PRESERVING THE PAST
The computing museums dedicated to keeping our tech history alive
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.”
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