Bits of History

Admiring the Obsolete

Photo: Timothy Archibald

No tale of bits, hertz, or flops drew photographer Mark Richards to the technological relics displayed at the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif. "I was struck by the human aspects of these artifacts," he says, comparing a clustering of wires to a spinal column and core memory to a handwoven tapestry. "I like the marks. I like the dust. I like all the inconsistencies, the weirdness," he says.

When Richards was asked to name a few favorites, the anthropomorphic Orm—a robotic arm—was the first to come to mind. The wire-laden limb, which uses tiny air sacs to stretch and reach, appears in a parade of historic technologies in this month's issue [see "Bits of History'']. Richards logged more than two months of work—spread out over two years—snapping photos of 1200 machines from the museum's recently unveiled exhibit, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

"I spent way too much time under fluorescent lighting," he says, "and my feet won't let me stand that long on concrete again." But it was worth it: "How many times are you going to be this close to the stuff that helped to get us to the moon or started the whole video-game industry?"

This is Richards's second collaboration with the museum. His first was a 2007 book, Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers. "Geeks are really different," he says of the experts on the museum's staff. "I felt like part of their family, which for a freelance photographer is pretty unusual."

A photojournalist, Richards has most often captured images of singular people and moments in history. In 1975, while in the U.S. Navy, he witnessed the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, and in 1983 he interviewed and photographed Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was leading the troops that eventually drove the USSR out of Afghanistan. Photographing the first magnetic memory storage and a prototype Pong video-game machine, he says, isn't really all that incongruous. "It's all history," he says, "and it's kind of nice to be there."