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A 30-year-old Mac SE visits the Apple Genius Bar

We’re all pretty familiar with how good Apple Genius Bar staffers can be at fixing issues with the latest products out of Cupertino, but what about those Apple products that are as old — or older — than most of the Geniuses? Ewen Rankin, a pro photographer/videographer from Birmingham, England who also happens to be the podcaster behind The Mac Show on The British Tech Network, was able to find out recently with a very special 30-year-old Mac SE.

Ewen’s Mac SE has a special pedigree — it is one of five prototypes made by Apple in California for development purposes, then shipped in 1987 to Apple’s Stockley Park offices in the UK for use by UK-based developers. This Mac was housed at Stockley Park until the offices were closed, then given to one of the Apple employees at the facility who passed it along to Ewen. For the past 25 years, the SE spent a lot of time in its original carrying bag along with the original keyboard and mouse.

Ewen was searching for the original System 3.3 floppies to install on the Mac SE, but couldn’t find them. A request on The Mac Show resulted in a listener (Mark Sissons from Calgary, Canada) sending system disks and a box of application disks (see photo below) from around that time to Ewen. Mark had been an Apple engineer in the 1980s and kept a wonderful archive of OS and app disks, perfect for reviving the Mac SE. Another listener (Les Field) sent Ewen System 7 disks, but his goal was to install the original OS.

As for fixing the Mac SE, Ewen said “I could have tried myself but I thought it was more fun to put Apple to the test and see if they were willing to try and help the 30 year old machine come back to life…and they did.” The staff at the store wouldn’t let Ewen video the entire visit, but let him take as many photos as he wanted. They’re included in the video below.

The visit to the Genius Bar was, well, genius! One of the Geniuses at the store owned Macs back in the 80s and was able to offer advice and support. The SE booted fine from the OS 3.3 disks provided by Mark Sisson, but the old mouse refused to work. A quick call to Darren Griffin from The MacFixer was made, and he remembered how to use keystroke combinations to control the cursor from the keyboard (Author’s Note: I got my first Mac in late 1984 and never knew you could do this!).

Sadly, the internal 20MB Sony SCSI hard disk drive inside the Mac SE was not receptive to having the OS installed. Mark Sisson knew why, saying that “The original prototypes were fitted with 20MB Sony disk drives and these were prone to “stiction” as we called it where the read/write head would become stuck on the platters. The solution was to take out the drive and then forcefully spin the hard drive back and forth in your hand to try and loosen the platters before putting it back in, where it would often work just fine. Apple subsequently replaced these for the 40MB Quantum drives.” (Author’s Note: A fix we used back in the 80s was to remove the drives, then put them on a windowsill to warm up slowly before putting them back in the Mac. For some reason this seemed to fix the “stiction” issue as well)

As many as five Geniuses worked on the Mac SE at one point, with everybody having a great time. “I was on a high all day afterwards,” said Ewen. “The team at Solihull’s Touchwood Centre Apple Store were incredible and a total credit to the firm even if the Mac was older than some of them. It was a great talking point and generated a lot of interest with loads of people either wanting to take a picture of the machine or asking for a picture with the machine. It was a great day out. Well done, Apple.”

Steve Sande
the authorSteve Sande
Steve is the founder and former publisher of Apple World Today and has authored a number of books about Apple products. He's an avid photographer, an FAA-licensed drone pilot, and a really bad guitarist. Steve and his wife Barb love to travel everywhere!