There’s A Computer In This Hard Drive

Throughout the history of personal computers, there are some unique form factors. The 3com Audrey was sold as a computing appliance, meant to sit on a kitchen counter, to display recipes or something. For some reason, Macs were cubes once, and it actually wasn’t a bad machine. At one point, you were supposed to put a monitor¬†on top of your computer.

A few years ago, [glitch] read about an interesting system from the early 80s. The SIIG S286 was designed by the same people that made SCSI cards and external hard drives, and it shows: this is a complete 286-based system stuffed into what was probably an external enclosure for a 5 1/4 drive at some point. After finding one of these bad boys on an auction site a few months ago, he finally got it working. It’s weird, but it can get on a network, and you can read Hackaday with it.

The entire computer is stuffed into a case that’s about 5″ wide, 4″ tall, and 10″ long. There’s a motherboard with built-in VGA, ‘game port’, and a printer port. There’s a riser card for real 16-bit ISA cards, two serial ports, and a connector for a hard disk and floppy drive. Basically, it’s an entire 286 system wrapped up in a tiny box.

After acquiring this machine, [glitch] took it apart and found the usual damage. The CMOS battery leaked, but not too bad. This was replaced with a hermetically sealed lithium thionyl chloride battery. These are non-rechargable, but a quick swipe of the soldering iron disable the motherboard’s charging circuitry. The hard drive was replaced with a 128 MB Flash module, and an Ethernet card was installed.

With that, [glitch] has a complete system that can connect to the Internet. Of course, getting on the Internet with a 286 is a challenge, but we have a Hackaday Retro Edition¬†for just the occasion. The browser is Arache, with the mTCP package. That’s about as low as you can go in Intel-land, and excellent proof that the computer will work for another 35 years or so.

Hackaday Retro Edition: A 286 On The Internet

While not an issue now with our 64 bit (more accurately 48- or 52-bit) processors, there was a time when 32 bits of addressing space was impossibly large. For several decades, 4 Gigabytes of memory would be the absolute ceiling, and something only madmen or the protagonist of Pi would have to deal with. This convention began, at least for the Intel/PC world, with the 386. Earlier processors like the 8086 and the 286 were quite capable for their time, but doing anything modern with them, especially getting on the Internet, is a quixotic endeavor beyond comparison.

[Caulser] over on the Vintage Computer Forums has done just that. He recently acquired a Zenith Data Systems 286 system and loaded up what is quickly becoming the litmus test for old computers on the Internet: the Hackaday retro edition

When he first received the system, it was loaded up with a rather generous (for the time) 4MB of RAM. The 20MB hard drive was dead, but with a little fiddling about with the BIOS, [Caulser] was able to get the system working with an old Quantum IDE hard drive.

There’s no Windows or even Linux for this machine, so the system is just running MS DOS 5a, mTCP, Arachne, and the relevant drivers for the NIC (that has RJ45 and BNC connectors). After upgrading the RAM to 8MB, the box performs reasonably well without any pesky ads, and given the websites he visited, he’s not dealing with any overwrought Javascript or CSS, either.

Pics of the system below.


If you have an old computer sitting around, try to load our retro site with it. Take a few pictures, and we’ll put it up in one of our Retro Roundups

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