Why Your Vintage Electronics Smells Like Fish

When I’m not writing or coding I like to restore vintage computers. I’ve got a collection of early Macs, Apple IIs, Commodore 64s and PCs. My favourite is my Compaq Presario 433.

🐟 Something strange I’ve noticed about these early home computers is the odour – old electronics often smells like rancid fish!

Here’s why:

Capacitors – the cylindrical things attached to the surface of circuit boards – tend to leak as they age (which is why the first task when repairing an old computer is to replace them). Electrolytic capacitors contain amines – chemicals known for their fishy aroma.

Fishy chemicals have also been used in the past as flux for soldering and to treat the surface of printed circuit boards. When these degrade (and especially when they are heated up), they also start to smell.

Repairing and using old computers really helped me understand how this technology works under the hood – something not possible with current devices due to their complexity. Getting vintage computers back up and running lets me exercise my problem-solving skills, and if I’m successful I get to experience first-hand the software that powered the early computing revolution and what was possible with such limited processing power.

It’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come, and in some cases, how far we’ve strayed from proven design patterns that worked for the user instead of commoditising them (but that’s another topic).

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