Emails, phone calls, hangouts, tweets and retweets are all ways we communicate but sometimes the best thing to do is walk in the front door and say hello. That’s what I did at the Living Computer Museum on Friday (October 11, 2013). The visit was definitely worth the price of admission. The insights were thanks to conversations with the staff. The flashbacks were a bonus.
The Living Computer Museum exists thanks to Paul Allen’s philanthropy, which was greatly aided by his success developing software for that hardware. But it isn’t just an homage to Paul’s history and legacy. As is true with one of Paul’s other museums, if the equipment is there, it must be fully functional. For the Flying Heritage Museum it means the airplanes must fly. For the Living Computer Museum it means the hardware must be able to run, and the only way to prove that is to have the appropriate software. Historical and historic compatibility must be maintained.
PCs can best be understood in relation to mainframes, so the Living Computer Museum has an impressive amount of floor space dedicated to DEC, Data General, and IBMs. They even have an operator’s console from an IBM 360, the room-sized mainframe that I never saw but used as an undergrad. I was particularly drawn to a PDP 11/70 that was being resurrected, the type of machine that I used for years as an engineer. It was considerably smaller, about the size of a few refrigerators instead of the size of a house. An emulator box doing the same job is about the size of a small phone book, with lots of room to spare. If you are a geezer geek, drop by. They need to maintain, repair, and in some cases replace fragile components that never were meant to be used for decades. (If you have any spare RP-06 or RP-07 read heads they’ll be happy to hear from you.)
Despite my flashback moments, I was there because the Living Computer Museum has to deal with many of the same issues as HCLE. How do we sort, store, and catalog documents and software that were treated as disposable in their time? One task in particular caught our eye. We’ve been compiling lists of games, not for the games’ sake, but because games were educational tools, whether that was their intent or not. A few days ago, LCM tweeted a photo of one of their staff members steadily sorting through hundreds of games. If LCM is putting together a list of games, and HCLE is doing the same, we may find that there’s a lot of overlap. We’re not the only ones. PlayingHistory.org has not only compiled a list of games, but they also have them operating online in proper emulation environments. Want to play Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe? They can probably do that. We’re in contact with universities who have similar collections. Undoubtedly some portion of the government should have some games as well.
I was lucky enough to get an hour of the Chief Archivist’s time as she walked me through their cataloging process, database architecture, and how they network with similar institutions. I don’t have any pictures from that conversation because we were in the back room. The exhibit hall is much more colorful, and I’d rather show you that side. It is apparent that keeping track of thousands of artifacts is much more than a spreadsheet can handle. (Care to search their archives? They are online.) Proper cataloging can take years. Storing software may involve disks from back when they truly were floppies. There are also the instruction manuals, and even the boxes – especially, if the boxes provided information that wasn’t in the manuals. Manuals are rarely comprehensive. Every piece may be necessary, and must be tracked.
After I monopolized enough of her time, I joined the visitors touring the museum. I opted for my self-guided tour because so many of the machines were familiar to me. (They even had a Newton MessagePad. I guess they don’t need mine.) What impressed me most regarding HCLE’s mission was LCM’s display of personal computers, including the Altair and early PCs. One PC was so early that its display was vertical, like a sheet of paper. Why did we ever switch to horizontal from vertical? I forgot to ask. Most of the PCs were running either graphics or games, and obviously were intended to be used. I had more fun watching people play. And realizing that they were learning, sometimes through trial and error, sometimes by asking someone for help. That has been the nature of our association with computers.
HCLE has a focus, preserving those lessons learned about how to teach and learn in that dramatically changing environment. As computers entered the classroom, teaching and learning shifted from person-to-person to somehow including a digital presence. Museums like Living Computer Museum are doing incredible work preserving fragile hardware. Some go as far as LCM in preserving software. We intend to preserve the lessons too.
This is the time for protecting such material. Little, if any of it, was produced on archival media. The tricks and traps of getting software and hardware to operate were frequently in human memory. Recording those stories and tying them to the appropriate devices and applications is a time-critical task. Those memories are passing with the people who hold them.
I am glad to have met the people at Living Computer Museum, and to have witnessed their impressive work – and to emphasize why HCLE exists and why we have a lot of work to do.