This is the first thing you see: a DEC PDP-7, a minicomputer introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation in 1965.
  • JG
  • This is the first thing you see: a DEC PDP-7, a "minicomputer" introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation in 1965.

This is Aaron. You would like him.
  • JG
  • This is Aaron. You would like him.
At the admissions desk to the Living Computer Museum in Sodo—Paul Allen's place, which opened two years ago—there's a man named Aaron who could not be more delightful. He explains that 20 to 50 people visit each day, if you average out the slow and busier times of year, plus school groups, and his uniform is a hint of the museum's style. His shirt is distinctly working-class, a Dickie's-style mechanic's getup with his name printed on the label. Upstairs we'll see the other half of the Living Computer Museum costume: white lab coats. Men servicing machines, or just inhabiting areas where you are not allowed, wear these scientist coats. Here, the history of computers is a history of labor and science. It does not look digital, or wealthy. It is quaint.

We exit the elevator up to the exhibits floor, and the first thing we see is a large contraption that, when it was released in 1965, was a "minicomputer." It has a keyboard and a printer and looks like it runs on tapes. It's a DEC PDP-7.

"This is the computer they had at the Jewish Museum show in 1970!" Ed Shanken exclaims immediately.

This man is a computer scientist at work (see lab coat).
  • JG
  • This man is a computer scientist at work (see lab coat).
Shanken is an expert in the history of art and technology; he's currently teaching at UW's DXArts program. He authored the textbook Art and Electronic Media, which on page 29 first introduces the exhibition that Shanken is referring to at the Jewish Museum in 1970—one of a wave of computer-and-art shows that happened around that time across the United States and beyond. In fact, he points out, technologically enabled artworks represented the US at the World's Fair in Osaka in 1970. "Art and technology was officially US art in 1970," he says. The Jewish Museum exhibition was called Software — Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, and it "used software as a metaphor for art," Shanken explains. It included standalone tech innovations as well as new computer-assisted/minded art by now-famous conceptual artists Hans Haacke, John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, and more.

Another very nice guide—these people really love computers—approaches us to tell us excitedly that there is a new specimen that's just arrived and was brought out for display only the day before: a Bendix computer dating from 1956, weighing 950 pounds. "It's the oldest computer on the floor," she says. "It hasn't been fully restored yet, but we were too excited to keep it in storage."

This is not a white-cube museum, or a hip warehouse environment, or any particularly beautiful or special space at all. If I recall correctly, it's wall-to-wall carpeted. Pillars glow space-agey green, and you think, how did they do that? Are those glowing from the inside? The way they did that is by placing little green lights in the moat around the base of the pillar, which is very man-behind-the-curtain/Halloween trick and very cheesy—and also very lovable.

What we notice next are twin monitors bearing projections of the 1973 CVs of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Microsoft's founders. In 1972, the two (plus another man) founded a company called Traf-O-Data, which was supposed to generate helpful traffic reports for traffic engineers. (The name "Traf-O-Data" is the nomenclatural equivalent of space-age colored lights in architectural moats.) In 1974, on April 4, they founded Microsoft.

Paul Allen in 1973: Still editing.
  • JG
  • Paul Allen in 1973: Still editing.

Roaming the room, we gazed at the indomitable Palm Pilot and many of his obsolete friends. We looked with recognition upon the boxy Macintosh SE from 1984. Artist Jason Salavon, my guide along with Shanken, opined, "I made art on this."

The ancestor of the personal computer waited in a far corner to tell its story. It's the 1973 Xerox Alto. As soon as I got near it, a docent rushed over excited to explain that this unassuming elongated box was a landmark: the first computer created for regular people rather than programmers. It was supposed to be intuitive, like the Mac would become. And Xerox would have been king of personal computing—meaning, basically King of the World—if it had recognized early on the value of what it had. (See the book Fumbling the Future.)

Nearby was another, smaller desktop machine running a cartoon. Salavon and Shanken pointed out its significance. It's an Amiga, with an early digital-painting program. In the mid-1980s, Amiga hired Andy Warhol to do live painting presentations using its software—and just a few months ago, people discovered a trove of private works Warhol made using that software. (In addition to the discovery story, that link also has video of Warhol live-computer-painting Debbie Harry.)

Finally, we arrived at a room where we weren't sure we were allowed. The glass-windowed doors were closed. It was bright in there. We followed the light, took our chances by pushing open the doors, and voila! We were welcomed by a man who emerged from behind some very big machines. This was the room of the dinosaurs. Climate-controlled for serious preservation.

I think I remember the dinosaurs humming. (Or did I make that up?) They involve so much wiring, these wires must have been painstakingly woven by human fingers. No way a machine could have done all of this, right?:

  • JG

"The first machine I ever touched, I ever wrote BASIC on, it's in there," Salavon said wistfully as we reticently departed the ancients. It was time to go. Or so our handheld computers told us.