It’s pretty easy to tell how each day is going for Bruce Sherry, Principle Engineer at Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum (LCM). As LCM’s self-labeled “Techromancer,” the veteran of such companies as Intel and Cisco Systems, is part of a team of engineers who renovate vintage systems at the museum. You can often surmise if he has encountered a difficult problem with his work from a far-off look on his face. He might also be wandering away from the workstation near his current project, heading up renovation of the museum’s Control Data Corporation (CDC) 6500 supercomputer.
This process is helpful for dealing with most obstacles, according to Bruce. “There are times when the best way to solve a problem is to leave it alone,” Bruce said. “People always assume that I’m using my left brain, but I use the right a lot, too. However, my right brain operates in binary: yes/no.”
Clearing his mind of the problem gives Bruce the chance to go through his mental checklist, with yes/no binary answers helping him get to the root of the problem. Work on the CDC 6500 has provided him with plenty of opportunities to use this process, as reviving the decommissioned supercomputer has taken a year and half with more yet to come. The LCM staff knew it would be a long project full of puzzling obstacles. Lucky for LCM, Bruce loves puzzles.
What are the biggest challenges? Bruce is learning about two separate machines, a dual CPU and a peripheral processing unit, that comprise the three bays of the CDC 6500. There are also several different peripherals that the museum doesn’t yet have, or has but are too fragile to run very often, which must be emulated for a complete system. While the ideal is to have completely authentic systems, LCM engineers turn to emulation at some point in many projects.
In spite of occasional emulation, LCM’s artifacts are largely presented as they were during their original usage. Bruce is happy to be a part of such an unusual institution, because he believes the experience of using the systems from beginning to end- running a punched card deck, hearing the hum of the machine, seeing results printed out on a line printer – can’t be fully appreciated using an emulator on a newer device.
Just across the mainframe room from Bruce, a pair of LCM engineers are resurrecting a working example of another important machine- the IBM System/360 Model 20. IBM changed the landscape of the computer market by standardizing a line of software and peripherals to be compatible with models of varying size and power within the System/360 family, easing the transition between systems in anticipation of the changing needs of the consumer. The first models of IBM’s System/360 family of computers were introduced in 1964, and the 360/20 was first available in 1966. LCM’s Glen Hermannsfeldt and Craig Arno have been working since February on the 360/20, a machine that has been in the museum’s IBM Collection since 2012.
Like Bruce, Glen and Craig have made computing their life’s work and passion. Glen was making punched cards on a Model 026 keypunch from the age of eight, started coding System/360 programs before he entered high school, and would later use Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) systems in college.
“I think you find that people remember their first computer system,” Glen said. “I still remember my early work with IBM systems, and that is what attracted me to this project.”
Glen’s experience with the System/360 has been essential to the renovation of the Model 20, a process which is approaching completion. As with Bruce’s experience with the CDC 6500, there have been obstacles restoring this vintage machine in modern times. Some components needed to be manufactured because original parts were unavailable. Lack of documentation for a system can be inhibiting, as it has been for previous projects. LCM’s Collections Department is always on the hunt for relevant documentation in addition to historic computers.
Craig felt the call to this world at an even younger age than Glen. “I knew since I was 4 years old that I wanted to be an Electrical Engineer.”
After using DEC systems in high school, his focus on computers intensified. Now the veteran of tech giants like Microsoft and Motorola, Craig often still spends free time dabbling with electronics and software. He was drawn to this project after getting acquainted with LCM first as a frequent visitor to the Free First Thursday activities at the museum. Craig, ever the tinkerer, wanted to be more involved. After speaking with LCM Engineering Manager Robert Michaels, Craig’s expertise was put to use on the 360/20 project.
Tackling some problems has been a process of “discovery.” It can be slow, but caution is key in LCM renovations. Craig thinks Robert’s choice of collaborators on this project has been well-balanced, and praises Glen for his system-specific knowledge of the 360/20. Moreover, he feels they have been given state-of-the-art tools and invaluable advice from other experienced vintage system renovators.
With each new machine these “Techromancers” resurrect, LCM adds to the story of the development of computers. Together all the engineers of LCM help to ensure working examples spanning 50 years of computing are up and running under one roof. Such a wide range of interactive artifacts allows guests to experience first-hand how quickly computing technology has progressed.
Last year’s summer event, the Vintage Computer Faire, drew hundreds of families, giving LCM the opportunity to connect with computer users of all ages. Come see the results of renovations, both in-progress and complete, on display at this year’s “Free Play”- a free family-oriented event at the museum. Among the many activities, the Living Computer Museum is proud to team up with Seattle Retro Gaming to showcase consoles and games throughout video game history. Join us on August 15th for “Free Play” from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free for all ages.