October 15, 2003

Computer Museum exhibit helps put IT in perspective

Author: Chris Preimesberger

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- When you stop to think, big, clunky computers with all of 32K of RAM, weighing 50 pounds, and costing $11,975 were standard issue not all that long ago. Even if you believe 25 years is an eternity in the Internet world, just remember this: In the vast depths of history, it is a mere millisecond gone by.

We need to keep in mind that we indeed have "come so far, so fast," as songwriter Don Henley intoned in "End of the Innocence." Only 10 years ago, probably 99.999 percent of the people in the world had never heard of the term "Internet." A short five years ago, e-mail was just beginning to pick up steam as a daily part of people's lives. Even today, as amazing as it sounds, while folks like us are online every day, about half of the world's population has never made or received a phone call.

The Computer History Museum helped put everything into perspective last weekend by hosting Vintage Computer Festival 6.0. The occasion? The 30th anniversary of the invention of the GUI across town at the Palo Alto Research Center, which also was the birthplace of Ethernet, laser printing, and other technologies. It wasn't what I'd call a big event -- just a nice little get-together of veteran computer folks demonstrating some revered antiques that still mostly work. And they generally showed modest pride in the fact that they were among the pioneers in an industry that dominates world communication today.

The Computer History Museum sits in a modern-looking building on a corner just off Highway 101 and across the street from a 16-screen cineplex. Most of the throng of people going in and out of the theaters on this Sunday afternoon have no idea what's in the history corner across the road. Neighbors include what's left of Silicon Graphics Inc. (in fact, the building that houses the museum was once part of SGI), Microsoft's main California campus, and Shoreline Amphitheatre, where Neil Young will host Willie Nelson, Dashboard Confessional, and Crosby Stills & Nash in his annual Bridge Concert in a few weeks.

Once inside the museum, you think you're in a regular Silicon Valley office. On the hall walls are photos and caption stories of key personalities in the computer business, such as Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore of Intel, looking very businesslike in their horn-rimmed glasses; Bill Hewlett and David Packard peeking into their famous garage on Addison Street in Palo Alto for the evitable photo op; Steves Jobs and Wozniak looking oh-so-young with their beards and long hair; Doug Englebart of SRI with the first mouse; the Varian brothers turning dials on one of their inventions; and many more. No Bill Gates or Paul Allen in sight, though; the wall was reserved for innovators, I suppose.

For your amusement, here are descriptions of some of the artifacts on display:

Apple I No. 1 and Apple II No. 10, donated by Steve Wozniak in 1976 to the LO*OP Center, a public access computer club founded in 1975 by Liza Loop and two others, who was at the Vintage show. Apple I didn't even have a cover; it consisted of simply a large motherboard; Apple II No. 10 was in a shell with a small monitor.

Apple Lisa 2, 1 MB RAM (not bad for 1983), 10 MB hard drive, 5 mghz CPU speed, one floppy drive.

IBM Display Writer 5100 Portable, running BASIC only, with 32K of RAM, weighing in at about 50 pounds, and costing $11,975. First went into action on Sept. 9, 1975.

IBM System 23 Datamaster, with two large floppy drives (complete with hand-turn gates) and an Intel 8085 processor, 96K of RAM. Price: $8,900. Shipped on Nov. 23, 1982.

And finally, an ancient IBM-type Cromemeo System One, with two large floppy drives, the hard disk behind a sort of grille, and a key to turn it on -- much like a car ignition. Might have been designed in Detroit.

Posters on the wall were nostalgic to computer veterans: "APL: The unCOBOL", was one; "Powered by Amiga" read another.

On one table was an Apple TV/Radio system from the early '90s, said owner Hideki Muto of Vintage Computer LLC, of Torrance, Calif. Muto had it for sale for $99.95, in case you're in the market for one.

People just milled around, laughing at the old clunkers and at a bubble-gum dispenser loaded with old chips, marveling at the homemade components, reminiscing about the old days in computerdom. There were many folks who looked like they had at one time been actual hippies; I don't mean that as a derogatory remark -- it's just the way their lifestyles had taken them.

Liza Loop, her gray hair long and wearing rimless glasses, was one of them. I just had to ask her something of a personal nature. Loop (maiden name Strauss) introduced the first Apple computer into an elementary school in the late '70s and invited members of the Homebrew Computer Club (Wozniak's club) to join with the LO*OP Center for some projects in 1976. "Did 'Saturday Night Live' ever call to ask your permission?" I asked.

Ms. Loop just looked at me quizzically. No, I guess not; she probably was too busy working on computers in 1975 to know that Gilda Radner was playing Liza Loopner to Bill Murray's Todd in the famous "noogie" sketch.

Yes, we've come a long way, very quickly. Seems like only yesterday all these old contraptions were helping us earn our daily bread.

From the editor: What ancient computer systems did you use years ago that actually worked, and worked well? I invite you to tell us about them.


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