August 18, 2007 1:00 PM PDT

A trip down computer memory lane

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.

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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 (Manhattan Project)," 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.

CONTINUED: Feting the failures too…
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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 )
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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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