Living Computers: Museum + Labs (LCM+L) has a wide array of neat machines, along with the software and documentation needed to help them run. We even acquire some other cool pieces of computing history, from promotional signs to vintage magazines to branded swag given to employees and clients. The collection started as one set of computers owned by Paul G. Allen, who hoped to preserve older hardware and software, specifically timesharing systems he used in his early days as a programmer. As we grew into a museum, the collection grew. When the museum became a 501(c)3 and opened to the public, LCM+L started housing an additional collection made up of donated computers. The Acquisitions Committee works to tirelessly to build both collections, always with an emphasis on computers that can be displayed in working order.
Our increasing significance in the computing history community means we are a place people to which donate their vintage machines. Naturally, we hit our capacity for the usual denizens of the attic- Commodore 64s, Apple ][, TRS-80s, etc. – quickly. Led by our talented Archives team, Acquisitions, made up of representatives from all LCM departments evaluates new donation offers in their monthly meetings. That evaluation includes factors like historic relevance and likelihood of restoration and usually begins with a simple form available on our website. Other times, however, we may need a little more detective work and/or negotiations to add some unusually elusive machines.
Now that we have established the how, let’s look at the what- those fantastic machines that populate the second floor of LCM+L. We still have people reaching out with great donations. For example, an Altair 8800 in great condition was donated earlier this month. As interesting (and as crucial to computing history) as an Altair is, we are going to focus on acquisitions that were a little harder to come by.
Paul Allen and LCM+L have been on the hunt for vintage computers since for years now. A Wall Street Journal article from August of 2011 details former LCM+L Engineer Ian King’s quest for an IBM 7094. King flew to Australia on a tip that one was kept by a collector in a farm in Australia. The lead was false, but he was able to meet a different collector and acquire a different IBM computer, the System/360 Model 40. Our successful acquisition of a CDC 6500 was well documented in various articles, including one here on GeekWire from the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology, who were eager to see a working first generation supercomputer again.
As the word got out the collector and user community joined our cause to resurrect the 6500, sending documents, software, and tips to us, all of which are documented in our archives and finding aids. We have many others to thank for saving these machines so they could find their way to us, including our one-of-a-kind working Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-7 by way of longtime user Harlan LeFevre of the University of Oregon, a PLATO terminal on display in our [ed]tech exhibit donated by Aaron Woolfson (protégé of PLATO inventor Donald Bitzer), and a myriad of items from the University of Washington’s HITLab which informed the development of our virtual reality exhibit.
It’s not too surprising, in our experience, to start on one lead and be redirected. The community of collectors is a passionate one, with numerous history and technology enthusiasts responsible for tracking down their own leads or salvaging one of these machines of the scrap heap by happenstance. We are tapped into many conversations, but those can sometimes be indiscernible from the many rumors, fish tales, and apocryphal stories. So on one hand we have the good fortune of having a person find us when they want to get rid of that dusty Altair 8800, and on the other, we have to sort through layers of fiction to find hidden treasures… which in its own way can be pretty exciting. Regardless, Living Computers: Museum + Labs serves as a place for old computers to come life again, even if the path is a circuitous one.