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Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Place Where Old Computers Go to Live

SEATTLE â€" Paul Allen, Microsoft’s other founder, with Bill Gates, has a number of museums. There is the Jimi Hendrix Music Experience and his Flying Heritage Collection. The common theme is “hands on.” You can play a musical instrument and the planes fly.

That is no less true for the Living Computer Museum, a relatively new addition. Housed in a three-story warehouse south of downtown Seattle, its striking feature is that almost all the computers, even those manufactured in the 1960s, actually work.

The showcase machines are legends â€" like the Digital Equipment Corporation KL-10 introduced in 1974 and esoteric XKL TOAD-1, a clone of the DEC10. (The Digital Equipment meme runs throughout the museum, possibly because these are the computers Mr. Allen grew up programming.)

Opened rather quietly last fall, the museum hasn‘t attracted much publicity. That may be true in part because it appears that the collection has been intended for Mr. Allen and his more technical friends, as much as the general public. Indeed, the showcase computers, housed in a realistic “machine room,” are systems you probably have never heard of â€" unless you were a computer hacker in the 1960s or 1970s.

One sign that the museum may continue to cater to a rather elite clientele is the party that Mr. Allen held on Tuesday evening to introduce the museum to 150 industry pioneers and a handful of computer journalists â€" as least those who were writing about computers in the 1970s.

Attendees included pioneers from a number of computing eras: Mr. Gates, of course â€" the two men posed together, recreating an iconic picture from the 1980s; Bob Frankston and Dan Flystra of Visicalc (the first spreadsheet); Chris Espinosa, who worked with Steve Jobs in the original garage; Larry Tesler, who came to Apple from Xerox PARC to help design the Lisa; Les Ernest, the assistant director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who could arguably be said to have invented the predecessors of both Facebook and Twitter; Lee Felsenstein, the designer of two early personal computers, the SOL and the Osborne 1; Nolan Bushnell of Atari; Esther Dyson, one of the first PC industry impresarios, and her brother George, the computer historian.

Then there was John Draper, known as “Captain Crunch” for discovering an inexpensive method for getting free phone calls by using the whistle from a cereal box. Mr. Draper, who said he is working on his memoirs and now living in Las Vegas, gently teased Mr. Gates, because it was Mr. Draper’s word processor, known as EZ Writer, that I.B.M. chose to offer with the first PC in 1981. Mr. Gates had not yet developed Word.

Mr. Gates said he remembered Mr. Draper, who was indirectly instrumental in creating Apple Computer, by teaching the company’s two founders how to make phone fraud devices known as Blue Boxes. (Mr. Jobs and Stephen Wozniak then sold the devices to raise money to start Apple.)

That Mr. Allen has managed to resurrect so many historic computers is remarkable. He has done it with a relatively small team of seven engineers and a handful of outside consultants. In some cases they have gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate machines where the original instruction manuals have long since vanished.

In other cases they have had to finesse the job, when original parts are no longer available or frequently fail. For example, Keith Perez, the lead restoration engineer for the museum, acknowledged that the beautiful display panel of flashing lights for a vintage IBM 360 now blinked with the aid of a number of LED lights. The originals burned out frequently, even at lower than normal power settings, he said.

At the end of the event, two buses took Mr. Allen’s guests to a downtown hotel for dinner, where engineers swapped tall tales from various computer eras. Before he left for the evening Mr. Allen told the group that when he and Mr. Gates worked for MITS, the maker of the first personal computer, in Albuquerque, he would handle telephone support calls after he finished his day job of writing software.

The computer maker had underpriced the machine at $439, and it was such a hot seller that to lower its costs the company had begun shipping the machine without any internal memory. People would then call to say they had assembled the computer and turned it on and it didn’t work, he recalled. Mr. Allen would then ask them if all the lights on the computer’s front panel were lit. If they were, that meant there was no DRAM (dynamic random access memory) in the computer, known as the Altair.

When he told the callers this, he said, they would invariably ask, “What’s memory”