The end of one of the oldest computers at Microsoft still doing useful work


My building was scheduled for a carpet replacement—in all my years at Microsoft, I think this is the first time this has ever happened to a building I was in—so we all had to pack up our things so the carpeters could get clear access to the floor. You go through all the pain of an office move (packing all your things) but don't get the actual reward of a new office.

One of the machines in my office probably ranked high on the "oldest computer at Microsoft still doing useful work" charts. It was a 50MHz 486 with 12MB of memory and 500 whole megabytes of disk space. (Mind you, it wasn't born this awesome. It started out with only 8MB of memory and 200MB of disk space, but I upgraded it after a few years.) This machine started out its life as a high-end Windows 95 test machine, then when its services were no longer needed, I rescued it from the scrap heap and turned it into my little web server where among other things, Microsoft employees could read my blog article queue months before publication. It also served as my "little computer for doing little things". For example, the Internet Explorer test team used it for FTP testing since I installed a custom FTP server onto it. (Therefore, I could make it act like any type of server, or like a completely bizarro server if a security scenario required it.) It also housed various "total wastes of time" such as the "What's Raymond doing right now?" program, and the "Days without a pony" web page.

I added a CD-ROM drive, which cost me $200. This was back in the days when getting a CD-ROM drive meant plugging in a custom ISA card and installing a MS-DOS driver into the CONFIG.SYS file. Like an MS-DOS driver gets you anywhere any more. I had to write my own driver for it.

I took it as a challenge to see how high I could get the machine's uptime. Once the hardware stabilized (which went a lot quicker once I gave up trying to get the old network card to stop wedging and just bought a new one), I put it on a UPS that had been gifted to me in exchange for debugging why the company's monitoring software wasn't working on Windows 95. Whenever I had to move offices, I found somebody who wasn't moving and relocated the computer there for a few days. The UPS kept the machine running while I carted it down the hall or into the next building. I think I got the uptime as high as three years before the building suffered a half-day power outage that drained the UPS.

A few years later, the machine started rebooting for no apparent reason. Turns out the UPS battery itself was dying and generating its own mini-power outages. Ironic that a UPS ended up creating power outages instead of masking them. But on the other hand, it was free, so I can't complain. Without a UPS, the machine became victim of building-wide power outages and office moves.

Over the years, more and more parts of the machine started to wear out and had to be worked around. The CMOS battery eventually died, so restarting the computer after an outage involved lots of typing. (It always thought the date was January 1983.) The clock also drifted, so I wrote a program to re-synchronize it automatically every few days.

When I packed up the computer for the recarpeting, I assumed that afterwards, it would fire back up like the trooper it was. But alas, it just sat there. After much fiddling and removal of non-critical hardware, I got it to power on. Now it complains "no boot device".

The hard drive (or perhaps the hard drive controller) had finally died. The shock of being shut off and restarted proved to be its downfall. Since it's nearly impossible to find replacement parts for a computer this old, I'm going to have to return it to the scrap heap.

Good-bye, old friend. But you won't be forgotten. I'm going to transfer your name and IP address to another computer I rescued from the scrap heap many years ago for just this eventuality. But still no mouse.

(Alas, this was the first of a series of computers to reach retirement age within days of each other. Perhaps I'll eulogize those other machines someday.)

Comments (45)
  1. Dave says:

    Put your ear close to the hard drive and see if you can hear it spinning. If it’s not spinning then it’s probably just stiction keeping the platters from spinning. Power up the system and give the drive a few gentle taps on the side with something beefy like a stapler. Or just whump the side of the system. That will often break the platters loose and you will hear it spin up.

    Transferring the name to a new computer? Bad karma!

  2. Oh man, what are we going to do now that <edited out> is offline…

    Major bummer, that.

  3. It’s a shame to let old friends go. "Gone but never forgoten" is what I always say. :)

  4. Inferis says:

    You do have backups, don’t you? ;)

  5. Jason Kaczor says:

    Turn it on for a couple hours, then do a full power on/off cycle. You may find that "it just works" – with older equipment that has been used to having continual power, sometimes a "warm-up" helps after an extended power outtage.

    (Now, if I could only solve my other older equipment problem – that of my wife harrassing me to get rid of it…)

  6. Rutger says:

    Quoted from BOFH "Computers are like old people. If you put them to sleep some of them are not going to wake up in the morning"

  7. John Topley says:

    I’m shocked that Microsoft don’t have UPS’ed power outlets in their buildings!

  8. I had almost an identical situation. A number of years ago at Veritas I had a 486 DX2-66 w/ 12MB of RAM running NT 3.51 in my office. The only useful thing about this machine was it contained a really old SCSI card and two 10GB full-height hard drives. I left the machine on 24/7 as my own personal MP3 server. Sadly when it came time to move to a new office the machine never worked right after that. It would freeze randomly, I think either the SCSI card and/or disk failed. Eventually I moved the MP3s off to another machine and sent the 486 into retirement.

  9. Florian W. says:

    Where have you got the spec for the CD-ROM-Interface?

  10. John Elliott says:

    I’d be surprised if suitable parts couldn’t be found somewhere. eBay is a wonderful institution.

  11. Btw, the critical servers at Microsoft are on a UPS. But our offices aren’t on a UPS.

    Actually there’s an entire building that acts as the UPS. It’s also the building that houses one of the locker rooms on campus (it also functions as an emergency shower for my family when the power’s been out at our house for more than two days). I’ve been told that there’s nothing quite so exciting as being in that locker room when the power goes out.

  12. Up 3 years ? Huh! I thought there was a problem with tick count overflow in Win9x that prevents it from staying up more than 49 days (2^32 millisecs)…

    Congrats anyway! My record is 11 months with an NT4 box. But that was the corporate server, used all day long by some 15 people. The biggest issue was to prevent people from rebooting it each time they had a problem with their desktop machine (Don’t ask why rebooting the server would help, i don’t have a clue…)

  13. Reuben Harris says:

    I’ll second the call to try some percussive maintenance on the hard disk … but I still recall resurrecting at least two ‘dead’ hard disks with a couple of firm whacks of a screwdriver handle to the side of the casing.

  14. Matt [MSFT] says:

    Noooooooooooo! The Raymond Psychic Debugging pages are gone!

    And the Raymond FAQ is gone! Quoting Raymond to answer the question-of-the-day will be no longer.

    I frequented that webserver often. It will be missed.

    (If we’re having a wake here, should I be drinking?)

  15. Phil Hochstetler says:

    I still have a couple of old 486 systems laying around and I know there are recycle places that get them all the time. I think we should all band together and fix this machine. Do you have a backup of the hard drive? Can you post the exact model so we can locate a working replacement for you? Lets do it…

    phil at hochstetler dot com

  16. Don Vince says:

    Sounds like you have lost an good old friend there.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your site and would happily donate you a (working) mouse for the new (is new the correct word for a machine rescued from the scrap heap?) computer. Where do I send it?

    Don :)

  17. Mike Warot says:

    The more gentle way to deal with striction is to take the drive out, hold it in your hand, and then rapidly twist your wrist so that you move the drive around the platters. Do this a few times, plug it back in, and it’ll probably work until you power it down again.<P>

    –Mike–

  18. Neil T. says:

    Cool story. Pity about the sad ending :-/

    A friend of mine is finally getting rid of her 486 – she needs something that can competently run the Java Development Kit and alas a 10-year-old computer won’t cut it.

  19. Stephen Jones says:

    The 49 day problem (tick count overflow) was Win98FE, not Win 95.

    That said when people heard about prices were offered to those who could get a Win 98FE machine to stay up long enough to suffer from it. I never heard of any takers.

    After 5 years on Windows 2000 one forgets about the bad old days of daily reboots and yearly format and reinstalls.

  20. Timo Frenay says:

    After 5 years on Windows 2000 one forgets about the bad old days of daily reboots and yearly format and reinstalls.

    I used to know someone who would reinstall Windows 95 as a weekly routine.

  21. Florian: I’d assume Microsoft has access to all the various CD/DVD specifications. Especially since they support them(most anyways) in Windows.

    You can get them too if you need them: http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/bchafy/cdb/info/info.html. Happy reading :)

  22. Adam Robinson [uk] says:

    If you’d like a new HD for that machine, and are prepared to spend a few minutes messing around, it’d be dead easy to pick one up off of Ebay [£10 uk pounds to replace all the hardware I’d estimate]. I’ve built a few 486 based [openbsd executing] routers and I love being able to get replacement parts for a few pennies [current router has survived having several cups of tea spilt into it – solid hardware back then, and not afraid of a bath!].

    A.Robinson

    Maybe not worth your time, but I’d keep the thing going :)

  23. How traumatic! Must be like burying a relative, without the nice spiff of it being a rich uncle.

    Had uptimes of 3 years and more, you say? On a ‘486? Somehow I’m guessing it was not running Win95, then. Care to say what the OS was on it?

  24. "I’m shocked that Microsoft don’t have UPS’ed power outlets in their buildings!"

    I’m not sure about Redmond, but in Canada this is a no-no, unfortunately. When there is a fire or other emergency a building, you have to be damn sure that hitting the Big Red Button will take out power to the entire building and everything in it, /immediately/. Having live power in a wet building endangers the lives of the firefighters or EMTs.

    For this reason, having any UPS in a server room is a fire hazard, punishable by fines. If there is an uninterruptible power solution, it must be provided by the building and be able to shut off at a central point for emergencies.

    And, alas, I too was a common visitor to the little machine that could. At the least, I hope Raymond has backups for the Handy Debugging Tips section, as it’s usually the first thing I point new employees to. Dated, but useful.

  25. Norman Diamond says:

    There is a 49-day clock fix for Windows 95, separate from the one for Windows 98. I downloaded both versions. (It’s probably the only available hotfix that I never bothered to install.)

  26. Merle says:

    Impossible to find replacements? Probably not. Heck, I have a few 100-300M drives just sitting around that I’d be happy to give you.

    I used to work on software for kiosks that ran DOS. Some of these are still around. You *can* still plug in a modern-day EIDE drive, it just won’t be able to see the full drive. (I think it was 540M or 8G, forget which).

  27. Chris says:

    It isn’t as fun, but I’ve been keeping my old boxes alive in spirit by moving them to Virtual PCs. The parts aren’t the same, but they can still (not) do what they (couln’t) do.

  28. ElBiggus says:

    I have a 500M Maxtor drive I can donate — it’s of no earthly use to me, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to just throw away a perfectly working piece of hardware! (It may even still have Win95 installed on it!)

    (And I second the "what’s with the ‘without a pony’ thing?" question…)

  29. Factory says:

    "One of the machines in my office probably ranked high on the "oldest computer at Microsoft still doing useful work" charts. It was a 50MHz 486"

    Hah! My company still has a old Compaq luggable, with what appears to be a CGA screen, which is used for debugging serial cables.

  30. Mark Eichin says:

    Wow, and I thought paycheck.thok.org was long-lived… it was a 486/40 that I decomissioned after just over 10 years of service. It was maxed out on RAM (16M) but had grown in disk via rolling upgrades over the years. It was still useful at the end, but I’d migrated its services to much *quieter* and smaller machines…

    Would you be willing to expand on "Days without a pony"?

  31. Random person says:

    I too have used the percussive maintenance. It does work sometimes. Sometimes you just need to show them whos boss. Last time I used it, it was for my desktop!

    Also if it *is* IDE you probably can use any ol IDE drive and it should still work. You just probably will not be able to use the whole drive. If it is the controler, that may be a bit more tough to find a ISA one that works.

    If not there is a place here in NC that has a few dozen drives from that era. It is like walking back in time with all the old boxes of software no one will pay money for anymore. Sitting alongside the dot matrix printers and and 386-25 processors. Another decent place to find stuff like this is goverment auctions. They keep stuff for YEARS. It even usually still works!

  32. Bryce Kerley says:

    I’ve got a spare 133 with a 1.2gb drive from a failed wireless sniffing experiment if you want it :)

  33. mschaef says:

    "Hah! My company still has a old Compaq luggable, with what appears to be a CGA screen, which is used for debugging serial cables. "

    One of these?

    http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?CompaqPortable

    That was the machine I cut my programming teeth on with BASICA and, later, QuickBASIC 4.0. My parents still have it, and it still boots without much trouble. The biggest problem is that the Plus development HardCard 20 sometimes gets unseated from the expansion slot.

  34. tsrblke says:

    Oddly enough I have what has to be the worlds oldest laptop. IIRC it’s about 10 years old and still sits in my dad’s closet. (Unless they finally got the effort to throw it away, but I doubt it.) This thing had (if I remember) a 50 meg harddrive, 16 megs of ram, and a 486 proecessor. Oh and the black and white screen. It must have weighed 10 lbs and had 2 batteries to power it (yes it took them both to run.) It had horrible battery life too. We still needed it after the batteries died for good, so we found a store that drained the acid and replaced it. After that I used it to do my BASIC stuff on so I wouldn’t take up the family desktop. Ahh the good old days. (Oh yeah the computer had a floopy drive and a COM port, we had to plug the Dot Matrix into that to print!)

  35. JD says:

    You neglected to mention which OS you were running on it – how did you keep that uptime?

  36. Puckdropper says:

    Parts for older systems aren’t hard to find if you know where to loook… There are many people at the Obsolete Computer Museum SwapShop who have hundreds of thousands of old parts they’d love to see put to good use.

    http://www.obsoletecomputermuseum.org/cgi-bin/swapshop.pl”>http://www.obsoletecomputermuseum.org/cgi-bin/swapshop.pl

    Main page:

    http://www.obsoletecomputermuseum.org

    For the record, I have a Pentium 75 with 24 MB of RAM and a very small hard drive functioning as a router and local FTP server. It’s the "most used computer in the house" when you consider there’s often 2-3 computers sending packets through it.

  37. Ben Hutchings says:

    I use a 486SX-25 as a router/firewall/NAT box. I don’t know quite how old it is because it’s second-hand. I had to change the battery and I’ve put three network cards in (for Internet, LAN and WLAN) at a cost of about 2 pounds each. This required cutting a hole in the top of the case because it was a low-profile case meant to hold only a few cards horizontally. I also had to remove the reset switch because it kept triggering by itself. I also gave it a memory upgrade to the motherboard limit of 32 MB and two successive hard disk upgrades but those didn’t cost me anything.

  38. Norman Diamond says:

    There were laptops advertised in trade publications 20 years ago not just 10, though the first one I saw live was 17 years ago.

    Dot matrix printers are not in the same category as other old technology. They are still in use and they are still available new. Here’s one real world usage: Every few hours (maybe periodic, maybe not) a computer takes some kind of action and prints one line to report the action. Or occasionally it detects an error and prints two lines to report the error. It does not waste an entire page of paper to print one or two lines. After around 3 days it advances to the next page.

  39. You should set SpinRite loose on it, and see if it can bring it back to life…

  40. jon says:

    tsrblke, now i feel old. the first computer I ever programmed one was my parents "old" (yes old for my parents) laptop. it was a 80286, w/ a 3.5" floppy drive.

    Since I needed to fit the OS and the compiler on the floppy (it had no hd) I could only fit qbasic on it, at the time i could not find a c compiler that would run. So I learned qbasic as my first language. Later my parents shelled out 1400 bucks and got my a 486 laptop with 12mb a ram.

  41. Neil says:

    I’ve got an old 286 laptop that I stuffed into a draw when some component of the internal display failed – since I only own laptops and all-in-one PCs I don’t actually have an external monitor to try it with.

  42. ZxS says:

    hey, here in Spain, lots of oldies

    ZxSpectrum 48Khz computers work everyday like

    the firstday…. My father bought my speccy

    in 1985, 20 years ago, … I like to turn it up and play two or three old games from time to time…

    My old AmstradPC2086, an 80286 8Mhz with no hard-disk, disappeared of my life long ago….

    My old 486 33 Mhz chip is here, in my room, but my old computer is in the garage…

    My Amd K6-III 300Mhz is on the garage tooo….

    My Amd Athlon 800 Mhz belongs to my father…

    I’m typing in a Athlong 2.6Mhz..

    The day this blog was writing was my birthday, 11/05/74, and…. I like old computers, because I’m getting old too :(

  43. The continuing saga of dead computers.

  44. The cost-benefit analysis simply doesn’t pay off.

  45. The premise for today’s post? It’s about the numbers. Perhaps vaguely related to the fact that I’m losing

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