Hobbyist interest in Lisp Machine technology

I often receive messages such as:

"I'm interested in getting a lisp machine for my personal use. Never having dealt with them, this is a problem (I'm a hobbyist). I have no idea where to start, what to expect from the machine once I find it, or what to expect to pay. I've heard several very impressive, but yet unconfirmed things about these machines, and I'd like to see for myself."

After several exchanges of question and answer, I am usually left with the impression that such enquirers would like to play with a massively powerful and sophisticated system (hardware and software) at the cost of very little investment of time and even less money. I empathize, but unfortunately, although there are free Lisp Machines occasionally up for grabs, this does not happen often. It is also worth pointing out that having a machine without access to spares, repairs or any form of support can be to tread thin ice.

I myself am enthusiastic about Lisp Machines, their architectures and even more about Lisp itself. But I leave it to others to provide support services for those early in the learning curve - there are many people on various Internet bulletin boards who enjoy tutoring on the subject of Lisp Machines and Lisp. These days I invest more of my time and effort with people who are interested in sharing joint projects.

By way of responding to queries such as the above, here begins a LM hobbyist's FAQ:

Q: Do you still have anything available (the most common question)?

A: Yes. Everything listed is available now.

Q: Can I get a Symbolics machine for free?

A: Yes and no. There are occasionally free Symbolics machines available, and some people do win the lottery. Where, when, how to find such gift-horses... you are on your own there. I have some Symbolics machines available almost free, but there is a catch - they are the larger systems (and I bet you want the latest and smallest). Also I doubt that shipping will ever be free, in fact FedEx etc will do their best to skin you alive. Perhaps worth factoring in some sense of cost of both your time and effort and that of the person the other end (with phone calls etc).

Q: Can I have a Lisp Machine for $5?

A: Perhaps, but not from me. If you think about it, the cost of putting a system together for you is far more than $5. For a more realistic sense of almost free, think of what you are paid for a day's work (before tax), and if you are not paid then the cost born by others for you. It is like the cost of motoring, a fair sum to offer a car owner with whom you share a journey is not half the price of the fuel, it is more than twice the price of the fuel (think of the boring invisible costs like insurance, tax, capital depreciation, maintenance, ...). As an economic proposition it is more attractive to dump machine in a skip than "sell" it for $5. But of course if you think that you are a deserving charity case, perhaps offering money is not the most suitable approach (see barter).

Q: Can you tell me the cost of shipping?

A: If you are in the process of acquiring a system on the free side, then you are most likely to find a reliable answer to this by researching the matter yourself. Look up the dimensions and weight of the system that you are interested in (my W3 site lists several models) and phone around shippers. Don't give up immediately when they ask for an arm or leg - be more imaginative, think of shipping by sea over weeks, or perhaps a friend is driving that way. A share of a domestic shipment (container) can be economical.

Q: Do systems come complete?

A: I can supply complete working systems and/or spare components too.

Q: What is barter?

A: You offer me something to swap for the Symbolics box of your dreams. You can start with a Nikon lens (preferably AF-S), or a G5 PowerMac, or a PowerMac compatible SCSI Raid Array, or a collection of CDs of J.S.Bach Cantatas, or a Pit Pass for the Monaco F1, ... you get the idea. If you offer something seriously cool, I'll move heaven and earth to deliver and support a rock solid and fully loaded Symbolics system to you. Offer me your poetic works or a clapped out electric guitar, and we're talking very old heavy iron on an "as seen basis" with no returns. My wish list.

Q: What is a Symbolics Machine like?

A: I really don't know where to begin answering that. Are you talking hardware or software performance? Appearance? Give some more clues as to how you are thinking. Try configurations page as a start.

Q: Are Symbolics systems reliable?

A: Undoubtedly yes, exceptionally so. Though as with all computer hardware, disk drives have a finite life, as do monitor tubes (but these can be replaced). There is no reason why you should not expect to hack your Symbolics systems flat out for many years.

Q: My keyboard suffers from sticky or broken keys, can I get this repaired?

A: This is an easy do-it-yourself tune up (I bet they are not broken), it is cleaning routine like removing fluff from your mouse ball. First run through every key, testing for problems, make a note (you don't want to have to do every key because you cannot remember which were sticky). Turn everything off, unplug the keyboard, unscrew the screws on the bottom. Give the whole thing a good vacuum cleaning (make sure you don't suck the key caps off, but you can be quite vigorous), use a soft brush to disturb dust and hair while vacuuming (it is amazing what foul goopy things accumulate in there). Perhaps use a damp cloth (maybe with a little detergent) to wipe off the remains of coffee and coke accidents. Now the fiddly bit - gently lever off the key caps of the problem keys, and clean any muck still hiding in there (do only a few at a time or make a note of their position, it is a pain in the ... to have to unscramble a pile of key-caps unless you have another keyboard to hand to copy from). Now holding a piece of stiff paper, follow the contact separator down as your press the key - this will leave your paper sandwiching the contacts so you can buff the contacts clean. Beware to not bend the contacts, but keep an eye for contacts which have sagged loose - you can nudge them to make a firmer closing action. If the problem is severe, try using some alcohol. If you find a really stubborn contact, just rub more - don't be tempted to use emery paper or a nail file (or you'll remove the "gold" plating). Reassembly is obvious but make sure that you don't stuff things in crooked (such as the spare cable) so tightening the screws will compress the circuit board.

Q: My mouse is getting arthritis, can I do anything about it? (translation: your mouse has problems)

A: That's a piece of cake. If you have an original metal and comutator mouse, keep it, it is a work of art. My advice for all such tasks is (a) take your time (do it when you don't feel flustered or impatient) and (b) make sure your glasses are clean and the place that you are working has a really bright light - it helps enormously if you can see really clearly. Power down the machine, unscrew the bottom of your mouse, use common sense to remove fluff - and don't go jamming sharp metal things in there (if you do, there'll be tears before bedtime). I suggest that you also give your mouse mat a vigorous brushing too.

Q: What software can I write with a Symbolics system?

A: Just about anything. Perhaps it is best to consider the issue of delivery first - how will you deliver your application? On pre-owned Symbolics platforms? If you are serious, it is possible to deliver on current Symbolics machines (Open Genera running on Alpha hardware). Also you can deliver via the W3 using CL-HTTP and using your Symbolics system as a server. Or perhaps you do not intend to distribute your system, rather use it in-house. I suspect that one of the most valuable contributions that Symbolics users have made to the body of mankind's knowledge is by prototyping applications that no one would have been able to get their heads around using C and such data oriented environments. Not to pour cold water on it though, but I don't think a Symbolics system is quite the right environment to build a the sort of small footprint apps that are the stronghold of PC basic hackers. Bear in mind that you have effortless access to multi-processing, debugging like you've never imagined before, megalomaniac metering, hacking tools that allow the celestial levels of abstraction whilst in the same function dip right down to the metal. Perhaps the answer is to turn the question back on you, what have you in mind? how vigorous is your imagination?

Q: Is a Symbolics computer as good as Franz, Gold Hill, or Harlequin (Lispworks) Lisp (or whatever they are called now)?

A: Symbolics hardware and software were considered the Rolls Royce of their day. I don't want to get into an argument about which Lisp implementation is superior, but suffice it to say that if you are a Genera user you will annoy the hell out of some of Franz senior management.

Q: What specification or model of Symbolics system should I get?

A: That depends upon what you want to do with it, and how much money you are prepared to spend. A small (and probably cheap) stand alone system is the Symbolics 3620. A MacIvory can be even more compact and has the advantage of using common disk and monitor components. A Symbolics 3630 has sufficient card slots to support a color card (CAD Buffer II). If you like working through X-Windows there are Unix box based systems. If you want to do 3D graphics (animation, frame-grabbing, painting, geometric modeling, titles, film post production work, ...) then go for a 3650 or XL1200 with full color boardset. If you want a current system with full Symbolics support, go for an Alpha platform and Open Genera. I need to make this more clear ...

Q. What killed Symbolics?

A: It is not dead, probably never will be (it will change name and morph into something PC (politically correct)). The old company collapsed as a trading entity, the residue is in new hands (see Open Genera). The answer as to why is complicated. From my point of view, some parts of the company (sales and management) suffered from arrogance - a recipe for disaster for most businesses in the long run. The products may be great, but don't treat your customers poorly. On a pragmatic basis Symbolics systems were weird in computer business terms. The box came complete, all the hardware was in place, the software was vast and all embracing, the sources were included. The competitors sold systems in bits, with them you got parts then discover that you need to buy other parts to make a working system. Symbolics users had it easy as there was system wide integration and compatibility, and incredible portability of systems and code (portability may not be the word: the same code would run on Symbolics 3600, XL1200 - you didn't find the next update rendered your old system obsolete). This model of doing business (awkward updates) is not what current vendors use (presumably you have tried to keep up with upgrades from WinTel or Mac, and waste far more time in the process than you could rationally justify). There's little link between excellent software development platforms and what accountants give budgetary approval to. That's about as far as your virtual 2 cents gets you here.

<Some FAQ ! - this has degenerated into a rant>

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