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Digital Attic

Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum, discusses 1950s mainframes, an original Apple One and Steve Wozniak's baby shoes

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What can people expect to find at theComputer History Museum?

The Computer History Museum is home to the world's largest collection of computers and computing related artifacts. So you can find everything from an Abacast to a ChRate super computer; an original Apple One to thousands of original advertisements. For example, advertisements from the '50s and '60s on computers and mainframes to audio recordings and video recordings of TV commercials and computer pioneers talking about their inventions.

We currently have about 15 million pages of technical information, terabytes of historical software and tens of thousands of individual artifacts. We're America's attic, but for computers.

How did it come about?

It started in '79 when two people, Gordon Bell and Ken Olsen, who is the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC as its known, heard of the WorldWin computer from MIT being loaded onto a truck and carried to a dump in Boston. The MIT WorldWin computer is a one of a kind machine. It was done in the early 1950s and had an enormous impact on computer design in the United States, and it was about to be scrapped, basically. Just melted down. They literally turned the truck around. They told the drivers to turn around, unload everything and told them, "We'll take it." Even then, Ken Olsen was very influential and Bell and Olsen were both MIT alumni, and they made it happen. I don't even think there was any money involved. So that was the start of the museum, the first artifact really.

What's the appeal of these things?

One thing is nostalgia. You should never underestimate the power of that. A lot of the people, not just from the industry, come here and you can instantly tell how old they are, even if they were in a suit or something with only their eyes exposed, because they light up when they come to their first computer. So if it's a mainframe from the '50s then they are probably in their 70s or 80s, and if it's a Commodore 64 then they're probably 30-something and so on. It's very generational, the nostalgia, because computers are changing and have always changed so fast. There's just a huge variety, and of course they shrink with each generation—the computers, not the people.

What do visitors find most surprising?

Some of them are sort of dismayed that computers that they've used are in a museum, because it makes them feel like they should be in a museum. Literally, they've said that to me. Even people who are young, in their 20s, are quite shocked that it's already in a museum. Another thing they say that I hear a lot is, "Wow, look how huge these things are!" as they go back and look at the mainframes. Another thing you hear is "I had no idea," and that can be in reference to almost anything. For example, "I had no idea how expensive memory was in the '50s," or about the amount of power things took, and the complexity of everything.

What is the most popular attraction?

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