TheOldNet modem: Connect your vintage Mac to the internet

Despite popular belief, it is possible to get an old computer online … it just depends on your definition of being online

For many, going online means accessing and rendering the modern web in a web browser. Depending on the age of your hardware, that can be a tangible task. In the classic Macintosh world, any Mac running System 7 can run web browsers capable of rendering HTML pages. While most basic websites, including those designed specifically for use with vintage computers (such as FrogFind and TheOldNet, which is related to the subject of this post), can be accessed fine, others do not. The modern web is far more complex than GIF and JPEG images on basic HTML pages with basic CSS styling. There are also many modern protocols that prevent old browsers and hardware from accessing the modern internet.

And, if you have an older computer — such as a Mac running System 6 or earlier, it can be near or absolutely impossible to get even a browser to work and render pages. Don’t expect graphics or even hyperlinks.

However, for accessing software, information and more — you can do a lot with your old hardware. Even if it won’t run a web browser or render HTML documents. But how?

My 1988 Macintosh “SuperSE”, for instance, runs System 6.0.5. Although the installed Mobius ‘030 accelerator card gives the computer a significant performance boost over a stock SE, one problem is it has very limited compatibility … especially with System 7. After installing System 7, the computer wouldn’t run off the accelerator, instead operating from the stock Motorola 68000 at 8 MHz with the stock maximum configuration of 4 MB of RAM. I have to use the backup of the original computer’s original hard drive contents (including its original System 6.0.5 install with the appropriate Mobius drivers) on the SCSI-2-SD I thankfully created before attempting the install.

System 7 is important because I haven’t found a web browser for System 6. I know one must exist, but I couldn’t find one on Macintosh Garden or other similar sites I browse. The closest option was MacWeb, which appeared to be functional on System 6 until it gave me a lovely “MacWeb requires System 7. Sorry!” message on launch. As usual, it wasn’t an easy task to even get to that point. (I have a love-hate relationship with StuffIt files, and getting the software over to the SuperSE was a chore, as I’ll explain later.)

“MacWeb requires System 7. Sorry!”

Instead of browsers, I used bulletin-board systems (BBSs) to access information and more. With the initial intent to get at least one of my vintage Macs online, I purchased the TheOldNet WiFi RS232 “modem.” It isn’t a traditional telephonic modem as you would’ve found in the 1980s-2000s, like the Hayes Smartmodem it imitates or the dial-up modem found in my childhood computer. Instead of dialing phone numbers through telephone lines, this modem accesses specialized BBSs on the modern internet using HTTP.

TheOldNet modem, above, emulates a Hayes modem compatible with most vintage computers with a serial port. Below is a modern-ish dial-up modem removed from the HP XPavilion a few years ago.

TheOldNet modem communicates with your vintage computer using a RS232 serial connection, and is powered by a Mini-USB connection. At this point you may be wondering: How do you get RS232 to work with your classic Mac that has a Mini-DIN 8 serial connector instead of RS232? Luckily, Rich — creator of TheOldNet — gives buyers the option to purchase a RS232-to-Mini-DIN adapter cable with their modem, along with a nice 3D-printed case. If you’re using an IBM PC, PC-compatible, Commodore 64 or a number of other vintage computing platforms, you don’t need the adapter since most featured the RS232 port. (TheOldNet also has DB25 adapters and DB9 terminal blocks for sale with the modem.)

Getting the modem set up is fairly straight forward, especially with the included “Getting Started” guide. It is important to note power (with a Mini-USB supply) should be connected before the data. You will need a terminal emulator, such as ZTerm, Quick Link II Fax, Red Ryder or Kermit, among many others available for 68k Macs to communicate with the modem. The modem comes pre-set to communicate at 300 baud with 8 bits, no parity, 1 stop-bit and software flow control (XON/XOFF) enabled.

Some terminal emulation programs in the classic 68k Mac era worked differently. For instance, Red Ryder — at least in my installation — lacks a terminal but can still upload and download files through a serial connection. (More on that later.) Quick Link II Fax works well, but seemed to have difficulty transferring files. Kermit worked nicely most of the time, but you can only transfer files using the Kermit protocol. ZTerm seems to be the most well-rounded and the go-to terminal emulator for most vintage Mac users. However, because of my love-hate relationship with StuffIt files (the SuperSE won’t run StuffIt 5, which is required to un-stuff most archives found on the web), ZTerm was a pain to get installed. However, it seemed to the best solution once installed.

Speaking of file transfers, I had some difficulty getting them to work. TheOldNet modem has an internal 2 MB flash storage volume that can be accessed through AT commands and downloaded using the Ymodem protocol. While I was able to get a file listing, I couldn’t get a download to actually complete. Transfers from external sources, such as the Captains Quarters II BBS I’ll discuss later, wouldn’t complete using Ymodem but did work with Zmodem in ZTerm. For downloads using a connection faster than 9600 baud, you should enable hardware handshake.

I highly recommend having another computer (or mobile device, such as phone or tablet) capable of connecting to the same WiFi network as the modem handy for the “remote” control panel featuring a HTML-based graphical user interface. Although most, if not all, settings — baud rate, flow control and more — found in the remote control panel can be changed via AT commands from the terminal emulator, the GUI allows you to upload files to that aforementioned 2 MB volume. Many also recommend it to prevent communication issues between the computer and modem, and the GUI provides a nice glance at the modem’s current settings. (Although you can use the AT&V command in the terminal to view settings. AT&W writes the current settings to the modem EEPROM, allowing them to be saved for default use.)

The HTML-based “remote” control panel for the TheOldNet modem.

It is recommended to run the fastest baud rate your computer will support, except in certain situations. The modem starts out at 300 baud, which is slow (but usable) for loading text and nearly impossible for downloading files. 57,600 baud runs perfectly fine on the SuperSE, but is the highest it supports. Elements that regularly update, such as ASCII/ANSI art animations, should be run at the fastest baud rate supported.

Although this post primarily centers on BBSs, since that’s what I was able to load on the SuperSE, TheOldNet modem is capable of much more. In addition to aforementioned 2 MB volume, it can also act as an Ethernet adapter or emulate a dial-up (PPP) connection. Once the Macintosh Classic has been fixed I intend to follow-up this post, testing its capability to access websites like FrogFind.

Bulletin Board Systems: The internet before the internet

With the modem functional and communicating with the computer properly, now the true fun can begin: accessing teletype-based bulletin board systems found on the internet. While you’re (typically) no longer dialing a phone to communicate with another computer using a phone line, the basic ASCII- and ANSI-based user interfaces and “graphics” are still very much a part of the BBS experience.

This isn’t my first time diving into teletype networks, or telnet. I previously wrote a post after using PuTTY on my ThinkPad T42 (RIP) to access telnet sites, including telehack — which I’ll be revisiting in this post as one BBS. However, this is my first time using a classic 68k Macintosh to access the telnet sites.

Let’s take a look at a couple different useful telnet sites that should be added to your “speed dial” list: Captain’s Quarters II, TheOldNet, and Telehack.

Captain’s Quarters II

I discovered Captain’s Quarters II while trying to troubleshoot the download issue and other modem-related concerns on TinkerDifferent. Byte Knight, who is the sysop — system operator, or administrator/host — replied with its URL: cqbbs.ddns.net:6800. They highly recommend using ZTerm to access Captains Quarter II. (Geeky side note: I wonder if 6800 is a nod at the Motorola 6800 microprocessor, which “heavily inspired” the MOS 6502 that spawned the microcomputer revolution — including the Apple I, which could be configured to use a 6800, and Apple II. The MOS 6502 and its derivatives — some of which are still in use in certain applications, dominated the market over the 6800. However, Motorola would once again come out on top with the 68000 — 68k — line, which powered early Macs, Commodore Amigas and many other computers of that era.)

Captain’s Quarters II (CQII), like Telehack and other telnet sites and BBSs, has many different functions. It’s more than a chat room and games, but it also has a database of downloads, including software and games. (No more Macintosh Garden and transferring.) You can also upload files, both from a modern computer or your old one. There’s menus for accessing (current) news snippets from the wire, along with checking weather and more. It really is a valuable tool.

Captain’s Quarters II login screen, as seen in ZTerm on the SuperSE.
The main menu of the Captain’s Quarters II BBS, as seen in ZTerm on the SuperSE. There are lots of things you can do, such as chat, play games, download files/software, view news, or view ANSI art.
A city depicted in ANSI art on Captain’s Quarters II, as seen in ZTerm on the SuperSE.

A special thanks to Byte Knight, who not only recommended (and runs) CQII, but also stuck with me and helped get Zmodem downloads and other bugs fixed. It’s always great knowing there are others in the vintage computer hobby that are outgoing and willing to help. He’s not the first nor (hopefully) the last to clarify any confusion or answer my dumb questions.

No vintage computer or terminal emulator? You can still access Captain’s Quarters II from a web browser at cqbbs.ddns.net.

TheOldNet

You can access TheOldNet website and BBS using TheOldNet modem. Both were made by the same guy, Rich Bettridge.

If you can’t run a web browser, TheOldNet BBS parses HTML text from websites into ASCII text you can view in the terminal emulator. It does have many limitations, though. There are no graphics, and you can’t access a URL with hyphens or other odd characters. (No slashes either.)

Text from Apple’s macOS Sonoma preview webpage, as parsed by TheOldNet BBS and viewed in ZTerm on the Macintosh SuperSE.

If you can run a web browser, including on a modern computer, you can access TheOldNet website. While this website doesn’t parse other websites, it does allow you to quickly and easily access Wayback Machine archive crawls of websites from 1996 to present. It also allows you to search Wikipedia or FrogFind (a vintage computer-friendly search engine ran by Mac84.) A ‘lite’ version works better on machines with limited memory, such as our old Macs.

TheOldNet BBS can be accessed by ATDT theoldnet.com.

Telehack

An old favorite of mine, Telehack is perfectly usable on a 68k Mac. There’s no difference. My first telnet post from March 2018 details all of the fun things you can do in Telehack. For instance, you can watch Star Wars in ASCII art, convert text from English to pig Latin, play text adventure games, check weather conditions or look up ZIP codes.

The Telehack main menu seen in ZTerm on the SuperSE.
Telehack’s cowsay seen in ZTerm on the SuperSE.

To access Telehack: ATDT telehack.com.

Direct serial connection

When I purchased the TheOldNet modem, I wanted to be able to transfer files between my modern M1 Mac mini and old Macs. However, I discovered the best option for a file transfer between the two computers was a direct serial connection between the two.

After purchasing a special USB-to-RS232 adapter cable with a female RS232 connector and the Prolific PL-2303 controller, I had a direct link between my Mac mini and SuperSE up and running. The trickiest part was finding a way to communicate, as I couldn’t find the PL-2303 in Terminal on the mini — even after installing the Prolific driver. Serial, a terminal emulator for modern macOS that costs $40 USD after a seven-day trial, did find the connector and instantly began communicating with the SuperSE. As I typed in ZTerm on the SuperSE, the text would appear in the Serial terminal open on my Mac mini. Likewise, as I typed on the mini, the text would appear on the SuperSE. After the trial period ended, I bit the bullet and purchased a license for Serial since it’s like ZTerm (or the other terminal emulators) but for modern macOS — likely more powerful and easier to use than screen in the macOS Terminal.

While using ZTerm, text typed on the Apple Extended Keyboard II connected to my Macintosh SuperSE appears in Serial on my M1 Mac mini via a direct serial connection. Likewise, type in Serial on the mini appears in ZTerm on the SuperSE.

How is a direct connection useful? It allows quick and easy file transfers between the two computers. I can transfer documents, software, StuffIt files and much more without ever having to power down the SE, remove the microSD card from the FloppyEmu, insert it into the microSD card reader, and transfer the disk image. If it was a document or single items (no disk images), you had the added task of running exportfl or importfl in Mini vMac to transfer files to or from, respectively, your modern computer. The direct serial connection eliminates all of that. I can transfer files between the two computers anytime I want, as long as they’re connected, configured properly, and set to send and receive using the same protocol. It isn’t fast, even at 57,600 baud, but it seems to work well.

I still haven’t figured out how to transfer files between my vintage Macs and my modern Mac mini using the TheOldNet modem. Therefore, I still have to swap the modem serial connection for the direct connection to my mini. That still requires power cycling the SuperSE, something I like to keep to a minimum, but eliminates having to work with the microSD card and Mini vMac/exportfl/importfl. The text for this very post was transferred from the SuperSE to my mini using the direct serial link, operating at 57,600 baud.


There are tons of BBSs and cool resources that can be accessed using telnet … even from a 30-plus-year-old Macintosh running System 6. I hope to do some additional exploring while the Macintosh Classic’s logic board gets reworked, then I’m hopeful I can get on the WWW.

This post was written on a 1988 Macintosh SE “SuperSE” using Microsoft Word 5.0.