How this museum makes moldy machines work again, saving historic computers for the future
It came from a garage in North Carolina.
“We’d been looking for many years for an IBM 360,” Lath Carlson explained. “A gentleman had passed away and … we bought it sight unseen. It was so rare that when it popped up we wanted it immediately.”
But the executive director of Living Computers: Museum + Labs said the classic 1968 IBM 360/30 mainframe computer came with a multitude of unexpected surprises after sitting in a garage for some two decades. It had, Carlson said, been “getting progressively moldier and moldier and moldier … we actually had to have it specially sealed up to remediate all the mold in it. All the manuals that came with it, every page of every manual had to be vacuumed for all the mold spores on it.”
Now, Carlson said, the IBM mainframe boots up. And has a place of honor inside the carefully air-conditioned ‘cold room’ of the Seattle institution, said to be the only museum in the United States dedicated to both displaying and operating vintage computers.
Living Computers was originally created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a by-appointment-only collection of historically significant computers, from the 1960s to the present. But in October 2012, the south-of-downtown Seattle location opened to the general public, with an emphasis, according to its website, on the “world’s largest collection of fully restored — and usable — supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers.”
Allen himself wrote that one objective is to recognize “the efforts of those creative engineers who made some of the early breakthroughs in interactive computing that changed the world.” To that end, Living Computers has its own team of engineers that revitalize computers so visitors can experience how they work.
The museum’s Carlson joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on pop culture, science fiction, and the arts to walk through Living Computers’ two floors of hands-on exhibits, five years after the public unveiling. We discussed some of the stories behind the computers representing our digital heritage, as well as a main floor of lively, interactive displays of newer developments such as virtual reality and self-driving cars that preview tech’s future.
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There is a lot unique inside Living Computers. The historic computing systems on its upper floor run the gamut from room-filling “big iron” mainframes like the IBM, to minicomputers (so named, Carlson said, not because they were that much smaller than mainframes, but because they generally could run on office power and cooling), to “microcomputers” — today’s personal computers. They provide both a window into each era’s tech, and sometimes its society.
Take the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-7 minicomputer, introduced in 1964 and which Carlson said is the only one that’s still running in the world. With a photo of a pipe-puffing operator nearby. “A lot of the mainframes and minis built in the 1960s and ’70s had ashtrays built into the counters,” Carlson said. “You’d be sitting there working on the machine and, of course, you’re smoking a cigarette or a pipe and you need an ashtray.”
Or the Apple 1, one of about two hundred that Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak originally made. Carlson said theirs is “the only one that’s regularly operated.” Visitors who try it, though, may be surprised by the computer’s case. There is none, only protective Plexiglas around a circuit board. “You just got the bare board; you had to supply your own monitor, keyboard, and everything,” Carlson said. All for a mere $666.66 in 1976 dollars.
Also unique from around the same time: a device the size of a large microwave oven called the Traf-O-Data. While the computer might not be familiar to many, its creators would be. “This is Paul Allen and Bill Gates’ first company,” Carlson said. “They started this in high school. This particular computer was built in a dorm room at U.W. … we have the only version they ever made, here in the museum.” (Allen, perhaps not coincidentally, is Living Computers’ founder.)
Yet Carlson says the most popular computer for visitors isn’t a one-of-a-kind. As a matter of fact, it has a reputation for telling its many users, “You have died of dysentery.”
“The Apple II really gets noticed a lot,” Carlson said. “I think that has to do with people recognize The Oregon Trail running on it, which is the most popular piece of software that we have here. And they recognize the look of it, mostly because they were used so much in computer labs and middle schools and high schools in the 1980s and into the 1990s.”
Living Computers’ critical mass of operating vintage computers, tied to its stated mission “to maintain running computer systems of historical importance,” has also made it a valuable go-to resource for other organizations.
“Something that’s becoming a frequent request for us is that somebody that has software on a format that’s no longer readable by machines that they have, including people like NASA, coming to us going, ‘Hey, we have these things on IBM tape. We have no way to read it. Can you read it?’” Carlson said. “Because in a lot of cases we’re the only people in the entire world that has the operating hardware to read those old media formats.”
Those requests represent a cautionary tale for today’s individual hoarders of old technology, too. “This is an under-appreciated global problem that we have,” Carlson said. It’s not just that the information is in unreadable formats. “They have it on a media that’s actually physically falling apart. So if you have old CDs, DVDs, Jaz drives, floppies, there’s a high likelihood that whatever you think is on there is actually gone forever,” he said.
His advice? “Load your stuff to the cloud because it may not be readable very soon.” Carlson only has to go to an earlier generation of data storage for horror stories. “A lot of the old magnetic tape and especially the disk packs, the physical particles on the disks are falling off,” he said. “A lot of times when we go to read it, when we spin it up to speed to read it, all the particles will fly off and there’s nothing left.”
It’s that kind of experience that appears to take Carlson full circle to continue to respect the durability of some of the oldest systems in Living Computers’ decades-deep collection. “Fortunately, a lot of our machines can run off of paper tape,” he said. “Paper tape or punch cards actually hold up just fine because it’s literally physical holes punched in paper.”
These are the kinds of insights a museum that just displays static, non-working technology is unlikely to be able to have. “We really focus on running the machines,” Carlson said, “and not just collecting.”
Podcast production and editing by Clare McGrane.
Previously in this series: Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening
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