History, suited to a `T'

Fashion: An online museum documents the highs and lows of the digital age through T-shirts made by people who helped shape it.

January 13, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Someday, when historians try to piece together the definitive history of the digital age, they might want to rummage through Lloyd Tabb's laundry bag.

Buried beneath his stinky socks and dirty drawers, they'll find what the 37-year-old programmer considers one of the great unappreciated icons of Silicon Valley: the geek tee.

For more than a quarter-century, programmers and engineers have informally memorialized their efforts with T-shirts. The clothing commemorates some of the digital age's greatest triumphs - from the creation of the first personal computers to the first commercial Web browser.

Now Tabb, a longtime Silicon Valley hand and former Netscape Communications Corp. employee whose stock options allowed him to retire, has created an online museum dedicated to preserving the sartorial side of Silicon Valley.

"Romans used to commemorate things with coins, geeks commemorate things with T-shirts," says Tabb, a Santa Cruz, Calif., resident who started the collection this month with 25 shirts he found in the back of his closet.

"The history of Silicon Valley really is in the shirts."

The online museum - www.geekt.org - has struck a chord, drawing dozens of submissions and hundreds of thousands of visitors in the past week, Tabb says.

Many of the shirts are riddled with inside jokes only a computer geek could love - or comprehend.

One of the most famous and popular shirts on Tabb's online museum was created by the team at Netscape that created the first commercial Web browser.

Like a digital age totem pole, the shirt is emblazoned with obscure symbols of everything from roller blades to tofu, carries Latin quotes from Virgil and Japanese slang, and allusions to company co-founder Marc Andreessen.

There are shirts that document companies that no longer exist, products that never saw the light of day, and the long hours that techies put in. "The shirts are like a soldier with his medals: It really identifies where you've been and what you've accomplished," says Gordon Thygeson, a former Apple engineer and author of "Apple T-Shirts: A Yearbook of History at Apple Computer."

Others are political.

To protest the U.S. government's prohibition on exporting strong encryption software, one T-shirt in Tabb's online museum, for example, bears the formula for encryption software once considered so sensitive it was illegal to transport beyond U.S. borders.

Technically, the T-shirt was too. One visitor to the museum who owned the shirt commented: "Never dared to wear mine entering the U.S."

While the idea that T-shirts could have historical meaning might seem a stretch, scholars aren't laughing. Curators at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History have T-shirts in their archives.

"We're very much interested not only in what people say, but the artifacts they have in the work spaces," says Jan English-Lueck, an anthropologist with the Silicon Valley Cultures Project at San Jose State University.

The custom of creating T-shirts is a modern phenomenon, says historian Robert Rosenberg, who oversees the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University.

In Edison's day, says Rosenberg, techies wore "ties and vests and jackets."

"I don't even think they had secret handshakes," Rosenberg says.

The practice is generally thought to have taken off in the 1970s, when custom T-shirts became cheap and easy to make. One of the first computer companies to make use of them was Apple Computer Inc. The company's marketing department and its employees have created more than 4,000 T-shirts in the company's nearly 25-year history, says Thygeson, whose 1997 book published the thousand best.

The collection of shirts, he says, "reflects Apple's culture and its history better than any other book can. It gives you the workers' point of view."

One subversive shirt, for example, is emblazoned with snapshots of company co-founder Steve Jobs and the man who once ousted him from the CEO job, John Sculley.

Under Jobs' picture, a caption reads, "This is Apple." Under Sculley's picture: "This is Apple on drugs."

Another, created by employees who weathered one of the company's many rough periods, reads: "I Helped Save the Company and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."

The engineers who designed the groundbreaking Macintosh, the first commercial computer to use a mouse and graphic icons, were so proud they designed a shirt with this slogan: "90 HRS/WK AND LOVING IT!"

About 140 historic company T-shirts were given to Stanford University for its Apple archive, including the company's first: a 1978 tee created to celebrate the Apple II.

Some of these relics are becoming valuable. Karen Gotsch has created an online business - www.gotscha.com - digging up and reselling classic high-tech tees to nostalgic nerds and collectors of digital age memorabilia.

She's sold geek tees to countries as far away as Japan and Iceland, and some have fetched up to $150.

Apple T-shirts are hot. So are ones from Steve Jobs' now-defunct company, NeXt. While some high-tech tees have acquired cool status, Gotsch says she cannot give others away. "Nobody will wear an AOL T-shirt," she says. "The Microsoft ones are hard to sell, too. Even though people work with it, they're not really proud of it."

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