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Senior Editor

Talk about legacy machines . . .

Jan 05, 20046 mins
Enterprise Applications

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure; embracing the original Ethernet taps.

OK, so it’s not exactly an Indiana Jones adventure, but hunting and scavenging around dark, dank basements looking for rare old computer equipment can be pretty challenging.

“You may snicker, but these places can be filled with spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlies so I’m sure to remember to don my leather fedora and strap on my pistols!,” says Bruce Damer, head curator at the DigiBarn computer museum near Santa Cruz, Calif., and CEO and founder of The Digital Space Commons , an Internet content development company.

While Digital Space keeps Damer busy handling projects – including helping NASA create 3D visualizations of future missions to Mars – his true love lies in the DigiBarn, which houses hundreds of computer systems and related artifacts.

“We specialize in having working systems and capturing the stories of the folks who created them,” Damer says.

The museum houses everything from a 1975 MITS Altair 8800 – considered by many to be the first microcomputer, it featured a 2-MHz Intel 8080 chip with 256 bytes of standard RAM and sold for $495 – to an original sketch of the Ethernet concept drawn by Bob Metcalfe.

“For network gear, the most interesting pieces we have are the original Ethernet taps and transceivers pulled from the ceiling at Xerox PARC [in Palo Alto, Calif.],” he says.

Damer says of particular interest is Dave Boggs’ Ethernet drop, which is a “fat” 1M byte Ethernet implementation that fed packets right to Boggs, co-inventor of Ethernet along with Metcalfe.

Show and tell

If there’s anything Damer likes better than his work with DigiBarn, it’s talking about it. He did just that last fall at the Vintage Computer Fair (VCF), a gathering of like-minded folks in Mountain View, Calif.

The 6th annual fair featured sessions led by renowned technology developers such as William and Lynne Jolitz, co-inventors of 386BSD – the first open source Berkeley Software Distribution Unix system for the x86 platform. It also featured hundreds of working and non-working displays, including prized PCs such as the Apple I, introduced in 1976, and the Wang 2002, which debuted four years earlier.

“We had the largest lineup of speakers in VCF history [nearly 20] plus a huge number of exhibitors [more than 30] and a lot of cool special events happening, like the Xerox Alto 30th Birthday Bash,” says Sellam Ismail, curator of the VCF’s archives.

Ismail says interest in the VCF, which attracted a record crowd of 500 attendees, is growing. A show is slated for the Boston area this year, and events for Japan and Australia are in the works. VCF already has had a show in Munich for the past four years.

Like Damer, Ismail has looked through his share of clammy basements to find computer gold. One of Ismail’s prized claims includes a box known as the world’s first router, once located in a major bank in Concord, Calif.

“It was a DEC PDP 11/70 [introduced in 1975] that was used to route data between bank branches literally all over the world. It had a massive modem bank and was put together in the early 1970s. There was a complete back-up system in San Francisco,” he says.

Ismail says the bank’s system administrator didn’t want the hardware to just go to a scrapper. So he contacted Ismail, who worked with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to collect the complete system, which now resides in the museum.

Ismail has some other significant historical items, such as an Apple Lisa, which pre-dates the Macintosh and was Apple’s first attempt at a GUI-based computer, as well as a DEC PDP-8, the computer that beget the “mini-computer” class of machines. “I have Windows 1.0 in its original retail package, complete with disks and manuals,” he says.

The money issue

For now at least, it seems these computer collectors are in it to preserve history, rather than make money off their items like collectors in so many other areas.

“Value is always a tricky issue. When I do appraisals, I always base the value on what I would expect the item being appraised to fetch under ideal conditions in an auction environment. I also take into account scarcity, historic significance, and the typical criteria such as condition, completeness and functionality,” Ismail says. “That being said, some old computers fetch quite a bit of money. The Altair 8800, a computer that appeared as a kit in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics and originally sold for under $500 in 1975, regularly sells for $1,500 or more in online auctions.”

Ismail built his current business, VintageTech , around his collection. With its vast assortment of old computing gear, VintageTech can read data off of virtually any disk or tape system ever made. “I can convert punch cards, paper tape, reel-to-reel magnetic tape, removable disk packs, to CD-ROM so that data can be used on modern systems,” he says.

Meanwhile Damer says eBay is a poor measure of the value of these vintage components, as the site often caters to “impulse” buys.

“If someone just has to have a piece and is willing to restore it and get old software running, then that item has a high amount of value to them personally. We are featuring a Cray 1A supercomputer at the DigiBarn. Its value in 1980 was $10 [million] to 15 million, but what is its value today? Perhaps in the future there will be a wave of serious collecting and a real market for some of these artifacts, as you have seen for automobiles.”

Money aside, historical significance and the people behind the technology is what collectors insist really drives them.

“Old computers are so much more fun to play with than modern machines in certain ways,” Ismail says. “They’re a lot simpler, easier to understand, more fun and easier to program, a lot less susceptible to crashes, and they can’t be infected by the latest copycat Internet worm.”

Ismail adds that the intent is for all collections to help future generations understand how the computer-immersed society they will most likely inhabit came to be. “I hope they appreciate all the heavy lifting and pulled-muscles I had to sustain to do my part to preserve a piece of that history,” he says.

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