Home Computing Clay County man makes documentary on old Apple Lisa computers

Clay County man makes documentary on old Apple Lisa computers

David Greelish’s love for what we now think of as retro computers began when the machines were quite new: In a 1975 trip to the University of North Florida computer lab, when he was in the fifth grade.

He remembers the mainframe computer wasn’t visible to the students, but there were all those teletype printer terminals — they looked like big typewriters — and he remembers the thrilling sound of all the machines coming to life at the same time. The machines began printing out messages of welcome to young David and his fellow Cedar Hills Elementary students, and then printed out each of their names, to his amazement.

It got even better. They then played a game of “Star Trek” on the computer, text-only, one clunky move at a time — but nirvana to a budding “Star Trek” and science fiction fan.

“Though primitive, this computer was interacting with me. It greeted me, said my name: ‘Hi David.’ To interact with computers, that connected me with it right then. I was completely sold then, that this is the future,” he said.

Greelish paused for a second. “I was right,” he said. “It is the future.”

And his path was set, for life.

Greelish, 59, who lives in Oakleaf in Clay County, is a computer historian whose interest in old computers has led him to be a collector, writer, podcaster and organizer of vintage computing festivals.

That interest also took him on numerous trips across the U.S., from Boston to Silicon Valley and spots in-between, to make a documentary he released recently on Vimeo called “Before Macintosh: The Apple Lisa.”

It tells the story of the Lisa, an early Apple desktop computer, introduced in 1983 and co-designed by Steve Jobs, who was kicked off the Lisa team well before its release. It was a user-friendly computer with features — a mouse, icons, windows, a graphics screen — that would be familiar to users today.

Even so, it was considered a market failure: At $10,000, it was more than most individuals were willing to spend, especially as the much cheaper Apple Macintosh (also a Steve Jobs project) came along.

The Lisa didn’t last long, and in 1989 Apple dumped many hundreds of obsolete models in a Utah landfill, where bulldozer drivers were instructed to properly smash them so nothing could be salvaged (Greelish and his camera visited the site as part of the documentary).

Even so, that model was far from a dead end, he maintains: “I think what the movie clearly shows is that it was an industry changer. On its own, as a product, it failed, but some of the same people and the same key technologies it created fed right into the Macintosh.”

Greelish’s film, aimed squarely at retro computer fans, is made up of interviews he conducted with collectors and experts, as well as Apple computer designers and one-time Apple CEO John Sculley. Another prized interview was with Sun Remarketing’s Bob Cook, who sold retrofitted, highly discounted Lisas that then worked much like the more popular Macintoshes.

Greelish bought one of the retrofitted Lisas in 1989, a big step in his career in computers; he’s now an IT support writer for Southeastern Groceries.

He started collecting computers in 1993 and at one point his collection filled a two-car garage. It’s considerably smaller now, though he still has a Commodore 64, an old Mac Plus and a reproduction of the Altair 8800. He also has an original iPhone from 2007 and an original Android phone from 2008.

He’s had four Lisas in his life but, even with the documentary, he no longer owns one. He sold his last one when it went on the fritz.

Computer history

Greelish calls himself a computer historian, a description he initially felt uneasy embracing: After all, who decides who is a computer historian? But he’s spent decades researching the subject, writing about it, podcasting about it and now making a documentary about it. He is, he decided, an autodidact — someone who is a self-taught expert.

He has a blog, classiccomputing.com, and has written articles for websites such as Time.com, Appleinsider.com, Mashable and Marketwatch. He was interviewed by Cultofmac.com, and his love for old computers was featured in Texas Monthly magazine back in 1994 when he was a radio repairman in the Army at Fort Bliss.

He knows that not everyone shares his fascination with the old boxy, beige machines from decades ago. “People laugh at the innovation of the past — ‘Haha, isn’t that goofy?’ But it’s not. It was innovative and cutting-edge. You can’t look at them through the lens of today,” he said.

Put the smartphone down?

Greelish likens the early years of computer-making to the days of exploration and discovery.

“The reason it talks to me, it was very exciting, it was unknown territory. People were learning, and some people got rich, some didn’t,” he said. “I was kind of reliving it because I’m discovering all this stuff myself that nobody seems to care about much.” 

For him, though, that journey of discovery and innovation is consequential and endlessly fascinating. He likens the creation of the personal computer to the invention of the printing press. Both, he said, democratized learning and the ability to gain information.

For all of his love for computers, however, Greelish suggests that people should sometimes put down their smartphones and actually communicate without them.

“Just go to a restaurant and look around!” he said. “Even children, they don’t know how to be bored, and that’s an important skill. Look around. Think. Draw. Think for yourself.”



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