IBM T42, Old Friend

by Jon Christian

When Nathan Heller resurrected an old laptop, he was overcome with a time capsule of habits and memories. It’s a fascinating meditation on cast-offs and our relationships with tools.

Laptop is an IBM T42: a stripped-down, strangely square model that was the standard issue at my university tech store. But he has a rare, marvellous keyboard—deep, well-defined, solid—and has proved indestructible. The only T42 I ever saw give up the ghost belonged to a friend who treated it badly—flinging it onto tables, hammering cruelly at its keys, and dropping it repeatedly—until, one day (I think there might have been spillage involved), she broke the unbreakable. That was around the time I started to suspect that people’s rapports with their laptops reveal more about them than we might want to know.

Here’s what I’ll tell you about mine, then, with the cool objectivity of sudden reacquaintance. Laptop is dusty these days. His shell is slightly scratched. But he’s still bright on the inside—even polished—thanks to the years of oiling by fingertips and palms. He bears the marks of his experience. The A, S, E, D, C, O, L, N, and M keys are worn down to a point of near-illegibility. There’s evidence of lots of activity on the BACKSPACE key—though, having just sifted through a bunch of writing from those years, I think maybe not quite enough. Crumbs were, and continue to be, a problem.

For me, it brought to mind my housemate’s monstrous, early-2000s HP, which still works, and was her main computer until earlier this year.

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