A visit to the Living Computer Museum, Seattle’s vintage computer jungle gym

My friend John Braley and I visited Seattle’s Living Computer Museum in early May 2013. The word “living” may seem like hyperbole when applied to the antique computers it houses, but actually, all of them work, and most can be used by visitors. There are computers that play games, and there are others you can program, if you know how. For example, I was able to write a short program for the Altair 8800, arguably the world’s first home computer, and watch it run on a teletype. There are also Mac Pluses just sitting there with boxes of diskettes you can insert, swap and run until you get bored, if you do. I’m going to bring a few of my old Mac floppies next time.

There are just a couple of rules the museum asks you to obey:

  1. If it has a blue rope in front of it, don’t touch it.
  2. If it has big, important-looking switches, don’t flip them.

These rules were easy to follow and did not feel constrictive.

You enter the museum in the gift shop; this is also where you buy tickets. I noticed a few retrocomputing books on the shop shelves that were already on my wishlist, such as one about the Antikythera Mechanism; however, I will probably buy these as ebooks later. Sorry, LCM.

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Care for some punch?

This card punch sits near the front door on the main floor (that is, the second floor; the third floor is where they store, restore and undoubtedly re-store their other computers). It’s like a typewriter that can’t type lower-case letters, and has all its punctuation in the wrong place. (Also, it makes punch cards.)

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A Hollerith heart for my sweetie

Almost the first thing I did was pounce on the punch card maker and make my wife Marty a card with her name on it and an ASCII heart ❤ — technically a Hollerith code heart, I guess. I was very careful and punched Marty’s card correctly on the first try.

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Don’t Underestimate Freedom, Sirius Cybernetics Redmond!

Moving widdershins through the exhibits, I was surprised by how even-handed the presentation was, given that the Living Computer Museum was established by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. I was actually shocked to see this display, portraying the Linux penguin and GNU gnu. There was another display devoted entirely to Microsoft near the end, but it contained an ignominious instance of Microsoft Bob, among other things.

Remember Clippy the talking paper clip? Now imagine an entire operating system interface that’s practically nothing but Clippy, with talking dogs, mice, and so on, all of them Genuine People Personalities™. That’s Bob.

I also found that there were elements of virtual reality in Bob, because to reach different controls in the user interface, you have to pretend-walk through the notional house where the dogs and mice live, making it seem a bit like Snow Crash on the cheap, with a dash of Disney. Suddenly a couple of things about my first contract at Microsoft, on the Virtual Worlds research project, came into focus.

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Me and my Xerox friend, Alto!

I would have gone to the LCM merely to see and play with a functioning Xerox Alto. The Alto is the direct source for most of the computer interfaces of the last 30 years — mice, bitmapped displays, the desktop metaphor, the lot — imitated first by Apple, then by Microsoft half a decade later. Unfortunately, this one was locked into kiosk mode and would only let you play pinball on it. I can see some sense in that; someone who wanted to vandalize the Alto could probably run roughshod in the machine’s powerful Smalltalk programming environment, and it’s not clear it would be easy to put right again quickly. Still, I wonder if there’s some way for a trufan to make an after-hours appointment…

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Brain the size of a planet (L) versus brain the size of a tobacco mosaic virus (R)

There’s one corridor of the museum where all the 8-bit ‘puters of our (well, my) youth are set up. You gotcher Apple IIs, your TRS-80 Model Is (I was disappointed there were no Model 100s), your Commodore 64s… John had owned one of the latter, and became engrossed in a Sargon II chess game with the 64’s little sib, the VIC-20. I’m not sure why a three-time Washington State chess champion would want to slug it out with a machine having only 4K of RAM, but we patzers are not privy to the whims of our betters. (Note: I initially had John listed as a two-time champion, but in fact he was state champion three times. One of those wins was a tie for first place, which counts as a full championship under Washington State chess rules. Sorry, John. But zoom in on the VIC-20 screen. John is running this 4K chess program at Level 1. WTF, amigo?)

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10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

By this time, I was getting tired, so I slumped in front of a Commodore 128 (which has a ’64 mode), typed in 10 PRINT, etc. and watched the pretty patterns for a while. John snapped the photo on the “pix or it didn’t happen” principle. (Remember CRT video scan lines? I sure didn’t, until I was sorting through these photos.)

On our way out, we watched a silent video of museum staff wrestling a Cray supercomputer. The supercomputer wasn’t on display yet, so we asked a docent how often they changed the exhibits. “We never have,” she said. “We only opened in October, and we’ve hardly had any visitors, so there’s no point.”

She remarked that it was nice to have visitors who were so into vintage computers, but she gave us an odd look when John told her that I was so into them, I had bought the model of slide rule used on the Apollo moon missions. I had it with me but refrained from showing it to her — and my loved ones say I have no discretion.

John and I vowed we would return to the Living Computer Museum soon. What a great place — and because its displays are themselves programmable computers, each with its own strengths, capable of an indefinite number of programs, you can hardly exhaust it in one trip. So go ye, people of Seattle and West Coast environs, to the Living Computer Museum, and give its staff a reason to move some furniture around and dust off the family antiques.

Don’t let the museum staff despair! Even though the LCM is backed by a multibillionaire, if we don’t support it, it won’t be around long. I’ve been to other computer museums and exhibits, and they’re mostly static. The Living Computer Museum may be the only museum in the world where all the computers — and the history — are living.

And now, a couple of bonus retrocomputing photos.

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Slide rules in a Prague shop window, 1979

This photo was taken by my friend Gerry, a stalwart member of our Finnegans Wake reading group (as is John). Why was a shop displaying slide rules in such profusion? Were they actually selling them, or was it conceptual art? Electronic calculators hit the West in the early 1970s; were parts of the Eastern Bloc still using slide rules as late as 1979? Perhaps I’ll drop a line to the slide rule mailing list.

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Unicomp, home of the M

This is the facade of the Unicomp building in Lexington, Kentucky. Unicomp makes the marvelous Model M keyboard on which I’m typing this post, and which I’ve mentioned here before. My sister-in-law Melinda and her husband Keith live a couple of blocks from the Unicomp factory, and when they read about my Model M obsession, they offered to shoot the front of the plant for me. Notice the kitsch keyboard keys spelling out UNICOMP. They look different from the ones on their web page, so I’m guessing the former predate the latter, as web pages are easy to change, buildings not so much.

We have now reached the end of the tour. Tip. Thank you for making a simple blog post very happy. Share and Enjoy!

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5 thoughts on “A visit to the Living Computer Museum, Seattle’s vintage computer jungle gym

  1. Regarding the store in Prague, during my time there in the mid-1980s it was not uncommon to see horse drawn carts bringing vegetables and so on into town. There were sometimes also long lines at corner stores to get meat, so it doesn’t surprise me that a few years prior that slide rules would still be a useful tool. Alternatively, it could be a wise business man realized not much time left for slide rules and was unloading stock while he could! A long time resident I’m sure can offer better information. (I’ve often wondered, too, if it was the difficult times that made everyone so friendly, even the border guards with the scary looking guns!)

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  2. I bet the punch card you made for your wife is encoded in EBCDIC since it was an IBM card punch machine.

    Great post. Thanks!
    ( I got here via a repost from LCM on Facebook)

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  3. I visited LCM and would love to go back. Museums are usually boring but this is an exception. Here I can interact with old machines and see how they work. This is an interactive learning experience. You can read all the books and articles on a computer but nothing compares to actually interacting with it. I think of museums and I think of “oh do not touch this.” This museum actually encourages you to interact with old machines. Yes they are slower than what we are used to today (King’s Quest was fun but evil!) but they have so much to offer!

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