Cleaning the Basement: When Junque is just Junk

I don’t know who coined the term “junque”, but it used to be used on the QRP-L mailing list to describe questionable treasures brought home from a hamfest. “But honey, it’s not junk, it’s high-class junque!”  Like many engineers, I’m a bit of a packrat for old parts and gear, and there was a time in my bachelor life when I saw it as my duty to rescue as many old HP and Tektronix instruments as I could, especially the tube variety. Call it a misplaced attempt to emulate the Endangered Species Act.

My wife has quietly tolerated my electronics junk in the basement, but my life has moved on. I have two children, and my sense of what I’m doing in my hobby has crystalized. Now I look at a basement full of stuff and think, “Boy, it would be nice to have a rec room here.”

This week, I went on the warpath and started cleaning. I started with the shelves under the basement stairs, which were packed full of “treasures”. Among them I found these endangered species:

Three HP antiques
Left to Right: HP 400D vacuum-tube voltmeter, HP X-Y plotter, HP 211A square wave generator

On the left is an HP 400D vacuum tube voltmeter. Every electronics workbench used to have a VTVM. Specialized for AC measurements and with high input impedance, the HP 400D has one unique feature: a DC output proportional to the meter reading. Hence, it can be used as a precision, variable-gain, AC-to-DC converter. I don’t remember how I acquired this unit, and I don’t think I’ve even powered it up. Out it went with its endangered cousins.

In the middle is an HP X-Y chart recorder. I don’t know the model number. I rescued it from the trash thinking it would be cool to use it for something, but that “something” never arrived. The rare times I need X-Y capability, I use a ‘scope. These days, I could buy a digitizer for my computer and print plots out for what it would probably cost to buy pens for this thing. Out it went.

On the right is a Hewlett-Packard 211A square wave generator. It’s in HP’s grey paint scheme, so it’s a “newer” unit as they go. This actually saw regular use in my home lab for a brief while, until I got my hands on an HP 1900A pulse generator system, which was itself later replaced by a compact HP 3310B function generator. You had better have a big workbench to use the 211A — it has a big footprint.

Then I got to the computers. I once rescued this Apple IIe from the trash. I booted it up 15 years ago, and it worked fine then. I haven’t turned it on since.

Apple IIe
A computing classic

Then out went the TRS-80 Color Computers.

Grey TRS-80 Color Computer
Original TRS-80 Color Computer, with replacement keyboard and various minor mods

This CoCo was my first computer. I spent many a happy Saturday morning hacking on the OS-9 operating system with it. I wrote my first compiler on this machine, too. Later I took a Color Computer to college. I won’t say how long ago that was, but let’s say it wasn’t entirely crazy to take a computer with 64K RAM to the dorms.

My fondness for Color Computers was known among my friends, so their discards found their way to my basement. All in all, I think I threw out eight CoCos, plus assorted disk drives, expansion boards, manuals, and disks. That wasn’t easy — every now and then I still entertain thoughts of setting up my old Color Computer 3 and building an SD card adapter, or an IDE adapter, or a nonvolatile RAMdisk, playing the old games, and hacking around on OS-9 once again.

But let’s get serious. I’ve tried that twice since college. Both times I got fed up within minutes with the sluggish floppy disks and the constrained OS-9 command set and went back to my modern Linux system.

I set all this and more on the curb, secretly hoping that someone else who had fond memories of the CoCo might see them and take one or two home to play with. Alas, within 10 minutes a scavenger showed up in his van and threw them in the back. Their destiny is to be scrapped for their metal content. At least they’re not going straight to the landfill.

The basement? It’s going to take more than one cleaning session like this to get rid of the junk (and junque). Still, it will be someone else’s job to build the museum for these antiques. I have a rec room to find!

6 thoughts on “Cleaning the Basement: When Junque is just Junk”

  1. I vividly remember that Color Computer with the homebrew function keys! And the velcro on the right hand side was for a small digital clock. Good times!

    1. Hi, Nate! Yep, it was that CoCo. We had a lot of fun with that thing. I found your old floppies, too, though I have no idea if they are still readable. I did save the floppy drive enclosure, thinking I’d use it for a radio case, so the CoCo may be reborn in a different form down the road.

      1. Ha! I couldn’t even remember what was on them, besides some Rogue-style game (good times, that).

        Also, next time you’re about to throw away something that makes noise, drop me a line first 😉

  2. ahh… the XY… my older brother used and cared for one of those for decades…

    his has a module in it.. that produced a frequency range sweep…. in conjunction with the plotter… and a high end BK microphone sort of thing.. he used it to graph the output of recording studio sound systems so crossovers could be designed for that exact room. speakers, wiring, amps… he was seriously into a noise free recording studio.. and perfect sound reproduction.. when a new chief engineer swapped out the custom crossovers that were wound for that room and installed a conventional production crossover.. the clients who knew the room and who has rented it for months on end were ready to lynch the guy.. demanded to undo what he had done..

    he was always careful with his HP plotter.. as the deck had a scratched area under where the paper goes.. seems.. HP charged the plotter deck to over 10KV to create a charge to hold the paper down..

    the sound technology 1700A distortion analyzer allowed him to find the noisy stuff also..

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