In­side the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum


PCWorld (USA) - - Contents - BY HAYDEN DINGMAN

In 2017 I went up to Seat­tle for PAX as usual, and while I was up there I heard about the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum (, an in­sti­tu­tion in south­ern Seat­tle founded by Paul Allen to pre­serve PC his­tory. I took a day off from the show to wan­der down there, got a be­hind-the-scenes tour of the mu­seum, and then… never got around to writ­ing about it. Fall’s busy video game re­lease sea­son buried me, and while I even­tu­ally tran­scribed a full hour of au­dio and wrote the story, it seemed weird to run it six or eight months af­ter the fact—so it just sat on my hard drive.

Paul Allen passed away Oc­to­ber 15, though, and as a re­sult it seems like a great time to cel­e­brate one of his lesser-known ven­tures. What started as a bit of nostal­gia for him, a PDP-10 in a non­de­script Seat­tle ware­house, is now one of the best com­puter mu­se­ums I’ve ever been to, a truly spe­cial place where vis­i­tors can go hands-on with ev­ery­thing from a CDC 6500 to an Ap­ple I to a Xerox Alto.

Some of the de­tails may have changed in the last 14 months—i don’t, for in­stance, know whether the mu­seum’s got­ten its CRAY-2 up and run­ning yet. I hope you’ll en­joy this look into the mu­seum, both its pub­lic-fac­ing side and the enor­mous sup­port op­er­a­tion it ne­ces­si­tates. Thanks to Paul Allen for his role in found­ing such a won­der­ful in­sti­tu­tion.


“Other mu­se­ums put a glass in front of their com­put­ers. We put a chair.” I toured Seat­tle’s Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum for over an hour with Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Lath Carl­son, but it’s that one sim­ple line that stuck with me most—a per­fect en­cap­su­la­tion of what makes the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum spe­cial.

Housed in Seat­tle’s Sodo neigh­bor­hood, the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum doesn’t look

like much from the out­side—it’s cleaner and a bit brighter than the sur­round­ing ware­houses, but those who know Seat­tle know that’s also not say­ing much. In­side this unas­sum­ing build­ing is prob­a­bly the fore­most PC his­tory mu­seum I’ve ever vis­ited, if only for one rea­son: You can ac­tu­ally use the PCS on dis­play. Even the su­per­com­put­ers.

“The mu­seum ac­tu­ally started kind of back­wards from most mu­se­ums,” says Carl­son, shout­ing over the noise of about a half-dozen main­frames. We’re stand­ing in a bright white room filled with a CDC 6500, a Xerox Sigma 9, an IBM Sys­tem/360 Model 30, and most im­por­tantly, a PDP-10.

The PDP-10, I should say. Around 15 years ago now, Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen bought this PDP-10, the same model he and Bill Gates used in their ear­li­est years. And then he put it up on the in­ter­net for peo­ple to re­mote lo­gin—you may have heard of Pdp­

“What hap­pened was they put the web­site out there, started get­ting users, and then peo­ple would call and say, ‘Can I come see the com­puter?’,” says Carl­son. At the time it was just a PDP-10 in a ware­house, noth­ing fancy.“Then Paul ba­si­cally said, ‘Okay, enough peo­ple are in­ter­ested, maybe

it should be a mu­seum.’”

Opened in 2012, said mu­seum now en­com­passes two full floors of the ware­house. The PDP-10 sits among a half­dozen other main­frame ma­chines, each with its own rich his­tory. For in­stance, Carl­son de­scribes the restora­tion of a CDC 6500, one of the world’s ear­li­est su­per­com­put­ers, de­signed by the leg­endary Sey­mour Cray. “This ma­chine came out of Pur­due Univer­sity, and when we got it, ev­ery one of these wires here was cut.” He ges­tures to a bank of thou­sands of wires run­ning down the mid­dle of the ma­chine.

“Dave, one of our engi­neers, spent months rewiring,” he con­tin­ues. “We dis­cov­ered in the process that ma­chines like this, the speed elec­trons go through the wires is ac­tu­ally quite crit­i­cal, so in or­der to get some things to work right we had to change the lengths of some wires…of course first we had to find a com­pany to re­make the right wires.”

Of course.

The mu­seum also needed to re­place some of the logic mod­ules, and with no spare parts on hand that meant re­verse-en­gi­neer­ing the hard­ware with mod­ern parts. One of the mu­seum’s engi­neers “had to take one of those apart and mea­sure the value of ev­ery com­po­nent, then re­design it.” They also in­stalled a liq­uid cool­ing loop that runs all the way to the roof.

A ton of work, but at the end? The CDC 6500 runs. At the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum you can get your hands on the world’s third­e­ver su­per­com­puter, one that helped study both nu­clear physics and the struc­ture of the

cold virus, and which has less com­pute power than the phone in your pocket.

Carl­son talks me through the his­tory of some other ma­chines. One, an IBM 360-30, was found in a base­ment in North Carolina. It was half-dis­man­tled when I saw it, re­cently scrubbed free of 20-odd years of mold dam­age. There’s an IBM 7090, which did time with NASA on the space pro­gram. There’s a punch card reader.

“All these ma­chines are get­ting on 40 and 50 years old, and even when these ma­chines were cur­rent they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily the most re­li­able things out there. They had tech­ni­cians on staff al­ways, they were al­ways re­pair­ing them, so this is not un­usual. You know? It’s just a lit­tle harder when they get older.”

It’s his­tory in a way I’m not used to—messy and me­chan­i­cal and loud. Other mu­se­ums I’ve been to, like the Com­puter His­tory Mu­seum in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, have ex­hibits that get across the size of these ma­chines. But as some­one who grew up af­ter the main­frame era, there’s a weird con­nec­tion that forms from touch­ing those old key­boards, like reach­ing through to a far-flung past. As with any relic, com­put­ers carry a piece of ev­ery­one who’s ever touched them.


Out­side the main­frame room, things start look­ing more fa­mil­iar—at least to me. There’s a PDP-8 nearby, this one for vis­i­tors to play chess against. It takes for­ever.

But past that are the minis, some of which are more spe­cial than oth­ers. Traf-o-data was the first com­pany founded by Gates and Allen, in­tended to process traf­fic re­ports.

”They built this com­puter with a guy from UW, and this is the only one that was ever built is this one right here.” It’s one of the few com­put­ers be­hind glass. “Paul Gilbert, the guy who had it at UW had held onto it and a bunch of ma­te­ri­als, and we ended up get­ting a hold of it. It has all the pa­per notes on there and ev­ery­thing from the orig­i­nal. We like to keep that stuff as in­tact as pos­si­ble.”

The Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum also houses Steve Jobs’s first com­puter, a cus­tom­ized

Ap­ple I—also be­hind glass. “In ‘85 when Steve was forced out of Ap­ple he left and lit­er­ally left ev­ery­thing in his of­fice. He didn’t take any­thing with him,” says Carl­son. Ap­ple’s HR depart­ment put his stuff up for grabs, “And this en­gi­neer that worked there, Don Hut­macher, kind of wan­dered over there, took a bag of Star­bucks cof­fee and that com­puter off the shelf.” It sat in Hut­macher’s work­shop for 30 years un­til he passed away in 2015, at which point his fam­ily worked with the mu­seum to es­tab­lish the ma­chine’s his­tory.

”It was mod­i­fied in some way by the first four em­ploy­ees of Ap­ple,” says Carl­son. “They’ve all been here and seen it and they go ‘Oh yeah, I drew that ar­row on there’ or ‘Oh yeah, he had me wire in that one thing.’”

Most of the col­lec­tion is hands-on though, in­clud­ing an­other Ap­ple I—“it’s the only reg­u­larly op­er­at­ing Ap­ple I in the world and we let peo­ple use it,” says Carl­son. Then past that is a Xerox Alto, the ma­chine Steve Jobs “bor­rowed” from when mak­ing the Mac­in­tosh. The Alto’s run­ning Maze War, ei­ther the orig­i­nal first-per­son shooter or close to it. (1974’s Spasim vies for that honor.)

It starts to feel like there’s a new won­der around ev­ery cor­ner, pro­vided you’re at all in­vested in PC his­tory. Con­tin­u­ing on, ev­ery era is rep­re­sented. There’s an Ap­ple II, a Com­modore 64, a TRS-80, a col­lec­tion of Win­dows 95 ma­chines, a NEXT Cube— even an Ap­ple III, which Carl­son calls a “re­ally hor­ri­ble ma­chine,” con­tin­u­ing

“We’re con­stantly strug­gling to have soft­ware to run on it.”

That’s an­other part of the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum’s magic: Us­ing these ma­chines

means hav­ing the soft­ware to take ad­van­tage of them. In the main­frame era that can mean boot­ing up Ore­gon Trail for in­stance. As you head into the Ap­ple II era, there are cases full of floppy disks nearby, then in the Win­dows 95 era that tran­si­tions to CDS.

There might not be ev­ery bit of soft­ware on hand that you re­mem­ber, but it def­i­nitely trig­gered my nostal­gia in­ter­act­ing with phys­i­cal me­dia again, es­pe­cially when that en­tails the clunky floppy and CD drives of years gone by.


The Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum’s mu­seum is just the tip of the prover­bial ice­berg, though. I ab­so­lutely urge you to go see it, but I’d also love to give you a glimpse of what goes on be­hind closed doors, since Carl­son was kind enough to al­low me back there.

In short: A lot. A lot. The mu­seum, as I said, takes up two floors. It’s well-lit, very

mod­ern and clean-look­ing. Then we go up an­other flight of stairs and sud­denly I’m in the ware­house where they stored the Ark of the Covenant.

Floor-to-ceil­ing shelves stretch on and on and on, barely enough room to walk com­fort­ably be­tween them. It’s dark up here, and ev­ery­where you look there’s more stuff. Carl­son chat­ters as we walk. “These are all CRAY-2 logic mod­ules. We have en­tire bins of mice from dif­fer­ent eras, ca­bles. We have over 3,000 ICS (in­te­grated cir­cuits) in our col­lec­tion, so you need a par­tic­u­lar chip for some­thing we prob­a­bly have it. Os­cil­lo­scopes…” It’s about half stuff that’s been do­nated, half Paul Allen’s pri­vate col­lec­tion, at least up here.

Fur­ther down you en­ter the soft­ware ar­chives, “Ev­ery­thing from more mod­ern ma­chines and Atari and all kinds of things like that to games that are on pa­per tape. Here are punch cards.” Carl­son pauses. “I don’t even know what some of these are. We have a cou­ple-year back­log gen­er­ally.”

The racks con­tinue. Carl­son takes me through a few shelves’ worth of schemat­ics. “We ac­tu­ally use these. The engi­neers have to pull these all the time. That’s an­other thing that sets us apart from a nor­mal mu­seum. It’s not like they’re just go­ing into that drawer and sit­ting for­ever.” There are VHS tapes, and file fold­ers full of train­ing ma­te­ri­als from de­funct

com­pa­nies. There are bins full of mag­a­zines, in­clud­ing back is­sues of Pcworld.

And then we head down to the base­ment, cour­tesy of a rick­ety-feel­ing ser­vice el­e­va­tor. Old ware­house, right? If the up­stairs was the ware­house from the Ark of the Covenant, this is…well, that times two—15,000 square feet of main­frame ma­chines, in var­i­ous states of re­pair. And that’s in ad­di­tion to, Carl­son tells me, “an off­site fa­cil­ity where we store the ma­chines that are less likely to run.”

”A lot of it is spare parts,” says Carl­son. “A lot of the ma­chines you’ll see down these rows are kind of cracked open and guts spilling out a bit. That’s be­cause an en­gi­neer came down here and stole parts out of it for an­other ma­chine.”

”Cir­cuit boards and things like that—and we didn’t know this un­til now, be­cause there haven’t been 50- and 60-year-old cir­cuit boards un­til now—but we’re learn­ing they ac­tu­ally hold up pretty well.” Other ma­te­ri­als, plas­tics and rub­bers and so on, are more chal­leng­ing. “In some ways, a ma­chine made in ’57 is eas­ier to deal with than a 1980’s or early ‘90s PC that used cheap plas­tics and those plas­tics are de­grad­ing in weird ways.”

The mu­seum also re­places most power sup­plies even when it leaves the rest of the ma­chine alone. “A lot of the old power sup­plies used oil im­preg­nated pa­per. Over time the oil ac­tu­ally leeches out and you’re left

with pa­per. When you ap­ply volt­age and there’s pa­per in there, guess what the pa­per starts to do?”

”One of our rules here is not burn­ing down the build­ing.” He laughs.

”We’ll switch those out, we’ll do some checks on wiring and things like that, and then we’ll try to power it up. We call it a smoke test. A few of us stand around with fire ex­tin­guish­ers and we turn it on and see what hap­pens.”

There are spe­cial projects down here too, many of them bet­ter pre­served. A DEK mu­seum in Aus­tralia closed down in the past few years, and the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum in­her­ited those ma­chines. “We’re in­ter­ested in high­light­ing some of those, but we only have so much room to put stuff out.” That’s also the rea­son a pris­tine IBM-360-20 sits in the base­ment—“this was up­stairs un­til we got the 360-30 which is a ‘real 360’ as we say, so we pulled this out.” The 360-20, I’m told, might get traded away to some other mu­seum with sim­i­lar goals, maybe one in Europe.

And then there are the re­ally spe­cial projects—namely, the Cray-2. When Carl­son shows it to me, it’s cov­ered by a blan­ket and sit­ting in its own spe­cial stor­age room. The Cray-2’s been a dream for the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum since its in­cep­tion, one of the most pop­u­lar and rec­og­niz­able su­per­com­put­ers ever built. The prob­lem? When de­com­mis­sioned, most were killed in a way that would make it im­pos­si­ble to sal­vage—wires cut, usu­ally.

The one here in stor­age? “It’s in es­sen­tially per­fect con­di­tion. It was used at the Min­nesota Su­per­com­put­ing Cen­ter and when it came out of ser­vice it was ac­tu­ally taken out of ser­vice with the thought it’d be re­in­stalled some­where. So they didn’t cut all the wires.”

That means the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum might ac­tu­ally be able to get it up and run­ning, then make it ac­ces­si­ble to vis­i­tors—the same as any other ma­chine in their col­lec­tion. One re­main­ing chal­lenge? Get­ting enough Flu­o­rinert, a liq­uid-cool­ing com­pound used in the Cray-2’s iconic wa­ter­fall loop. “The whole ma­chine gets filled with Flu­o­rinert in­clud­ing the power sup­plies down there, and it flows through the boards at one inch per sec­ond, tak­ing all that heat away.”

”We ac­tu­ally called 3M and told them we

needed 150 gal­lons and the guy was like ‘… You what?’ be­cause they usu­ally sell it I think by the liter or what­ever, not by gal­lons.”


”Our mis­sion for all our restora­tions is to re­store the ma­chine to run for 100 years,” Carl­son tells me. And not just run, but be us­able. You can type on a PDP-10. You can try to com­pre­hend Maze Run­ner on a Xerox Alto, com­pare it to Doom al­most a decade later. You can play Zork on an Ap­ple II.

As we’re go­ing through the mu­seum, I point to an old Mac­in­tosh. “That’s the first com­puter my fam­ily ever had!” I say, ex­cited even though it’s a rel­a­tively com­mon ma­chine. “That’s one of the fun things about this mu­seum is that ev­ery­body, no mat­ter when they grew up, they have that one ma­chine they’re like ‘Oh, that was the one!’,” says Carl­son. “Lit­er­ally al­most ev­ery vis­i­tor. Some­times it’s like the VAX or some­thing crazy, other times it’s Com­modore 64 or a TRS-80 or, we have a lot of peo­ple come in to see our Win­dows 95 ma­chines.”

Later, af­ter I’ve left Carl­son in the lobby, I cir­cle back to that same Mac­in­tosh and boot up Shuf­fle Puck Café. I used to play it, a kid dwarfed by my dad’s enor­mous desk chair. The screen seems smaller now, blur­rier, the mouse blocky and barely us­able, but I barely no­tice. I’m lost to nostal­gia, re­dis­cov­er­ing a piece of my­self, a dig­i­tal ghost I’d left in the care of my dad’s old Mac­in­tosh all these years

with­out re­al­iz­ing it. It’s the type of me­mory I’d never get from an em­u­la­tor, nor from sim­ply see­ing the same ma­chine on dis­play, one that comes from touch­ing hard­ware I haven’t laid hands on in prob­a­bly 20 years.

And I’m in­cred­i­bly thank­ful the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum put in the work to make those mem­o­ries pos­si­ble, for me and countless oth­ers, whether they’re in­ter­ested in the his­tory of this not-so-old in­dus­try aca­dem­i­cally or merely grew up along­side it. There’s a lot of work go­ing on be­hind the scenes, stuff you might not be aware of if you sim­ply visit and see all these ma­chines hum­ming along.

In a way, that’s sort of the magic of it though. It’s an oa­sis where these ma­chines can seem­ingly run for­ever, un­touched by the rav­ages of time, and for a mo­ment we can be too.

An orig­i­nal CDC 6500 mod­ule (right) ver­sus the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum’s re­verse-en­gi­neered ver­sion (left).

Play­ing Ore­gon Trail on a Xerox Sigma 9.

The Traf-o-data box.

Two Xerox Al­tos—one real and one em­u­lated.

The cus­tom­ized Ap­ple I.

A project in­progress.

This IBM Sys­tem/360 Model 30 is be­ing dis­played in the pub­lic part of the mu­seum while engi­neers work on restor­ing it.

One of many rows of par­tially-can­ni­bal­ized main­frame ma­chines un­der the fa­cil­ity.

This non­de­script bun­dle is the Liv­ing Com­puter Mu­seum’s Cray-2, at least when I saw it.

The Cray-2’s cool­ing tower is beau­ti­ful even in stor­age.

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