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Bloody Knuckles, Bruised Egos

I’m always looking for little projects to do on my days off. One of the things I’ve been meaning to do is get my old 486 computer back up and running once again.

The 486 processor was replaced by the Pentium in the mid 1990’s. When I started at Best Buy in the fall of 1994 all we sold were 486 computers, and when I left in the spring of 1995 all the computers we had were Pentium based. Of course those were first generation Pentiums — we’ve seen P2, P3 and P4 chips since then. The average person off the street probably couldn’t come up with a use for a 486 computer these days. I have a couple in mind.

The first thing I need this computer back alive for is so I can again use my X1541 cable. The X1541 is a cable that allows you to connect an old Commodore 1541 disk drive to a modern computer’s parallel port, thus allowing you to transfer programs between the two. A while back I started transferring all my old C64 disks to the PC for archival purposes, but when the 486 died so did the project. To avoid a bunch of technical crapola, the cable works best in DOS mode and only on certain machines. I’ve purchased a newer style of cable and still couldn’t get it to work on my laptop, and I’ve never got it to work right in XP, DOS mode or otherwise.

The other thing I want to do with computer is play older DOS games on it that won’t work on newer computers. Most games work, and many more can be made to work through DOSBox and other programs, but some things just don’t look, sound, or work right. I doubt I’d be using it daily to play games on, but the option would be nice.

And so this afternoon, operation 486 began. And boy was it a mess. Originally I had the machine set up to boot in either Windows 98 or DOS; that way I could use the X1541 cable in DOS mode, and still transfer the programs over to my other computer over the network in Windows 98. One day, Windows 98 just stopped working. So, that’s where I began.

I was able to boot the machine into safe-mode, but from there I was unable to see the CD-Rom drive or the network. Without the CD-Rom drive I couldn’t reload or repair Windows. Without the network, I couldn’t copy the install files over. The machine doesn’t have any USB ports, not that it would help me much in DOS. Without access to Windows I couldn’t make a boot disk, but with one I knew I could access the CD-Rom drive. From bootdisk.com, I downloaded a Windows 98 bootdisk from my server, and ran into another snag — neither of my working machines have floppy drives! I came downstairs to check my wife’s machine — another strikeout. Finally I remembered that my laptop had a floppy drive that I could attach to it, so I copied the file over to the laptop via the network, attached the floppy drive, tracked down a floppy disk from the garage, made the boot disk and went back upstairs.

Went I went to boot the machine from floppy, nothing happened. I checked the cable and made sure that it was plugged in the correct way — it was. I yanked a floppy drive out of another spare machine, swapped it, and tried it instead. Nothing. Then I tried another cable. Nothing. The only thing left was the controller, which is on the motherboard. It couldn’t be that, could it? Back to the garage. I dug around in a few plastic tubs before finding an old controller card. I slapped it in the machine and connected the cables. Success! The machine churned and whirred and after a few minutes, finally booted off the floppy. First hurdle crossed.

I stuck in some old Windows 98 CDR and changed to the CD Drive in DOS. Nothing. I waited. Nothing. I hit (R) for (R)etry a dozen times. Nothing. I pulled the CDR out and stuck some other CD in. Worked fine. I stuck the CDR back in. Nothing. Was the drive so old it didn’t read CDR’s? That would be bad, as my original Windows 98 CDs are god only knows where. I stick in another CDR. Nothing. Shoot.

Off goes the machine and out comes the CD-Rom drive, a 6x Plextor dating back almost as old as the machine. In the closet I have a stack of CD-Rom drives that have been removed from machines, having replaced them with DVD burners. The top one was a 52x drive, so I changed the jumpers and tossed it in. No sense it screwing anything together at this point — there’s no telling what I’ll be replacing next. After another floppy boot, I stuck in the CD and it recognized it. Woo hoo, two for two baby.

The rest was simple. I started the setup, saw the Microsoft message of “60 minutes remaining,” and took off. I came back once an hour or two later to reboot the box, and I went back agan later and it was done. The box is back up and functional, and all I ended up replacing was the floppy drive, controller card, cables, and CD-Rom drive. Sheesh.

By the time it was done I didn’t feel like messing with it any longer. Maybe tomorrow I’ll hook up the C64 cables and see if I can’t get that to work once again.

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