An instructor in the Interaction Design program at my institution recently proposed an “operating system library” of older personal machines, mostly discards from our computer labs, so students could see historic operating systems and learn from their design. This is a noble effort, but maintaing the ancient hardware will be a continual challenge in terms of resources, space, and expertise. My reaction was to research online emulators that students might use to garner similar experiences without the overhead. I cannot necessarily vouch for the fidelity of the sites below, but they are undeniably cool and definitely establish a sense of what prior OSes looked like. I remember many of these from my childhood and greatly enjoyed trying them out (and playing Oregon Trail).
Since Apple and Microsoft operating systems are proprietary, it can be hard to find genuine emulations since posting them online involves legal risk. This list focuses on easy, accessible options; there are more sophisticated emulators that necessitate obtaining a copy of the OS software to run (e.g. Basilisk II for Mac), but they ask too much of most people. Finally, this post is not exhaustive! It’s only what I found in around an hour of research. If you know of other, similarly accessible emulators, I would love to add them.
Open Source OSes
Many older versions of Linux-based open source OSes like Ubuntu, Fedora, Red Hat, etc.
Includes a “Kid Pix” drawing app. The “more demos” section of this site also includes classic games like Oregon Trail.
Includes many games and applications.
There are included downloads for Windows, modern MacOS, & Linux.
Old, mostly abandoned PC games available for free (or as a demo). These are downloads and I believe to play most of them you’d need a real OS emulator.
Emulation Station (Internet Archive)
“Using the EMULARITY, a loading system of browser-based emulators, it is possible to play hundreds of thousands of programs, games and applications from previous years at the Internet Archive.”
Many old OSes including early Windows (95, 98, XP) and MacOS (8.6, 9.2) and Mac OS X (10.2, 10.4). They also have “desktops” devoted to particular historic software like early web browsers and email clients.