First Boot and Disassembly

My Com­paq Portable arrived suc­cess­ful­ly in one piece just after I pub­lished my intro­duc­tion to this project last month, and I found it to be in even bet­ter shape than I expect­ed. How­ev­er, I’m afraid my exam­ple did not escape The Key­board Prob­lem — 100% key­board fail­ure thanks to decom­pos­ing foam used in pre-1984 machines. After the near-spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence of its first boot-up, I was only able to acti­vate a sin­gle key when prompt­ed by DOS (2.12, I’m assum­ing) to enter the cur­rent date — the num­ber 5. This is by far the most com­mon ail­ment among Portable buys, and it was far from unex­pect­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, my com­plete lack of per­son­al work­space at the moment will like­ly prove to be the most stub­born obsta­cle to restor­ing func­tion to the key­board for longer than I’d like, but I’ve been able to main­tain sound patience. (Also, nobody seems to know what a “punch” is? Maybe I’m mis­at­tribut­ing the term.)

Both the sheer vol­ume of obscure doc­u­men­ta­tion on the replace­ment of the foam and met­al con­tacts and the dif­fer­ences between each restorer’s approach is quite aston­ish­ing — one claimed to find suc­cess using only mate­ri­als from a dol­lar store, which isn’t often said of com­put­er repair projects in 2018. Hack­a­day’s cov­er­age of the repair is care­ful­ly con­sid­ered and com­pre­hen­sive, and there’s more than enough dili­gent ref­er­ences avail­able to ren­der any detailed records of my own attempts a waste of time. My first chance to peek inside came while I was sur­round­ed by new Port­land friends in their com­mu­ni­ty house, who were all amus­ing­ly bewil­dered by my deci­sion to buy such an object. I broad­cast a boot-up on Periscope, as well as a longer attempt to elec­tro­cute myself and repli­cate a forum poster’s claimed typ­ing using only his fin­gers to con­duct the nec­es­sary cur­rent across the con­tacts. I sup­pose the bull­shit is obvi­ous, but I was more than will­ing to sac­ri­fice my life, as you’ll no doubt observe.

The key­board itself was ridicu­lous­ly well-fas­tened and overde­signed, and the first sight of the Portable’s inter­nal archi­tec­ture revealed by our removal of the main cov­er pan­el was a gen­uine­ly gasp-induc­ing expe­ri­ence. I’m cer­tain­ly not a well-expe­ri­enced and/or pro­fes­sion­al hard­ware per­son, but I’m com­pelled to note that I have nev­er seen elec­tron­ic hard­ware built this well — even in agri­cul­tur­al imple­ment appli­ca­tions, much less con­sumer-tar­get­ed prod­ucts. I com­plete­ly under­stand why retro elec­tron­ic nerds love these so much and I can only hope to soon chan­nel a suf­fi­cient imi­ta­tion of their dis­ci­pline to get the key­board func­tion­ing ful­ly.

The rot­ting foam is actu­al­ly quite dis­gust­ing.
Though the ABS main rear pan­el has obvi­ous­ly been removed before, the beau­ty of the Portable’s inter­nal machin­ing had me gasp­ing.

Rod Canion with Brian McCullough

Edit­ed Con­tent

The orig­i­nal audio con­tained some unnec­es­sary and uncom­fort­able paus­es, so I took the lib­er­ty of trim­ming it down a bit. The above play­er will play the new file, but the orig­i­nal is avail­able from the source, if you’d pre­fer.

If you’ve ever found this industry’s his­to­ry intrigu­ing, you’ve like­ly heard Bri­an McCullough’s superb Inter­net His­to­ry Pod­cast before, and it’s obvi­ous to you how invalu­able an inter­view episode with Compaq’s Biggest Boy would be for a head start on digest­ing the sto­ry. In accor­dance with Halt and Catch Fire’s pilot release in 2014, the broad-shoul­dered sol­dier of open com­put­ing appeared to have been on a mini media tour (even though he open­ly admit­ted he’d yet to actu­al­ly watch it.) [His last remark — “maybe even as excit­ing as the real thing” — may sound like sil­ly Dork Rod con­jec­ture, but the show wasn’t near­ly as engag­ing because they had(?) to remove the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty com­po­nent, which is the meat of the whole thing.] McCul­lough is usu­al­ly ace at this stuff, but he sounds a bit shaky in this one, though nobody should blame him — I cer­tain­ly would be, too. Rod Canion’s accent (BIOS=buy-OSS) and gen­er­al inten­si­ty must make for one hell of a pres­ence, even over the phone. 2014 was a long time ago.

McCullough’s own sum­ma­ry of the con­ver­sa­tion is so thor­ough (he was writ­ing a book,) there’s only a sin­gle pos­si­ble addi­tion.

There’s a cer­tain risk­tak­ing gene that runs through a lot of Tex­ans.”

There’s no oth­er way to say it: I believe in Texas. Specif­i­cal­ly, Hous­ton. DJ Screw, UGK, Z-Ro, Trae, Fat Pat, etc.- these I adopt­ed as reli­gion, years ago. From my per­spec­tive, Rod Canion’s ball­sy, loy­al Hous­to­ni­an­ism hus­tle makes per­fect sense. Yes, I’m afraid you’ve basi­cal­ly stum­bled into my pas­sion­ate cause to unite two Hous­ton icons.


Rod Canion

CEO, Co-Founder

A soft-spo­ken Tex­an whose boy­hood spent tin­ker­ing with hot rods led him to study engi­neer­ing, Can­ion received his master’s degree in elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing with an empha­sis in com­put­er sci­ence in 1968, and he imme­di­ate­ly began work­ing for Dal­las-based elec­tron­ics titan Texas Instru­ments (TI).” — “Joseph R. ‘Rod’ Can­ion,” — Entre­pre­neur

Behold the Compaq Comeback

This evening, a pack­age is sched­uled to arrive upon my doorstep con­tain­ing a Com­paq Portable Plus lug­gable com­put­er from 1983 which I have fan­ta­sized about buy­ing for far too many years. Despite liv­ing in the midst of per­haps the worst pos­si­ble finan­cial sit­u­a­tion to spend $139.99 out­right on a rel­ic of com­put­ing, I final­ly just bought one any­way last Thurs­day because I’m absolute­ly fed up with life with­out the mag­ic I remem­ber feel­ing from com­put­ers. Yes, I am hav­ing a mid-life crises and The Machine is just a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of one of my favorite sto­ries, but I expect it will pro­vide some­thing irre­place­able for me and at least one piece of enter­tain­ment for just about any­body: I’m going to start a pho­to­series of myself using the 26-lb., suit­case-like, and utter­ly time-dis­placed Portable Plus in dif­fer­ent cof­fee shops through­out Port­land

There’s also poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ty (or neces­si­ty) for me to make use of my lim­it­ed knowl­edge of hard­ware elec­tron­ics. I’ve nev­er been very com­fort­able with open­ly using the term “hob­by,” but I ful­ly intend to savor, doc­u­ment, and pre­serve every pos­si­ble detail of my expe­ri­ence, so we’re going to behave as if the tales of com­put­er his­to­ry are pre­cious to a ded­i­cat­ed audi­ence besides myself, and that I am there­by and here­after bind­ing myself to an impor­tant duty of dis­cov­ery, cura­tion, and pre­sen­ta­tion expressed through mul­ti­me­dia of the high­est pos­si­ble cal­iber.

In oth­er words, I’m pret­ty sure I’ve just begun a vin­tage com­put­ing blog. Before we go any fur­ther, then, let’s dis­pense with the oblig­a­tory arrange­ments.

Why Compaq?

Put sim­ply, Com­paq was punk as fuck. Three dorky Tex­an techn­odads pre­med­i­tat­ed their leave of fair, secure jobs in the indus­try in order to bet every­thing on the promise of a sin­gle unde­ni­ably pro-user ide­al to dis­rupt its dom­i­nant monop­o­lis­tic supervil­lian. Unlike any of the count­less oth­er sto­ries from the infor­ma­tion age with the very same intro­duc­tion, theirs was imme­di­ate­ly pro­pelled into stratos­pher­ic, record-break­ing suc­cess — from cof­fee table sketch­es in the waste­lands of sub­ur­ban Hous­ton nights to one bil­lion dol­lars in less than five years, prov­ing that it was pos­si­ble to win huge in tech by com­mit­ting sin­cere­ly to lib­er­at­ing the con­sumer and man­i­fest­ing the ulti­mate per­for­mance of the under­dog com­plex Amer­i­can busi­ness has ever wit­nessed. 

Those of us who’ve main­tained some curi­ous orbit of tech­nol­o­gy have recent­ly entered a rec­on­cil­la­to­ry process as the world has become all at once inti­mate­ly famil­iar with our col­lec­tive pur­suits’ true con­se­quences. Nev­er has it been more appro­pri­ate to reflect on the whole­some brava­do of the only Amer­i­can com­put­er com­pa­ny to build a bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness atop the sole mantra of user lib­er­a­tion. At a glance one might assume that AMC’s attempt to repro­duce Mad Men’s for­mu­la with a sto­ry set in Compaq’s ori­gin in a series that’s sup­pos­ed­ly attract­ed a fair num­ber of Net­flix­ers called Halt and Catch Fire in con­junc­tion with the 2016 doc­u­men­tary Sil­i­con Cow­boys have suf­fi­cient­ly remind­ed Amer­i­ca of to whom it real­ly owes its priv­i­leged tech indus­try. How­ev­er, a Twit­ter search for “Com­paq” turns up vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing of con­se­quence, and — on the oth­er cul­tur­al spec­trum — I’ve yet to see a sin­gle well-doc­u­ment­ed col­lec­tion of Com­paq hard­ware, and I’m unsat­is­fied.  

Like it not, you’re com­ing with me on a safari back through two full nos­tal­gic cycles to redis­cov­er our won­der and excite­ment about tech­nol­o­gy because I miss it des­per­ate­ly and I know you do too. We’re going to find some­thing mar­velous.

I believe com­put­ers can be mag­ic again.

I believe in Com­paq.