Mi Amiga: One Michigan School District’s Three-Decades-Old Hero Computer That Still Manages HVAC Today

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve worked most of my professional life in the tech industry, specifically working for a managed services consultant in Chicago. One of the things we do is advise our clients on hardware rotations. Client machines, like desktops and laptops for instance, are typically recommended on a four to five year rotation. Because, let’s face it, a five year old computer is either functionally worthless or is probably hanging onto a single strand of twisted copper before crapping out entirely, amirite?

Please don’t send this post to my customers. Why? Well, because this is the story of the Grand Rapids Public School System in Michigan and the Commodore Amiga, originally bought during the Reagan administration, that is still running the schools’ heating and air conditioning today.

The Commodore Amiga was new to GRPS in the early 1980s and it has been working tirelessly ever since. GRPS Maintenance Supervisor Tim Hopkins said that the computer was purchased with money from an energy bond in the 1980s. It replaced a computer that was “about the size of a refrigerator.” The computer is responsible for turning the heat and the air conditioners on and off for 19 school buildings.

Great. My HP laptop from six years ago has the keys falling off the keyboard and I’m pretty sure the fans inside the chassis have had their fins whisked down to tiny little fan-nubs, but this beast from the cold war times is still making sure little Johnny doesn’t get sweaty during his lunch period. What’s insane about all of this is the intricacy with which the whole thing manages to work. The computer controls the boilers, fans and pumps, while also monitoring temperatures within the schools… and it was programmed by a local high school student in the 80’s. Not only that, but because the Amiga is a thing that belongs in a museum somewhere, whenever the school district needs help with the machine they still go back to that very same “programmer” who is all grown up now and happens to still live in the area. I mean, just listen to this.

“It’s a very unique product. It operates on a 1200-bit modem,” said Hopkins. “How it runs, the software that it’s running, is unique to Commodore.”

Hopkins said the system runs on a radio frequency that sends a signal to school buildings, which reply within a matter of seconds with the status of each building. The only problem is that the computer operates on the same frequency as some of the walkie-talkies used by the maintenance department.

“Because they share the same frequency as our maintenance communications radios and operations maintenance radios — it depends on what we’re doing — yes, they do interfere,” Hopkins said.

If that happens, “we have to clear the radio and get everyone off of it for up to 15 minutes.”

The school had received funds to address infrastructure problems from something called the “Warm Safe and Dry” bond in 2011, which seems like it was named specifically to get the schools’ HVAC systems up to date. But GRPS was all, “eh, fuck it, this thing’s still running like a champ, so let’s put our ancient computer down the priority list.” And it looks like it was the right decision. The Amiga runs day and night to this day, with only some minor inconveniences and replacement parts getting in the way of saying this thing is working flawlessly.

The article notes that the locals there are considering a new $175 million bond proposal that would free up money for the school system to replace the Amiga with a modern system that would cost something like $2 million or so. If it passes, Hopkins is expecting it to be a high priority, which will result in the sad day when we have to retire the old girl and put her out to pasture. In the meantime, this machine deserves some kind of Ironman award. We salute you, Commodore!

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