Keeping it running
The Living Computer Museum’s museum is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg though. I absolutely urge you to go see it, but I’d also love to give you a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, since Carlson was kind enough to allow me back there.
In short: A lot. A lot. The museum, as I said, takes up two floors. It’s well-lit, very modern and clean looking. Then we go up another flight of stairs and suddenly I’m in the warehouse where they stored the Ark of the Covenant.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves stretch on and on and on, barely enough room to walk comfortably between them. It’s dark up here, and everywhere you look there’s more stuff. Carlson chatters as we walk. “These are all CRAY-2 logic modules. We have entire bins of mice from different eras, cables. We have over 3,000 ICs (integrated circuits) in our collection, so you need a particular chip for something we probably have it. Oscilloscopes…” It’s about half stuff that’s been donated, half Paul Allen’s private collection, at least up here.
Further down you enter the software archives, “Everything from more modern machines and Atari and all kinds of things like that to games that are on paper tape. Here are punch cards.” Carlson pauses. “I don’t even know what some of these are. We have a couple-year backlog generally.”
The racks continue. Carlson takes me through a few shelves’ worth of schematics. “We actually use these. The engineers have to pull these all the time. That’s another thing that sets us apart from a normal museum. It’s not like they’re just going into that drawer and sitting forever.” There are VHS tapes, and file folders full of training materials from defunct companies. There are bins full of magazines, including back issues of PCWorld.
And then we head down to the basement, courtesy of a rickety-feeling service elevator. Old warehouse, right? If the upstairs was the warehouse from the Ark of the Covenant, this is...well, that times two—15,000 square feet of mainframe machines, in various states of repair. And that’s in addition to, Carlson tells me, “an offsite facility where we store the machines that are less likely to run.”
”A lot of it is spare parts,” says Carlson. “A lot of the machines you’ll see down these rows are kind of cracked open and guts spilling out a bit. That’s because an engineer came down here and stole parts out of it for another machine.”
”Circuit boards and things like that—and we didn’t know this until now, because there haven’t been 50 and 60 year old circuit boards until now—but we’re learning they actually hold up pretty well.” Other materials, plastics and rubbers and so on, are more challenging. “In some ways, a machine made in ‘57 is easier to deal with than a 1980’s or early ‘90s PC that used cheap plastics and those plastics are degrading in weird ways.”
The museum also replaces most power supplies even when it leaves the rest of the machine alone. “A lot of the old power supplies used oil impregnated paper. Over time the oil actually leeches out and you’re left with paper. When you apply voltage and there’s paper in there, guess what the paper starts to do?”
”One of our rules here is not burning down the building.” He laughs.
”We’ll switch those out, we’ll do some checks on wiring and things like that, and then we’ll try to power it up. We call it a smoke test. A few of us stand around with fire extinguishers and we turn it on and see what happens.”
There are special projects down here too, many of them better preserved. A DEK museum in Australia closed down in the past few years, and the Living Computer Museum inherited those machines. “We’re interested in highlighting some of those, but we only have so much room to put stuff out.” That’s also the reason a pristine IBM-360-20 sits in the basement—“This was upstairs until we got the 360-30 which is a ‘real 360’ as we say, so we pulled this out.” The 360-20, I’m told, might get traded away to some other museum with similar goals, maybe one in Europe.
And then there are the really special projects—namely, the Cray-2. When Carlson shows it to me, it’s covered by a blanket and sitting in its own special storage room. The Cray-2’s been a dream for the Living Computer Museum since its inception, one of the most popular and recognizable supercomputers ever built. The problem? When decommissioned, most were killed in a way that would make it impossible to salvage—wires cut, usually.
The one here in storage? “It’s in essentially perfect condition. It was used at the Minnesota Supercomputing Center and when it came out of service it was actually taken out of service with the thought it’d be reinstalled somewhere. So they didn’t cut all the wires.”
That means the Living Computer Museum might actually be able to get it up and running, then make it accessible to visitors—the same as any other machine in their collection. One remaining challenge? Getting enough Fluorinert, a liquid-cooling compound used in the Cray-2’s iconic waterfall loop. “The whole machine gets filled with Fluorinert including the power supplies down there, and it flows through the boards at one inch per second, taking all that heat away.”
”We actually called 3M and told them we needed 150 gallons and the guy was like ‘...You what?’ because they usually sell it I think by the liter or whatever, not by gallons.”
For future generations
”Our mission for all our restorations is to restore the machine to run for 100 years,” Carlson tells me. And not just run, but be usable. You can type on a PDP-10. You can try to comprehend Maze Runner on a Xerox Alto, compare it to Doom almost a decade later. You can play Zork on an Apple II.
As we’re going through the museum I point to an old Macintosh. “That’s the first computer my family ever had!” I say, excited even though it’s a relatively common machine. “That’s one of the fun things about this museum is that everybody, no matter when they grew up, they have that one machine they’re like ‘Oh, that was the one!’” says Carlson. “Literally almost every visitor. Sometimes it’s like the VAX or something crazy, other times it’s Commodore 64 or a TRS-80 or, we have a lot of people come in to see our Windows 95 machines.”
Later, after I’ve left Carlson in the lobby, I circle back to that same Macintosh and boot up Shuffle Puck Cafe. I used to play it, a kid dwarfed by my dad’s enormous desk chair. The screen seems smaller now, blurrier, the mouse blocky and barely usable, but I barely notice. I’m lost to nostalgia, rediscovering a piece of myself, a digital ghost I’d left in the care of my dad’s old Macintosh all these years without realizing it. It’s the type of memory I’d never get from an emulator, nor from simply seeing the same machine on display, one that comes from touching hardware I haven’t laid hands on in probably 20 years.
And I’m incredibly thankful the Living Computer Museum put in the work to make those memories possible, for me and countless others, whether they’re interested in the history of this not-so-old industry academically or merely grew up alongside it. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, stuff you might not be aware of if you simply visit and see all these machines humming along.
In a way, that’s sort of the magic of it though. It’s an oasis where these machines can seemingly run forever, untouched by the ravages of time, and for a moment we can be too.