A megabyte museum

October 09, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Like a classic car buff popping the hood on a '67 Corvair, Bob Roswell lifts the hinged shell of his Commodore PET and props it open with a metal rod.

"This thing never worked," he says, flush with nostalgic amusement at the shortcomings of 1977's big splash in personal computers. "We used to get in there and shoot these things with a hair drier to get the connections right."

Computers may be nothing more than appliances, literally the most calculating of machines. But to Mr. Roswell, an Owings Mills resident, and others of his generation, vintage models cast warm reflections on those who worked with them.

"Many people have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours behind these computers," says Mr. Roswell, 37, explaining why he established a personal computer museum in the Hunt Valley offices of his company, System Source. "I find it very interesting that everybody who comes in here focuses on what their first computer was."

Anyone still grappling with the notion that memories are to be measured in megabytes, consider this: Personal computers are now historical objets d'art.

Computer collectors from east to west are a growing breed. "Admirers of the youngest antiques around!" is the motto for the Florida-based Historical Computer Society, which has grown from a dozen members to 300 in three years, according to the group's founder, David Greelish. A similar group, the Computer History Association of California, has more than 1,000 names on its mailing list and more than 20 vintage computers.

"It's a nice nostalgia in that you don't have to be old to enjoy it, and it's a valid nostalgia," says Tom Carlson, a Virginia man who posted photos of his collection in a Worldwide Web page titled The Obsolete Computer Museum.

"It really is the way people look at their old cars. Computers

today are really pretty interchangeable -- either you have one of a different number of Macintoshes or one of a number of PC clones. It didn't used to be that way."

Comparisons between the early personal computers and classic cars are many. George Keremedjiev, founder of the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Mont., notes that the early personal computers came in kits, inviting lots of tinkering.

"It was like a car where you did your own tuneup," he says. "You could see where the signal was going from one chip to that chip. You could pop open the hood so to speak. You'd go in there and do your soldering and work on it."

Indeed, Mr. Roswell seems to be a sort of computer buff, an interest he traces to childhood -- his parents bought him a Digi-Comp 1, a primitive toy computer made of plastic. His was the generation that grew up with Pong, the pioneer of computer video games. Back then, only the rich kids at school had the calculator known as the Bowmar Brain.

He studied computers at Yale University, and upon graduating, he and childhood friend Maury Weinstein bought the ComputerLand franchise in Baltimore for $25,000. Fourteen years later, their company, renamed System Source, is a $30 million-a-year concern with 130 employees.

He started the museum about seven years ago in the basement of the company's downtown Baltimore offices. When the company moved to Hunt Valley last summer, he expanded his display to more than a dozen computers.

The museum offers System Source customers a chance to ponder the industry's leaps and missteps, and to better predict the computer's future. Groups, including school classes, can see the museum by appointment.

Step inside and see a lineage of late, great computers, from the Atari 800 to the Tandy TRS-80 to the Dynabyte 5100, a circa-1980 model the size of two suitcases. Gaze in wonder at a modem the size of a toaster oven. Hoist a hard drive that seems more like an 18-pound paperweight. Lug a "portable" computer weighing in at 29 pounds.

There's an Osborne 1, the first popular portable computer. And if the Commodore PET is the Corvair of the industry, then the Apple III is perhaps the Edsel -- "The only way you could keep it running was to pick it up and drop it about six inches," Mr. Roswell says.

Just about everything at the museum is booted up. He'd like to have an Altair, the granddaddy of all personal computers. For now, he settles for an IMSAI 8080.

Not long ago, the very idea of a computer museum was unheard of. Now, the Smithsonian Institution has a computer display. Intel Corp., which developed the microprocessor, has a museum at its corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Computer Museum in Boston draws more than 130,000 visitors a year. Keeping current is tough; the Boston museum recently upgraded its 5-year-old walk-through model of a personal computer to include a Pentium chip, an internal modem and an Internet card.

Mr. Greelish, founder of the Historical Computer Society, became intrigued by the first computers because he coveted them, but couldn't afford them as a young student.

He has noticed the hold that vintage computers have on former users. "They actually light up about it. There's a passion involved. I can't fully explain it."

Mr. Keremedjiev, has seen the same thing at his museum in Montana. "Once they walk in they realize, 'I worked with this. This was my life.' "

Adds Intel spokesman Tom Waldrop, "That's kind of ironic. These are supposed to be just machines, right?"

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