|Close-up from Group Photo taken during the Living Computer Museum reception. Paul Allen is seated|
on the upper left, next to Bill Gates. I'm in the middle with the striped shirt. See complete photo below.
One wonderful evening in April, I found myself milling about this museum with 150 technology pioneers, old-timers, game-changers, the people who laid the foundation of today’s digital reality, at a festive reception hosted by Paul Allen and his co-founder at Microsoft, Bill Gates.
Stuffed full of ancient, historical computers that have been painstakingly restored, the museum is a grand testament to the history, the glory of computers, how they evolved, and how they changed the world. Here you will find some of the few if not only actual working, fully functional mainframe and minicomputers as well as an extensive collection of the earliest personal computers (also “up and running”).
While I don’t know much about most of the pre-personal computers, it was nonetheless impressive to see a working Xerox Sigma 9, circa 1971, and to learn it was used to send the very first message over the ARPAnet, which is the precursor of today’s Internet.
And amusing to know that there once was a computer called the “XKL TOAD-1,” TOAD standing for “ten on a desk,” because it could scale down to desktop size. Introduced in more recent computer history, 1999, my guess is the manufacturer, “Large Systems Group,” figured they had a Macintosh killer.
|Altair 8800, World's 1st Personal Computer|
Each personal computer in Paul Allen’s collection evoked memories. Seeing the Radio Shack TRS-80 with its cassette tape drive reminded me of the days when I was writing instructional manuals for computer games and how cumbersome it was to load programs into early PCs using cassette tapes.
The first IBM Personal Computer brought back a flood of images, emotions related to the startup of PC Magazine, mailbags full of subscription cards delivered to my house near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, how the magazine grew to over 400 pages by its second issue, how we fought with our financial backer, how he sold PC Magazine out from under us, the resulting lawsuits, PC World, clashing media moguls Bill Ziff and Pat McGovern.
I couldn’t look at the first Macintosh without thinking of Steve Jobs, the great opportunity he gave me to create Macworld magazine, how fast he walked and how difficult it was to keep up with him, his 30th birthday party, Ella Fitzgerald singing “Happy Birthday, Steve,” my teenage daughters stuffing the elevators at the Saint Francis Hotel with balloons.
My god, I thought, even if I was the only person here, I could spend hours and hours in this incredible place.
But then I was not the only one. As fascinating as the computers and related displays were, the assembled collection of digital luminaries was even more special. A one-time happening, a “be-in” for nerds, this particular human configuration will never be repeated, ever. I needed to pull myself away from the machines and mingle.
|Byte Shop Founder Paul Terrell|
|Ed Roberts as depicted on a Living Computer |
Museum Poster. Ed died on April 1, 2010
I was 25, MITS’s marketing director, and I thought this was crazy, why couldn’t the BYTE Shops carry competing products? Retail stores routinely carry competing products, but Roberts wasn’t having any of this. In 1976, if you wanted to sell Altair Computers, they had to be exclusive. As for add-ons, memory boards, and the like, they could come from other companies, but only if we pre-approved them.
At the time, of course, Terrell wasn’t so sanguine, he was pissed. So he made deals to sell everything but Altairs‚ IMSAI, SOL, Apple I, Commodore PET computers, and this only made the BYTE Shops more successful while MITS went into a steep decline, was bought by a company no one had heard of, PERTEC, and by 1980 dissolved into a puddle like the Wicked Witch.
I found myself standing next to the great engineer, Lee Felsenstein, both of us admiring the SOL Computer he designed with its beautiful tactile keyboard that was so much ahead of its day. Did he remember hand-delivering a SOL to me at the Albuquerque office of Personal Computing magazine? Yes, he did, and Lee even recalled how we went out drinking afterwards.
It was a kick for me to describe to Felsenstein how the SOL became my very first word processor. “I loaded Electric Pencil into the SOL using its cassette recorder, a process that took several minutes and invariably failed once or twice,” I explained, “then I typed in my document and after making all the corrections I sat an IBM Selectric typewriter next to the SOL and typed the document over again.”
Lee looked at me as if I was nuts, but I pointed out his was still an improvement over just using the typewriter!
|With Bill Gates. The cartoonish poster behind my head|
was the first Microsoft ad, which I produced in 1977.
Along with their ages, the resumes strangely include their physical dimensions: Bill was 18, 5'10" and weighed in at 135 pounds while Paul was 21, 5'11" and 185 pounds.
I chatted with Bill for a few minutes and asked him if he would pose for a photo with me so that I could impress my granddaughters that I actually do know him, a topic of some dispute on the home front.
|Bob Frankston, David Bunnell, Lee Felsenstein and Captain Crunch|
The night went on like this. Roger Melen recalled the great story of the infamous “Dazzler,” the aptly named circuit board he invented to interface the Altair to a color monitor, thereby displaying stunning, kaleidoscopic colors, akin to giving your computer LSD. Left running in the window of the world’s first computer store, Arrow Computing on Pico Avenue in Santa Monica, it literally caused a traffic jam because people slowed up, stopped even, just to look at it. The Santa Monica police told Dick Heiser, the owner of the store, to take it out of the window or turn it off.
And Dick Heiser was there, of course. We chuckled about his quote in a 1976 issue of Computer Notes where he said it “wasn’t enough to be optimistic” about the future of personal computers, you had to be “wildly optimistic.” What an understatement that turned out to be!
|Jim Edlin and I started PC Magazine|
“But you changed the map,” Betsy said. And she was right, we did change the map, which was the guide to where all the articles and ads were supposed to be placed in the upcoming issue. That was the last thing we did before walking out the door. Harmless mischief, really, but this was 30 years ago and I had forgotten about it.
The ensuing litigation was at the time the largest lawsuit in California, both sides claimed to be seriously aggrieved, we basically hated each other, but here we were cheerfully now recalling the incident about the map, looking back at the times of our young lives when we could do anything, when nothing stopped us, the days when we exceeded all reasonable expectations.
There’s more, of course, I could go on and on. Out of the 150 people I must have spent a moment or two with half of them and some of these moments were just as amusing (in my mind at least) as the ones above. But hopefully I captured the essence of it, a night at the Museum where Old Computers Refuse to Die, a night for the ages.
Thank you, Paul Allen.