Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: MTC Turbo XT

October 2017

I've no idea how this machine started its life, but it arrived in my possession in dire straits. I bought it as an empty case but it turned out to be a complete 8088-based XT PC. Nothing worked, the disk drives were rattling loose and the inside of the case was full of dust. A big black 'X' scrawled on the front in permanent marker indicated that it was beyond salvage.

MTC Turbo XT

But not to me. I stripped it, cleaned it and reassembled it. Amazingly, after I'd connected the drive cables the right way round, it actually booted up. I tinkered with it for a while, explored the time capsule of its MFM hard drive, then lost interest. It remained in the corner of my office/lab for several months.

When I returned to it I gave it a complete renovation. Instead of the noisy spinning hard drive it now has a silent Compact Flash card, using a network card to host an XT-IDE boot ROM. Some cunning tweaks let me use 1.44MB floppy disks, so data transfer between it and my work computer is easy. The 8088 CPU has been replaced with an NEC V20 and there's an 8087 maths co-processor for the few applications that use it. I even installed a clock.

MTC Turbo XT

The graphics card is a Hercules 8-bit TTL adapter, connected to both green and amber monochrome CRT monitors via a switchbox that also lets me choose between two vintage keyboards. One is a clicky, buckling-spring model not shown in these photos, the other a soft-touch Commodore unit. Having dismantled the latter to clean it I now know it was built by Mitsumi, which explains the quality. I'd heard it was one of the best and I haven't been disappointed. It manages to combine progressive, positive action with a soft feel, which is an unusual combination. I like it a lot.

MTC Turbo XT

Preferred writing software is VDE (a DOS-based text editor), WordPerfect 5.1+ with the Hercules Screen Extender addition, and Ability Office 1.2. The latter works beautifully on the monochrome screen and I've written transfer software so I can convert its output into RTF.

MTC Turbo XT

Enough of the nerdy stuff. What I particularly like about this late-80s machine is that it's incredibly reliable and robust. It always works perfectly and has never lost data. Despite having only a 10MHz CPU and 640KB of RAM, it boots up faster than my main desktop PC - itself no slouch - and allows me to start writing almost immediately. The green and amber monochrome CRTs, with long-persistence screen phosphors, are very easy on the eyes. As with all my vintage writing tools, there's no internet to distract me from work.

MTC Turbo XT

Of all my vintage computers this is probably my favourite and would be the last I'd ever sell. I use it regularly to draft articles and in some cases also to edit them. I have spare monitors, a spare motherboard, spare disk drives, spare graphics cards and even a spare power supply, so I'm hoping this machine will last at least as long again as it already has. That would take it through to 2047, by which time I might have found something good enough to replace it.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and knows that just because something is old doesn't mean it's not useful.

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