At Last a Working Lisa! Mostly…

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’ve been slowly working on bringing an Apple Lisa back to life. The mother of the Macintosh, the Lisa was the first commercial computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) and introduced windows, menus and the mouse to the world.

Apple Lisa

I inherited two models just about three years back, both of which powered up but that’s about it. Neither one contained a working floppy drive, hard drive, or keyboard. The last two items are (of course) non-standard parts. At the rapid rate of about a half day of effort every 18 months, I’ve ambled through a slow odyssey that’s included buying two keyboards, an external Apple ProFile drive, and a rare Lisa X/ProFile hard drive adapter, in order to get a (mostly) working system.

Fortunately there isn’t much urgency for this project.

Finding a keyboard was the first challenge. The Lisa uses a custom keyboard with a 1/4″ TRS (phone) connector rather than DIN plugs or anything standard for the era. No replacement units will work. And the internal foam pads tend to deteriorate over time, making various keys non-functional.

Lisa keyboards can be hard to find. I initially bought one from a fellow collector in Germany, it worked when he sent it out but was non-functional by the time I received it. A few months later I found another on eBay, from a woman who had only a keyboard but not the computer. This one worked upon receipt. My free Lisas now cost $400. Attempting to reinstall the OS would be the next challenge.

Both Lisas included internal Apple Widget hard drives – another proprietary part. These either didn’t spin up at all or intermittently showed signs of life, making those unique squeals of complaint that extremely old hard drives do when they deign to work at all. My hope was to reformat one of them and reinstall the Lisa OS from floppy disk.

The Lisa 2 (second generation) used the same 400k 3.5″ disks as the original 128k Macintosh. These drives are not particularly rare but tend to freeze up over time, requiring teardown and relubrication. The only non-frozen 400k drive I have is installed in my Mac 512k. I have a box full of frozen drives waiting for servicing in my attic, but as I get to this task about as regularly as weeding my rear yard (ask my neighbors) the project stalled yet again.

Over the next year or so I wound up selling one of the partially working Lisas for some extra cash, then subsequently purchased a working external ProFile drive. The ProFile is an even older Apple product, the company’s first ever external hard drive. This drive was sold with the Apple III and the original Lisa 1 with Twiggy floppy drives, and it sat on top of the systems.


Psyched that a breakthrough step was upon me, I tried to connect the ProFile to my working Lisa. The ProFile has a DB-25 parallel port connector. The Lisa has two DB-25 ports on the rear panel. Yup, 25 pin – serial – ports. Ugh. The Widget hard drive is connected as a parallel drive internally, but there are only serial ports externally. Foiled again. Sigh…

Fast forward to the present. While writing for Cult of Mac I wound up interviewing another vintage Mac and Lisa collector, a knowledgeable fellow also named Adam. After explaining my dilemma it turned out he had a spare X/ProFile hard drive adapter – perhaps one of the most useful items a Lisa owner can possess.

The X/ProFile is a custom circuit board that replaces the internal Widget drive and provides connectors for a Compact Flash card or IDE hard drive. This allows for the use of modern storage media with your vintage computer. It’s a great idea and very well designed, utilizing existing mounting holes and shipping with clear documentation. Kudos to James MacPhail of Sigma 7 Systems for making such a valuable product available. I wish there was a SCSI equivalent for old Macs.

My X/ProFile arrived with a copy of LisaOS 2.0 on CF card. I installed the unit, powered things up, and voila! For the first time in probably about two decades, my Lisa completed the startup sequence and booted to the desktop. And it’s completely silent now too, with the old hard drive and the cooling fan removed.

Yay! It works! Definitely time for a libation.

Well, it mostly works. It’s excruciatingly slow – like 10 minutes elapsing between double clicking on a folder and a window opening up. After some querying I’ve been told that this is because I only have a single 512k RAM card installed my unit, two cards are required for adequate performance. Of course. Now I wish I hadn’t sold that spare unit. Also the Return key on the keyboard has now stopped working, and I still don’t have a working floppy drive.

Looks like I now need to find a second RAM card. I figure that should take about another 18 months…

2 responses to “At Last a Working Lisa! Mostly…”

  1. Adam Rosen says:


    Matt Kuhns said…
    Augh, if only Apple hadn’t landfilled that huge stock of LISAs. (I have to wonder if any parts could still be salvageable, really. Utah is pretty dry, right…?)
    July 12, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    Jason McCormack said…
    Without Googling, I don’t suppose the keyboard is pin compatible with a 128k or Plus keyboard is it?
    July 25, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    Adam Rosen said…
    If only that were the case. No, the Lisa keyboard is proprietary and uses a 1/4″ TRS connector like a pair of headphones.
    July 25, 2012 at 5:16 PM

  2. H. Church says:

    I too have an overgrown backyard (and an old Lisa up in my attic that I haven’t seen in years). I’m also something of a Mac collector and have just recently resurrected a G3 Lombard for my sister to run Adobe Illustrator for school. The Lombard is now running a clean version of OS 9.2.2 with Illustrator 9.0.

    I’m now investigating the acquisition of a G4 MDD that I’d like to run only OS 9.2.2 on. With your Mac OS 9.2.2 for PowerMac G4 MDD, I eventually hope to accomplish this task and ship my old G3 400Mhz to my sister. This G3 is my primary workstation for graphic arts production running old versions of Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve newer and faster Macs for the internet and see no need to upgrade my tried and true OS 9 apps, or with anything other than a new (old) G4 1.25 MDD.

    I’ll drop you a note if and when I dig out the old Lisa, in case I’ve anything you might need. Thanks again for “being there” with the OS 9.2.2 for PowerMac G4 MDD.

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