picture-taking purposes, the Osborne actually worked. It just lacked the CP/M boot diskette, which I knew I could buy later on eBay if I wanted to.

The other day I was thinking about the Osborne, specifically its diminutive 4-inch screen. I wanted to see it in action, so I pulled the machine out of the boneyard, warmed it up, and powered it on. I figured if I could at least get the boot message on the screen, it would be worth it for me to go back to eBay and pick up the CP/M boot disk.

Alas, the system didn’t start. It beeps loudly, which I believe is an error condition. The floppy drive spins, but it won’t read a diskette, so it can’t get far enough to load an OS. And the the tiny screen shows no details. The video below demonstrates.

I won’t return to eBay to pick up another Osborne. I have old computers, but it’s more of a sentimental thing than for any practical use. Still, it would have been cool to see the Osborne in action.

2 Comments

  1. Me, being me, would check the Bleep to find what it meant, many computers of that era used a bleep to say “I have power, Ha”, a whole series of bleeps means something is broke. I know what you mean about old computer systems you have them for the cool factor than use!

    Comment by glennp — March 3, 2017 @ 7:02 am

  2. If I recall correctly, the last time I powered up the Osborne (probably 12 years ago), it beeped and then a message appeared demanding a boot diskette. I have no idea where I’d find one, but still it would be cool to use an Osborne.

    Comment by admin — March 3, 2017 @ 7:28 am

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