The Apple Lisa: My Holy Grail, Attained

November 16th, 2006 by Benj Edwards

RedWolf's New Apple Lisa 2I've wanted an Apple Lisa since I first set eyes on one around 1994 in my middle school library. I was studying there with a class when I spotted an exotic-looking Apple machine sitting on a cart across the room. After puzzling for a bit, I realized that it must be an Apple Lisa, an almost mythical machine that I had read about in The Journey is the Reward, but I had never even seen a picture of until then.

Location of RedWolf's First Lisa SightingI had already been collecting computers for at least two years when I saw the machine, and I was always on the lookout for more additions to my collection. I had heard of a little-known machine called the "Lisa" that Apple released somewhere between the Apple III and the Macintosh, but I had never seen or used one. So when I spotted the Lisa in the library that day, it was an epiphany to me — the Apple story was vividly coming together in my brain. Knowing that the Lisa (a Lisa 2, as it turned out) in the school library was obsolete, I feared that the librarians wouldn't know what to do with it and would throw it away. I had to take action, but I was painfully shy, and I was only about thirteen or fourteen years old. I was afraid to ask them about the computer because I figured they wouldn't take me seriously. So I convinced my mother (the best mom ever) to drive back to the library after school and ask the librarians if we could buy the Lisa from them. The librarians had to decline the offer, since it had been donated to the library and was property of the county school system. Sadly, I fear that the Lisa in the library probably met a nasty fate not too long after that incident — a victim of short-sighted middle school bureaucracy.

A Dearth of Information
Keep in mind that, up until the recent explosion of popularity and coverage of vintage computers on the Internet, reliable information on them was extremely scarce. In 1994, there were no microcomputer history books from major publishers in any library I visited (even university libraries), and there were very few websites about them in the early years of the WWW. In fact, nobody really cared about old computers at all, except perhaps the holdovers who actually still used them on a daily basis for word processing and the like. That's where my first online information about old computers came from: user group forums for Atari and Commodore computers on CompuServe. To the people on those forums in the early 1990s, the machines weren't considered "vintage" or "classic," they were just the tools they used every day to get things done. And to everyone else, vintage computers weren't honored, revered, or even appreciated. In our fast-changing disposable society, they were typically regarded as worthless, obsolete hunks of scrap metal. I started collecting computers because I feared that otherwise, in that kind of environment, valuable historical information would be lost.

After that first encounter with the Lisa, I dedicated my collecting life to acquiring one. It was my Holy Grail, the one item that would drive me to keep searching flea markets, thrift shops, and hamfests for over twelve years. I had a close run-in a few years later at a hamfest with a working Mac XL (a Lisa 2 converted to run Macintosh software). Because of that conversion and the price tag (about $110 US, as I remember it), a friend of my family talked my father out of buying it for me. It made sense at the time, though — $100 or more was a hefty price to pay for any obsolete machine, considering most of the computers I had bought at in the past were purchased for around $20, $10, or even less. Still, I regretted that decision for quite some time because, despite years of searching afterward, that was the last Lisa I ever saw…until now.

We Met at the Festival

RedWolf's New Apple Lisa 2 at VCF 9As most of you probably know, I was in the Silicon Valley area a week and a half ago for the Vintage Computer Festival 9.0. If there's anywhere in the world that you're going to find an Apple Lisa, that's probably it. While I was there browsing VCF 9.0′s exhibition hall and marketplace, I spotted the Lisa 2 you see to the right sitting all by its lonesome on the corner of a long table. There was another Lisa 2 for sale there that was all junked up, but the seller wanted way too much for it, so I went back to the first one. The Lisa pictured here was in great cosmetic shape, but the I/O board and motherboard were corroded by leaking clock battery acid, which is apparently a very common problem in Lisas. The damage wasn't all that bad, however, and the asking price ($200 US) was fair considering its condition and the fact that the price included an Apple Profile hard disk unit and an original Lisa Mouse and Lisa Keyboard in incredible shape. I negotiated the price for a while and could have gotten it for a lot lower if I hadn't been in a hurry, but in the end I just bit the bullet and paid $200 to its friendly owner so I wouldn't miss my only chance at a decent Lisa for a long time to come. The deed was done, but there was only one problem: I live in North Carolina, across the country from California, and I flew over for the festival. How would I get it home?

Apple Lisa 2 in the Hotel RoomThe problem of moving a Lisa 2 cross country wasn't as much of a problem as I thought, although it nearly took a whole day of my vacation to make it happen. First, I disassembled the Lisa main unit and separated the corroded parts so they wouldn't contaminate anything else. Then I took out the power supply and all the boards so the main display unit would be as light as possible. Then I took the main unit to a UPS Store in Mountain View and had them pack it up for me and ship it back to my house via UPS ground. While I was there, I bought a few boxes and packing materials for the other parts. I got back to my hotel room and wrapped up the Profile drive in many layers of bubble wrap, foam peanuts, my dirty clothes from the vacation, empty RedWolf's New Apple Lisa 2pizza boxes, and whatever else I had on hand for padding. Then I took it back to the UPS Store and had it shipped home. The rest of the stuff — including the power supply, card cage, keyboard, and mouse — I managed to pad sufficiently and cram into my checked baggage. I can only imagine how airport security reacted when they saw a bunch of weird looking electronics packed with dirty clothes in a suitcase. Either way, everything got through, and I arrived home safely. Two days ago, my two Lisa packages arrived, which you can see, mid-unpacking, in the picture above. Thankfully, everything arrived undamaged and in one piece. The Lisa, after a long trip, was home at last.

The Trouble with Peanuts
Unfortunately, the packing material for the Lisa 2 generated a lot of trash. In my quest to keep the resulting mountain of Styrofoam packing peanuts away from my mischievous cats, I placed two big boxes full of the evil S-shaped capsules of environmental havoc on my canopied deck. A surprise knock-out storm last night conveniently scattered a thousand of them across my back yard. If you don't see me around for a while, you'll know why: I'll be busy picking them up over the next few years.

Sometimes getting a Lisa is like doin' time…but it's oh so worth it.

The Journey Continues

So what do I do, where do I go, what do I seek now that my long-standing goal has been attained? Should my thirteen-year computer collecting journey come to an end? Of course not. After all, I still have to track down some parts and put a lot of work into making that little Lisa 2 sing again. That's the most fun part of collecting: if the Lisa 2 had worked perfectly to begin with, then it would be boring compared to the challenge of fixing it up. The journey is the reward. And even though I've found a Lisa 2, there's still a lot out there that I haven't found — like the Lisa 1…



12 Responses to “The Apple Lisa: My Holy Grail, Attained”

  1. Jay Says:

    Congratulations on finding your holy grail. May all of us some day be so fortunate in our own quests.

  2. Logan Starrider Says:

    Wish I had known that you were looking…I own 3, along with an Atari 800XL (with 2 disk drives), a TRS-80, a TRS-80III, an IBM 8088, a few 286′s, 486′s, P1′s, only 1 P1 75, a few
    P1-90, P2′s and P3′s (up to a 566), and finally 4 P4′s

  3. RedWolf Says:

    Logan,

    Well hey, I might need another one for parts soon, or perhaps some software. We'll see. If you'd like to sell any of it, send me an email.

    And thanks for the congrats, Jay.

  4. Sellam Ismail Says:

    Ah yes, another happy customer :) The guy you bought it from (Kevin) it a real cool dude. I think you got a good deal overall.

    As you now know, the battery leakage issue is a known problem with the Lisa. Clean it up with vinegar and a soft-bristled toothbrush (more recently I learned that hydrochloric acid works even better, but don't go splashing it on your PCBs until you figure out in what concentration) then wash it off with distilled water, then drip dry.

    The way to prevent this in the first place is to turn the battery switch located near the batteries on the I/O board to the OFF position. This should then prevent the batteries from leaking in the first place (too late for this now though, as most Lisas are now over 20 years old).

    Lisas are not hard to find. They're just hard to find for cheap. In recent years, the price has stablized to about $400-$600 for a good condition Lisa with manuals and system software. A lot of these have been going over to Japan, as the Japanese go fucking apeshit over anything Apple or Mac. Some people have made a career out of exporting old Lisas to Japan. If I was smarter I would have done the same. Instead I have about 6 Lisas of various types (yes, including the 1 ;) ) in my collection, plus a bunch of parts. I got my first Lisa from an old boss in 1992. I then picked up a pile from a guy that used to work for Apple on the Lisa development team as a contractor. I got a ton (literally) of useful spares, documentation, software, etc. That was a group buy and about 5 of us ended up with a Lisa out of that haul (I came away with two). I then subsequently picked up one here and one there. Now they've mostly dried up out in the wild, and the only way to find them reliably is on that disgusting enterprise known as eBay.

    As far as taking vintage computers onto planes with you, it's never really been a big deal. In the late 1990s, my job brought me to your neck of the woods (Raleigh) and I scoured every thrift store and flea market within a 20 mile radius. I brought back on the plane literally tons of computer hardware, software, manuals and books (if you wondered why you weren't finding anything from the 1997-1999 timeframe then now you know) and shipped about another ton. Man, the books I used to find out there were incredible, thanks in part to the proximity to Research Triangle Park and all the baggage that 20 years of its existence leaves behind.

    Baggage, yes. So I used to never have problems bringing boxes of old hardware as check in and even carry-on baggage. The tech economy was jumping so crazy back then that they probably saw all sorts of bizarre techno-crap come through the X-ray machine.

    Things didn't change too much after 9/11. One just got more scrutiny. And ones lucky enough to have a Middle Eastern name got even more scrutiny. The first time I flew after 9/11 was November 6, 2001, to Vienna, then to Munich where I picked up the Robotron I'd bought earlier that year at VCF Europa. Robotron was a company in the former East Germany that made their own computers as well as clones based on Western designs. The model I bought is a CP/M compatible business computer based on a U880 microprocessor, a clone of the Z80 (or was that the 8080?) Anyway, you think bringing a Lisa onboard a plane is tough, try something that's at least one half the size larger than a Lisa and about two times its weight (the Robotron has two built-in 8″ floppy drives). I got pulled onto the tarmac at London Heathrow to open the box in front of a security guy who looked like he was afraid it was going to blow up and take us both out. I had my VintageTech business cards with me and had a good cover story (I was coming back from an archaeology conference) so I didn't have to endure an anal probe or anything (unfortunately).

    Anyway, it got back in mostly one piece, but my lack of foresight lead me to stuff it into a too-small box and some of the cheap plastic sidewalls got broken in transit. Anything you're going to bring onto a plane has definitely got to be packaged in a box adequate for the item with lots of bubble wrap or foam peanuts (preferably both).

    You were probably better off shipping everything via UPS, if only to avoid the hassle of bringing everything onto the plane with you (and you saved maybe $25?) For future reference, Fedex Ground is a bit cheaper. Let me know next time and I'll let you use my account and I'll bring some packaging material to the VCF with me for you to use. In fact, this is a good idea for next year. Must make a note of it: "setup shipping center in back of VCF exhibit hall for out of town visitors" ;)

    And that Lisa 1, it's for sale (but not for cheap I'm afraid :( )

  5. RedWolf Says:

    Man, I've never had somebody pack so many great tips and stories into one comment! Neat stuff, Sellam. Sounds like you've really traveled the world to get your computers. :) I was wondering if post-9/11 security ever gave you flack for your middle eastern name — glad to see you managed to escape the dreaded anal probe.

    As far as Lisas go, my problem was that I was always stubbornly trying to find one out in the wild, and I figured out long ago that they had mostly become extinct in the rough around 2000 or so. But I thought I would keep looking anyway, as a cheap Lisa would make all that more stunning a find under those circumstances. I always knew I could get one on eBay for an arm and a leg, but I felt like that would be cheating (aside from not having the money to burn on one anyway).

    The good news is that my father (a veteran electronics engineer), in his glorious retirement, has been helping me clean up the acid-corroded boards on my Lisa with minimal damage. It's looking like we might be able to get it working without having to replace any (or perhaps only a few) components. We're planning on testing it out soon, perhaps around Thanksgiving. Cross your fingers and wish us luck. Also, thanks for the cleanup / battery tips.

    Oh, and the shipping center at VCF is a great idea. If I can make it next year, I'll probably have to use some of your services. :)

  6. Mr.NiceGuy Says:

    Congrats on your find. I love the Lisa. I remember the 1st time I ever saw one.. it was in a computer store in early 1985 and the price tag was $12,000 (Canadian).. ouch! Anyways, as a teen I remember being in awe at the 10 Meg HD and 1 meg of RAM..! In 1990 I casually collected an Apple ][+, ][e, 1st gen Apple ///, and a ][c plus various expansion cards — I don't think I spent more than $50 on it all.

    Later, I stumbled upon a mint condition Lisa 2/10 for $200 in 1992 complete with Imagewriter printer. It had the System 7/7 software package and spare ProFile 5 meg external HD which I could never get to work with the Lisa. I had a great time modeming with it but could never get it to work above 2400 bps. I even managed to obtain the Pascal workshop software development package which Sun Remarketing (they still around..?) tried to negotiate for it. Unfortunately, the internal HD Widget drive failed about 1 year later and my Lisa 2 has been dead since then.

    In 2003 I donated my entire Apple collection except for the Lisa. I'd like to get it operating again but internal HD's can no longer be had. If anyone knows of any tricks or spare HD's that can be put in, please let me know. I'd love to get her back running again.

  7. Bernard Says:

    Hello,

    After 20 years i checked him (and it was working) i open back the box where my Lisa was. I coudn't find the mouse and i have one cap stuck'ed down.

    BUT i found out that a board show corrosion where the backup batteries stand and that the switch located near the batteries is stuck;
    http://i56.tinypic.com/91f6h1.jpg

    I've heard there is way to clean this and repair.
    I have good hand a voltmetre and iron sold ready, may be someone here can help ?

    Regards
    Bernard

  8. Bernard Says:

    By the time i posted my first post i have cleaned up the I/O board.
    Now the Lisa is lighting up.

    But there is no beep and the screen show a strange patern; grey with vertical bar with an inch ass on the top with black and white squares.

    Can't find anymore help on the web…

  9. Benj Edwards Says:

    Bernard, I went through the same problem with a corroded Lisa clock battery some years ago. I cleaned it up, but never did get that unit fully working. I found a PDF of the Apple Lisa service manual somewhere online that helped me out some. I'm not sure where it is now, but maybe you can find it via Google. Good luck!

  10. Sydney Payton! =) Says:

    I have a Computron 1980 I'm only 11 and dont know much about this stuff! I was wondering how much it was worth, I don't know much! =) please post back Thank Ya!

  11. Geoff V. Says:

    Hey Benj,
    Did you ever get this beauty up and working?

  12. Benj Edwards Says:

    Geoff,

    I don't think I got this particular unit to boot because I never fixed the floppy drive. It did have a battery issue I fixed though. I actually sold it earlier this year at a local hamfest. I do have another Lisa 2 that works perfectly, however, and it is an amazing machine.

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