Old Mac of the Month: Macintosh IIci

Editor’s Note: This month’s submission is written by Jeff Geerling. He writes a blog named Life is Prayer and hails from just north of me, up in St. Louis, MO.

If you’d like to share about an old Mac that made a difference in your life, get in touch.

Imagine a time when computing was quickly becoming mainstream; computers with graphical user interfaces were becoming the norm, and expensive Macs were not doing entirely well in the market. Early Windows-based computers were obtrusive, buggy, and required more time setting IRQs and swapping hard drive ribbon cables than they offered uninterrupted uptime.

As an engineer’s son, I was loving it.

After growing up with a three or four of computers thrown together with scrap parts and running whatever operating systems I could pull together from a friend or my Dad’s office, I was longing for a computer on which I could simply work, play, and have some fun. I had enjoyed the feeling of touching the components of the computer that made sensible words and graphics appear on the screen, but I often didn’t enjoy the fact that I had to do it (especially when I gave myself a nice shock one time!).

Enter the Macintosh

In 1992, my Dad helped me buy a Mac; our family had a Mac Plus for a time, and I had learned to love early black and white games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and classics like Spectre or Armor Alley.

My dad allowed me to use some of the money I had saved up through sales of PCs I had built to buy a used Macintosh IIci from my brother.

I quickly dove into the case, and realized what an immense pleasure it was to operate inside the IIci; getting to the orderly insides took only a click and a pop of two little latches on the back of the top panel. Until I bought a Blue-and-White G3, I thought the IIci was the hardware-hacker’s ideal Mac.

I booted up the Mac and installed Mac OS 7.5.3 over our in-house AppleTalk network (this definitely beat swapping out 19 floppy disks, though the transfer rate was still abysmal—about 200kbps). I started finding any shareware floppies my Dad or brother had (my brother had some cutting-edge games like Pathways Into Darkness or Out of this World and the classic Dark Castle), and loading them on the (then) roomy 80 MB SCSI hard drive.

I really appreciated the integration of the Mac OS and the hardware of the IIci; when I decided to upgrade the RAM to 8 MB (from the original 2 MB), the Mac booted and was happy, and ran Photoshop LE 2.5.1 better than ever. When I installed a NuBus 10baseT network card (so I could use my Dad’s newly-installed network to access his ISDN connection to the Internet), I didn’t have to think about IRQ settings, the slot into which I installed the card, etc. In fact, I’d never spent more than a minute or two installing any of the upgrades I eventually put in my IIci:

  • 12MB of RAM
  • A 68040/33Mhz processor upgrade card — so I could run Mac OS 8
  • A Radius NuBus video card so I could drive a 1280×1024 CRT with thousands of colors and play some neat games.
  • A 512 MB SCSI hard drive (it was incredibly loud)
  • An external 2x Apple CD-ROM

I used this Mac IIci for over three years, making it the Mac I’ve used and owned the longest. I loved the simple, minimalist design so much that I decided to strip the innards and set the Mac on my dresser in lieu of other art objects until I left my parents’ house for College.

Macintosh IIci

This Mac helped teach me all the paradigms of the Mac OS graphical environment (in comparison to MS DOS’s command line, and Windows 3.x and 95/98), and taught me that there was more to computing than flicking tiny switches on daughter cards, swapping out drive cables, and replacing bad CD-ROM drives (a common occurrence on the cheap PCs I was used to building). I likely spent a hundred hours simply memorizing every system setting, experimenting with the speed of a RAM disk, and playing with Photoshop, Glider Pro, Claris Works, etc.

Developer Roots

I built my first website on this Mac IIci; it was little more than one page with a few facts about my life and family and some of my favorite pictures (scanned in with a Microtek SCSI scanner which took about 5 minutes per scan). I used Claris Home Page, but tweaked the HTML output by hand in SimpleText. I hosted the website on a Whistle InterJet that my Dad had running on a public IP address at his office.

Now that I’m a full-time web developer working in 5+ programming languages, I appreciate the simple setup I used to learn the basics of the web: HTML, JavaScript, and the HTTP protocol, all through plain text editing in SimpleText on a Mac. I truly believe that using a simple Mac helped me to focus more on the content and design of my work, even when working on parts of my projects that would rarely be seen by users. Though Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple when the IIci was built, I think his design principles were still having a positive influence on the hardware designs coming out of Cupertino.

I wish I still had a IIci around, simply so I could pull all the parts off again and put it back together—there was something therapeutic about being able to strip an entire computer down to it’s casing (revealing signatures of the computer’s design team) and put it back together in less than 5 minutes. I credit a lot of my fundamental computer architecture understanding to the fact that I could pick apart every component of the computer—down to the CPU itself—and view the pins and jumper switches that controlled certain settings that affected how the software on the computer would run.

Looking back on the IIci and another favorite, the PowerBook 180c (a laptop with tricky Torx screws which I could field strip in less than 20 minutes), I remember with great nostalgia the times when computer hardware could be replaced on the chip-to-chip level, and voltmeters were as common as software tools like TechTool in checking the health and stability of one’s computer. Additionally, the lack of sites like iFixIt meant that I was learning the complex architecture of the computers in a truly DIY fashion.

I don’t miss the shocks, (though that only seemed to happen when I was working on PCs), but I do miss the hands-on experience I had while working on computers—especially Macs—as a kid. In today’s environment, software hacking seems to be the most enlightening form of computer learning, but it was not always so.

Since donating my IIci to a local school (I installed Netscape Navigator 2.0 so they could use it to access the Internet), I’ve owned a variety of desktop and laptop Macs, but I’ve never been taken in as much by any other Mac’s overall hardware design, even when I first held the impossibly-thin MacBook Air I’m using today.