Happy Birthday, Mac - How to Recover From the Dreaded Bomb Box Error Message

Thirty years ago to this day, the Macintosh became available to the masses. What exciting times those were. I plunked down my $2500 for my Macintosh 128K plus $50 for a box of 10 Apple-branded single-sided floppy disks. That was the beginning of my thirty-year love affair with Mac computing – warts and all. 

In fact, the Mac’s existence defined my 20+ years IT career, as I became the lead Mac support specialist and trainer for a major Delaware-based chemical research company. I’ve written many a How-To article since those pioneer days.

In homage to the 30th Anniversary of Macintosh, I present you with a How-To article from the late 80’s; one of many I wrote for the Mac-toting scientists and support staff at my Company’s research center. Any old-timers should relish reliving the past for a moment. Most of my readers here on TMO were probably either non-existent in those days or too young to recall any of this. If you fall into this category, read on, and get a taste of what we had to put up with before OS X, before Mac OS 9, Mac OS 8, and even before Mac System 7. Enjoy.

How to Recover From the Dreaded Bomb Box Error Message

As Macintosh users we've come to expect the dreaded bomb box error message from time to time, haven’t we? Actually, not a day goes by that we’re not blasted by the baleful bomb. If not the bomb, we experience what's known as a “system hang.” That latter ominous-sounding event occurs when the Macintosh simply decides to ignore your mouse and keyboard and is rendered totally unresponsive.

The old Mac System Bomb dialog box

A day or two don’t go by that we don’t get this happy news on our Macintosh screens

Whether it’s a bomb or a hang, I’m afraid that our options are highly limited. What can we do?

If we see the bomb box on our Macintosh screen, the easiest thing to try is to click on the restart button that accompanies the bomb. In reality, it's more likely that the bomb is so insidious that the restart button won't respond. Yes, not only did the Macintosh bomb, it hung, too!

Here’s something else to try: you could press the reset button on the Programmer’s Switch.

The Programmerís Switch

The Programmer’s Switch comes with every Macintosh, but you have to install it properly in order to use it.

What is a Programmer’s Switch, you ask? You know, the odd but official-looking little piece plastic that came with your Macintosh 128K, 512e or Plus. The one you didn’t know what its purpose was. That thingamabob that hardly anyone knows what to do with. Did you insert it in it’s elusive slot on the left-rear side of your little one-eyed buddy?

In any event, your only other recourse for getting things back to normal is flipping the Macintosh's power switch off and then back on, waiting for that comforting startup bong. 

The problem with taking any of the actions mentioned above is that all the information that you had not yet saved to your disk ends up in the bit bucket; forever lost. If, unlike most of us, you’re lucky enough to be using one of those newfangled, state-of-the-art 10 MB hard disk drives, you will have to wait five to ten minutes while the hard disk utility software checks to make sure everything is okay before starting up your Macintosh.

The original box of Apple floppy disks for the Mac

Ten Apple-branded, single-sided diskettes will set you back $50

This is why it is so important to get into the habit of issuing a manual Save command every couple of minutes or so while working on your document. This is easiest done by pressing Command-S  – the keyboard shortcut for the Save File command. I hope I’m still around when the day comes that our Macintosh will be able to save our documents automatically! Then again, that day may never come.

Back to the problem at hand. There is a special secret technique that my Macintosh support colleagues and I will try first in order to avoid losing data. Not to be too pessimistic, but this rarely works, often simply giving us a second bomb box followed by a system hang. But hey, it’s worth a try on the slim chance that you can recover any unsaved data. It’s important to note that this technique is possible only if you're Macintosh has both the 128K ROM (Read-Only Memory) and the Programmer’s Switch installed.

A detail of the Mac Plus logic board

The Macintosh 128K logic board is a thing of beauty

As you know  – if you actually have it installed  – the Programmer’s Switch consists of two buttons: the Reset Button is the forward one, and the Interrupt Button is behind. When you press the Interrupt Button a blank text-entry box appears. This is like a terminal window or command-line interface area for the internal debugger that comes with the 128K ROM. It’s a utility made available for Macintosh software developers to use for troubleshooting.

Type in the following cryptic text, pressing return at the end of each line. Be sure to type the letters in lower case as shown, even though they will show up as upper case in the box.

The Macintosh Debugger command window

Type these characters as shown to attempt avoid losing data when that bomb appears

Good luck with that. In reality, it's highly likely that this technique will not work at all. In fact, there is a chance that this technique will damage the files still in memory, although I personally have never experienced anything like this. Come to think of it, I can't recall a single instance when this technique worked for me or my colleagues at all!

Software titles that are incompatible with the 128K ROM

When you upgrade your Macintosh to the 128K ROM and begin to take advantage of HFS (the new Hierarchical File System used by the Finder), be aware that early versions of the applications listed below are not compatible. Be sure to contact the software publishers to request replacement floppies containing the latest version of their software. You can find their telephone numbers printed in the software manuals that came in the box with your program floppies.

  • ConcertWare +
  • ClickOn Worksheet
  • Dollars and Sense
  • Hayden:Speller
  • MockWrite
  • MusicWorks
  • Red Ryder
  • Sargon III
  • SIdeKick
  • Note-pad+
  • Smartcom II
  • ThinkTank
  • TurboCharger

Finally, Apple advises users of machines with just 128K of RAM (Random Access Memory) to stick with System version 2.0 and Finder version 4.1. System version 3.2 and Finder version 5.3 (or later) are only designed for systems with the 128K ROM installed.

Oh, and don’t forget to read your Mac’s owner’s manual!

The Macintosh Plus owners manual

Your Macintosh Owners Manual should be a permanent fixture on your computer desk

There you have it!

Now, how many of you old-timers out there remember those exciting Days of the Bombs? I wonder who remembers those gems from the above list of programs – from back in the day before applications were called “apps,” and when the Macintosh smiled back at you every time you turned it on.

The original Smiling Mac icon

Once the Mac finished it’s startup diagnostics, you were greeted with a smile indicating an A-OK condition