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Installing Linux into a 286 laptop from the year 1989

June 30, 2021

Ever wondered what useful things you could do with a 32 year old laptop? Well, this is one option:

In this project I added a Raspberry PI Zero to the insides of the laptop. Both are connected via a serial link and can exchange data via it. You could use this for several applications:

  • Using the 286 with a terminal emulator as an interface to the Linux of the Raspberry PI. This way you can do the typical Linux shell stuff on a retro machine. With this you are quite far up on the hipster level 🙂
  • Connecting the DOS on the 286 to the Internet
  • Transferring files to the DOS filesystem

Terminal emulator

On the 286 side you need to install MS-DOS Kermit: http://www.columbia.edu/kermit/mskermit.html

On the Raspberry side there is nothing to do. So this is really easy to setup.

Connecting DOS to the internet

The setup needed for this is quite nicely described in https://medium.com/swlh/connecting-a-286-dos-pc-to-the-internet-through-a-serial-connection-in-2019-b93a422ff094

Transferring files

Transferring files can easily be done using the internet tools described above. Alternatively, you could also use the Kermit file transfer for a more direct (and likely faster) transmission of files.

Summary

To summarize, using this machine is quite fun. It is also borderline useful. But the most funny thing is that you can install a complete system into the cracks of the original laptop that is ~100x more powerful than the laptop itself. Crazy times 🙂

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12 Comments
  1. Robert Wm Ruedii permalink

    There are some lightweight X11 servers for DOS and other lightweight Operating Systems that would work with this setup.

    Provided you have a compatible graphic driver, which would be MGA, CGA, EGA, VGA, VESA or the mono variants of the previously mentioned. EGA mono and limited mode VGA mono were very popular for 286 laptops. These are well supported by DOS X11 servers.

    As of applications, this device could provide a nice homebrew smart control panel or field programming device for any number robotics applications including CNC and 3D printers. It also would do good as a smart control panel for a print server.

    • Mh, interesting. I tried VNC clients but this was not successful. But X11 might be a good alternative. Have you tried any of these and could recommend one?

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