My computer history in a museum

My experience with computers exists in two parallel tracks, personal and professional. I saw some of both when I went to the Living Computer Museum in Seattle. Not only does the museum have a lot of computers and artifacts on display, but many of the computers are running which you can try. There's also a computer room (complete with raised floor) running the larger systems.

Personal experience

Many of the personal computers on display predate when I started using them, although there was a wide selection of Windows computers, including 1.0 and Microsoft BOB.



PC-100A printer

Most of my computer experience in high school involved calculators. My first programmable calculator (my first programming experience, actually) was the Texas Instruments TI-55. I later switched to a TI-59, which had not only much greater programming capacity and capability, but a card reader so I could save programs.

HP 41C

In addition to the TI-59 being on display, the printer which I used was also on display.

My next calculator was the HP-41C, which was an even greater leap forward in programmability. The HP-41C on display seemed to be missing its keyboard, and was labeled as a 42C, but they did have a 41CX with the full keyboard. Since I was used to them with the TI-59, I also used a card reader and printer.

PDP 8/e

PDP 8/e

The first time I used a full-sized computer was during the Summer Science Program in 1979, where a Digital Equipment PDP 8/e was used for some of the orbital mechanics equations. Mostly everything was preprogrammed, so all we needed to do was punch in numbers. It was useful to cross-check the numbers we got with calculators.

S-100 bus computers

IMSAI 8080

My parents got Z80S-100 bus computer. The Z80 was Zilog's version of the Intel 8080. Specs-wise, it was similar to the IMSAI 8080, and I learned BASIC on that computer. My next computer was also a Z80, on which I learned assembly language.

After the S-100 bus computers, I started using a Mac II in 1987, and have followed them ever since.

Professional experience

While my use of personal computers went from smaller to larger (at least until I started using laptops), the computers I used at work got smaller.



When I first got to college, they had just started using a DECSYSTEM-20 for general usage. I'm not sure which version they started with, but it was about as long as the one in the photo.

A few years later when I worked for Stanford, one of the systems we managed was a 2060 (later upgraded to a 2065), along with both RP06 (180MB of storage) and RP07 (512MB) devices. We also had RA80 (120MB) and RA81 (450MB) drives for disks which were shared between devices.


RP07 disk assembly

The RP06 uses a removable disk pack, while the RP07 disk pack is sealed in a case which is about the same size as the RP06

Xerox Alto


The Computer Science department had several Xerox Alto computers, and they were used for very different things. One accepted all print jobs to the laser printer (a new thing at that time), several others were used to typeset using early versions of TeX (used to format documents), and another controlled a vending machine (payment was all electronic). The Alto is most famous for being the computer seen by Apple Computer, which led them to creating the Apple Lisa and Macintosh.



One job I had was to manage a clone of a DECSYSTEM-10 for a small research group. It didn't really look like the photo; it was one rack wide, had lots of exposed lights and toggle switches on the front panel, and everything was wire-wrapped, which was much more haphazard than this wire wrapping of the Control Data 6500. To shut down or reboot the system, one needed to set the switches for a certain address, then instruct the computer to jump directly there, where the firmware would cause the computer to restart.

Control Data 6500

The data center for that job was shared with a large defense contractor. At one point they decided their portion of the data center should be more secure, so they put up chain link fencing around their systems. Since ours was not close to the door, they had to create a path to our computer which was not enclosed.

One of the more interesting jobs was we got a bunch of workstations, but the desire was to have the system in the data center but the keyboard, mouse, and bitmapped display in the office, which was the next building over. That meant threading a relatively thick cable (it needed plenty of shielding for the display wires) through a long conduit, then soldering a connector with what must have been around a dozen pins. If any of the solder joints were bad or incorrectly connected, the distance involved made debugging very slow.


VAX 11/780


The group for which I managed the DECYSTEM-10 clone decided to switch over to a VAX, which was my first experience with Unix. Later, when I worked at Stanford, we managed VAX systems which were similar to this one.

We eventually got a TU78 tape drive, which was nice since it had auto-loading.


HP 2627A, rack

I had a college job at Lockeed where we used terminals such as this 2627A. We each had a modem and an extra phone which we used to dial into the main system we used.

Several years later, I worked at HP and we each had a workstation with a bitmapped display. The devices in the mini rack on the right are drives which are similar to the ones we used both for our workstations and in the data center.

Other items on display



At UW we're still using a Unisys computer similar to this one. A lot of work has gone into moving the administrative services (payroll, employee and student data, etc.) off of it.

This particular computer was used by another university (I believe the docent said it was San Diego), and after they migrated off of it, they donated it to the museum.

Data General Nova

Data General Nova

If you haven't read Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, it talks about the creation of the Data General Eclipse, which was to supersede the Nova shown in the picture. As in his other books, he's good at building characters, and the Eclipse became a character on its own.

The museum lists a Nova in the data center room, but I must have missed it.

DEC VT100 terminal


When I arrived at Stanford, the most prevalent computer terminal was the ADM-3A, which was not much more than a teletype machine with a screen. There were a few Zenith Z-19 terminals (a pre-assembled twin to the Heathkit H19) which were popular because you could position the cursor anywhere on the screen, which made text editing much easier, since you didn't have to repeatedly print out the line you were editing.

Later, the VT100 started showing up, and many people liked the detached keybaord.

IBM card punch

IBM 29 card punch

I would say punching cards predates me, but they were still using cards at Stanford until about a year or two before I went there. Also my parents had a card punch for the computer they used for their home business, and I would be entertained watching the cards go by. One day I apparently decided that it would be fun to toss the chads (the punched-out bits) in the air, which didn't really amuse them.