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XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 72
Digital Citation

TIMELINESThe DigiBarn computer museum


Authors:
Bruce Damer

In 1993 ACM sponsored HCI researchers on a vist to Eastern and Central Europe. I met Bruce Damer in Prague, where he held a professorship in computer science despite not having a Ph.D. Bruce quickly impressed me as one of the most brilliantly creative people I’d ever met, a visionary who builds things. Like other visionaries, he may optimistically assume that everyone will work at his pace; some visions materialize slowly. Here, he describes a vision a quarter century in the making that has become an impressive reality. —Jonathan Grudin

The DigiBarn Computer Museum project started inauspiciously enough in 1987, when I found myself at a yard sale in the San Fernando Valley, transfixed by a beautiful object. There before me was a Comptometer, an early mechanical adding/multiplying calculator in a handsome brass case, for a mere $15. At home I polished it up and noticed a steel placard engraved with a series of patent dates, starting with ‘87. I realized this was, of course, 1887—sitting before me was a 100-year-old desktop computer (or, rather, a calculator).

Back in 1981, when I was a freshman in college, I became transfixed by an image of the Xerox Star 8010 desktop interface presented on a magazine cover. From that moment on I was convinced that there was a future in computing. By 1990 I began to ask myself two questions: What was the source of the invention of the personal computer and the GUI, and how could I acquire and document the artifacts and stories of this most impactful of inventions on our everyday existence?

The Birth of a Computer Museum (with a difference)

The idea for a fully fledged museum was finally born in a 90-year-old barn on a farm, which I purchased in 1998, amid the halcyon redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Home to my initial collection, the museum fast grew with donations from friends in the area and nearby Silicon Valley. My vision was encapsulated in the phrase “A Memory Palace for Nerds.” It would be a living workshop where long-silent vintage systems would come alive, prompting visitors familiar with them to give us a download of key stories and historical facts from their own long-dormant memories. The museum and website would focus on the birth of personal computing, the GUI, and the networked lifestyle in which we are all now enveloped.

Open houses were created to attract visitors; eventually, the collection began to attract quite a following of both famous and not-so-well-known industry people; most of the audio and video of their visits were recorded for the website. I later initiated annual birthday event gatherings, including speakers and machine restorations, for key anniversaries in computing history that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Spontaneously emerging from this project was an exciting new practice of “deep digital archaeology,” wherein an unusual artifact, worked on by an extended community over years, could unravel an entire aspect of the history of computing that would otherwise have stayed buried (see the sidebar on Norm Cox’s icon designs).

The Collection

The DigiBarn began life in homage to those who invented and popularized personal computing using a GUI, but fast expanded to encompass all aspects of personal computing through the ages. The collection now contains century-old hand-cranked mechanical comptometers, slide rules, electronic calculators, a 1960s personal workstation progenitor called the LINC (see sidebar), home-brewed hobbyist specials from the 1970s, early prototypes of Apple and other commercial microcomputers, a full line of widely used home/business PCs and game consoles, and, more recently, Web appliances, tablets, and cell phones. The collection even includes two Cray Supercomputers (a Cray-1 and Cray-2 prototype), thrown in for good measure (and useful seating).

Encouraged by Computer History Museum founder Gordon Bell, I placed a major focus on the cyber-museum with a sprawling, mostly hand-built website at www.DigiBarn.com. The site contains hundreds of thousands of photos, personal stories, schematics, advertisements, manuals, books, T-shirts, audio, movies, and full reconstructions of both machines and personal biographies. As notable contributors to the art are passing from the scene (such as the initiator of the Macintosh project, Jef Raskin), the site now features memorial pages. Legal firms are now using the DigiBarn in their efforts to fight patent infringement lawsuits. The Creative Commons organization used the DigiBarn site as a test case in the launch of their new licenses in 2002 and the collection was part of a brief about orphaned works for the U.S. Copyright Office.

Key Moments in Digital Historical Decoding

In the nearly 10 years since the DigiBarn has been fully up and operating, several thousand people have taken the trek over windy mountain roads to get the personal tour. Many arrive bearing gifts—artifacts that are sometimes placed directly into the living timeline, growing the museum in an organic fashion. All bring stories, which add to the weave of the history. Millions of visitors to the cyber-museum have added much more. Boxes of unique contributions continue to flow in, as do copious volumes of online digital donations. The site has developed a heavily cross-linked nature, inspired by James Burke’s “Connections” TV series, which promotes the idea that major inventions are all driven by people, machines, and companies all related in a non-linear, densely interwoven fashion.

Perhaps some of the most poignant moments came through memorable quotations from visitors to the museum or those who were interviewed in the field. I am paraphrasing some of the more historically significant utterances here for you to form your own connections.

  • Steve Wozniak: “I just designed a computer I would want to own myself.”
  • Daniel Kottke: “I went to work in Steve Jobs’ garage assembling Apple 1s in June 1976, but it took Woz a while to explain to me how computers actually worked.”
  • Johanna Hoffman: “Back in 1981 I would sneak into Xerox PARC at night, write and draw the Macintosh business plan on a friend’s Alto computer, print multiple copies on the laser printer in the basement, and leave for the morning meetings with Steve Jobs at Apple before PARC people arrived for work.”
  • Bill Pentz: “In 1972 at Cal State Sacramento, we created the first microcomputer in the world that had an operating system, a color terminal, a hard disk, and other devices, and then Gary Kildall and many others like Paul Allen stole our implementation.”
  • Gordon Bell: “I tried to convince DEC of the value of small computers.”
  • Bob Taylor: “The LINC is the machine on which I first learned about computers, before I went to DARPA where I started the ARPANET project.”
  • Wes Clark: “We took John Lily’s LINC away from him around 1965 because, for one thing, he had it too close to the dolphin tank.”
  • Bob Frankston: “The spreadsheet was the greatest tool for lying ever invented.”
  • Rob Barnaby: “When I was writing WordStar I mapped out dozens of keyboards from different micros and found one common set of keystrokes that I could use—that way my program would be usable on all these machines.”
  • Ted Nelson: “Xerox PARC is where it all went wrong.”

The Future of the DigiBarn Project

The DigiBarn is greatly in need of a financial sponsorship, both for upgrading the physical structure and for its cyber-presence. This year a new roof was put on the barn building, but the entire interior needs to be sealed from the weather to avoid the annual pack-up of the exhibits to dry rooms. The website also needs to be automated with modern tools, and the vast collection of documents should be selectively scanned. I am hoping that a foundation or a university museum-studies program could “adopt” the DigiBarn and that grants could be obtained to support students and complete the renovations—and that we can continue to interview people, capturing critical oral histories before it is too late. In the very long term, I will look for a new home for the materials at an institution that is comitted to the goal of developing deep understanding of the birth of personal computing, which I believe is the most important invention affecting life in the 21st century.

I invite collaboration of any sort, from donation of funds, to physical and virtual artifacts, to stories, volunteer assistance, and the pursuit of professional historical projects. Another important project might be the writing of a book that weaves together the threads of computing history that are uniquely available through this collection.

Author

In the 1980s Bruce Damer built some of the first GUIs on PCs with Elixir and Xerox; in the 1990s he created innovative avatar virtual worlds; in the 2000s he designed missions for NASA using 3D visualization; and today, he researches the origins of life with the EvoGrid project.

Footnotes

Please feel free to visit the cyber-collection at www.DigiBarn.com and to contact Bruce to arrange a visit to the physical collection.

The rest of Bruce’s life and work can be visited at http://www.damer.com.

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1962438.1962455

Sidebar: Deep Digital Archeology at the DigiBarn

An example of “deep digital archeology” is the contribution of artist Norm Cox’s first design for a “you’ve got mail” icon and the end products produced for the Xerox Star 8010 workstation, launched in 1981. Many of the icon metaphors and styles prevalent today trace their lineage to this work, as the Star was widely emulated as GUIs propagated in the 1980s.

It turns out that Cox had no idea about the properties of the medium for which he was asked to design icons, reporting that “the people from Xerox asked me to design a picture symbolizing that you had just received mail, so I drew an envelope rushing through a door. I later understood that this had to be created within a little square of black and white pixels.”

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Sidebar: The DigiBarn Collection: Documents and Hardware

A large collection of early microcomputer- and computer-culture documents are housed in the collection and featured on the website. Presented here is the cover of the Preliminary Macintosh Business Plan of July 12, 1981, which laid out Apple’s 1980s strategy for introducing the Lisa and Macintosh computers. Displaying a high degree of irony, this document was created by an Apple employee working at night on an Alto computer at Xerox PARC.

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Other documents include:

  • Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib, an early large-format book on the culture of computer users;
  • The first issues of the People’s Computer newsletters;
  • A large set of Homebrew Computer Club newsletters;
  • The original invitation to the West Coast Computer Faire of 1977;
  • Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s handwritten notes and schematics for the several early Apple computers and peripherals; and
  • A large set of Xerox PARC “blue and white” research reports, as well as complete documentation on Xerox’s workstations.

The DigiBarn also features a number of hardware artifacts, which were in their own way “firsts.” In 2007, DigiBarn celebrated the 45th anniversary of the paradigm-shifting 1962 LINC computer, considered by many to be the first true personal workstation. Some other groundbreaking hardware on display:

  • The SacState 8008, which is quite possibly the first complete computer built around a microprocessor, is the 1972 Cal State Sacramento system based on the Intel 8008;
  • The 1962 LINC, considered by many to be the first personal computer or workstation;
  • The Cray Q2, prototype unit for the Cray 2 Supercomputer and the first supercomputer to be connected to the Internet;
  • Altair-assembled kit #47, possible the oldest “pristine” new-in-the-box microcomputer;
  • The IMSAI computer that Rob Barnaby used to write WordStar, the first widely used personal computer software package; and
  • Jef Raskin’s hand-built joystick for the Apple II, which he developed for Steve Wozniak to test the game port of the computer during development.

©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0500  $10.00

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