Wireless Networking for Classic Machines

Wireless networking and classic machines generally don't work well together. Most wireless networking gear is no more than 10 years old while the machines you might want to connect to a wireless network are 20 or even 30 years old. And even if you can find a wireless device in the right form factor (ISA, PCMCIA, or even a PCI card) it requires software and operating system support that classic machines generally do not have. (PC-DOS and MS-DOS generally have no support for wireless networking.)

The good news is that there are solutions that are inexpensive and easy.

A lot of small "travel" routers designed for providing wireless access in a compact package can be used in a "bridge" or client adapter mode. So instead of plugging the travel router into Ethernet and providing wireless access for things like tablets and laptops, it can be setup to allow a computer that only supports wired Ethernet to access a wireless network. You do a little configuration work up front and then like magic, your old computers can be running on your wireless network.

Wires are more reliable. But sometimes you have a machine in a place where wires are not practical.

Here is a Compaq Portable (1984) running an IRC client using an NE1000 card, an AUI 10BaseT transceiver, and a Zyxel MWR102 travel router.

Compaq Portable on wireless      Closeup of Zyxel wireless router and NE1000
Compaq Portable from 1983 connected to an IRC network      Close-up of the wiring
(Click on a picture to see a larger version of it)

The NE1000 card is a classic card that has Thinnet and AUI ports but not a twisted pair (RJ45) port. The Centrecom 210 transceiver connects to the AUI port on the NE1000 and provides an RJ45 jack for twisted pair wiring (CAT 5). In plain English you can think of it as an AUI to RJ45 converter. That in turn connects to the Zyxel travel router.

Here is another example: an IBM PS/2 L40SX laptop (1991) with a Xircom PE3-10BT parallel port attached Ethernet adapter:

IBM PS/2 L40SX with a Xircom PE3-10BT
IBM PS/2 L40SX with a Xircom PE3-10BT

The L40SX does not have onboard Ethernet or anything that resembles a slot for cards. It does have a standard parallel port which allows it to use the Xircom PE3-10BT. The Xircom was designed exactly for this purpose - see "Notes on the Xircom PE3 (Pocket Ethernet 3)" for the details.

In this application the Zyxel is configured for "bridge" mode. The configuration requires you to connect to a configuration web page on the router and enter your WPA2 passphrase. That allows the Zyxel to connect to your wireless network and then transparently pass packets back and forth to the NE1000 card in the machine. Other encryption (or no encryption) types are possible. My router views the Compaq as a wireless device while the Compaq happily thinks it is running on classic 10Mbp/s Ethernet. The configuration is remembered by the device so you do not have to worry about it the next time you pull it out to use it.

For extra credit you can do this pretty much anywhere if you have a cell phone with tethering for data. Setup your Wifi hotspot, have the travel router preset to use it, and you have a mobile, go anywhere solution. (Except for the small problem that a Compaq Portable like the one in the picture weighs 30+ lbs and requires 120VAC to run. Solving that problem is an exercise left to the interested student.)

This particular travel router is a Zyxel MWR102. The documentation is not the greatest; the "bridge" mode is not documented. "Tiger" posted a review of the MWR102 at Amazon that had these helpful instructions:

Summary of client adapter mode setup:
1. Configure PC NIC with static IP address (e.g. /24).
2. Flip switch on MWR102 to AP mode.
3. Connect MWR102 to NIC Ethernet port.
4. Open browser and type in as address/URL.
5. Login in to MWR102 with "admin" and password (default is 1234).
6. Select: Wireless > Basic Settings.
7. Change Wireless Mode to "Client", click Apply.
8. Select: Wireless > Site Survey.
9. Click Site Survey button.
10. Select the wireless network SSID you want to connect to, enter security settings (including pre-shared key).
11. Click Connect. If successful, will get "Connect Successfully" message.
12. Close browser window. Change PC NIC back to using DHCP to get IP address assignment (i.e. undo step #1 above).
13. The MWR102 is ready for use on this or any device you like, as long as it's Ethernet connected to the MWR102.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2VQK0JJFEDLJJ/ref=cm_srch_res_rtr_alt_1

Other companies make similar products and should have a similar mode available.

Created May 11th, 2014, (C)opyright Michael B. Brutman, mbbrutman at gmail.com