The Retrocomputing Society of Rhode Island's
Field trip to Boston's Computer Museum

    On the 17th of August, 1996, several members from The Retrocomputing Society of Rhode Island (RCS/RI) were privileged to visit Boston's Computer Museum , and were given a personal tour of the historical collection storage areas by the Manager of the Historical Collection. I was fortunate enough to be present that day. Presented herein are images and a few recollections of the machinery and assorted personal commentary.

    Sadly, the rumours of the collection's moving to California are true; many of the artifacts comprising TCM's historical collection were wrapped and padded, ready for shipment - some had already departed. In fact, the 17th was the Manager's (a delightful chap by the name of Brent Sverdloff) last day with the Museum. The whole collection is to move out to the grounds of Stanford University, which donated land for the new museum. The new museum is going to focus on the hardware aspect of computer history, and will feature the ex- TCM collection as it's centerpiece.

      On October 18, 1996, news arrived that the facility in California is opening. The "obituary" appears below.

    The conditions of the storage areas were not particularly conducive to photography, especially when one considers the size of some of the artifacts. Boxes, crates, cabinets, and stuff were strewn about in a (seemingly) haphazard manner, and machines were stored extremely close together with sometimes only a tiny walkway between them. These are clearly not public areas, so the issue isn't all that important to the day-to-day operations of the facility.

    So, without further ado...


[Image of SAGE console]

    What was back there?

    Amazing things! Parts of a SAGE, aka Whirlwind 2, for one. Shown in this image is the console to the SAGE computer. SAGE was used by the U.S. Air Force as part of the aircraft early-warning system deployed in the late 1950s. It remained active until it's retirement in the early 1980s, at which time it was transferred to TCM's facility (then still at Digital Equipment Corporation's plant in Marlborough, MA).

    The control panel is a splendid piece of work, Even after all these years and untold operations, the switches still have a smooth, almost sexy, feel when moved. You just can't get things like that any more.

[Image of SAGE equipment rack]

    SAGE was designed and built using vacuum tube technology, and the image here shows the racks containing plug-in modules with the tubes protruding from the front. The tubes sit sideways and are protected by the handles that allowed technicians to remove and replace the modules easily. SAGE's mass storage was in the form of rotating drum memory, of which there were at least 6 or 8. I didn't get a photograph of the drums (stupidly, too, I might add). The pallet- truck in this picture was electronically removed from the shot of the console.


[Image of the Cray-1] [Image of the Cray-1]

    The Computer Museum still has it's Cray-1 on public display, and that's where this picture was taken. This shot is of the back of the machine and has a panel removed to show the boards inside. It also shows the padded panels atop the power supplies and environmental controls that led it to being dubbed "the world's most expensive love- seat".

    The Cray used an interesting technique to keep the wire runs between the boards as short as possible - they made the machine round (well, semi- circular, at any rate). All the interconnections are made with white and blue twisted pair wire, I'd imagine many layers deep. The repair of a damaged wire deep inside the cage must be virtually impossible.

    One of our members is so enthusiastic about Cray machinery, some of us believed we'd need a crowbar to pry him from the machine...


[Image of the PDP-1's console]

    This machine WORKS!!! It's a PDP-1; the very first computer manufactured by DEC. The Computer Museum fires it up once every year for a ceremonial run of Spacewar, a pioneering computer- based video game. We got to "pop the hood" and have a long (loving) look inside, although we weren't allowed to put power to it. It, too, I believe, is to make the (one-way) journey to California soon. Hopefully it's new caretakers will keep the tradition alive.

    The PDP-1 is built using DEC's original System Modules , precursor to the redoubtable Flip-Chip ® packaging. System Modules, unlike Flip-Chips with plastic handles, have a metal band surrounding them and utilise a "real" plug- and- socket connection mechanism. Actually, if you look closely at the modules themselves, they display the title "System Building Blocks".


[Image of an unknown console]

    Some of the machines in the back- room were totally unfamiliar to me, this one included. However, it was such a magnificent sight I had to snap this picture. How'd you like to have this in your basement?

    The device just to its right is a replica of Herman Hollerith's census tabulator from the last century.
[Image of an IBM 360 console]

    "Big iron" rules at the Computer Museum. This is what most of us now consider that to mean. It's an IBM System/360. The 360 is a transistorised machine built during the decade of the 1960s. It has been one of the more successful large architectures, and is, pretty much, the machine that gave us the term "mainframe". It's descendents live on today as the System/390s and ES9000.

    This particular example is currently on public display in the exhibits section.

[Image of a KA-10 console]

    When somebody mentions "mainframe", most of us automatically think "Big Blue", or IBM. However, Digital Equipment Corporation manufactured a superb line of 36- bit machines known collectively as PDP-10s. The -10 is a direct descendant of the PDP-6 ; they share a common architecture and instruction set. There were four models of PDP-10; the KA-10 (whose console is shown here), the KI-10 (my personal favourite), the KL-10 (my least favourite), and the KS-10 (an inexpensive low-powered "economy model"). This artifact is on display in the public areas.

    TCM does not appear to have the rest of the machine - a fact which nearly brought me to tears.


[Image of a drum memory]

    For those of you who wonder just how simple things can get, have a look at an early drum memory. This beast is little more than an aluminium frame, an AC motor, a drum coated with magnetic material, and a bunch of read/write heads. The motor is in the foreground, the drum is just visible inside the frame, and the heads are buried beneath the stuff on top. They don't come this simple now! Of course, it was state of the art when it was built.

[Image of Japanese alphabet teleprinter]

    While we're on the topic of peripherals, here's an interesting one. It's a Japanese alphabet teleprinter. Notice it's got a lot more keys than your standard old ASR-33. The type head was also huge; about the diameter of a beer can!

    In a fit of idiocy, I neglected to note its manufacturer. I guess I was "caught up in the heat of the moment" and lost my head.


[Image of A DG Nova 800]

    I'm a rabid minicomputer fanatic, and, to be perfectly honest, I was hunting for minis all the while we were at TCM. They do have a few, such as this forlorn- looking Nova 800 which I discovered tucked away at the very back of a store- room behind all sorts of other stuff. It sports the original Nova colour scheme (yellow, newer ones feature blue), and has a pair of Diablo disk drives for mass storage. Getting it open to check the configuration closely would have been impossible, so I didn't even ask. However, I'd imagine the configuration is somewhat akin to the Nova 840 I have in my collection.

[Image of a PDP11/70 and 11/34]

    TCM has this pair of pdp11s that look to be in operable, or near- operable condition. The top machine is a pdp11/34 with the standard front panel. See my 11/34 for one with a programmers' console. The bottom machine is a pdp11/70, which for a very long time was the most powerful model in the -11 lineage. It sports such features as split instruction and data address spaces, hardware floating point, and a decent- sized cache memory. Just where the disk drives and other peripherals for it got to, I don't know. I didn't see them anywhere, and I was looking.

[Image of a Prime mini]

    Data General and Digital Equipment Corporation weren't the only manufacturers of minicomputers, Prime (or "Pr1me", as they used it) also built 16-bit small computers. Many of these were used in computer assisted design and draughting (or CADD) applications. I've never been exposed to them, so I really can't comment on their architecture or construction, but here's a photo anyway.

    TCM also has a DG Eclipse S/330 tucked away behind some other large (wrapped) machines, and as such I was unable to get a picture of it. I wasn't even able to get to the machine's front panel and had to ask a smaller member of our party to identify it for me as Eclipses tend to look much alike. I have an Eclipse S/230 in my collection which looks pretty similar, save that I don't have a DG tape drive.


    One aspect of TCM's collection troubles me mightily; there's a distinct lack of near- history machines in the collection. While I'm referring to minicomputers specifically, there's also a dearth of machines from the near past in general.

    Some of these machines may be more important from a sociological point of view than of a computer history one. It is said that Steve Jobs (of Apple Computer fame) drew inspiration from the design of the Data General Nova; the PDP-8, fairly indisputably, was the first machine that was affordable enough for small businesses, and even an occasional individual, to own and operate. Minicomputers also figured fairly prominently in school settings, especially in secondary schools, and gave thousands of people the introduction to programming techniques that today colour the world of computer applications. These social factors, in my opinion, shouldn't be overlooked when one's attempting to preserve a heritage; near- history machines deserve to be saved as well as "ancient" ones.

    To give credit it's due, TCM does have a few PDP-8s, two of which (an 8/e and an 8/a) are on public display; a third (an original 8!) languishes, in dire need of TLC and repair, in the storage areas. Another two (in unspecified operational condition) are on tour. They also have the single Nova (although I believe they have an original one), mentioned above, the Eclipse, the Prime, and the two -11s. However, the collection lacks an in depth minicomputer presence.

    A good case may be made that more members of the minicomputer class should be preserved as an important facet of computer history.


    This was a trip which can never be repeated; the manager of the historical collection has taken a new position with another employer, and the collection is soon to be residing out at Stanford University. It's quite possible that we were the last non- employees to see it while it's still in New England. In a way, that's sad.

    The machines, just about one and all, are the "children" of people in the New England area. Their designers have all moved on to "better things", or have passed from amongst us, their creations being, for the most part, forgotten over the years. The new museum in California will attempt to do for the collection what the founders of Boston's Computer Museum tried to do in the Museum's initial incarnation - preserve and display computer hardware that is "historic" in nature. TCM Boston failed in that goal. Perhaps there's better luck out west.


    RIP Boston Computer Museum.

    The following appeared on the USENET group comp.society.folklore on October 18, 1996:

The Computer Museum History Center opens tomorrow in Mountain View.
Has a large collection of artifacts and memorabilia.
Worth taking a day off to explore.

    The transition looks final.



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