A while ago I blogged about how I believed easy Web access has eroded my ability to concentrate and to write without distractions. I reminisced about the earliest computers I had used for writing: the bare-bones SE/30, the clunky but focused PowerBook 190, the IIsi.
I decided to conduct an experiment. I resolved to find one of these old 68k Macs from the early 1990s, restore it to its former glory, and use it as my primary writing machine for a period of time. Would it improve my productivity, or would I find that rose-tinted glasses had distorted my memories of what was in reality a very limited computer?
For a writer used to operating in the technological environment of the 2010s, the challenge seems daunting at first. A “68k Mac” has, as standard, no connection to the internet, a pitifully weak processor, a tiny amount of storage, and a small, low-quality monitor. I choose to look at these qualities not as limitations, but features to aid focus when writing.
The computer I obtained from Ebay was an Apple LC475 manufactured in 1993. It has a 25MHz processor, 4MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard disk. It is literally thousands of times less powerful than my phone, and tens of thousands of times less powerful than my PC.
|The LC475 at my desk, with original keyboard. I have since replaced it with
a mechanical keyboard. See my article on mechanical keyboards here.
Fortunately the LC475 is a flexible system, easy to upgrade. Here is the work I carried out on the system:
1. RAM upgrade from 4 to 70MB, a phenominal improvement allowing me to multitask to my heart’s content.
|New hard disk. Needed a bit of bodging to install.|
I stocked the hard disk up with classic titles such as ClarisWorks, Microsoft Word 5, Transmit FTP client, and BBEdit 4.5.The last one is the program I have been using to do most of my work. BBEdit is an excellent text editor with every feature a writer could want: powerful enough for editing and proofreading, but spartan enough for distraction-free draft writing.
|Cloud storage, 1993 style|
The goal of this experiment was to use the LC475 as my primary writing computer for a period of time, and to see if it made me any more productive by virtue of being little more than an efficient word processor. In truth, I expected to find myself underwhelmed by the Mac and appreciate my modern hardware more than I had before.
If you’ve read my other post on this subject you’ll be aware that I already know my way around vintage Macs like the back of my hand, as I grew up using them. No learning curve, then … but at first it was disorienting going back to a flickery cathode ray monitor!
Getting into a good workflow with my new Mac took a few days. I had to remind myself to manually upload my work using Transmit at the end of every day, as there is no way of using Dropbox natively on a computer so old. The loud hum of the hard disk and fan was, at first, rather disconcerting compared to the deathly silence of my modern PC.
I expected to encounter pitfalls and roadblocks. I expected to find using the Mac a chore, and run back to my sleek and soulless modern PC after a matter of days. Surely a computer from twenty years ago couldn’t really be the efficient writing terminal I had long sought?
The holy grail of creative writing technology
Two months into the experiment, I’m in no doubt that I have found the perfect writing computer for me. The LC475 is now my primary writing machine, and I appreciate its unique qualities more with every day.
|The Apple Extended Keyboard II, one of the best-loved
keyboards ever made, and still coveted by enthusiasts. It
would have cost nearly £200 when new in the mid 90s!
Of course I can’t possibly use the Mac for every task. A writer needs a modern computer with a fast internet connection for a range of tasks from cover design to research, from social media to compiling eBooks. However, I have discovered that for the act of writing itself, and possibly even editing, a barebones distraction-free computer such as the Macintosh LC475 suits me perfectly.
Is this strategy for everyone? Of course not; many writers will find such old technology alien, and in any case it requires a substantial amount of knowledge, time and experience to maintain antique hardware to a decent standard. It isn’t as simple as buying an old Mac on eBay and firing it up. The capacitors may be fried, or the hard disk will have failed; at best it will have limited life before various components start to degrade.
But if you have the skills and the time to devote to an interesting project, it might be worth trying it out for yourself. It may not suit your style at all, or you might be pleasantly surprised to discover a new and efficient way of working, free from the bright lights of the Web.