August 18, 2007 1:00 PM PDT
A trip down computer memory lane
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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."
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.
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."
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