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Douglas Adams's Mac IIfx

At the end of 2003, I was looking to buy a Mac IIfx for some hacking. I needed a Mac with six NuBus slots and the IIfx is the fastest model that fitted my requirements. One turned up on eBay and I was able to win the auction at a sensible price. The seller was a computer scrapper who had no knowledge or interest in the history of the system.

The system was purchased "untested, as is" and the photo accompanying the auction (see opposite) indicated that it wasn't going to be in pristine condition. When delivered the case was filthy and the steel RF shielding inside had surface rust indicating that it had been stored in a damp environment for a couple of years. The side of the case (psu end) had four grubby chunks of Blu Tac attached. Obviously a previous owner had decided to stand the IIfx on its side as a tower case and used the Blu Tac to stabilise it. (If you try this at home with a IIfx, please stand the case on the other end so that the psu ventilation slots aren't blocked.)

I stripped out the components, scraped off the majority of the Blu Tac and dumped the bare case in the bath tub with some detergent. As the photos show, some of the Blu Tac is still lodged around the ventilation slots and the underside of the case has a peculiar sunburn pattern. My IIfx still looks a mess but I only bought it for hacking anyway.

When switched on for the first time, it was clear that the last user had little understanding of how to store files on the hard disk. The root directory contained hundreds of MacWrite documents. Scrolling through them was a pain and, as I have no interest in other people's private affairs, I selected the lot and deleted them. That was mistake number one. I left the applications folder intact to have a look at later.

In its day, the IIfx was Apple's flagship computer and a well specified machine would have left little change from £10,000. My new purchase had 20MB RAM, an A4 portrait display card, a 256 colour Toby video card and a very noisy Fujitsu (non-Apple ROM) hard disk drive running System software 7.5.5. All of the blanking plates for the NuBus slots had been removed and it is likely that any useful cards had been removed as the Mac descended the scrap chain; the Open Transport preferences contained a reference to an ethernet adapter and the control panel for a Radius display card was installed.

The applications software installed on the system didn't look very interesting. All of the files I had deleted were MacWrite documents and it appeared that the IIfx had been used as a glorified word processor. However Retrospect Remote was installed for backups so somebody had been using the Mac for serious work previously. The last backup was performed on 02-02-1997 but, according to the last modified file dates, the system remained in use until March 1999. Some power user utilities from CE and More were also installed.

I started up MacWrite Pro and noticed that it was registered to "Douglas Adams, Serious Productions Ltd". I paid little attention to this as I had seen warez copies of Claris software where the registered user was Douglas Adams. I then started Claris Resolve, ignoring a warning dialog (mistake number two), and noted that this software was also registered to Douglas Adams. The copies of Claris Works 4.0 and Now Up-to-Date were registered to Jane Belson; I was unfamiliar with the name but a quick web search determined that she is Douglas Adams's widow.

Deleting all those files suddenly seemed like a dumb thing to have done... To undo mistake number one, I popped an ethernet card in the IIfx, mounted an AppleShare volume and ran Norton Utilities to recover the files onto the server.

The results? I recovered hundreds of documents relating to Jane Belson's professional work and precisely two that bear the hand of Douglas Adams. I doubt whether the copyright lawyers would chase me for publishing his Idiots Guide to using a Mac but you wouldn't be thanking me either. For now at least, the draft of a TV sketch called Brief Re-encounter is strictly for my personal enjoyment.

And mistake number two? I should have paid attention to the dialog box when I'd started up Claris Resolve. In twenty years of Mac use working on literally thousands of systems, I've only seen viruses half a dozen times so I ignored the warning. How wrong can you get... A precautionary scan a few hours later using the old Disinfectant application showed that Claris Resolve had been infected by the MBDF A virus and that every application that I had subsequently run was infected too. Cheers, Douglas!

Additions, October 2004:

Jane Belson contacted me earlier this year, telling me that she recognised the IIfx as the one that sat next to her desk and to that of Douglas. A copy of the sketch Brief Re-encounter was sent to her.

Leander Kahney reported on the IIfx in his Cult of Mac weblog at Wired magazine in March 2004 (Article).

This page last updated: 17 October 2004

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