Evan Koblentz, Independent Scholar
This year, 2007, marks the 30th anniversary of truly personal computer from companies like Apple, Commodore, and Tandy. Microcomputers before then were only sold in kit form. The plug-and-play nature of the Apple II, Commodore Pet, and Tandy TRS-80 changed history forever – microcomputers ceased being entirely for hobbyists and became just another retail product. Yet hobbyists are now back in force as collectors of antique computers – loosely defined as anything from the 1950s to 1980s. Their efforts to collect and restore vintage computers require the consolidation of vast amounts of historical material, typically involving discussions in online forums, participation in events like the Vintage Computer Festival, and collaborative projects to preserve things like advertisements, books, club newsletters, magazines, and user manuals. It is these modern collectors who represent what the IEEE History Center called “an important new group of people interested in helping to preserve… the history of electrical engineering and computing.” So the relationship between professional historians and this informal but global society of lay historians needs to be fostered.
However, the area where historians and hobbyists can best share knowledge is in grassroots museum efforts. Approximately 30 computer-focused museums and historical institutes currently exist in the U.S. alone. Some, such as the Charles Babbage Institute (Minneapolis, Minn.), Computer History Museum (Mountain View, Calif.), and Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) possess significant budgets and professional staff. But most of the other museums are small, homegrown efforts. They are administered by collectors and volunteers, surviving on small donations. While professional museums usually focus on less accessible landmarks such as Babbage’s difference engine or the ENIAC, hobbyist-led museums focus on computers which had a major consumer impact, such as the IBM System 360 or M.I.T.S. Altair. But collectors serving as lay historians may not always grasp context. A restored, operational, and stand-alone Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8 may wow an audience of their follow enthusiasts, but the exhibit may lack context and signage to educate non-technical visitors about the computer’s historical relevance. Amateurs and hobbyists also sometimes have lower standards for verifying research: a brief search on Wikipedia may satisfy a hobbyist, while a professional historian will triple-check sources. Collectors also lack an organized structure, yet tens of thousands of their ranks thrive around the world, usually unaware of professionals or lacking any way to make contact.
My paper focuses on lessons extracted from a recent example of computer hobbyists and professional historians working together. This began in 2005 when a user group called Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists formed. By a chance meeting with a group of antique radio collectors at that year’s Trenton Computer Festival, MARCH became a partner of the upstart InfoAge Science Center in Wall, New Jersey. This campus, formerly an R&D center for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. and later a top-secret electronics laboratory for the U.S. military, is now being renovated by volunteers on a shoestring budget but with research assistance from the nearby David Sarnoff Library, IEEE, and Lucent Technologies. MARCH now has 150 members from Boston to Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Their role at InfoAge includes planned exhibits such as “Computers of New Jersey” and “Computing in the Military”, which wouldn’t be possible without both local knowledge and professional research. It’s up to historians and hobbyists together to make sure such examples turn into long-term trends for public benefit.