In 2017 I went up to Seattle for PAX as usual, and while I was up there I heard about the Living Computer Museum, an institution in southern Seattle founded by Paul Allen to preserve PC history. I took a day off from the show to wander down there, got a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, and then…never got around to writing about it. Fall’s busy video game release season buried me, and while I eventually transcribed a full hour of audio and wrote the story, it seemed weird to run it six or eight months after the fact—so it just sat on my hard drive.
Paul Allen passed away October 15, though, and as a result it seems like a great time to celebrate one of his lesser-known ventures. What started as a bit of nostalgia for him, a PDP-10 in a nondescript Seattle warehouse, is now one of the best computer museums I’ve ever been to, a truly special place where visitors can go hands-on with everything from a CDC 6500 to an Apple I to a Xerox Alto.
Some of the details may have changed in the last 14 months—I don’t, for instance, know whether the museum’s gotten its CRAY-2 up and running yet. I hope you’ll enjoy this look into the museum though, both its public-facing side and the enormous support operation it necessitates, and thanks to Paul Allen for his role in founding such a wonderful institution.
“Other museums put a glass in front of their computers. We put a chair.” I toured Seattle’s Living Computer Museum for over an hour with Executive Director Lath Carlson, but it’s that one simple line that stuck with me most—a perfect encapsulation of what makes the Living Computer Museum special.
Housed in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, the Living Computer Museum doesn’t look like much from the outside—it’s cleaner and a bit brighter than the surrounding warehouses, but those who know Seattle know that’s also not saying much. Inside this unassuming building is probably the foremost PC history museum I’ve ever visited though, if only for one reason: You can actually use the PCs on display. Even the supercomputers.
“The museum actually started kind of backwards from most museums,” says Carlson, shouting over the noise of about a half-dozen mainframes. We’re standing in a bright white room filled with a CDC 6500, a Xerox Sigma 9, an IBM System/360 Model 30, and most importantly, a PDP-10.
The PDP-10, I should say. Around 15 years ago now, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought this PDP-10, the same model he and Bill Gates used in their earliest years. And then he put it up on the internet for people to remote login—you may have heard of PDPPlanet.com.
“What happened was they put the website out there, started getting users, and then people would call and say ‘Can I come see the computer?’” says Carlson. At the time it was just a PDP-10 in a warehouse, nothing fancy. “Then Paul basically said ‘Okay, enough people are interested, maybe it should be a museum.’”
Opened in 2012, said museum now encompasses two full floors of the warehouse. The PDP-10 sits among a half-dozen other mainframe machines, each with its own rich history. For instance, Carlson describes the restoration of a CDC 6500, one of the world’s earliest supercomputers, designed by the legendary Seymour Cray. “This machine came out of Purdue University, and when we got it, every one of these wires here was cut.” He gestures to a bank of thousands of wires running down the middle of the machine.
“Dave, one of our engineers, spent months rewiring,” he continues. “We discovered in the process that machines like this, the speed electrons go through the wires is actually quite critical, so in order to get some things to work right we had to change the lengths of some wires…Of course first we had to find a company to remake the right wires.”
The museum also needed to replace some of the logic modules, and with no spare parts on-hand that meant reverse-engineering the hardware with modern parts. One of the museum’s engineers “had to take one of those apart and measure the value of every component, then redesign it.” They also installed a liquid cooling loop that runs all the way to the roof.
A ton of work, but at the end? The CDC 6500 runs. At the Living Computer Museum you can get your hands on the world’s third-ever supercomputer, one that helped study both nuclear physics and the structure of the cold virus, and which has less compute power than the phone in your pocket.
Carlson talks me through the history of some other machines. One, an IBM 360-30, was found in a basement in North Carolina. It was half-dismantled when I saw it, recently scrubbed free of 20-odd years of mold damage. There’s an IBM 7090, which did time with NASA on the space program. There’s a punch card reader.
“All these machines are getting on 40 and 50 years old, and even when these machines were current they weren’t necessarily the most reliable things out there. They had technicians on staff always, they were always repairing them, so this is not unusual. You know? It’s just a little harder when they get older.”
It’s history in a way I’m not used to—messy and mechanical and loud. Other museums I’ve been to, like the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, have exhibits that get across the size of these machines. As someone who grew up after the mainframe era though, there’s a weird connection that forms from touching those old keyboards, like reaching through to a far-flung past. As with any relic, computers carry a piece of everyone who’s ever touched them.
Outside the mainframe room, things start looking more familiar—at least to me. There’s a PDP-8 nearby, this one for visitors to play chess against. It takes forever.
But past that are the minis, some of which are more special than others. Traf-O-Data was the first company founded by Gates and Allen, intended to process traffic reports.
”They built this computer with a guy from UW, and this is the only one that was ever built is this one right here.” It’s one of the few computers behind glass. “Paul Gilbert, the guy who had it at UW had held onto it and a bunch of materials, and we ended up getting a hold of it. It has all the paper notes on there and everything from the original. We like to keep that stuff as intact as possible.”
The Living Computer Museum also houses Steve Jobs’s first computer, a customized Apple I—also behind glass. “In ‘85 when Steve was forced out of Apple he left and literally left everything in his office. He didn’t take anything with him,” says Carlson. Apple’s HR department put his stuff up for grabs, “And this engineer that worked there, Don Hutmacher, kind of wandered over there, took a bag of Starbucks coffee and that computer off the shelf.” It sat in Hutmatcher’s workshop for 30 years until he passed away in 2015, at which point his family worked with the museum to establish the machine’s history.
”It was modified in some way by the first four employees of Apple,” says Carlson. “They’ve all been here and seen it and they go ‘Oh yeah, I drew that arrow on there’ or ‘Oh yeah, he had me wire in that one thing.’”
Most of the collection is hands-on though, including another Apple I—“It’s the only regularly operating Apple I in the world and we let people use it,” says Carlson. Then past that is a Xerox Alto, the machine Steve Jobs “borrowed” from when making the Macintosh. The Alto’s running Maze War, either the original first-person shooter or close to it. (1974’s Spasim vies for that honor.)
It starts to feel like there’s a new wonder around every corner, provided you’re at all invested in PC history. Continuing on, every era is represented. There’s an Apple II, a Commodore 64, a TRS-80, a collection of Windows 95 machines, a NeXT Cube—even an Apple III, which Carlson calls a “really horrible machine,” continuing “We’re constantly struggling to have software to run on it.”
That’s another part of the Living Computer Museum’s magic: Using these machines means having the software to take advantage of them. In the mainframe era that can mean booting up Oregon Trail for instance. As you head into the Apple II era, there are cases full of floppy disks nearby, then in the Windows 95 era that transitions to CDs.
There might not be every bit of software on-hand that you remember, but it definitely triggered my nostalgia interacting with physical media again, especially when that entails the clunky floppy and CD drives of years gone by.
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.