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Saving Bits and Bytes for History

As technology reinvents itself at ever-faster speeds, museums and collectors are rescuing superstar computers abandoned after their moment of glory.

August 07, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a muggy autumn morning in 1985, computer scientist John Lee and a small band of researchers gathered on a farm in Virginia and began grubbing through a heap of rusted refrigerators, stoves and ancient radios tossed there decades ago by a scrap dealer.

Buried somewhere in this pile of junk lay pieces of the only Harvard Mark III computer ever built--a house-sized machine festooned with flashing lights and whirring tape reels that Time magazine put on its cover in 1950 as a "thinking machine" that could have "more effect on mankind than atomic energy."

Lee and his comrades uncovered their first piece in moments--an aluminum arm with a dime-sized slug of steel that was used to read a Mark III memory device.

"All of us were mentally jumping for joy," Lee said, recalling the excitement of their discovery.

Their joy, however, was short-lived. After a year in which they gathered a few boxes of Mark III pieces, the farm was sold and a house was built on top of the junk pile.

"Gone . . . all gone," said Lee from his office at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University as he gazed at the aluminum arm he had dug up years ago. "Those people have no idea what is under their patio."

For technology, time has proved to be a cruel master, an insatiable destroyer of what is arguably the greatest revolution of the 20th century. Unlike great literature and art, which grow in meaning and significance over time, old technology has simply become obsolete stuff that takes up space.

Over just the last 50 years, some of the most famous pieces of computing history--devices as revolutionary in their time as Gutenberg's printing press or James Watt's steam engine--have been heaped into landfills across the world.

For historians they are painful losses, since many of the pioneers of this revolution are still alive and their creations could have been easily saved if someone had had the foresight to see their significance.

The Harvard Mark III was cut into pieces in 1958 and literally tossed out of the windows of a Navy laboratory after its useful life was over--a few short years.

Others, like one of the computers that created the first links in the earliest version of the Internet, the first transistorized computer (the 1956 TX-0) and the World War II-era British Colossus computers that helped crack the Nazi war codes, are all gone.

Capturing a Piece of the Internet

In many ways, the lightning pace of technological change has begun to rewrite the rules of historical preservation. Historians are being overwhelmed by the volume of inventions that they guess will be important artifacts in the future.

One of the biggest problems they face is figuring how to preserve even a tiny sliver of what has become the most significant technological movement of recent years--the Internet, a sea of data that is re-created and destroyed each second.

"We are in the process of losing our heritage by not preserving it," said Lee, the former editor in chief of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Annals of the History of Computing. "It's being destroyed at a faster rate than ever before."

If there is a safe and sacred spot for historic technology, it is the Computer Museum History Center in the heart of Silicon Valley at Moffett Field--a former naval air station now run by NASA.

Art has its Guggenheims and Gettys, but for computing technology the Computer Museum is one of the few institutions, along with the Smithsonian, that has even considered technology worthy of collecting.

Its ramshackle buildings speak volumes about the status of technology in the public consciousness.

For the uninitiated, the inside of the museum's buildings look a lot like a dilapidated warehouse of used office equipment.

In fact, the buildings are a group of old Navy warehouses that have been pressed into service while the museum waits for NASA to begin realizing its long-term plan to convert Moffett Field into a technology business center and museum complex.

In the meantime, the museum is open only one day a week to small groups of visitors who make reservations.

Inside the warehouses, equipment is stacked almost haphazardly on metal racks, and a thick layer of dust covers the heaps of metal electronics boxes, Teletypes, adding machines and old computer monitors.

Parked outside one of its buildings is a silver utility van that looks like any of the numerous work vehicles scooting across Moffett Field. In fact, it is the van used by scientists in the early 1970s to make what some researchers argue was the first true transmission of the modern Internet, using prototype military radios tied into a computer network.

Dag Spicer, a 38-year-old electrical engineer and curator of the museum, said the dilapidated state of tech history is simply a reflection of the warped nature of modern life, in which everything seems focused on the next great thing.

"The problem we face is one of prostalgia--the longing for things not yet invented," Spicer said.

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