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Box Populi

Preserving Our Digital Roots, One Motherboard at a Time

March 09, 2003|STEVE HAWK

The best thing about the latest computers is that any idiot can use one. It's also the worst thing about the latest computers. So says Sellam Ismail, founder of the Vintage Computer Festival, held annually in Silicon Valley, and owner of perhaps the world's largest personal collection of obsolete thinking machines. Ismail's complaint dates back to the early '80s, around the time desktops evolved from electronic Erector sets to household appliances. Today, he says, few users have any idea how the things actually work.

Ismail, 32, has made it his mission to rectify that, one dusty motherboard at a time. "I call him the Che Guevara of computer collectors," says Dag Spicer, curator of exhibits at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. "He's a great organizer, he has a vision, and he inspires people."

Ismail upgraded from accumulator to addict about 10 years ago, when he subscribed to an online newsletter for like-minded hoarders. He has stockpiled about 1,700 minicomputers, 5,000 books and 15,000 magazines, along with printers, video-game consoles, modems, monitors and manuals--all housed in a chilly Oakland warehouse.

His jumbled collection features gems such as a circa mid-'60s PDP-8 by DEC (originally priced at about $18,000) and less rarefied gizmos including a pizza-sized removable hard drive, circa early 1970s, holding just 5 megs of memory; and a 300-baud GTE modem from the late '60s resembling a toaster oven. Then there's the 1979 Apple II Plus, which helped launch the home-computer revolution. "This is what I grew up on," he says, recalling his teen years in Northridge.

Ismail has now come full circle. Three years ago he left his job as a telecommunications software developer and set up as an expert on "vintage" computers. He has rented props to filmmakers, consulted in patent-infringement lawsuits, and recovered data from archaic storage media, including an unpublished novel stored on outmoded 8-inch floppies.

His long-term goal? Create a nonprofit, user-friendly resource center outfitted with humming boxes from geekdom's golden age. "Our entire society is going to be based on computers," Ismail declares. "I want to give the next generation the same opportunity I had to learn about them."

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