Playing with the past
Experiencing user interaction with computers of different eras
Digital Den / New England Wide Computer Museum
134 Mass. Ave., Cambridge
Monday/Wednesday/Friday 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Tuesday/Thursday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.,
Saturday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
The Digital Den, which has had public viewing hours in the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse in recent months, held a launch party on Sunday, Oct. 20 at the Middlesex Lounge in Central Square, with guided tours of the computing equipment on exhibit, and playtime with machines ranging from early Macs to an Oculus Rift.
Dr. Mary Hopper, the founder of Digital Den, has been seeking to form a coalition with other collectors and computer museums in the New England area for the past six months, and announced the formation of the New England Wide (NEW) Computer Museum at the launch party. She is also reaching out to museums with a similar mission, such as the Living Computer Museum in Seattle. Because of the need to keep the computers in working condition for visitors, she is seeking an endowment as the most sustainable type of funding. Ian King, from the Living Computer Museum, spoke on the difficulties of fixing machines at the component level, and the need to preserve intellectual property so that obsolete machines can be kept operational. While we might turn to eBay to replace components when our own computers crash, hardware for machines that are decades old cannot be replaced so easily.
Dr. Hopper is also trying to find a permanent location for her collection, where machines from other museums and private collections can be located. For now, the plan is to bring computers to spaces similar to the launch party as part of a traveling show, despite the danger of damaging the machines in transport — during the setup for the launch party, there was a small electrical fire in a Compaq Portable. One possible location would be the Foundry Building, which is currently vacant. The City of Cambridge is holding a public meeting to gather input from the public on the future of the Foundry on Oct. 30, and one option is to keep the space for community use.
The history of technology as a field of scholarship is relatively new — it can be dated to the 1934 publication of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization — but Boston used to have a computer museum that closed in 1999. Most of its collections were acquired by the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, which is not a living museum; the pieces are on display, but visitors do not interact with them. A living computer museum in Boston would go farther to immerse visitors in the history of computers, because the historical significance of various models at the launch party was best conveyed by the experts in attendance in combination with the experience of interacting with the machines themselves.
There were many examples of the rich history of computers on Sunday, such as a PDP-8/L from 1968-71, brought in from the Rhode Island Computer Museum, which is also currently located in a warehouse, and a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, which was made before TI became known exclusively for their calculators. Only a small fraction of the computers in collections in New England were on display, so we had only glimpses of different epochs in computer history. For example, a Mac exhibit, which was presented by Adam Rosen of the Vintage Mac Museum, featured an early case from 1984 that was opened to show the signatures of the members of the design team, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. These machines, as well as the Apple IIe from Dr. Hopper’s own collection, had many old games, such as Tetris, Dark Castle and Zork. Rosen houses the Vintage Mac Museum in his home but lets people who contact him see the collection by appointment, and he is very interested in finding another space for his collection.
Alongside the pieces of computer history, such as a framed core plane that showed the wires and magnetic rings of early computer memory, there were also many modern tools. Russ Gant, a virtual reality researcher in the Harvard Visualization and Research Computing Group, brought in an Oculus Rift 3D headset, as well as an earlier example of a headset from the 1990s for comparison, and Dr. Hopper, who lectures on user interaction at Northeastern University, brought in many peripherals, including a Mindflex, which allows a user to control a system with their brainwaves, and a Leap Motion Controller, which captures the position of the users hand above it. She first wanted to create a living museum for computers to give her students a place to experience different forms of user interaction, especially immersive interfaces that are not widely known due to the popularity of mobile computing.
User interaction would differentiate the NEW Computer Museum from virtual museums, where people only read about technologies or watch video clips, since, as Ian King of the Living Computer Museum said, “the meaning of a computer is its interaction with people.” Digital Den gave me a chance to interact with technologies I barely remember, and new technology I had not even seen. It’s right by campus, so if you get the chance, I recommend checking it out — you will find the history of computers turned from a dry list of models into a tangible experience that inspires your thinking about new forms of user interaction.