Where do old Macs go to retire? Sadly, many end their days in landfills. Others manage to stay above ground, but only as cast-off dust magnets in dark corners of home offices.
A fortunate few Macs, though, have found a permanent home in the red-carpeted basement museum of Gil Poulsen, an independent Apple Macintosh computer technician based in Franklin Park. His collection includes rare items, including an original Lisa II, one of the first computers to have a graphic interface. He also has never-used prototypes, early operating systems, and even two Macs turned aquariums, which are now home to schools of living screen savers.
Poulsen set up his museum when he and his wife, Donna, moved into a new house a few years ago. He headed straight for the basement, and, rather than building a tool bench, installing an entertainment center, or investing in a wet bar and a pool table, he completely rewired, painted, and carpeted the place to showcase his collection of vintage Macs in a formally curated MacMuseum. Walls gleam with giant Apple ad posters, the red plush carpeting quiets footsteps, and a red velvet and stainless steel "crowd control" barrier leads guests to the sign-in book. Eighteen historically significant Macs and related peripherals glisten under fluorescent lights, archiving the highlights of Apple’s innovations over the last 20 years.
People "walk in, look around, and get the funniest look on their faces" when they first see Poulsen’s collection. "They scratch their heads, and ask me, `Do you use all of these? I mean, wouldn’t you rather have, like, a pool table set up down here?’"
"I tell them, `No way.’ It’s true, old computers aren’t that useful, but it’s fascinating to see computers age so quickly. In some cases, a machine that was perfectly usable when new is rendered obsolete within a few years. Because of this rapid life cycle, people have often given me their `ancient’ machines for recycling. But some of these computers were really innovative – even revolutionary – when they were first released. Now they’re technically just scrap metal and plastic, but when you know the history behind each one, it’s hard to toss them out.
"Macs have more features. Apple leads the way with innovations, always pushing the envelope. Apple made the first commercially-available computer to use a mouse, the first with a CD-ROM drive, the first computer to show TV broadcasts, the first flat-panel display computer, the first color screen. Macs were the first to lose the floppy drive and the first to go wireless. The iPod is not only an MP3 player, but an external hard drive, too. And candy-colored computers? Who’d a thunk? Plus the build quality and design are first rate. The aesthetics are superior. The engineering is more intelligent. Apple uses better parts.
"It’s all stuff we take for granted now, but it’s really exciting for us cyber geeks to watch each breakthrough appear. You know, you could argue that the Mac really did change the world with innovation, especially by democratizing the printing process so anyone with a computer and laser printer could publish professional quality documents."
Poulsen points out a few of his favorite machines: "The practical-minded Macintosh Duo 230 (Apple code name 3Bob W) and DuoDock II (Atlantis) is a set – a laptop and hard drive with a dock – that allowed the user to transform his computer from portable to desktop in seconds. Very smooth."
Another favorite is the "jaw-dropping, bronze and black James Bond-esque" 20th anniversary Macintosh (aka Spartacus). Apple built only 12,000 units. Sporting Bose audio and speakers, TV/FM tuner, Italian leather palm rests, vertical CD-ROM drive, and remote control, "it’s still only four inches deep!" marvels Poulsen, adding that "purchase included delivery and setup via a concierge. Now that’s service!" The limited-edition computers sold for $8,000 in 1997, says Poulsen, who bought his on eBay for $2,000.
"The Macintosh IIci with TEMPEST modifications is basically a plain-vanilla IIci encased in a metallic shell painted to look like a standard Iici," he continues. "The TEMPEST program was initiated when the U.S. Government first realized that data being transmitted from computer to display could be intercepted in the form of electromagnetic radiation and captured by an EMR-sniffing intelligence operative, potentially undermining security. TEMPEST (Telecommunications Electronics Material Protected from Emanating Spurious Transmissions) were implemented to prevent this from occurring."
The exhibit tag on one Mac peripheral, the Apple TechStep reads: "Tired of paying high consultancy fees? Diagnose your own Mac problems!" This handheld diagnostic unit sold in 1992 for $995, and provided an full complement of hardward tests for early 1990s Macs (Classic, SE, SE/30, II, Iix, Iics, plus all SCSI hard drives). It even featured interchangeable testing modules to allow for future updates.
In addition to computers, Poulsen has Mac hardware that never made it into prime time. An example is a set-top box that the computer manufacturer hoped to sell to cable television manufacturers. "It’s just like the box on top of your televison," he says, "except that it has the Apple logo."
As a kid growing up in Pine Beach, a quiet little burg on Barnegat Bay, Poulsen dreamed silvery visions of traveling through outer space. He kept a scrapbook of NASA launchings and memorized the stats on every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission. He wanted to become an astronaut, to explore space in a silver capsule.
Poulsen learned order and meticulous attention to detail from his mother, a regional manager for the former CoreStates Bank and a perfectionist housekeeper. From his father he inherited a knack for fixing things.
"My father could build or repair anything, so incredible at using his hands. For a lot of years he worked as a glazer, replacing glass in buildings and cars, but his real passion was fishing," says Poulsen. When his dad opened his own bait and tackle store in Bayville, Poulsen got to see the advantages of self-employment and the possibilities of making a living while pursuing your dreams.
High school held little interest for Poulsen, but he enjoyed majoring in communication studies at Montclair State College. A favorite professor, Wayne Bond, choose Poulsen for a freelance job writing and designing a brochure for an ophthalmologist he knew, setting Poulsen on his feet in the work world. Before long, Poulsen was writing marketing materials for a variety of clients.
In 1987 he took a job at New Century Graphics, a tiny pre-press production firm in Montclair specializing in executing advertising concepts. His boss, the firm’s owner, Joanne Murphy, had just paid $15,000 for a Mac Plus with a 20" external monitor. But Poulsen wasn’t impressed. The machines were quite slow then, and crashed frequently.
"I’m a pretty skeptical guy. I think everything is a crock until I see the value of it, applied, with my own eyes. I have to be convinced by reality." Lucky for him, Joanne Murphy was looking into a cyber future Poulsen didn’t see.
In 1989 New Century re-upped for another new Apple – the IIFX. "We couldn’t really justify the expense, but everyone was so excited about just having contact with this machine," he says. "Everyone agreed not to take raises for a year. We trimmed all possible perks just to have this Macintosh."
As Poulsen did all his writing on the Mac, he started seeing the simple beauty of the Macintosh architecture, the order of it’s design and how incredibly helpful that is to people trying to get something done. "I started thinking `actually, this technology is kinda cool," he says. Before long, it was Poulsen the staff leaned on to resolve font incompabilities and fix the inevitable bugs of Apple’s early days.
"Macs were on the edge of a new frontier then. Computers in general were new to everyone. No one had 20 years experience, so people had to learn from each other, grass roots style. Designers, printers, vendors for film output – everyone would figure out ways to address their challenges, then compare notes."
With a library of information slowly growing in his brain, Poulsen went solo in 1990, eventually founding his Macintosh-specific consulting firm, AltiM@c (www.AltiMac.com). AltiM@c’s clients (about 60 now) all come thru word-of-mouth. Some are home-based entrepreneurs, some are small business, and others are large corporations, each with particular needs. Poulsen, who maintains a blog at his website, is expert at annual maintenance and systems updates, Internet connectivity solutions, emergency file restoration, and system revival after server crashes.
AltiM@c’s larger, corporate clients like Children’s Place, the Disney stores, and Jackson Hewitt use PCs for the lion’s share of their employees. But at most companies only the art department enjoys the privilege of using Macs. This leads onsite technicians – trained to maintain PCs – to stray from their expertise and to attempt to fix Macs, often to disastrous results.
"I’m sure IT people wish they’d wake up one day and Macintosh computers would be gone," he says. "They go to school to learn Microsoft, and have to support a completely separate Mac platform for about 1 percent of the people in their company. It’s got to be frustrating, but for certain kinds of work nothing can take the place of an Apple."
Poulsen’s empathy for the machines is almost palpable, and he exudes a sense of tragedy, cringing as he tells of the worst offence. "Absolute filth. A person can take a shower. It’s not so easy to clean a computer. I’ve opened up machines to find giant tumbleweeds of dirt, a black film over everything. I need to ask these people, "`Can’t you clean, occasionally? Move the machine away from the source of the grime?’ Smokers’ computers? Ugh. They’re actually yellow inside, and they stink!"
Back in his office at the end of the day, Poulsen sits in front of a big glossy ad poster, a gleaming Mac beaming the words, "I think, therefore iMac."
For anyone who has loved Macs from the get-go, as he has, Poulsen’s museum is a trip down memory lane. For those who became smitten more recently, perhaps when the iPod became the coolest, must-have piece of technology of the decade, the museum is an education.
"I keep everything to OS 9.0 or older," says Poulsen, referring to the operating system that runs Mac computers. "Many people who have bought Macs in the last two years have never seen the original operating system, and it’s so different. It’s very elegant and beautiful." The operating systems on newer computers is OS 10.0. Anyone who is only familiar with that Mac iteration, or who would like to switch on a Mac and remember what OS 6.0, 7.0, 8.0, or 9.0 was like, can do so in Poulsen’s museum.
"Everything works except for one portable," he says. "You can play with the Lisa even."