Where Old Computers Refuse to Die

David Bunnell Recalls the Reception of Computer Pioneers at Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum

If there is a corner of heaven reserved for computer geeks, it must be very similar to Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum, located in a 3-story warehouse south of downtown Seattle.

One wonderful evening last April (2013), I found myself milling about this museum with 150 technology pioneers, old-timers, game-changers, the people who laid the foundation of today’s digital reality, at a festive reception hosted by Paul Allen and his co-founder at Microsoft, Bill Gates.

Stuffed full of ancient, historical computers that have been painstakingly restored, the museum is a grand testament to the history, the glory of computers, how they evolved, and how they changed the world. Here you will find some of the few if not only actual working, fully functional mainframe and minicomputers as well as an extensive collection of the earliest personal computers (also “up and running”).

While I don't know anything about most of the pre-personal computers, it was nonetheless impressive to see a working Xerox Sigma 9, circa 1971, and to learn it was used to send the very first message over the ARPAnet, which is the precursor of today’s Internet.

And amusing to know that there once was a computer called the “XKL TOAD-1,” TOAD standing for “ten on a desk,” because it could scale down to desktop size. Introduced in more recent computer history, 1999, my guess is the manufacturer, “Large Systems Group,” figured they had a Macintosh killer.

Because my career spans the personal computer era, I was naturally more interested in the personal computers. In my office at MITS during the late 1970s, I had an Altair 8800 interfaced to a teletype machine, a setup similar to the one at the museum, and I still have an Altair stashed away somewhere. (Occasionally my wife asks me, “That old computer you have in the basement, do you think it’s worth anything?”)

Each personal computer in Paul Allen’s collection evoked memories. Seeing the Radio Shack TRS-80 with its cassette tape drive reminded me of the days when I was writing instructional manuals for computer games and how cumbersome it was to load programs into early PCs using cassette tapes.

The first IBM Personal Computer brought back a flood of images, emotions related to the startup of PC Magazine, mail bags full of subscription cards delivered to my house near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, how the magazine grew to over 400 pages by its second issue, how we fought with our financial backer, how he sold PC Magazine out from under us, the resulting lawsuits, PC World, clashing media moguls Bill Ziff and Pat McGovern.

First Cover of Macworld Magazine

I couldn't look at the first Macintosh without thinking of Steve Jobs, the great opportunity he gave me to create Macworld magazine, how fast he walked and how difficult it was to keep up with him, his 30th birthday party, Ella Fitzgerald singing “Happy Birthday, Steve,” my teenage daughters stuffing the elevators at the Saint Francis Hotel with balloons.

My god, I thought, even if I was the only person here, I could spend hours and hours in this incredible place.

But then I was not the only one. As fascinating as the computers and related displays were, the assembled collection of digital luminaries was even more special. A one-time happening, a “be-in” for nerds, this particular human configuration will never be repeated, ever. I needed to pull myself away from the machines and mingle.

About then I bumped into Paul Terrell, yes, the Paul Terrell, founder of the first chain of computer stores, the BYTE Shops, the man who took a chance on two scruffy, barefooted hippies named Jobs and Wozniak by agreeing to sign a purchase order for 50 Apple I computers, their first sale, the beginning of their company.

Terrell was just as I remembered him, ruddy faced, exuberant, and bubbling over with stories about the early days. We laughed and laughed about how MITS CEO Ed Roberts, sometimes referred to as “the Father of the Personal Computer Industry,” had me phone Terrell to tell him MITS was cutting off the BYTE Shops from receiving any more Altair Computers because Terrell had the audacity to carry competing products.

I was 25, MITS’s marketing director, and I thought this was crazy, why couldn't the BYTE Shops carry competing products? Retail stores routinely carry competing products, but Roberts wasn't having any of this. In 1976, if you wanted to sell Altair Computers, they had to be exclusive. As for add-ons, memory boards, and the like, they could come from other companies, but only if we pre-approved them.

At the time, of course, Terrell wasn't so sanguine, he was pissed. So he made deals to sell everything but Altairs‚ IMSAI, SOL, Apple I, Commodore PET computers, and this only made the BYTE Shops more successful while MITS went into a steep decline, was bought by a company no one had heard of, PERTEC, and by 1980 dissolved into a puddle like the Wicked Witch.

I found myself standing next to the great engineer, Lee Felsenstein, both of us admiring the SOL Computer he designed with its beautiful tactile keyboard that was so much ahead of its day. Did he remember hand-delivering a SOL to me at the Albuquerque office of Personal Computing magazine? Yes, he did, and Lee even recalled how we went out drinking afterwards.

It was a kick for me to describe to Felsenstein how the SOL became my very first word processor. “I loaded Electric Pencil into the SOL using its cassette recorder, a process that took several minutes and invariably failed once or twice,” I explained, “then I typed in my document and after making all the corrections I sat an IBM Selectric typewriter next to the SOL and typed the document over again.”

Lee looked at me as if I was nuts, but I pointed out his was still an improvement over just using the typewriter!

By now, Bill Gates had arrived and was standing near the early Microsoft exhibit reading his first resume, which is posted on one of the Living Computer Museum walls next to Paul Allen’s first resume. Written in 1974 with identical formats, the resumes reveal both boys were looking for a job as a Systems Programmer or Systems Analyst, and both listed their previous salary as $15,000 a year.

Bill Gate’s 1974 Resume (Photo by David Bunnell)

Along with their ages, the resumes strangely include their physical dimensions: Bill was 18, 5'10" and weighed in at 135 pounds while Paul was 21, 5'11" and 185 pounds.

Bill Gates and David Bunnell (Photo courtesy David Bunnell)

I chatted with Bill for a few minutes and asked him if he would pose for a photo with me so that I could impress my granddaughters that I actually do know him, a topic of some dispute on the home front.

Next, I hung out awhile with Bob Frankston, co-creator of the world’s first electronic spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, the program that got the personal computer into the business world. We were joined by John Draper, famously known as “Captain Crunch,” who along with Steve Wozniak invented “the little blue box” for cheating phone companies out of what were then egregious long-distance charges. Ironic but fitting for the evening, one man made personal computers legitimate for business, the other invented hacking.

The night went on like this. Roger Melen recalled the great story of the infamous “Dazzler,” the aptly named circuit board he invented to interface the Altair to a color monitor, thereby displaying stunning, kaleidoscopic colors, akin to giving your computer LSD. Left running in the window of the world’s first computer store, Arrow Computing on Pico Avenue in Santa Monica, it literally caused a traffic jam because people slowed up, stopped even, just to look at it. The Santa Monica police told Dick Heiser, the owner of the store, to take it out of the window or turn it off.

And Dick Heiser was there, of course. We chuckled about his quote in a 1976 issue of Computer Notes where he said it “wasn't enough to be optimistic” about the future of personal computers, you had to be “wildly optimistic.” What an understatement that turned out to be!

Dick Heiser on the cover of Computer Notes, August, 1975 (courtesy David Bunnell)

My co-founder at PC Magazine, Jim Edlin, and I were treated to a few surreal moments with David and Betsy Ahl, the husband-wife editors of Creating Computing who were called in by Ziff-Davis Publishing to salvage PC Magazine after I quit and took all the employees with me to start PC World. I told David and Betsy they were “lucky” our lawyers instructed us to not damage anything as we went out the door because that was our inclination.

“But you changed the map,” Betsy said. And she was right, we did change the map, which was the guide to where all the articles and ads were supposed to be placed in the upcoming issue. That was the last thing we did before walking out the door. Harmless mischief, really, but this was 30 years ago and I had forgotten about it.

The ensuing litigation was at the time the largest lawsuit in California, both sides claimed to be seriously aggrieved, we basically hated each other, but here we were cheerfully now recalling the incident about the map, looking back at the times of our young lives when we could do anything, when nothing stopped us, the days when we exceeded all reasonable expectations.

There’s more, of course, I could go on and on. Out of the 150 people I must have spent a moment or two with half of them and some of these moments were just as amusing (in my mind at least) as the ones above. But hopefully I captured the essence of it, a night at the Museum where Old Computers Refuse to Die, a night for the ages.

Thank you, Paul Allen.