Colorado Computer Museum(TM)

A Hands-On History of Information Technology(TM)


Colorado Computer Museum is a 501(c)(3) publicly supported nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation of the history of information technology. Unlike most historical and interpretive institutions, we intend to exhibit as much of our collection as practicable in an interactive way.

What follows is the basis of a presentation made by our founder in 1993 while stumping for support to create Colorado Computer Museum. While a lot has transpired since it was written, this narrative should provide you with a flavor for our mission:

 

Background and Preliminary Vision Statement

INTRODUCTION

The original motivation for this project was that there seemed to be no one interested in saving vintage computer equipment for posterity - the moment an object became obsolete from an economic point of view, it was junked. To make things worse, the typical destination was a landfill - the materials weren't even recycled. I can relate stories such as perfectly functional computer components being lined up on a shipping dock and being knocked into a dumpster below with other pieces of equipment rolled at them in a perverted form of bowling. To complement the above conditions, I seem to exhibit a natural fascination with and enjoyment of computers and software, so it was pretty automatic that I began collecting obsolete equipment that was otherwise headed for the dump. In 1975 I began picking up used calculators from friends who were upgrading, and I had been gathering various surplus electronic parts and equipment for several years before that. When one develops such a collecting habit, there seems to follow an affinity for equipment and things start following you home or appearing on your doorstep. Such has been my experience. In about 1984, after several years of trying to find a Data General NOVA computer for the right price, I purchased one in fully functional condition, including a 10 megabyte disk drive, for $75. By the time about another year had passed I had received donation of 10 of the darned things, along with a fair collection of manuals and spare parts. Home has not been the same since, as my basement (and often, living room) is full of venerable equipment and I also have old gear stored at several other sites around the area. In addition to the minicomputer equipment, I also have gathered quite a number of microcomputers and accessories of various flavors.

As time went on I began to wrestle with the question of how to make my collection available to the public. Storing the stuff solved the immediate problem of loss to posterity, but nobody really benefits if it's all collecting dust in a basement or garage, and I had observed a real fascination on the part of numerous individuals who visited the monsters in my basement. Thus the idea of a museum was born.

PRESENTATION VS. PRESERVATION

Somehow the idea of a static repository of old hardware doesn't seem to me to really capture the flavor of the olden days of computing. It's all very interesting to look at, to be sure, but not a lot of understanding is fostered by just looking at old iron. I would like to see as much as possible of the equipment presented in a fully functional capacity, and with as much hands-on interaction as possible. This lies between two extremes: at this writing I am aware of two other computer museums in operation, one of which is very interactive but not very historical, and the other of which is very historical but not very interactive. I wish to present an experience which is both very historical and very interactive. The mystery of all those lights and switches may be considerably reduced if one has the opportunity of actually loading a binary boot sequence (though certainly not everyone would want to).

It is rightfully noted that this idea presents a pretty significant problem in terms of maintenance. Restoring an old machine to working condition and keeping it running day after day will require more work than just parking it in a display case (fortunately, I enjoy restoring old machines and keeping them running). But my feeling is that you don't get much of the flavor of computing until you see what computers can do. With running machines you can operate them and see them performing the actual tasks they were made for. This also implies another category of preservation and maintenance: software. I believe that software needs to be preserved for the simple historical reason that it is a fundamental part of any working computer system (what would a history of television be if it only presented the kinds of receivers that were available and failed to show the kinds of programming they existed to display?). Herein is another maintenance issue: software is represented upon a variety of media, none of which is immune to the effects of age. Thus to preserve it requires a program of evaluating media and transferring information to new media at intervals.

Maintaining computer systems also requires specialized equipment in many cases, such as servowriters and balancers for rigid disks (venerable disk equipment such as I have requires periodic maintenance, much in contrast to the disposable hardware used with today's personal computers). This can be viewed as a liability, but it is also an opportunity to exhibit another facet of the complex history of computing.

I also feel that dealing with older computing systems fosters understanding of the fundamentals of the science. One of the traits of the evolution of computing is that we have managed to remove the user farther and farther from the hardware. This is good for the real user - he is free to concentrate upon the abstraction of what he is trying to accomplish rather than on the mechanics of how the computer works. But to understand the computer itself you need to get closer to the "metal." One natural way to do this is to use a computer from an era when there was no other choice.

Obviously, the interactive approach presents a trade-off against the outright preservation of the equipment. When the equipment is powered up and running, it is vulnerable to damage from power line transients, vibration, and the effects of the heat it generates. Wear may be induced by handling, and some things may be broken by careless operation. On the other hand, leaving machines "in mothballs" produces other kinds of degeneration: lubricants solidify, bearings corrode and seize, power supply components dry up, batteries die and leak. There is a balance to be struck, but the equipment is best kept runnable if it's kept running with some kind of regularity. And the worst case is that a machine will fail in some way that we don't have the resources to repair - we still have a static display piece, which is all we'd have had to begin with if we did not attempt to run it. I do not wish to appear callous about preservation, as it is very important to me, but at the same time I would like to do better at making the collection available than to just hoard it.

CONTENT

The trouble with being a collector is that I'd like to display one of everything ever built and have several more in storage for spare parts. But in the absence of infinite exhibit space, it would still be nice to demonstrate at least one system for each major era in computer technology, and perhaps several smaller systems from some eras in order to exhibit different market niches and perhaps to highlight specific companies pertinent to our local economy. We probably will not be able to come up with a complete vacuum tube system and so will likely have to settle for photographs and pieces/parts. In the discrete-transistor mainframe area, I have located a Honeywell H200 system from the early 1960s which is still in operation but due to be retired soon. This tape-based system would make a great showpiece for the pre-disk era if I can arrange for sufficient funds and storage space before the system moves on to Computer Heaven. It would also be appropriate to exhibit a scientific number cruncher such as the CDC 6400 or the CDC Star 7600, and a true-blue business machine, preferably a small configuration of the legendary IBM 360. Of course, by the time a collection of appropriate peripheral equipment was added, the above list would commit quite a bit of floorspace. Appropriate environmental conditions (power and air conditioning) would also be required.

The minicomputer arena may give us some more flexibility. These machines, made possible by integrated circuit technology, are smaller and generally have less restrictive environmental requirements than mainframe systems. I would like to exhibit enough variation here to show how this first step in the decentralization of computing resources has led to the proliferation of computing power we know today. The DEC PDP-8 was a pivotal machine in this evolution. Although it will be very difficult to acquire one (George Karamedjiev of the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, MT tells me that only 8 are known to exist), it should be possible to find one of its successors such as the PDP-8/M or PDP-8/S. Perhaps inspired by the success of the PDP-8, the Data General NOVA series machines became very prolific in both departmental/small business and process control environments, and quite a number were once in service in the Colorado front range area, so a NOVA exhibit also seems appropriate (it also doesn't hurt that I already have quite a bit of NOVA equipment). Hewlett-Packard's HP2100 series minicomputers brought similar localized computing power to a different market segment and were used (some still are, from what I hear) for scientific/engineering, data acquisition, and general-purpose time-sharing applications. Both the quality with which these systems were built and the importance of H-P locally make a 2100 exhibit a logical choice.

Advanced integrated circuit technology also gave rise to a new breed of very powerful minicomputers, perhaps epitomized by the DEC VAX systems. The VAX 11/780 became such a standard of performance that many benchmarks for measuring computing speed gave their results in terms of VAX MIPs (Millions of Instructions per Second). A modestly configured 780 would make an excellent exhibit.

Along the way, computing began to move onto the desktop.

Hewlett-Packard perhaps led the way to the desktop, beginning with their 9100A programmable calculator in about 1969. These machines, about the size of a typewriter, could be enhanced with the addition of external memory, printers, plotters, and even a custom desk for the system (I have such a system, desk and all). With program storage on business-card sized magnetic cards, the 9100 systems gave engineers and scientists localized computing power without the restrictions, delays, and fussy job control languages of batch-oriented mainframe computers of the day.

Later, H-P developed the 9800 series of desktop machines, ranging from the 9805 (a relatively simple calculator) to the 9845, renowned for its graphics capabilities. Most of the 9800 series machines could be programmed with H-P's enhanced versions of the BASIC programming language and, later, PASCAL. A multitude of expansion options was available including printers, plotters, mass storage, and the ability to control and collect data from laboratory equipment. The 9845 sported a CRT display capable of presenting alphanumeric and graphical output. George Lucas used a 9845C, the color-capable version, to prototype the computer generated scenes for the movie Star Wars, and thus the 9845 was an important part of the beginning of the special effects revolution in filmmaking. Some very interesting interactive exhibits could be built around machines of this type.

With the proliferation of computing resources, many hobbyists began to dream of the possibility of having computers of their own. Many saw the computing world as controlled by a "priesthood" of technically elite professionals and wished to see "computing for the masses" (cf. Computer Lib/Dream Machines by Ted Nelson). With the availability of integrated circuits and particularly the microprocessor in the early 1970's, highly capable hobbyists could construct computing devices of their own. But more help was needed for the average amateur, and in January 1975 the Altair 8800 from MITS was announced in the cover story of Popular Electronics. This machine, based on the 8080 microprocessor chip from Intel, could be purchased in kit form or assembled and tested, and is considered by many to be the first "personal" computer (I have one of these, of course). With a design clearly inspired by the NOVA, the Altair included no software or programming languages and no operating system - just a raw computer with switches and lights on the front panel and some hints about how to program in machine language, the lowest level of interaction with a computer. This was truly programming "on the metal", but the non-specialist could do computing right at home for "only" several hundred dollars, and many did. Inspired by the Altair, numerous small companies sprang up to produce "microcomputers", including the likes of IMSAI, CompuPro, Ohio Scientific, and NorthStar. An exhibit built around some of these computers could effectively recreate the very beginnings of home computing.

The lack of software created another opportunity. Word went out that MITS would buy the first BASIC language interpreter shown to run on the Altair, and the challenge was taken up by a pair of bright students named Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Their interpreter ran to MITS' satisfaction, and a little company called Microsoft was launched. BASIC was available on punched paper tape or magnetic cassette tape in the original 4K and an enhanced 8K version. I have the 8K version for the Altair - this combination would make a great exhibit of all the fun you could have creating your own programs on an Altair.

Another small company named Apple Computer started up to produce microcomputers. The Apple I was a very hobbyist-oriented board-level product for which the user had to provide his own power supply and keyboard. The Apple II, introduced in 1977, was in contrast quite revolutionary in that it contained the BASIC language in built-in Read-Only Memory, had built-in graphics and sound capability and a keyboard all contained in an attractive molded plastic case. The user had only to connect it to a TV set or monitor and he was off and running. Due to its use in schools, a very large number of people had their introduction to computing in the Apple II. This is obviously a very important piece to present and the large volume of software and hardware available for Apple II systems should allow us to develop a very interesting hands-on exhibit.

Another interesting area in computing is the supercomputer. Supercomputers, perhaps epitomized by the Cray 1, were developed for their ability to process large volumes of numerical data very quickly in areas such as seismic studies and weather modeling. Although it would be difficult and expensive to set up an operational supercomputer site, perhaps a non-operational Cray 1 could eventually be obtained for static display purposes (Cray Research has donated one such to Los Alamos National Laboratory to display in a reception area).

A large variety of other computer systems would make excellent special-interest exhibits. For example, a fascinating system called the Librascope could not help but attract a lot of interest. This machine had huge hard disk platters, about 3 feet in diameter, spinning under a transparent enclosure. The front panel of the central processing unit had an impressive array of lights which, when the machine was idle, displayed a moving sine wave. Other possibilities would include an IBM 1130 minicomputer system or one of a variety of LISP machines used in artificial intelligence research.

COLLECTING FOR THE FUTURE

One aspect of the computing industry today stands out: the rate at which things change. Whereas once the purchase of a computer represented a several-year commitment, now product lifecycles are often a matter of months. When things come and go so quickly, the chances of finding certain artifacts after they have been deemed to be of historical significance become vanishingly small. For this reason, I have been working to acquire things of future historical value before they disappear. This kind of "collecting for the future" is an important mission of the museum I propose. This project includes hardware, software, marketing materials, promotional trinkets, publications, and possibly interviews with personalities in the industry.

COMPARATIVE TECHNOLOGY

It can be very interesting to view the elements of computer technology, particularly when different eras are compared. Some very interesting exhibits could be created with this idea in mind. For example, a magnifier could be set up over a portion of a core memory unit, where the element responsible for storing each bit of binary data is clearly visible. This could be contrasted with one of today's solid state memory devices, wherein perhaps a million bits of information reside on a chip of silicon the size of your little fingernail. Similar comparisons can be made with hard disk devices, circuit boards (I have a vacuum tube "AND" gate about a foot long, using 3 tubes. Thousands of equivalent circuits are now placed on one tiny chip). The possibilities for interesting exhibits of this nature are nearly limitless.

NON-ELECTRONIC COMPUTING

The history of information technology, of course, began long before electronic computers. A comprehensive museum will need to exhibit the history of number systems, manual computation, handwritten tables, and mechanical aids such as "Napier's bones", Pascal's calculator, and various mechanical and electromechanical calculators and analog computing devices. The abacus, for example, represents a simple but effective form of digital computation. The slide rule is a clever application of logarithms to an analog computing device. It may also be interesting to show the extension of some of these ideas to simple tools for modern times, such as the hand counters used in recent times to tally grocery prices while shopping.

PERSONALITIES & BIOGRAPHIC EXHIBITS

There is also a rich history in the stories of many of the people who forged the computer industry. Numerous of these are only historic figures, but the development of the computer has been so rapid and recent that many pioneers still tread the face of the earth. Exhibits about those long gone would be interesting, as would taped interviews with those still with us. This might include some of national recognition as well as more local figures. Perhaps some pioneers could even be persuaded to make appearances or give lectures.

EXHIBITING THE FUTURE

There is always conjecture as to what the future of information technology will be. Perhaps the museum would be a good forum for presenting some views about that future. This could take the form of expressed opinions in written or spoken form, as well as an exposition of experimental or leading-edge technology. It may be that a secondary function of the museum would be to help clarify the issues in present technology in order to assist people in making decisions regarding technology purchases.

WRITTEN MATERIALS

A great deal can be learned, of course, from books and magazines from an era under study. I see it as a primary mission of the computer museum to maintain in inventory of such materials. Technical manuals would be an invaluable source of information to facilitate maintenance of the rest of the museum's collection. Many people would be surprised to learn what hobbyists were doing with various technologies long before they reached the public eye. For example, BYTE magazine produced a series of articles on speech recognition using the Apple II computer in the late 1970's. This capability is only now reaching commercial viability. Exhibits actually implementing some of these precursors to mainstream technology may be a rich field as well.

REDEEMING SOCIAL VALUE

I would hope that the computer museum would be more than just a nice place to visit - it should also be a place where meaningful values could be caught through human relationships. Perhaps ongoing educational programs could be maintained which might provide an alternative for youth who otherwise may not have a constructive outlet for their energy. Perhaps some could be affirmed through a volunteer program to assist in the ongoing maintenance of the collection. Classes in the basics of computing or the selection and use of modern systems might be a real benefit to the public (in my experience as a consultant, I have seen a real need for basic training with a practical emphasis), and the historical slant could serve to make the classes more interesting. Programs such as these would greatly increase the value of the museum to society, and may improve its chances of financial survival as well.

 

In addition to the kinds of exhibits suggested above, we envision virtually limitless possibilities for special-interest exhibits in such areas as flight simulation, automated musical instruments, industrial automation, entertainment and gaming, typesetting and prepress, software and software development technology, and the impact of technology on culture.

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