your code is so bad we had to make /etc/local/ just for you

this is the story of my lisp machine

you are in the mid 1980s and computers are in a very strange place. personal computers had not quite caught on yet & the idea of having a personal computer in your home is a foreign concept to most people

most people at this time understood computers as extremely large and expensive mainframes that resided exclusively at businesses to be used for professional and commercial purposes. one would take a relatively cheap console, which looked like an ordinary CRT monitor, and connect it to the mainframe which might reside many rooms or floors away. everyone had their own console and keyboard (and possibly mouse, if they were fancy) but shared the same physical hardware. everyone connected to The Computer

this worked fine for most purposes, but was proving to be unsatisfactory for computationally intensive industries, such as the ones that design and simulate aircraft, or the ones that need to sequence entire genomes. most burroughs or IBM mainframes were built to scale horizontally, meaning they’d better serve 100 consoles performing minor tasks such as data entry or text processing rather than 10 consoles churning out integrals describing how air would flow under an aircraft’s wing. as performing computations like that is not as easy and straightforward as it is now (no matlab or solidworks), there was also a demand for systems that could be easily introspected, debugged, and changed by individual engineers, which was something mainframes couldn’t easily do as one mistake by one engineer could bring down a system serving dozens

thus enter lisp machines

lisp machines are, quite literally, like no other computers ever produced before nor like any produced after. lisp machines were made by (pretty much) a single company (symbolics), and their heyday was in the 80′s-90′s. although they contributed a great number of ideas and concepts that carried with more modern computers, the hardware itself was never to be replicated in any capacity again. they were extremely high-quality and specialized machines.

lisp machines, from the bottom up, are entirely predicated upon the lisp programming language. the hardware is built to suit kernel/system software written in lisp, and all subsystems/programming environments/etc available to the user are written in lisp. this incredibly tight coupling of hardware/software provided what was described to me as “truly the best computers ever made” by someone who had hand-wrapped Z80 boards in the MIT AI labs at one point.

“they were easy to debug, since i had memorized the Z80′s pinout”

within the lisp machine’s editor, zmacs, one could write code, compile code, debug code, debug the system and debug the hardware. the debugging interfaces went down the the microcode which is much farther than you could manage even today. the amount of engineering effort that went into these machines far outweighs what you might get in a modern computer, and that’s something i don’t think the world will ever see again

very, very few of these machines were made. adjusting for inflation, a lisp machine would run you about $200,000. the software (which was treated like intellectual property on the scale of nuclear energy systems or other such deadly serious things) would easily run into the millions for licenses. the computer in front of you was probably purchased for a sum between $100 and $1000, and it represents $100 to $1000 worth of engineering. the kind of computer representing hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars of engineering are, well, pretty slick

symbolics lisp machines are, with very little argument, at the top of the food chain when it comes to collectible computers. if you collect computers, and you are enormously lucky, a lisp machine would be the last computer you would ever get. they are the holy grail

and your boy here fuckin got one


through an incredible deal between myself and some friends in high places, we purchased 3 of these machines from a very respectable man whom i dealt with directly. what you see above is a symbolics 3620, which we got two of. the other machine was a symbolics 3640. it weighs about 200lbs:


this one is being freighted to the curator of a museum, for what it’s worth. what drew me to lisp machines initially was their keyboards (not my images):


it was a dream of mine to one day own one of these keyboards, and now, well, uhh:


selling even one of these in today’s market would recoup the cost of everything we purchased, the van rental & gas between here and boston, the cost of freighting hundreds and hundreds of pounds of equipment from new york to washington state with enough left over to purchase a brand new macbook

the situation was as follows: an older eccentric millionaire type had lots of this equipment rotting in his basement from years past. it needed to go, and he didn’t care much about scoring big for it. the people paying the market price for all this stuff would certainly mistreat it as they’d just flip them to profit. he wanted to see them go into loving hands who would restore them and treat them properly, but mostly wanted to see them go out of his basement. there was a lot of equipment besides the lisp machines.  here is a color CRT monitor made to go onto a united states battleship:


here are a hell of a lot of tapes full of the aforementioned intellectual property worth more than i care to find out


here’s a hilarious mouse:


this all happened last weekend. right now i am chiefly concerned with freighting all the equipment that is not mine (everything but one complete symbolics 3620 machine with console/keyboard/mouse, and that battleship monitor) to its respective owners/museum curators

then we begin the long and arduous task of restoring it to a working state. so far, i have plugged in my machine & powered it on which resulted in all the proper lights & such coming on. incredibly good news as it indicates the backplane is intact and functional; the backplane is the only irreparable part of all of this. as expected, the machine tries to read the disks which are crap. that is not problem as they are emulatable via a special adapter i have to make & solder that plugs into a normal SATA hard drive

the machine ran for 24 hours until i turned it off, meaning the power supply is good. running it for this long caused the capacitors, which are very flaky electrical components that are quite susceptible to failure over time, to reform

the next steps are to build that hard drive emulator & fix the CRT console which will certainly take months. i will keep you updated on this incredible piece of history