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Desktops

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

Not everything in the collection represents computer successes. In fact, the DigiBarn features some notable failures, such as an Apple III. Damer explained that he had gotten the machine from Apple's legal department when Jobs was trying to throw away a lot of old equipment, including everything with the company's rainbow logo.

Not everything in the collection is Apple, though. There's also an original, 1981 Osborne I--one of the first computers my father ever owned, a giant suitcase-size portable computer--and a Kaypro II, which helped kill the Osborne due to its smaller, sleeker design.

And then, perhaps the most important development, or at least most influential, in the PC revolution: the IBM 5150, better known as the IBM PC. This was the first IBM computer to run Microsoft DOS and became the inspiration for millions upon millions of clone computers, most of which ran Microsoft operating systems.

"The reason why the modern world exists," Damer suggested, "is because of this box, the IBM PC, because everything could be cloned. Everyone talks about the Mac, but this had much more influence."

Video:
Take a tour of a computer museum and meet Altair, Cray, Xerox Alto and the iPod's great grandpa.

The open architecture of the IBM PC was the major reason why it became the dominant computer platform of the 1980s. At Apple, meanwhile, Jobs and Wozniak had competing visions: Wozniak wanted to pursue an open architecture, while Jobs insisted on a closed one. We know which way the company went, of course.

In fact, with the early Macs, you needed a "Mac Cracker," a funky metal device that looks something like a book stand, to open the machine. It would void the warranty, but plenty of hackers did it anyway, looking for ways to modify their new computers.

iPod ancestor
Perhaps the oddest item in the museum's collection is another Apple piece, though certainly not something that was ever intended for production. It is a giant briefcase inside of which early Apple employee Daniel Kottke built, in 1980, what was essentially an early Mac prototype and which also was a portable music player.

Kottke would take the case around to bars and play music on it, Damer explained, adding that, "This is the ancestor of the iPod."

Upstairs, we next visited the "Workstation Wallow," a collection anchored by several old Xerox computers, including what may be one of the most influential machines, ever, the Xerox Alto.

Damer said the machine--"the experimental test bed"--was the first computer to use a mouse, a graphical user interface, WYSIWYG displays, laser printers and more.

"You name it, everything happened on the Alto," Damer said.

Xerox then tried commercializing the Alto with the Xerox Star in 1981, but since the machine cost $13,000, it was really left to Apple and others to mass-market the concepts that came from the Alto and the Star.

For me, things started to get extremely nostalgic at this point, as we came into a room with original Atari Pong machines, as well as an Atari 400 and the Commodore 64, my second computer.

Damer pointed to the Atari 400, which used sturdy cartridges as a storage medium, and joked, "This is the computer that will (still work) in a thousand years when nothing else will. Aliens will come and turn it on and play Space Invaders."

One room over, however, was my first computer, the Commodore Vic-20, a 2K masterpiece on which a friend of mine and I would sit and write incredible programs in BASIC to do things like ask you your name and then print it on the screen an infinite number of times.

Another interesting section was the museum's "OS Wars" display, where Damer has collected most of the editions of Windows, including Windows 1.0, a bare-bones version of the operating system which clearly was based on the Mac OS.

The museum has much more, of course, including a Cray-1 and a Cray Q2, dozens more Macs and old PCs.

But what DigiBarn is really about, said Damer and Lundell, is sharing the histories of the people behind the computers, "because they're dying and no one's talking to them."

And Damer should know. He is intimately connected throughout Silicon Valley and, in fact, many of the pieces in the collection were personally donated by this luminary or that.

Later this year, for example, the museum will be coordinating the restoration of a LINC, a 1962 machine that might be the first personal computer.

"That's why we're doing (the LINC project)," Damer said. "Those guys (who created it and used it) are all alive, and if we don't get their stories...they'll be gone."

 

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