[ Memory Dump ] The DEC Rainbow 100

May 25th, 2010 by Benj Edwards

Benj's Memory Dump[ Memory Dump is an irregular series wherein Benj dives into his garage, pulls out a random technological artifact, and describes what he knows about it for your entertainment. ]

I own a garage full of history. Literally. It's dark, dusty, and sometimes damp, but that space houses most of my computer and video game collection. It's almost a crime not to dive in there and share it with VC&G readers more often. And believe me, the guilt of not doing so has tortured me for years.

That task is an overwhelming one, though. It's hard to know where to start. The sheer mass of history crammed in the place is enough to give one a panic attack on sight. For the sake of the Internet's safety, I dare not publish a picture of my garage's contents larger than 200×200 pixels. Anything larger and mass hysteria may erupt.

It's a a dangerous job too. Do you remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Worf gets paralyzed because a huge barrel falls from a 15 foot shelf onto his back in cargo bay 2? I replay that scene in my head every time I enter my garage. There's stuff stacked to the ceiling — a ten foot ceiling — and the structural integrity of the containers sitting upon each other is questionable. I plan to fix that soon.

Then there's the entropy problem. I need to re-assess the state of my collection because the artifacts haunting my garage won't last forever. Funny thing is, at the time I started collecting, I never thought that my collecting activities themselves would slip into vintage territory one day. While time passed unabated, in my brain I had always "recently acquired" those old computers. Once in my hands, I considered them all safe and working. Ha!

Leaky Mac BatteryReality has been catching up with me as I re-discover some of my earliest acquisitions. Time never stopped for them: degradation of the machines continues regardless of my self-delusions. Many computers that worked when I acquired them in the 1990s no longer function. Capacitors in power supplies are usually the first to go, and God help me if I forgot to remove a battery from an old PC. The presence of cats doesn't help things either.

As a result, I'll be going through my garage this year cleaning things up, sorting things out, and making the area un-death trap like. Along the way, I'll pull out a random computer, video game unit, or some related ephemera and tell you what I know about it in this new column. This is important because it's not just the physical objects that are decaying. My memories get hazier every year, so I should probably start documenting the stories behind the items before I forget.

So lets get started. The first entry in this series is not quite random: this RSOTW from early March inspired me to write about the DEC Rainbow. 20,000 word introduction aside, we now progress to the teeny-tiny story at hand. Let's pull back the curtains of time and read…

The Story of Benj's Rainbow

Benj's DEC Rainbow 100 on his workbench.

I acquired my DEC Rainbow unit as a teenager in my early collecting days. A friend of the family knew I was on the lookout for old computers and spotted a "free to a good home" ad for a Rainbow on a Usenet classified newsgroup. I replied via email that I was interested in picking up the computer and signed the letter as Red Wolf, my traditional online handle. The Rainbow owner replied with directions to his apartment in nearby Durham, NC. Being only 14 years old (or thereabouts), I had to convince my father to drive me to Durham to get the machine. He agreed.

Benj's DEC Rainbow 100 with a cat on his workbench.One weekend, the whole family loaded up into the minivan and we headed over. Once there, my father accompanied me to the Rainbow owner's apartment. After a knock on the door, the owner answered. He invited us in and instinctively addressed my father, reciting the history of the computer. My dad pointed to me and said, "Tell him. This is Red Wolf. He collects old computers."

I was a bit embarrassed about my age, but the man was very friendly. He entrusted me with his complete Rainbow system, including many priceless manuals and disks.

That was at least 15 years ago. I played with it some at the time, but the Rainbow mainly sat on a shelf in my parents' house until I finally brought it to my house last year. I'd love to use it again, but a strange fungus is growing on the monitor in a blotchy pattern, and the unit's once-legendary LK201 keyboard is a bit flaky and needs repair (one of the traces on an internal flexible plastic connector is broken).

I plan to restore the Rainbow whenever I get the chance. But with so many other things to fix and clean, it's hard to find the time. If anyone has a spare LK201 keyboard, I'm all ears.



8 Responses to “[ Memory Dump ] The DEC Rainbow 100”

  1. Ben Says:

    I know how you feel. I've had many a computer which seemed to be perfectly fine yesterday be DOA today. Both of my PS/2 55sx's had the internal RTC battery die (easy fix), and either the HD or controller (not so easy). Just last week I had a use for my old Toshiba T4500 laptop, only to find the floppy no longer works (a belt from the drive motor to the spindle is shot, and there's no way of getting to it). The HD seems ok, but I took it out and put it in an external enclosure, and it shows up as 2.1TB- it's 132M. Not sure what's going on there.
    Also many a random PC has decayed to the point of no return. Although, my family's first PC, a generic XT clone, functions perfectly today after not being switched on for nearly 20 years!

  2. Blake Patterson Says:

    Ouch. That fungus. Grievous.

    I recall the Rainbow being used in a modern Tales from the Dark Side (or Twilight Zone). An interesting machine with an interesting floppy mechanism.

  3. Benj Edwards Says:

    Yeah, the fungus on the DEC monitor is bad. It's actually the only monitor I've ever seen with that problem. The fungus seems to be growing on the adhesive between the safety glass and the surface of the CRT (the safety glass is glued to the surface of the CRT).

    Since it has been in my possession, the monitor has been mostly kept in a climate-controlled place, so the growth probably got started before I got the monitor in the early 1990s. The monitor still works otherwise.

  4. Zoyous Says:

    Benj, as far as the question of where to start writing about the collection… start anywhere. Go by whim. Closer your eyes, spin around a couple of times and point at something. Later, once you've written several pieces, maybe a more organized approach will begin to emerge and you can proceed more methodically. But as a reader, it's interesting and enjoyable to read about any of it for now.

  5. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks for the advice, Zoyous. I'm glad to see that someone is interested in reading about my old stuff.

  6. christina Says:

    I envy such a collection. I wish i could afford to have a collection like this :c

  7. PS3D Says:

    Your father actually introduced you as "Red Wolf"???

  8. Benj Edwards Says:

    Yep, he did. That is what the guy knew me by via email.

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