This article describes how to run Autosketch 2.0 for Dos (dated 1989) on modern day hardware. I consider this a triumph of magic, legacy compatibility, open source software and computing in general. After all, 23 years have passed since the release of Autosketch 2.0 and such an amount of time in the computing domain is equivalent to geological aeons in real life: to be able to still run 23 year old software with no degradation is nothing short of astounding.
Autosketch is a 2D CAD drawing program made by Autodesk. You may probably know the flagship Autodesk program AutoCAD, since it’s probably the most famous CAD software in use today. Autosketch is its smaller brother, limited to 2D drawing. Autosketch 2.0 for DOS is one of the first releases, dating back to July 1989, when 80386 processors were common in home computers, people still used dot matrix printers and the internet as we know it today was still to be born (it would be ‘announced’ in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee).
This article is dedicated to three persons: you, probably the only other person on the planet that still wants to run Autosketch 2.0 for DOS and can’t figure out how. And you, IT enthusiast, to be amazed by how a software lifetime ends up exceeding even the wildest expectations (and be puzzled by how stubborn computer users are in deciding not to upgrade their software, if it still works fine for them). And you, John Walker, Autodesk founder, to be (hopefully) pleased to know that even after 23 years, your product is still in use and plays a critical role in the maintenance of (at least) one household.
This article is mostly useful to computer users with a basic level of expertise. If you tinker with bootloaders, partition tables, grub and operating systems day in and day out, you are probably capable of figuring out what follows on your own in a couple of hours.
My father was working as an electrical engineer at the time, drawing, assembling and deploying various sorts of electrical circuitry used in industrial plants. He was familiar with using Autosketch and decided to use the same tool to draw and maintain every schematic (from electrical circuitry to architectural layouts) pertaining to our house.
After a while he retired. We never got around to buy a new sketch version. The one we had was working well. Even when Windows XP was released, Sketch would still run fine in DOS emulation. Time passed and we kept accumulating Autosketch diagrams for every single technical aspect of house maintenance. I eventually relocated to a different country, with basically no time left to help my father maintain the tool (I was, and kinda still am, the IT guy for everything computing-related in our house, from wifi setup to software maintenance).
Time passed and it got harder and harder to run Autosketch on the latest hardware and operating systems, up to the point when the OS upgrade to Windows Vista a couple of years back completely removed the possibility to run sketch (DOS emulation was no longer capable enough, probably due to some weird way of Sketch to address video memory — never investigated too much).
For a while, we kept going with alternative solutions, such as running sketch on an obsolete laptop running Win XP, until they broke down as well. We tried using virtual machines to no avail (again, I think the video driver emulation that virtual machines offer was not good enough for Sketch to be fooled).
Remember that I was living in another country, with basically no decent way of helping apart from the occasional instructions via mail, skype videochat, or half-day generic IT work when visiting home, but mostly no time to dedicate myself to the issue. And my father is not computer-savvy enough to try more complex alternatives on his own.
So here we are, in mid 2012, with a boatload of .SKD diagrams holding every info about our house circuitry, piping, insulation and whatnot, that we can no longer open, print or migrate to some more recent format. Today I decided to fix it once and for all.
The solution, after all, is quite simple. I guess it was just the lack of time and being busy living and working elsewhere that prevented me from fixing it sooner.
I created a bootable USB pen drive that boots via Grub4Dos, runs FreeDos and Autosketch on top of it, complete with mouse support and Italian keyboard layout. Printing is done by ‘printing’ diagrams to file in postscript format and then actually printing them to paper by loading them in Win Vista with Ghostview. Worth noting that is all opensource stuff…
All of it running on a somewhat modern HP Pavillion 6915 laptop running the latest Windows Vista.
All the following instructions are for Windows users. Doing the same under linux is somewhat easier (and there are more resources on the internet describing the process), but I didn’t have any linux machine nearby when I did this.
Step 1: format your USB key
Grab the USB pen where you’ll install freedos, insert it and format it. The default format tool that ships with Windows is not good enough, since it doesn’t prepare the drive MBR in the correct way Grub4Dos expects.
So instead use this HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool to format the drive, as suggested here. Just choose the correct device (your usb key), FAT32 filesystem and the “Quick Format” option, and run it (don’t check the “Create a DOS startup disk” option).
Step 2: install the bootloader
Now that the USB pen is clean, the first bit needed is the bootloader, that instructs the PC on how to boot the operating system that we will then install on the pendrive.
We are going to use Grub4Dos for this. Download the following files and unpack them:
From the contents of the second zip file, run
grubinst_gui.exe (important: run it “as administrator”, by right-clicking on it and choosing the corresponding option) and, as explained in this guide choose the disk to affect (your usb pendrive), the MBR partition, select the “Don’t search floppy” option and click “Install”. You should see a message saying that the
MBR/BS has been successfully installed.
Then, from the contents of the first zip file (grub4dos-0.4.4.zip) locate the file that is named
grldr (NOT grldr.mbr) and copy it to your pen drive.
Finally, creating a file named
menu.lst in your pen drive with the following contents:
color green/black black/green white/black white/black timeout 30 default 0
title Start DOS root (hd0,0) chainloader /ODIN/kernel.sys boot
The snippet above instructs the bootloader to offer the user a screen, upon system boot, where he can choose the
Start DOS option and what to do when that is chosen.
If you find the above difficult, section 1 of Using Grub4DOS to Create a Bootable Drive describes the above process in pretty much the same terms, and it includes screenshots to guide your through it.
Step 3: install the FreeDos operating system
Copy the folder
FREEDOS\SETUP onto the pen drive and copy
COMMAND.COM from the ODIN folder into the root of the pen drive.
Create a file named
AUTOEXEC.BAT in the root of the pen drive, with these contents:
SET PATH=c:\odin; keyb it c:\odin\ctmouse.exe
This will ensure that, upon start, the operating system will have mouse support enabled and an Italian keyboard layout (change or remove the
keyb line as you see fit).
Step 4: Install sketch
Just copy all sketch files in a
sketch directory on the pen drive.
Step 5: Fire it up!
Reboot your machine. When your machine starts up, you should be able to access BIOS boot options and instruct it to boot from USB (this article gives some general instructions on how to do so).
You should first be presented with a screen showing the list of bootable choices, including the
Start DOS one you defined above. Select it by pressing enter and you should find yourself on the
c:\ boot prompt.
You should now be able to start Autosketch by running
On the first run (that is, if you are missing the
sketch.cfg file), Sketch will guide you in configuring it. Choose to use a “Microsoft Mouse”, and “IBM Video Graphics Array”, color options of your choice and a “Postscript Laser Printer” that prints to file (unless your laptop/pc is really old, you won’t have a serial/parallel port so you want be able to print your diagrams directly to a printer).
After that, you should be inside the Autosketch editor, with full mouse support!
Step 6 : Printing
Sketch only supports printing to serial or parallel printers. If your laptop and printer is anywhere modern you probably won’t have any of those, but only USB ports (which FreeDos doesn’t support/emulate, as far as I know). The only solution I found for printing, is to configure a postscript printer that prints to file as described above.
Every time you want to print a diagram, you will be asked for a filename. Sketch will generate a file with the given name and
.PLT extension. The contents are actually Postscript.
You can then reboot into your main Windows operating system, insert the pen drive, rename the file from
.PS and visualize or print it using a postscript viewer. A popular (and free) one is Ghostview.
At this point, it should be all done. You should be able to run Sketch on your modern laptop/pc, via the Freedos operating system installed on a pen drive, with full keyboard, mouse and printing support. Success!
I remember when, in 1989-ish, my father brought home the Autosketch floppy and I was amazed to see the details of a demo rendering of a mountain bike included with sketch sample files running on our old pc. Can’t remember if it was still an 8088 machine or a powerful 80386, it would take a good 15-20 seconds to render and every operation applied to it was painfully slow, but it was still awesome to see such amount of detail on screen.