The Ultimate Screensaver – Turn Your Old Mac Into an Aquarium

Wondering what to do with that old computer collecting dust in some corner of your home? It's completely useless, but you still can't bring yourself to throw it away when you think about how much it cost. Well, before you lug that old monitor out to the garbage heap, consider this: with about $80, a little time, the right tools and materials, and some good advice, you can transform your monitor into an aquarium. Time and money are hard enough to come by, but finding good advice is the real trick. Jim Lower, however, has some for you. The Sarasota, Fla., computer programmer has built 50 of these computer tanks himself out of different Macintosh monitors, transforming them into living screensavers.

Lower first started this hobby in 1995 when he was living in Tulsa, Okla., in order to make a few extra dollars. Roughly following a design he found on the Internet, his first project was the "Macquarium," a 2 1/2 gallon tank that was fitted into an old Mac SE case. It leaked during the testing phase, only a few hours after it was filled. Frustrated at his failure but driven by the challenge of successfully completing what he set out to do, Lower went back to the drawing board. He redesigned some basic parts in the plan, using plexiglass instead of glass and designing a different scheme for the filtration system. His next attempt, a 5-gallon tank fitted into an old Macintosh XL (a.k.a. Apple Lisa) was a success. Five years later, this "Lisaquarium" still decorates Lower's living room, providing a suitable home for his pair of gouramis.

Making Plans

To transform your computer into an aquarium, Lower suggests that you spend a good portion of your time on planning the layout – build it on paper first. It is not as simple as it may seem. "The hardest part is figuring out how to make all the stuff fit and make it look nice," says Lower. "I spend at least as much time creating the design before I start to build."

Before you decide on the tank dimensions, you must carefully think about where the remaining parts will be placed not only to make it into a suitable home for your fish, but also make it convenient and safe to keep. Tank decorations and maintenance should also be decided during the planning stage. The filter should be inconspicuous but accessible. How easy will it be to change? Positioning the lights is also a main concern. It should not be too bothersome to change the bulb, reminds Lower.

Is the tank going to fit completely within the dimensions of the monitor? Once the monitor is gutted of all its parts but the front glass (this is more or less difficult depending upon the monitor) take careful measurements.

The tank, Lower explains, should be as user-friendly as that old Mac once was. To accommodate a hood light and allow for cleaning the tank, filter, and feeding the fish, Lower recommends cutting off the top of the monitor. Otherwise, you'll have to remove the tank to clean it. "I don't want these tanks to be torture chambers where the fish are doomed because it's too difficult to clean." The air pump and filter mechanisms can be fitted to the side of the tank if the tank doesn't fill the entire back of the case.

Plexiglass proved a better material than glass because it's lighter and easier to glue with silicone. It is also less fragile, which becomes important when finally sliding the tank into its monitor housing.

Whatever filter you choose, make certain to account for its height above the top of the tank, especially if you want to keep it hidden within the monitor. All the wires will ideally pass through the back of the monitor case. "If the tank leaks," Lower asks, "will it cause a short and burn down the house?" Once the tank is set just add water, fish, and enjoy your living screen saver.

Most Mac Models Work as Aquaria

Lower has built aquaria out of everything from the 2 1/2 gallon SE, and other Mac "classics" like the Mac Plus, to a 12-gallon Apple Monochrome Two-Page Display. One of his tanks is exhibited at the Computer WAREhouse in Tulsa, Okla., where it is home to an array of living color as the official store aquarium. But of all the different models Lower has transformed, the Lisaquarium, he says, is the easiest to make and maintain. This model provides room for higher-powered lights and more fish than in the SE (Macquarium) models, but doesn't take as long to build as others of comparable size.

Lower once spent a great deal of his time designing, building and selling his Mac creations, but now it's more of a hobby. He admits he would never have started keeping fish in the first place if he had not built his computer tanks, but he got hooked once he had them.

If you want to transform your own monitor into an aquarium, go to Jim Lower's Web site. There, you can find extensive details about the models and their conversion designs, view pictures of the aquaria during different phases of construction, and get plans and advice. And if you happened to be a cat lover, and wondering what to do with the processor of your old IBM PC, you can check out another one of Lower's creative ideas. All Mac lovers will agree, it is an appropriate design even for the newest PC models: a litter box.

Jim Lower's Web site is found at