PRE­SERV­ING THE PAST

The com­put­ing mu­se­ums ded­i­cated to keep­ing our tech history alive

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For many of us, the com­put­ers of decades gone by are an im­por­tant part of our past. We coded them, played on them, worked on them and loved them to bits (and bytes).

But once they were aban­doned and dis­carded in lofts, base­ments, garages and cup­boards, they be­came some­what for­got­ten. You may have made a prom­ise to pick up that dusty gamepad or reac­quaint your­self with the WordS­tar cas­sette cur­rently spilling its guts within your shoe­box, yet the plas­tic of your ma­chines be­gan to yel­low as fast as the mem­o­ries faded.

To­day, prices for old com­put­ers can be high. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Am­strad 464 Plus com­puter for less than £150, while a Com­modore 64GS con­sole can fetch as much as £650. Yet while these two items are rare, high prices and such lev­els of scarcity bring with them an in­her­ent dan­ger.

“There is a worry that some com­put­ers and con­soles are be­com­ing so rare and expensive that they need to be pre­served in such a way that the pub­lic can see them,” says Andy Spencer, who runs the Retro Com­puter Mu­seum in Leicester.

“It’s vi­tal that we keep the retro scene alive and pre­serve the her­itage that the UK helped to start.”

Moves to pre­serve the ma­chines of yesteryear are gath­er­ing pace but they are not merely tap­ping into a nos­tal­gic de­sire among peo­ple to re-ac­quaint them­selves with 8-bit and 16-bit com­put­ers. They are also de­ter­mined to doc­u­ment as much of com­put­ing’s past for the ben­e­fit of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly those who never ex­pe­ri­enced the glory of those rel­a­tively prim­i­tive ma­chines the first time around.

It is why Spencer set up his mu­seum in 2008 with his wife, Linda. “It started with my per­sonal col­lec­tion of be­tween 15 and 20 ma­chines, but I thought other peo­ple may be in­ter­ested.”

For him, the plea­sure is in com­ing across an old sys­tem he’s never tried be­fore. “You can’t beat play­ing on some­thing new,” he adds, iron­i­cally.

PLAY IT AGAIN

There are now nu­mer­ous com­put­ing and video game mu­se­ums up and down the UK, of­fer­ing vis­i­tors the op­por­tu­nity to see and try retro ma­chines for them­selves. One of the most prom­i­nent is the Na­tional Videogame Ar­cade in Not­ting­ham, which was co-founded by Iain Simons.

Seven years prior to its open­ing in March 2015, Simons had co-launched the Na­tional Videogame Ar­chive with fel­low aca­demics from Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity and what was then called the Na­tional Me­dia Mu­seum in Brad­ford. It aimed to pre­serve con­soles, games, code and a range of other items that showed the im­pact of gam­ing.

“I’d been work­ing on a book for the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute called 100

Videogames along with Pro­fes­sor James New­man, and we re­alised that un­less a reader had knowl­edge of em­u­la­tion and ac­cess to ROMs, there was no way they’d be able to play a lot of things we were writ­ing about,” Simons says.

“That wasn’t a unique rev­e­la­tion in and of it­self, but we tried to do some­thing about it. Our think­ing then, as now, was that it was prob­a­bly bet­ter to do some­thing rather than not.”

The plans raised a de­bate over why preser­va­tion was de­sir­able. “Fun­da­men­tally, the abil­ity to drive for­ward the fu­ture of games de­pends on an un­der­stand­ing of their past, just as with any other art form,” Simons adds. “You don’t know where you are un­less you know where you’ve been.”

For that rea­son, the Na­tional Videogame Ar­cade mixes the phys­i­cal with the ab­stract. “It’s tempt­ing to think of games just as code, as graph­ics, and mu­sic,” Simons con­tin­ues. “Of course, they are all of those things, but that ig­nores a huge phys­i­cal part of their ex­is­tence. Much of the history of games is some­thing that we touched and touched us. We mashed but­tons, put coins in slots, broke joy­sticks, wag­gled SCART con­nec­tors, pulled pet fur out of fan vents, scratched discs – the more ur­bane, emo­tional history of games is in­nately phys­i­cal. That’s the stuff I find most in­ter­est­ing.”

The venue has vin­tage ar­cade cab­i­nets, and vir­tual re­al­ity and in­de­pen­dent ti­tles that are yet to be re­leased, along­side artis­tic in­stal­la­tions. There are also many old ma­chines, as well as de­sign doc­u­ments and gems such as Elec­tronic Arts’ re­jec­tion let­ter for the orig­i­nal Cham­pi­onship Man­ager. “Some peo­ple spend a lot of time just play­ing on a BBC Mi­cro Model B,” Simons says. Those that do so also tend to en­gage in more than games.

COD­ING BACK THE YEARS

Many mu­se­ums en­cour­age pro­gram­ming, us­ing the same hard­ware that a le­gion of coders used in the early 1980s. Ed­u­ca­tion is the pri­mary aim of the Cen­tre for Com­put­ing History, which was founded in 2006 and has been based in Cam­bridge since 2013.

“We aim to in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion into tech and so we host many school vis­its dur­ing the week where we run pro­gram­ming, elec­tron­ics work­shops as well as his­tor­i­cal tours and ro­bot­ics talks,” says cu­ra­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Ja­son Fitz­patrick.

“The week­ends see mostly fam­i­lies vis­it­ing, and it’s great to see the dis­plays en­joyed by the chil­dren and

adults alike. Our fo­cus is the per­sonal com­puter revo­lu­tion, al­though the dis­plays in­clude the large ma­chines of the 1960s and 1970s to set the con­text.”

For Fitz­patrick, a hands-on ap­proach to com­put­ing is im­por­tant. “It al­lows peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence what these ‘old’ com­put­ers were ac­tu­ally like and vis­i­tors can ac­tu­ally use most of the ma­chines as we have a du­pli­cate set pre­served in the ar­chive too,” he says.

With more than 1,000 com­put­ers in the col­lec­tion and a team that’s al­ways on the look­out for pro­to­types and rare ma­chines, it’s a real trea­sure trove.

“We have many items, in­clud­ing orig­i­nal hand-writ­ten LEO com­puter doc­u­men­ta­tion and let­ters, and the Mark XIV bomb sight com­puter used by the RAF Bomber Com­mand in the Sec­ond World War,” Fitz­patrick con­tin­ues. “We have orig­i­nal hand­writ­ten game de­vel­op­ment doc­u­ments, one of the first pro­to­type mil­i­tary sat navs and so much more.”

But then most mu­se­ums aim for some­thing spe­cial; a unique piece to make their venue that bit more at­trac­tive. The Retro Com­puter Mu­seum’s Amiga CD1200 drive, for in­stance, “might be the only one left in ex­is­tence”, says Spencer.

Like­wise, the MITS Al­tair re­sides at the Mu­seum of Com­put­ing in Swin­don. “It is one of the first ma­chines to kick­start the home com­puter revo­lu­tion and it was kindly do­nated to us from the Science Mu­seum, Lon­don,” says Simon Webb, the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor.

At The Na­tional Mu­seum of Com­put­ing at Bletch­ley Park – the one-time home of the code­break­ers dur­ing the Sec­ond World War – the crown­ing glo­ries are the Colos­sus Re­build, which is a re­con­struc­tion of the code-break­ing ma­chine, and the 1951 Har­well Deka­tron WITCH, which hap­pens to be the old­est orig­i­nal work­ing dig­i­tal com­puter in the world.

Nat­u­rally that is on a dif­fer­ent scale to con­sumer tech­nol­ogy but, as Carol Deer of the Mi­cro Mu­seum in Rams­gate, Kent, ex­plains, it’s im­por­tant to see com­put­ing as a whole when seek­ing to pre­serve the past.

“We show the de­vel­op­ment of com­put­ing from the ear­li­est ideas and in­ven­tions all the way through to the early noughties,” she says. “We cover the great thinkers, the cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chines, the main­frames, the mi­nis, the mi­cros and so on, along with in­for­ma­tion about com­put­ing lan­guages, sound, graph­ics, the first ro­bots, Bri­tish con­tri­bu­tions to com­put­ing and games de­vel­op­ment. We could not name a sin­gle item that is most sig­nif­i­cant. They all con­trib­uted to the cre­ation of our mod­ern dig­i­tal world.” BIG IDEAS

The Mi­cro Mu­seum is split across three themes: dis­cov­ery, nos­tal­gia and play. It is, Deer says, cen­tred around let­ting peo­ple see items they may only have heard about, while re­ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ma­chines from their

own past, and get­ting stuck into cod­ing or a game.

“Our col­lec­tion be­gan be­cause we had a sense that things were mov­ing and de­vel­op­ing so quickly that many pieces of equip­ment were be­ing dis­carded and would be lost for ever,” she says. “The anal­ogy I fre­quently use is that it was sim­i­lar to the re­cent years of mo­bile phone de­vel­op­ment when ev­ery­one wanted that lat­est model

with the lat­est fea­tures and the old one was be­ing traded in or chucked in a drawer, only to be for­got­ten. So nos­tal­gia was not our driv­ing force; it was more like a res­cue mis­sion.” In­deed, both the Na­tional Ar­chive for the History of Com­put­ing (NAHC) and the Com­puter Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety (CCS) saw the im­por­tance of archiving com­put­ing at an early

stage, un­der­stand­ing that many doc­u­ments and ma­chines could be­come lost to time. The NAHC was es­tab­lished in 1987 by the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester’s Cen­tre for the History of Science, Tech­nol­ogy and Medicine, and its aim has been to pro­duce and pre­serve a com­pre­hen­sive list­ing of records, con­duct and record in­ter­views with lead­ing fig­ures for an oral history, and to carry out re­search into com­puter history.

But whereas the NAHC’s col­lect­ing re­mit has never ex­tended to phys­i­cal machin­ery and artefacts – “we do not collect hard­ware or soft­ware”, says Dr James Peters – it does have many sig­nif­i­cant records and doc­u­ments.

“Some of the most im­por­tant re­late to the de­vel­op­ment of main­frame com­put­ers at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester (the Baby, Mark I and so on),” says Peters. “We also have the pro­gram note­book kept by GC Toothill re­lat­ing to the Mark I, which in­cludes the record of the run­ning of the world’s first stored pro­gram on 21st June 1948. There are small but im­por­tant col­lec­tions of doc­u­ments of Alan Tur­ing from his time at the Manch­ester Com­put­ing Ma­chine Lab­o­ra­tory too.”

On the other hand, the CCS looks to pre­serve old com­put­ers. Founded in 1989 by Tony Sale, who built the replica of Colos­sus at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Com­put­ing, and Doron Swade, who was in charge of com­put­ing artefacts at the Science Mu­seum, Lon­don, it de­vel­ops aware­ness of the im­por­tance of his­toric com­put­ers, and pro­motes and builds ex­per­tise in the con­ser­va­tion, restora­tion and re­con­struc­tion of them.

In do­ing so, the group has to strike a bal­ance. “We must make a choice of whether to con­serve a his­toric arte­fact to max­imise its fu­ture ex­is­tence or to re­store it to work­ing or­der and prob­a­bly shorten the life of its com­po­nents to pro­vide a unique learn­ing op­por­tu­nity for ex­perts and mu­seum vis­i­tors,” says the so­ci­ety’s sec­re­tary Roger Johnson.

It works closely with the Na­tional Mu­seum of Com­put­ing, which aims to bring to life the history and on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of com­put­ing for inspiration, re­search, learn­ing and en­joy­ment while pro­vid­ing wider con­text and rel­e­vance.

“Skills in a wide range of tech­nolo­gies are re­quired [for preser­va­tion] but some are ob­so­lete,” ex­plains the mu­seum’s me­dia relations of­fi­cer Stephen Fleming. “For­tu­nately the Mu­seum’s vol­un­teer force pro­vide these and the team is widely recog­nised as a world leader in the field.”

ON SHOW

The process is cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing. When the Na­tional Mu­seum of Com­put­ing re­ceives an item, it con­sid­ers whether or not it should be­come an ex­hibit. If so, a pro­gramme of con­ser­va­tion is agreed that deals with health and safety con­cerns and at­tempts to get the item work­ing.

“We aim to min­imise our in­ter­ven­tions to bring equip­ment back to life and to make any changes re­versible so we can re­turn the ar­ti­cle as near as we can to its orig­i­nal con­di­tion,” says Fleming. “We will clean items in line with the stan­dard

main­te­nance prac­tices of the pe­riod in which the arte­fact orig­i­nated. We will look to in­hibit fur­ther de­cay by, for ex­am­ple, cor­ro­sion, wear and tear and so on. We have to ac­cept that in keep­ing an ex­hibit work­ing we will po­ten­tially wear parts out, but we look to op­er­ate the equip­ment in a way that min­imises this to the great­est ex­tent.”

Such wor­ries prey on the mind of most preser­va­tion­ists, with some be­liev­ing com­put­ers and con­soles were de­signed to be used and so should be fully ac­ces­si­ble. “We only use orig­i­nal hard­ware – there are ab­so­lutely no em­u­la­tors at our events,” says An­drew Brown, direc­tor of Re­play Events.

Brown over­sees pop­u­lar gam­ing events across the UK, chief among them the Play Ex­pos staged in Manch­ester, Black­pool, Mar­gate, Glas­gow and Lon­don. They have large retro zones, but Brown is mind­ful of the lim­i­ta­tions and frus­tra­tions that old com­put­ers and con­soles pose.

“We may use some clever mod­ern giz­mos such as SD card read­ers to load games more quickly than tapes and discs,” he ad­mits. “But the rest of the ex­pe­ri­ence is au­then­tic.”

Sim­i­larly, at the Ar­cade Club in Bury, where vis­i­tors pay an en­trance fee to play more than 300 coin-op ma­chines, a bal­ance is struck. Owner Andy Payne says the phys­i­cal side of pre­serv­ing the cab­i­nets is “prob­a­bly the hard­est part of what we do”, adding: “A ma­chine can ar­rive pris­tine and in in­cred­i­ble con­di­tion or most likely in need of a lot of work. For­tu­nately, we have trained tech­ni­cians on staff.”

Payne is aware that the bat­ter­ing these ma­chines take is po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing, so he makes use of dig­i­tal as well as phys­i­cal preser­va­tion.

“With­out the dig­i­tal side – em­u­la­tion or FPGA (Field pro­gram­mable gate ar­ray) – we would lose the games for­ever,” he laments. “The sil­i­con chips will reach their end of life one day and die, then all we will have is the dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion we have pre­served. With this in­for­ma­tion we can cre­ate FPGA-based chips that run pure logic, so it’s not em­u­la­tion, it’s more of an ex­act im­i­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal dig­i­tal chip at a cy­cle ex­act level; the games will play ex­actly the same.”

But dig­i­tal preser­va­tion is also im­por­tant which is why web­sites such as Mobygames (www.mobygames. com), World of Spec­trum (www.

world­of­spec­trum.org) and the In­ter­net Ar­chive (ar­chive.org) re­tain ac­ces­si­ble copies of old mag­a­zines, soft­ware cov­ers, in­struc­tions, ad­ver­tise­ments and more. There is no short­age of soft­ware ROMs, par­tic­u­larly games, that you can down­load and re­live on mod­ern com­put­ers. Em­u­la­tors can also mimic old sys­tems, some of which work in a browser (see the Mac OS Sys­tem 7 op­er­at­ing sys­tem at tinyurl.com/

mac­plusem­u­la­tor, for ex­am­ple). But with­out the ef­forts of cu­ra­tors and preser­va­tion­ists, com­put­ing history would be all the poorer. “Thank­fully we haven’t made the mis­takes of mu­sic and film, and lost count­less amounts of ma­te­rial,” says Brown.

Even so, Simons warns of a need to be broad. “We mustn’t just pre­serve good things,” he ex­plains. “We can learn just as much from less cel­e­brated stuff.”

Cer­tainly, great ef­forts con­tinue to be made, and Spencer points to a mu­seum now packed to the rafters and in the tricky and time-con­sum­ing process of dou­bling in size. The mo­ti­va­tion is stark.

“Phys­i­cal preser­va­tion is im­por­tant,” he con­cludes. “While I can’t com­pare it to an an­i­mal go­ing ex­tinct, can you imag­ine a world with no Atari, Am­strad, Com­modore or Sin­clair? Per­son­ally, I would go men­tal.”

ABOVE: User groups ex­ist for many com­put­ers, keep­ing their mem­o­ries alive and ex­hibit­ing at big shows

RIGHT: The Mi­cro Mu­seum in Rams­gate, Kent, al­lows peo­ple to play games but it also has a mam­moth dis­play

TOP: Cu­ra­tor Simon Webb sur­veys the ex­hibits at the Mu­seum of Com­put­ing in Swin­don

ABOVE: Many col­lec­tors look to pre­serve their own slice of history by buy­ing old games and ma­chines

LEFT: The Mi­cro Mu­seum even has an old Sin­clair C5 on dis­play

ABOVE: Block H at Bletch­ley Park is the home of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Com­put­ing, named as one of Eng­land’s “ir­re­place­able places” by Lord Robert Win­ston

BE­LOW: The Mu­seum of Com­put­ing has an Al­tair 8800 de­signed in 1974 by MITS

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