GeekWire “Geek of the Year” nominee Paul Allen can be referred to by many titles. Around Seattle, “Owner of the Seahawks” has been popular, especially as the ‘Hawks continue to turn in spectacular seasons. “Philanthropist” is also quite appropriate, as he has donated to several notable causes, including brain science and the eradication of the Ebola virus. Recently, “Explorer” has been used in connection with the historic discovery of the WWII Japanese battleship Musashi by Allen and his team. However, as often as Paul Allen makes the news, he is most often described as “Microsoft Co-Founder.” The persistent use of that particular title, amongst all the labels that Allen’s interests and endeavors might bestow, reflects the impact that Microsoft has had on our society and on computing history. Fittingly, one of those interests is preserving computing history, including the contributions of Microsoft, at the Living Computer Museum.
When Microsoft turned 40 on April 4th, 2015, much attention was given to the history of the company. Co-founder Bill Gates reflected on that past in his letter to Microsoft employees. Allen marked the occasion by tweeting a picture of the title page of their first product- Altair BASIC. It was this tweet that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella referenced at the beginning of the recent Microsoft Build conference, saying, “A lot has changed since Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote their first lines of code. A lot of devices have come and gone.” Nadella then shifted the focus of his talk to the future of Microsoft, as did Gates in his letter. And while Allen also has his sights set on the future, he still believes in restoring and displaying the devices of which Nadella spoke.
The Living Computer Museum (LCM) grew from humble beginnings that tie directly into Allen’s own introduction to computing, which set him on the path to co-founding Microsoft. The collection was first presented to the public via the website PDPplanet.com, which offered users online access to restored vintage hardware (a service still available at the LCM website). As the name implies, the collection focused on PDP (“Programmed Data Processor”) machines from Digital Equipment Corporation, a powerhouse in the bygone minicomputer and mainframe computing markets. LCM still houses a number of PDP computers. When guests enter the exhibit hall, the first computer they see is the only working PDP-7 minicomputer in the world. The raised floor computer room includes several models of the PDP-10 mainframe family, which Allen and Gates used from high school into the early days of Microsoft. The PDP-11/70 minicomputer sitting in the middle of the exhibit hall was even nicknamed “Miss Piggy” by the Microsoft employees who used it as a mail server during the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
As the collection outgrew the moniker of PDPplanet, the mission of the staff broadened to both accessing and displaying the systems. Since LCM opened to the public in October of 2012, guests can now interact with far more machines in person than they could through the web. An exhibit hall expansion in December of 2014 included a focus on the rise of the software industry, using Microsoft products to illustrate its growth. Visitors can interact with the Altair 8800 using Altair BASIC, while surrounded by artifacts and images that explore the origins of “Micro-Soft” in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Guests can interact with other versions of BASIC made for early home computers, also, as Microsoft grew and relocated to Allen and Gates’ home state of Washington. The rise of Windows is demonstrated with various vintage computers, beginning with an IBM PC XT running Windows 1.0. This original Microsoft graphical user interface (GUI) is part of a section dedicated to GUIs and includes other popular vintage machines like the Xerox Alto, original Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga 500, and Atari 1040 ST. As the focus shifts to personal computing on a mass scale, visitors can see Microsoft software, such as Office and Encarta, and hardware, such as the original Microsoft Mouse and the Xbox One.
Anyone visiting LCM will be interacting with history. It is most often nostalgia, the desire to revisit their own history and share it with their family and friends, which brings them through the door. In that regard, Allen has a shared experience with many of LCM’s visitors, the experience of having one’s life transformed by these machines. A love of computing propelled Allen and Gates from programmers hoping to ply their trade for a modest salary to founding a company instrumental in the personal computing revolution. In the 40th anniversary letter to Microsoft employees, Gates wrote, “We have accomplished a lot together during our first 40 years and empowered countless businesses and people to realize their full potential.”
LCM reminds visitors how that empowerment looked and felt by keeping the history of computers alive.