memories of Farallon PhoneNet

Posted by Julian Dunn on June 26, 2006
Hardware, Mac OS

My 10-year high school reunion is happening over the August long weekend this year, and the event got me thinking about some of the technology we used during those years.

Every Ontario elementary school and high school student of a certain vintage will remember the ubiquitous Unisys ICON terminals, a topic that I will actually leave to a later entry (we had a lot of fun with those ICONs, especially upon discovering that one could write a C program fork() from any PID on the system, including /sbin/init, with extremely useful results). However, I started thinking about Farallon PhoneNet, a fabulous networking technology for Macintoshes back in the day, and I thought I should record for posterity what kind of equipment it took to produce the Mackenzie High Times back in the day.

The Mackenzie High Times was my high school newspaper, and I served as its editor-in-chief during my grade 12 year. At the time, the MHT was lucky enough to have as its office an entire spare classroom in the business/computing wing of the school: our main computer was a Macintosh Plus with 2.5MB of RAM, running System 6 on an external 40MB hard disk. The Plus was a permanent fixture in the office, along with an Apple Imagewriter II dot-matrix printer, but during production weekends we borrowed two additional Macintoshes, a Classic and a Classic II from the business department, along with their HP LaserJet IIP printer for printing final proofs. The LaserJet had a whopping 1.5MB of RAM, which meant that it could not run full pages at 300dpi and would regularly run out of RAM even on smaller jobs. The whole setup was networked together with standard AppleTalk, with the Plus acting as a file server. Given its speedy 16MHz 68000 processor, it’s no wonder we didn’t notice that AppleTalk tops out at 230kb/s.

Eventually the school built a proper Macintosh computer lab, equipped with top-of-the-line Macintosh IIci systems, fancy Radius rotating displays, and so on, and after much negotiation with the authorities, we were permitted to use the equipment for production. There was one problem: the new lab was downstairs in the east wing of the building, and our office was on the opposite end of the school, on the top floor. Enter Farallon PhoneNet! I remember going to the local Giant Tiger and buying about 200 feet of phone extension cable and running it from the Plus, out the door, down the hall, down two flights of stairs, across some more hallway, and into the gleaming new computer lab. Now every staff member who was doing production could have their own terminal to use — and we were able to ditch the LaserJet IIP in favour of a QMS 860 printer.

I have very fond memories of working on my high school newspaper, but I think more than anything, actually being able to hack together technology in order to solve a particular problem spurred my career path into system administration. So I guess I should thank Farallon (now Netopia) for making networking in the mid-90s so easy!