A trip down computer memory lane

reporter's notebook At the DigiBarn, computer history is on display alongside several potbellied pigs. Photos: Computers of yesteryear

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

reporter's notebookBOULDER CREEK, Calif.--Can you imagine a computer history museum that has to be packed up and put away each winter and then unpacked each summer, and which has three potbellied pigs as its mascot?

I can, because I've just visited the DigiBarn, a wonderful trip down silicon memory lane that's nestled in a 90-year-old barn, close to a 19th-century farmhouse deep in the Santa Cruz mountains, about 90 minutes south of San Francisco.

The DigiBarn, which is the pride and joy of NASA contractor Bruce Damer and his partner in curation, Alan Lundell, is what might be termed a temporary museum in transition. That's because, on the one hand, it is always growing as the aging lions of Silicon Valley donate their old playthings, and on the other, very wet winters force Damer and Co. to put everything in boxes every year to avoid losing it all to rust.

Yet the collection is surprisingly broad, taking visitors from early 20th-century mechanical calculators all the way through modern Web appliances, stopping along the way to focus on several important elements of the computer revolution.

Naturally, the museum--which requires an invitation, or attendance at the fairly infrequent open houses, including the first one of the year Saturday--isn't as polished as something like the Computer History Museum, in nearby Mountain View, Calif. Then again, there's something particularly charming about the contrast between hundreds of high-tech machines and the three pigs that live just outside, whose mascot status is represented inside the museum by many stuffed and toy pigs.

The DigiBarn's sense of charm is on display the moment you walk into the old farmhouse and come face to face with a series of comptometers, old mechanical adding machines from the 1910s and 1920s that were made by the millions.

"The ladies of Los Alamos would use the comptometer to do differential equations for the ()," Damer said.

Next up is a circa-1971 E-6 flight computer, a small, flat, purely mechanical tool pilots used--and still use, it turns out--for various navigation purposes.

Damer said a group of pilots had recently visited the DigiBarn and had been taken by seeing the E-6 in the collection. He said he asked if they still used the devices, which look a little like a computation wheel, and they told him emphatically that they do.

"'Oh, yeah,'" Damer recalled the pilots answering. "'You don't want to use anything with a battery in it (while flying) because if the battery fails, you're shot.'"

Another mechanical device also stood out in the entryway: a Curta, a round, wind-up computing tool used by, among others, Formula One race car mechanics known at the time as "Curta jocks" to determine race car speeds.

Apple and Microsoft
The DigiBarn pays proper homage to Apple, given its proximity to Cupertino, Calif. Among the first pieces in the collection--though there's an old Mac SE and a Mac Classic II on a shelf just inside the barn's entrance--is a set of Newtons, the first real attempt at the PDA.

Lundell--a longtime Silicon Valley reporter who co-founded the DigiBarn with Damer--held his new iPhone up to the Newton for comparison. The iPhone is about one-third the size and looks ever so much sleeker than its old cousin.

In the next room on the tour, the "Lineage Timeline," which covers the development of personal computers from 1975 to 1990, Damer has accumulated quite the roster of crucial machines from the PC revolution.

Naturally, no such collection would be complete without an Altair 8800, the machine made by Albuquerque, N.M.-based MITS. In 1975, the BASIC language for the machine was written by a small start-up company--that would soon get a little bigger--run by Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Another trip down memory lane in this room was an original Commodore PET from 1977, whose major innovation was that it had BASIC installed in ROM rather than requiring a cassette reader.

There's also a Processor Tech Sol Personal Computer from 1976, which Damer said was the first packaged personal computer.

"The nerd days ended when companies started packaging computers that people would actually buy," Damer said.

The Sol, he added, was the machine that motivated Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to package the Apple II after their Apple I had been more of a kit computer with no case.

So Jobs got $100,000 in venture capital to make the Apple II case. That computer read Applesoft BASIC off cassette, and the DigiBarn collection includes an original Microsoft BASIC tape for the Apple II from 1977, which Damer said is "one of the first artifacts linking Microsoft to Apple."


Correction: This article misidentified when the Osborne computer and Daniel Kottke's portable music player were created.
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