'Obsolete' computers still have value
by Alan Zisman
(c) 2000. First
published in Vancouver Computes,
One of the most common complaints of computer owners
is "I just bought
the darn thing and already it's obsolete!"
Most businesses, it seem, for tax purposes claim that
hardware depreciates over three years?at the end of that period, it's
But none of this means that your older computer, in
fact, is without
value. That older computer can still do everything it did when it was
Unlike big businesses, schools can rarely (if ever)
afford to upgrade
their computers every three years. In many cases, your children are
to get good use of technology that most businesses and homes have long
ago consigned to the scrap heaps.
Strathcona Elementary, in East Vancouver's Chinatown,
serves 560 children.
Money is always an issue, but early on, parents, teachers, and
realized that computers could be an effective tool to help students
During the early 1980s, teachers started experimenting
Commodore PET and a Radio Shack TRS80, which were, over the next
few years were, according to then-teacher Robert Moore "replaced by
64s, slowly and painfully fundraised by parents, teachers, and kids,
the school struggling to buy two or three each year". Eventually, the
got to the point where they could have their own lab of C-64s.
By 1987-88, however, the school was becoming
increasingly aware of the
limitations of the Commodore 64s. Principal Noel Herron started looking
at fund-raising alternatives to get a modern lab, while Moore, like
teachers at the time, had become, in his own words, "overwhelmed with
potential of HyperCard", a pioneering hypertext application only
for Apple's Macintosh. Moore also "very much appreciated the Mac's
interface and desktop publishing features, and saw these as vastly
and vastly more accessible to kids and teachers than DOS".
As a result, Moore and Herron produced a plan and a
budget to buy a
state-of-the-art Mac lab, and presented it to the Chinatown Rotary
The club raised $40,000 enabling the school, in 1989, to buy and
network 20 Mac Plus computers. The school was able to dedicate one half
of Moore's teaching time to team-teaching with the other staff in the
lab and to use the lab as a tool for English as a Second Language (ESL)
Just to keep this in perspective, 'state-of-the-art'
in 1989 meant a
black-and-white desktop Mac with a couple of megs of RAM and no hard
By current standards, these computers would have been
long ago, and would be no more than a distant memory. But while
no more, at Strathcona, the Mac Plus lab is still in use, every day. By
the mid-1990s, the school was able to built a second lab with newer
With no hard drives, the MacPluses are connected to a
pair of servers,
themselves a far cry from the super-powered machines we tend to think
in that role?Mac Classic IIs, each with a full 80 MB of drive space.
used includes All the Right Type keyboarding software (from Burnaby's
Works), Microsoft Works, HyperCard, and Superpaint. According to
Strathcona teacher Wing Wong, student HyperCard stacks?ghost stories,
of Chinatown, and pictures of historic houses-- from past years have
saved on the network and are brought out to help teach this year's crop
of students to read.
After twelve years of operation, it is becoming
difficult to keep the
lab up and running. The Vancouver School Board no longer offers
support for this older equipment, and parts have become increasingly
Wong keeps a stock of dead Macs for parts, having been quoted a price
$200 to replace an old style Mac mouse.
He remembers the day "when a student tapped me on my
back and calmly
said, 'I think I have a problem at my workstation'. I looked up to see
a plume of white smoke steadily rising from one of the computers." A
on the computer's motherboard had melted?a problem that has since
on three other computers. Despite the loss of these computers,
of older Macs from parents, businesses, and other schools have enabled
Strathcona to keep the lab in operation.
The school has gotten some newer computers?they have
some iMacs and have received half a dozen PCs and a server as part of a
donation from IBM to Vancouver inner-city schools. The use of computers
has changed. "Kids don't really need teaching 'how' to use a computer
do basic tasks such a word processing anymore-- they need teaching how
to use a computer to help their learning" says Robert Moore.
Through it all, Strathcona's 1989-era collection of Mac Plus continues
to introduce computing to a new generation of students.
They ought to declare it a heritage site.