Living Computing

SIGCSE this year was held in Seattle. It turns out there is a computer museum in Seattle, not too far south of the downtown area, called the Living Computer Museum. The key distinguishing feature is that almost all of the computers there are actually running, and usable by visitors to the museum. Sue Sentance, Ian Utting and I headed off to take a look.

The ground floor is filled with modern gadgets and sensors which were all too familiar after spending the week at a computing education conference: a real busman’s holiday. But on the first floor were all the vintage computers, which were much more interesting. There is an oscilloscope which is running Tennis for Two, considered to be one of the first computer games:

This typifies what is great about the museum: it uses original hardware, not emulation, and is usable by visitors: I was playing the game with Ian while recording the video.

Historic Computers

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from computing museums, it’s that you either die by age 25, or live long enough to see your childhood computers in a museum. I was amused to find an Amstrad in the museum, given that it’s a British manufacturer. The Amstrad was a fairly cheap machine, and the company’s head Alan Sugar has always had a bit of a reputation as a producer of low-quality goods. Hence my amusement at this:

After a moment or two I worked out how to reset the machine:

And then I found Sim City in that box of 5.25″ floppy disks. I’m not sure I expected to ever again use a floppy disk! I first accidentally ejected the floppy with the OS on it, but unlike USB sticks which complain immediately if you yank them out, older PCs didn’t even notice if you didn’t do anything to access the disk while it’s out. So I managed to load Sim City:

To explain: older games used to prevent copying by having special codes in the manual which you had to enter on load. To avoid being defeated by photocopies, they were often printed in yellow-on-white or black-on-black, and/or spread throughout the manual so you’d have to copy the whole manual. I did google on my phone, but at the time I couldn’t find the relevant info (now found, for the curious).

Interface Evolution

There is a card-punching machine in the museum on which you can punch your own cards. I’m a bit too young to have done any card-punching myself, but it’s quite an experience. You can’t see the last 1-2 characters you typed so it’s easy to get lost punching even simple sequences. There’s no backspace/undo, of course. And the keyboard itself is a marvel of bizarre design:

Punch cards are quaint curiosities now, but what a bloody awful way to program. 10x programmers may not exist, but we are all 100x programmers compared to the punch card era.

I also found a computer running Windows 1.0, which I’d never used before (3.1 is where I came in). The basic ideas of GUIs are there, but it’s horribly slow and clunky:


If you’re ever in Seattle, I highly recommended visiting the Living Computer Museum. It’s not a huge place, but it is my favourite of the computing museums I’ve been to, for the simple fact of being able to use the computers. It’s something I’ve mentioned before when discussing computing research: I don’t think you can truly understand an interface without using it. You can’t appreciate how clunky Windows 1.0 was until you drag the horrible ball mouse across a mouse mat and have to hold and drag the mouse to access menus and mess around with monochrome Paint.

Finally, I’ll end with this, as a thought on how computing has evolved (the scale isn’t apparent here, but it’s about a metre tall and a couple of metres wide):

One thought on “Living Computing

  1. I punched cards in high school when I took a COBOL course in 1983. The main thing I remember is how horrible the keyboard was, hurting my hands. Also, the annoyance of submitting a card deck to be compiled and run overnight by my teacher, and then noticing that compilation failed because of a syntax error!

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