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A Visit to the Seattle Living Computer Museum

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inside 1I finally made it to the Living Computer Museum in Seattle today. It has been open for a couple years now, but I could never seem to get there. The older equipment was interesting to see. The museum works with the equipment to keep it operational. For example, the Control Data system on display had to be completely rewired and the fluid cooling system needed to be extensively trouble-shooted. But it works. As does the Xerox data storage device. It has a stack of record album-sized platters that together could store a whopping 100MB. But that equipment was all before my time.


The gear I worked on was more of a kick to see. Although it is a bit disconcerting to be checking out exhibits that are younger than you.

punchingFor me, things started with dreaded card punch terminal for the IBM 360. The museum has a working machine where you can punch a few cards. Feed/Register/type. The first computer class I took was in 1975 in high school. They threw together a CS class using the computer that ran the school grading system and it used punch cards. On the first day the assignment was to have the computer display a fact. I typed a single card which said “How far is it to the moon?” which, when processed, spit out absolutely nothing. The rest of the class was learning that I first needed to find out how far it was to the moon using other resources, then add that fact as data, and then reframe my question. It all seemed like a big waste of time. But looking back, I don’t think there there were many high schools letting you work on computers at all then. In my first year in college, CS 101 was made somewhat ridiculous by the need to carry your entire program around as a stack of hundreds of rubber-banded cards.

PDP 1170By junior year things were a lot easier. The DecWriter in the basement of the Mechanical Engineering Building let you store your programs on the mini-computer. The PDP 11/70 was more or less state of the art at that time for a relatively compact, relatively inexpensive computer system. Screen displays got prevalent on campus right after I graduated in ’81.

The first computer I ever touched was one that we soldered together in the basement of our fraternity as part of an automated Homecoming display. It used a sequence of switches to program it. On the PC side, the Apple II came out in 1977. It was just the stuff of legend. Super expensive and I never actually saw one in person until much later.

sinclairAfter I graduated I wanted to learn Basic so I bought a Sinclair. A little baby with about 4k of memory on a cassette drive. But only costing about $150. I bought it through the mail – like with a stamp and a money order.

The IBM PC came out around 1982 when I had my first engineering job. As soon as my company bought one (one for the whole company) I pretty much lived on that thing working with spreadsheets. One thing the computer museum doesn’t have are any dedicated word processors that were around until the mid-80s. PC finally hit a price point that put word-processing on everyone’s desk – at least at work.

IMG_8025I used the Compaq “luggable” and remember bringing that thing home for the weekend on the bus. There were a lot of IBM PC-compatibles in the mid-80s, but I couldn’t afford one. Finally, I bought a Compaq 386 around 1988 for about $3,000. The Compaq 386 is contemporary to when I started creating Help systems. 1989 was when the first version of Windows 3.0 came out with WinHelp. I still have the original reference books I used to figure out how to create that.

IMG_8018Printed documentation was very prevalent. It wasn’t until the late 90s that digital Help started to stand on its own for the majority of software applications.