Apple Lisa 2/10

The Story So Far

This is it, my holy grail. Ever since I first heard about this legendary machine, I've wanted one. The problem was finding one. After waiting to find one at garage sales, flea markets, auctions, and Salvation Army stores for many years, I finally "gave up" and bought a non-working one off e-Bay for a semi-decent price (mostly because it was broken.)

I bought it from a guy in California who had had it in storage in his attic for the past 15 years or so. The problem with it was the hard disk was not being recognized. Other than that it worked. I immediately began researching my options.

First, I downloaded the OS and the Diagnostics floppies (LisaTest) from a few wonderful sites off the 'net and used my PowerMac 6100/60 to write the 400K floppies (thank goodness for backwards compatibility!). I figured I'd run the diagnostics and see what was what. I put the LisaTest disk in the drive... or, at least, I tried to. It wouldn't go in. The drive was in the "a disk is already inserted" position. This wasn't right. So I opened up the case and removed the drive cage.

Well, the 15 years in a hot California attic had taken their toll on the floppy drive, in a big way. All of the lubricating grease on the drive had solidified completely, and the eject mechanism wouldn't budge, at all. Sigh. It was 2:30am at this point... what to do... Ah! I'll just drive out to Meijer's and pick up some WD40 or somesuch. Drove out, and after getting pulled over for having a headlight out (the only time I've ever been pulled over, incidentally), came back with oil and paper towels in hand. I carefully lubricated the drive, and after an hour or so finally got everything working as it should. The drive now booted the Office System 3.1 (7/7) install floppy, but for some reason LisaTest wouldn't work. Oh well... time to figure out what was wrong with the hard drive.

The Widget drive in the Lisa (a custom Apple job, of course) is an odd thing. The only part of the drive that's enclosed are the platters and the read/write heads, everything else is external. So there's a big flywheel on the bottom with timing notches in it that you can watch spin around. Exciting. Well, the flywheel was spinning like there was no tomorrow, so that wasn't the problem. According to some tech documents I got from Sun Remarketing, the drive was supposed to spin up and make a loud "click" noise. It wasn't doing that. This click was supposed to be the read/write "brake" disengaging. This brake prevented the heads from moving around when the drive was off (which could potentially scratch the platters). So, upon close inspection, it became evident that the brake wasn't disengaging. In fact, it was stuck to the pinion on the read/write heads. So, I unstuck it, put it back together, and powered it up. No joy. Disassembled, tried turning the read/write head pinion by hand (slowly). It wouldn't budge. At all. It was completely frozen. So, I carefully applied the smallest amount of WD40 that's humanly possible, and worked it into the mechanism until it turned freely. I put the drive back together, powered the Lisa up... and... it started booting MacWorks! Yay, except I don't want to run MacWorks. That's OK, because it crashed a few seconds later with the "Sad Mac" display.

I wrote the rest of the Office System floppies to 400K disks (actually 800K disks, but...) and installed the Office System. It worked perfectly. Unfortunately, I couldn't install the Workshop environment, as it requires more than 512K of RAM. So, I got a 512K expansion board off e-Bay for $30 (making it the most I've paid for RAM in quite awhile), and now I have both the Lisa Office System 3.1 and the Pascal Workshop environment installed, and it's the bomb.

The heat in the attic also had an adverse effect on the keyboard. The foam rubber on the inside of the keyboard (used for closing the contacts on the PCB in the keyboard) has completely disintegrated, so half the keys don't work anymore. I'm looking into ways to fix it. Once I do, I want to learn how to program for the Lisa and write some nifty stuff. When I do, I'll make it available for download here.

History & Specifications

The Lisa was introduced in 1983 to much excitement, but very slow sales. The $10,000 price was at least part of the problem. It was to be the Apple ]['s true successor (as opposed to the Apple III which failed miserably), and was the result of millions of dollars of Apple research and development. Standard features were a 5Mhz, 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor, 1MB of RAM, a bitmapped 720x364 pixel display (black and white). Since the Lisa Office system was a true multitasking environment, there was also an Apple designed MMU chip. It also came with an odd device -- the mouse... arguably this was the first commercially available computer to feature a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

The original Lisa had 2 5.25 inch "Twiggy" drives, which were designed in-house by Apple. Unlike typical 5.25" disks, they had two read/write windows, on opposite sides of the disk. Through advanced controller techniques, an 871K capacity was achieved, with an incredibly small error rate. Unfortunately, these drives turned out to be very problematic. For operation of the OS, an external ProFile hard drive (available in 5 or 10 megabyte capacities) was required which typically sat on top of the Lisa. Only about 11,000 of the original Lisa were ever sold. They are extremely hard to find, and sometimes fetch as much as $10,000 on eBay. Scary. Good luck finding the OS software on Twiggies :).

Apple soon released the Lisa 2. This was the same as the original, but replaced the 2 Twiggy drives with a standard 400K 3.5" Sony floppy drive. There was space inside for an optional hard disk called a "widget" drive of either 5 or 10 megabyte capacity, hence the 2/5 or 2/10 nomenclature for the Lisa 2 models. The RAM was reduced to 512K to cut down on costs (remember, RAM was really, really, really expensive back then -- most computers in 1983 had nowhere near this much RAM as a result.) Still, sales were slow, due in no small part to the introduction of the Macintosh, which was released in 1984 and had been developed by a seperate team inside of Apple.

In 1985, the last remaining Lisa were converted to "Macintosh XL"s, Lisas with emulation software called MacWorks that allowed it to behave exactly like a Macintosh and to run Macintosh software. Screen modifications were offered to correct the odd aspect ratio of the Lisa's screen, making them incapable of running the Lisa Office System. This was the Lisa's last stand, and the series was discontinued in 1986. Apple's remaining stock was given to Sun Remarketing, who continued to improve the MacWorks software.


Operating Systems

The Lisa ran an operating called the Lisa Office System. It was a completely graphical user interface (GUI) which featured all the standard things you'd expect in a GUI today. In retrospect, it's quite amazing how much Apple got "right" the first time (or more cynically how little innovation in UI metaphors there have been since 1983...) Very little has changed in terms of widgets and desktop metaphors and behaviors since the Lisa. Icons, folders, scrollbars, clicking & double-clicking, resizing windows, drop-down menus, check-boxes, selecting, cutting/copying/pasting... even a trashcan. it's all there. The Office System came with a host of useful office applications: LisaWrite (a wordprocessor), LisaDraw (a very nice line-art drawing program), LisaGraph (used for graphing data), LisaList (a database), LisaTerminal (a terminal emulator for use with a modem), LisaProject (a piece of planning software) and LisaCalc (a spreadsheet). The Office System was fully multitasking with protected memory, something the MacOS wouldn't truly be able to claim until OS X was released nearly 17 years later.

For development there was the Lisa Workshop environment, which allowed development in various languages, though in most cases development was done in Apple's variant of Pascal, essentially Pascal with classes (sometimes referred to as Clascal). BASIC and Fortran were also available.

There were also two variants of UNIX released for the Lisa: Unisoft's UniPlus+ (based on System V) and Microsoft XENIX (based on System III). Rumor has it that they were both dog-slow, mostly due to the poor performance of the hard disk.

Not a lot of third-party software was ever developed for this machine due to its low sales, unfortunately. I hope to write some fun programs for it once I fix my keyboard.


I put together a tour of the Lisa's UI, from power on to power off. There just aren't enough sites out there that really cover the UI in more than a few basic screenshots. This isn't nearly as in-depth as it could be, but I tried to cover the interesting stuff. So, if you're interested, take a look!


Sun Remarketing - The only place I know of that actually still sells Lisa stuff. You can buy a whole Lisa 2 (sans Widget drive), software, memory expansions and more... for a price. They've hidden the Lisa stuff pretty well, but if you look you'll find it.

Tom Stepleton's Lisa Page - A very cool page, the first site I read when I first found out about the Lisa. This is archived on the "Internet Archive WayBack Machine," since it's been down for the last few years. This is the only person I've found on the 'net so far who actually wrote any software for the Lisa.

Raoul's Lisa/MacXL Tech Info and Software - has tons of information, documents and most importantly, disk images of Lisa software. Very useful for getting your Lisa up-and-running again.


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