Digital Attic

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

(Continued from page 1)

A really popular one is this thing called the Kitchen Computer, which is actually a machine by Honeywell, but one that was marketed by Neiman Marcus on the cover of their 1969 Christmas catalogue. It cost $10,000 and was a woman in a long, flowing apron, and she's sort of seductively leaning against this computer, using it to store her recipes, which is really funny because it had no interface device so she would have had to basically been a computer scientist to use it.

We also have a super computer, which is very interesting. It's round and has a bench around it so you can sit on it. We have one in our study collection and one in our lobby. The one in the lobby was $10 million when it came out in 1970. It was called the world's most expensive love seat.

Computers are advancing at a very fast pace. What makes it into the museum and what doesn't? Are there any criteria for donations?

Yeah, there are. The first is anything by inventors—so if it was Steve Wozniak's baby shoes (that's sort of a silly example), that's what we would want. The second thing we look for are unique items, one-of-a-kinds. Thirdly, things that were produced in enormous quantities, like the IBM PC, for example. Failed products is the fourth category. There are tons of those in the market and they're really interesting to collect, because one of the first things companies do is try and erase all trace of their history of any failed products. And it's important to remember the past.

How closely is the museum working with the computer industry today?

We have a few really kind donors, in the sense of having some kind of corporate commitment beyond money. Money is always nice, but there is a way to go beyond that which is to kind of say, "We actually really believe in what you're doing and we're going to help you," instead of saying, "Here's $10,000." So HP and IBM are two examples. We work really closely with them. It's extremely cordial. We always clear things with them to make sure it's cool from an intellectual property point of view to display their items. It almost always is because it's so old it has almost no commercial value.

Where do you see the future of computers going?

In some sense, computers have hit a plateau architecturally, which may sound like a strange thing to say from a curator. But from my perspective the action is really in medicine. However, it's medicine as defined by computers. Every significant advance in the last five years, and probably for the next 20, will result from the application of computers and medicine.

There are new genes found almost weekly for human ailments, and in the last 18 months or so that has absolutely turned into a flood, and it's all driven by computers that are controlling immense databases. You simply could not do this work by hand. I mean, even to do a fraction of it could take you years where a computer could do it in seconds. It's that huge—years versus seconds.

So what about from a more computerized products point of view? Robots, maybe?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus