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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.


  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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