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San Diego Project Faces Long Odds : Couple Collecting 'Dinosaurs' for Computer Museum

March 22, 1987|CHRIS KRAUL | San Diego County Business Editor

SAN DIEGO — So far, it's a museum without walls, endowment or curatorial staff and precious little in the way of exhibit material. In short, the Computer Museum of America is little more than an idea whose time, its promoters fervently hope, has come.

But, if husband-and-wife computer consultants Jim and Marie Petroff of San Diego have their way, a computer museum will someday take its place alongside other local museums dedicated to subjects including natural history, art and sports immortals.

For four years, the Petroffs have collected a dozen computers, many of which are technological dinosaurs although less than 30 years old, with the goal of finding a permanent home for the machines. Many of the Petroffs' machines were rescued from the scrap heap and are being stored in two mini-warehouses.

The Petroffs say one of the abandoned Navy Hospital buildings in Balboa Park would be an ideal place for a 25,000-square-foot computer museum. But they are only one of 40 groups that have shown interest in occupying the three structures in the Navy Hospital complex that will survive the wrecker's ball.

Asked to assess the Petroffs' chances, San Diego Park and Recreation Department Assistant Director David Toomey, who oversees disposition of the Navy Hospital buildings, said only that the computer museum is one of a "half dozen legitimate museum uses" among the 40 proposed for the Navy Hospital complex.

City Council to Decide

Among the "legitimate" museum proposals, the leading contender seems to be a well-financed group promoting a railroad museum, observers say. The San Diego City Council will decide which of the museums gets the space.

Assuming the Petroffs find a home for their museum, they then would be in competition for donations of funds and equipment with an existing computer museum in Boston. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington could be viewed as a competitor for resources, as could a high-technology museum planned for San Jose.

The Petroffs have spent $12,000 of their money, most of it in storage fees, keeping their idea alive. Although they have yet to build a base of support, Jim Petroff said the museum's marketing recently entered a new phase. He recently sent brochures to 1,000 San Diego County high-technology businesses seeking donations of equipment and cash. The $650 cost of the brochure was picked up by National University, which used it to advertise classes.

Mark Hunt, marketing director for the Computer Museum in Boston, which opened in November, 1984, in a converted riverfront cotton warehouse, said his museum has had a difficult time raising money and did not offer much encouragement to the Petroffs. His museum has been funded mainly by Digital Equipment Corp.

"The computer industry is so young that there is no ethic or culture for corporate giving among these upstart companies," Hunt said.

The Technology Center of Silicon Valley, a 200,000-square-foot high-technology museum that will open in downtown San Jose in 1991, will owe its existence to a $60-million subsidy from the City of San Jose, said Susan Carsen, the center's associate director of development. Major corporations, including International Business Machines Corp., which pledged $500,000 in computer equipment, have also gotten behind the San Jose museum with major donations, she said.

The long odds do not daunt Jim Petroff, 37, who seems convinced that the computer museum will succeed if the word gets around. He said a museum is "essential" to preserve the artifacts of an industry that "obsoletes itself every six months."

The Petroffs' museum pieces include a Daystrom 046 computer, a 3 1/2-ton behemoth that is 17 feet long, 7 feet high and 4 feet wide. For all its bulk, the Daystrom, made in 1958, has only four kilobytes of core memory, less memory than is contained in most hand-held computers these days. The computer, the first to use solid state circuitry, was donated by San Diegan Lou Benton.

"The Smithsonian Institution wanted the Daystrom, but it also wanted Lou to pay for shipment to Washington, D.C.," Petroff said.

The Petroffs also have in their collection a Royal Precision LGP 30 computer made in 1959 that operates on vacuum tubes. Costing $50,000, the computer was the first geared mainly for businesses, Petroff said. "You open up the back of it, and it looks like an old television set," Petroff said.

But Petroff said much newer computers also have become collector's items. Among them is a Superbrain Microcomputer made by Intertech Data System in 1980, a machine that Petroff said helped make CPM (control program for microprocessors) the predominant computer operating language. A year later, IBM introduced personal computers with DOS (disk operating systems), crushing competitors such as Intertech "with a big blue hammer."

"CPM had 80% of the microcomputer market in 1980. Now, I don't think there is a retail computer store in San Diego that sells software geared to CPM-driven machines," Petroff said.

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