The First Four Pizzaboxes

Just over a month ago, late at night I was engaging in one of my favorite hobbies, “reread computing history articles on Wikipedia”.

I’m…perhaps not known for having incredibly good self control, so some eBay browsing later, I’d found a NeXTstation on eBay that seemed like a good starting point.

NeXTstation

I grew up in a Mac family (my parents are both teachers) - being “something of a nerd”, I loved Apple trivia. The internet was all too willing to oblige. NeXT’s workstations were, then, probably the first I ever heard about - an obscure offshoot of Macintosh lore, the matte-black NeXTcube and its funky Mach-based operating system. I’d lusted over one, but their prices were far more than my high-school job wages could justify.

It was a no-brainer for a NeXTstation to be my first pizzabox. The eBay seller I bought it from was the same person who ran the store I gawked at way back when (Black Hole Inc)

My NeXTstation (a non-turbo mono) seems to be in good working order (I recently got video cables to confirm that it boots!) but is probably going to be one of the most tricky to make usable. NeXT used an extremely-hard-to-find monitor plug (DB-19), which not only carried video signals, but also:

Soundboxes compatible with my model (non-ADB soundboxes) are rare and expensive, so I’m setting out to make my own equivalent - a microcontroller-based converter box that:

This motivated the idea of building similar converters for all of my workstations.

SPARCstation 1+

Not long after the NeXTstation arrived, a friend offered a SPARCstation he had lying around! Sun made perhaps the most recognizable pizzaboxes - they might have even been the first! (the Sun 350 was 1986). A perfect addition to my collection. I felt pretty badass taking it home on the subway:

Using a serial console, I’ve verified that it boots to the PROM monitor, but doesn’t seem to like either of the hard drives inside. The framebuffer works, but because I don’t have a keyboard connected, it only informs me that all output is on the serial console. In addition to the converter box, this one might need a disk replacement, and potentially to have an OS installed. If it needs an OS, I’d hope to netboot it rather than hunt down a SCSI CD-ROM drive.

SGI Indy

The Indy is quite a contrast with the SR-71 Blackbird-esque NeXTstation and the business-like SPARCstation - it’s bright blue, asymmetrical, and loaded with multimedia features. I made eBay alerts for pizzaboxes I was interested in once I started collecting - don’t want to miss a deal! Some Indys were listed for exorbitant prices (> $700…sorry dude), but this one came along at a price I was happy with.

It turns out this particular one used to live at my alma mater (judging by the CMU asset tag and return postal address in Pittsburgh). When I first got it, I had to turn it on (even without video or serial cables) because it has a ridiculous boot sound:

Since then, I’ve gotten the right cabling to verify that its framebuffer is still working, and later that its PROM monitor works. Sadly, by then I started having trouble with its power supply - the jingle no longer graces my living room, the hard drives seem to have trouble spinning up, and there’s that unmistakable smell of the Magic Smoke escaping some components. I’ve decided to hold on booting it again until I can get a fresh power supply. I might later look into whether all it needs is re-capping, but “messing with power electronics” probably isn’t a great first project.

VAXstation

This one is quite a bit different from the others. The VAXstation 4000 VLC has a CISC chip (but not the common m68k) and I intend to use it to run OpenVMS, not a Unix. I’m pretty psyched about it because it is so different from the others - it stays closer to its PDP/11 heritage than the rest (who only inherited Unix from the venerable minicomputer). Like the Indy, most of the ones I could find for sale were exhorbitantly priced (more than $1000 in this case!). I suspect that the VLC is sought after because:

The one I got was listed at very fair price after retiring from being an industrial controller, so I snapped it up. DEC’s connectors are even more unusual than the other boxes - it uses a DA3W3 (not a DB13W3) monitor port, special MMJ serial port, a telephone handset port for the keyboard, and an unusual mini-DIN 7 for the mouse. It’ll probably take a bit longer to get the right connectors to get it up and running!

Today

This catches us up more or less to where I’m at today: with a pile of workstations, none of which are “done”. With this post, I’ve also started keeping a page for each workstation - you can see them in the sidebar. I’ll update those with more details as I research them, and with the current state of each box.