In some ways, collecting old computers isn't much different from collecting anything old: You have to take care of the stuff. "Is it decaying?" asks Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif. He describes the remains of sound-dampening foam that once hushed the whir of cooling fans in 1960s and '70s mainframes. "It turns into a tarry mess—really gross, black sludge," he says. That's relatively easy to clean out, but some troubles require more technical expertise. Reading the information on a 1950s disk stack might be hard, says Spicer, a circuit designer turned historian, but harder still is making sense of it. "Do you recognize what these bits are?" he asks, explaining the need for both obsolete hardware and outdated operating systems.
Despite such challenges, Spicer has helped the Computer History Museum acquire more than 100 000 technological artifacts, building the largest collection of its kind. Of these the museum has selected 1200 for a new exhibit called Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.
The curator estimates that 3000 people come each week to see Revolution, which opened in January 2011. The stories behind the artifacts attract all those visitors, says the museum's president, John Hollar, who particularly enjoys exhibits that highlight tales of engineering triumph. A favorite artifact is a piece of the Apollo Guidance Computer, which helped put men on the moon despite having only 36 kilobytes of memory. But Spicer admits that the computer relics draw visitors for simpler reasons too. Sans sludge, "they're very beautiful objects," he says.
Cold War Computer: The biggest pieces in the Computer History Museum's collection belong to the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, developed for the U.S. Air Force. SAGE, explains senior curator Dag Spicer, was really a network of 23 Costco-size warehouses located throughout the United States and Canada. The system stored flight information for all authorized commercial and military flights and flagged any "unknowns" spotted by radar, in an attempt to protect the United States from Soviet bombers. "It probably cost more than the Manhattan Project, and yet very few people know about it," Spicer says. "At one point, something like three-quarters of all programmers in the country were working on SAGE, so it trained a whole generation."
Arm Waving: From the Norwegian for "snake," the Orm was an early attempt at a computer-controlled robotic arm. Created in 1969 by Stanford engineers Victor Scheinman and Larry Leifer, the arm could extend by inflating several of 28 air sacs sandwiched between seven metal disks. Despite its elegant design, accuracy was never its forte. Scheinman would go on to produce the Stanford Electric Arm, which was capable of building a Ford Model T water pump. Manufacturers also consulted him on many of the key industrial robot designs of the 1970s and '80s, Spicer says.