Digital Attic

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

Computer History Museum
Computer History Museum Wikimedia Commons

What can people expect to find at the Computer 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?

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?

Absolutely, yes! In fact the Roomba, the little automatic vacuum cleaner, is selling by the tens of hundreds of thousands [on the market]. It's intelligent; you can turn it on and just let it go.

Our museum has lots of robots that seemed like a good idea at the time, but there was just no way. For example, a lot of them in the '70s, they were basically like a car stereo with an eight-track player and two speakers, in some kind of plastic shell to make it look like a person or a robot—and a couple of flashlights for eyes. They're a joke. You would never use them. They would probably just fall down the stairs and break into a million pieces or set your house on fire. So it'll be a while I think before we get real robots.

But you don't really need robots. We are building intelligence into much simpler things, like light switches and your car. Those are all really useful things.

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