Computer

Classic chat: keep computer history

Classic chat: keep computer history

Of the many facets of modern technology, few have evolved faster or more radically than the computer. In less than a century, its very nature has changed dramatically: today’s smartphones easily outperform the desktop computers of the past, machines that were themselves thousands of times more powerful than desktop-sized giants. ‘a piece that ushered in the era of digital computing. Technology has developed so quickly that someone who makes a living developing iPhone apps could very well have started their career working with stacks of punch cards.

With things changing so quickly, it can be difficult to determine what is worth keeping from a historical perspective. Will last year’s Chromebook ever be a museum piece? What about those old Lotus 1-2-3 floppy disks you have in the garage? Deciding which artifacts are worth preserving in a rapidly changing field is just one of the challenges facing Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California. Dag arrested by the Hack Chat in June 2019 to talk about the role of the CHM and other similar institutions in storing and protecting the history of computing for future generations.

To answer that most pressing question, what’s worth saving from the landfill, Dag says the CHM often follows what they call the ‘ten-year rule’ before making a decision. . That is, at least a decade should have passed before a decision could be made regarding a particular artifact. They think that’s long enough for hindsight to determine whether the piece in question made a lasting impression on the computing world or not. Note that such an impression need not always be positive; pieces that the CHM considers “interesting failures” are also found in the collection, as well as material that has become important due to patent litigation.

Of course, there are times when this rule is bent. Dag cites the release of the iPod and iPhone as a prime example. It was clear that one way or another, Apple’s bold bet was going to go down in the annals of computing history, so these gadgets were quickly made part of the collection. Looking back on that decision in 2022, it’s clear they made the right call. When asked in the chat if Dag had any thoughts on contemporary hardware that could have a similar impact on the computing world, he pointed to artificial intelligence accelerators like Google’s Tensor Processing Unit.

In addition to the material itself, the CHM also maintains a collection of ephemera which serves to capture some of the institutional memory of the time. Notebooks from the R&D labs of Fairchild Semiconductor or handwritten documents from Intel luminary Andrew Grove bring a human touch to a collection of large tin and beige boxes. These primary sources are especially valuable for those looking to research early semiconductor or computer developments, a task several Chat members said Computer History Museum staff personally helped them with.

Near the end of the chat, a user asks why organizations like the CHM have to go to great expense to keep all these relics in temperature-controlled storage when we have the ability to photograph them in high definition, produce schematics of their internal components and emulate their functionality on much more capable systems. While Dag admits emulation is probably the way to go if you only care about the software side, he thinks pictures and diagrams just aren’t enough to capture the true essence of these machines.

CHM’s PDP-1 Demonstration Laboratory, image by Alexei Komarov.

Quoting the words of Digital Equipment Corporation’s first engineer, Gordon Bell, Dag says these computers are “beautiful sculptures” that “reflect the times of their creation” in a way that cannot be easily replicated. They not only represent the technological state of the art, but also the cultural milieu in which they were developed, with every design decision considering a wide range of variables from contemporary aesthetics to material availability.

While 3D scans of a computer’s case and digital facsimiles of its internal components can serve to preserve some of the engineering that went into these computers, they can never capture the experience of seeing the real thing. thing sitting in front of you. Any schoolboy can tell you what mona-lisa looks like it, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from lining up every year to see it at the Louvre.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers to connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these introductory articles along with the transcripts published on Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss anything.