August 18, 2007 1:00 PM PDT

A trip down computer memory lane

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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."

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Video: Computer history, in a barn
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.

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As an old Vic-20 user, I'm surprised at your slip about the PET; the 20 also had BASIC in ROM. Where else?

And much more was possible with the Vic. It eventually had memory cartridges up to 16K (!), cassette recorders (for programs and data), etc. One long program I recall writing and using was a GO game saver. It produced a game board on-screen, and stored plays in sequence for playback later - very valuable for learning from master games published in magazines, etc.

And there were game cartridges and cassettes; from Frogger to Centipede to Spiders of Mars. Great color graphics -- but blown away by the wonderful stuff produced by the Commodore 64! Now, there was a machine ...
Posted by BrianFH (54 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Old memories indeed
Can you remember when the big thing in graphics was using sprites to display your game images? It was a vast improvement over having to use text. And the sounds! I personally believe disco music was heavily influenced by the sounds made on those old computer games. Even today, I can be reminded of those days. Just walk into a grocery store, close your eyes, and listen to all the cash registers as they blip every time an item is scanned. It sounds like someone playing a game of breakout. blip blip.... blip blip blip..... blip....
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
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PET Predates VIC
The PET far predates the VIC. There was the original PET, with the bad keyboard and the onboard cassette drive, then the later ones (B and N series) with the new keys and the tape drive external. Then came the CBM series, like the 8032 and 8096. The VIC 20 followed that. The reason for the mention of the PET is that it was what started it all.
Posted by amadensor (248 comments )
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Vic 20 2K?
I had a Vic 20 - I remembered it as a 4K machine. I just checked on Wikipedia and they say it's a 5K machine :)
I enjoyed reading this article. It brought back lots of memories of a very interesting and quite geeky childhood. I hope they've got a Sinclair Spectrum out there - I'd be happy to donate mine if they don't. Come to think of it, maybe I should give them my Apple ][e clone - I'm sure they wouldn't have one of those.
Posted by SunilDe (2 comments )
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Yes the VIC-20 had 5.5K of RAM but only 3583 was available for the user.
I was a member of the VIC-20 product team in 1980 and this article makes me feel old today...
Posted by jhstockman (1 comment )
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Please donate your Spectrum to me, if they don't want it!
Posted by Dingbattie (12 comments )
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UI artifacts at DIGIBARN ...
We thank Bruce for operating the DIGIBARN at his farm. Remarkable collection of history captured for us and future generations. What this article does not mention is the incredible collections and fore-tellings of the major UI accomplishments like the PERQ computer developed at Xerox PARC. The PERQ invention made the first WYSIWYG display and printing of trillions of documents worldwide. A transformational step in modern computing and publishing. Bruce gives a compelling demo of this pioneering invention at the DIGIBARN.
Posted by b_hamid (1 comment )
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E6, E6B and one other
I still have an E6 flight computer, E6B flight computer both silver and blue ?? and one other in flat black with i think yellow printing issued by the AAF in the 40's or 50's that belonged to a brother and my father that flew.

I used them to actually time and plot cross-country driving times and fuel use back in the 70's

I think I'll go dig thru those old crates they are stored in and go down some memory lane myself. Who knows ??? the one issued by the AAF may be worth something on EBay
Posted by culturtha (15 comments )
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Olde Computers
Do you remember the Sinclair? It came with an 8080 I believe, and near Basic language; you put it together yoursellf. In my case I used an Heathkit BW AC/DC TV as a monitor. Later Timex sold a built model under their name. The Sinclair was a good learning tool.
Posted by datil8 (2 comments )
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I recently sent an Osborne to Bruce D at the DigiBarn. I had built it up from parts I bought in a Palo Alto warehouse, leftovers after the company's collapse. I reassembled it in a carrying case I built from used first-growth redwood planks. Bruce seemed to fall in love with it from a pic I attached to an email to him. He reimbursed me for shipping from Honolulu. I am very pleased that the Digibarn exists...I had no idea what to do with the O2 and couldn't put it in the trash. (I got the idea for a wood box after watching a man at ARPA show me a little wood box with two wheels on its bottom...he moved it on his desk and a small blip traveled across his computer screen. He said another computer in Princeton mirrored his screen. He said this was the first two elements of the ARPANET.)
Posted by 0sborne (1 comment )
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