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Preserving the PC revolution – online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 18, 2006
(Issue 2433, For the Love of Linux)

The annual Comi-Con convention just ended in San Diego – I didn't go. Afraid it would only remind me of the old San Diego (then California) Computer Exhibitions that ComputorEdge and the San Diego Computer Society used to host. From the late 1980s through the late '90s, these computer shows grew from an amateur get-together to a full-fledged convention celebrating the digital life.

Today, the Computer Exhibitions are but a memory. Even the much-larger Comdex in Las Vegas is no more. The San Diego Computer Society, which started the local exhibitions, is also gone – as is the Computer Museum of America, which annually had the largest exhibit at the show.

Maybe I'm just a middle-aged guy waxing nostalgic for his lost youth, but it does seem to me that there was a sense of possibility and excitement then that we've lost today.

Computers no longer excite us – the "gee-whiz" factor is gone. Any Mac, Windows or Linux PC sold today has more computing power than NASA had available for the moon shots, but few of us have any idea of how to harness it.

We're content to surf the Web, check our e-mail, and join our friends for a "World of Warcraft" session or three.

Like our television, the computer is more inherently part of our lives today than it ever was during the so-called Golden Age of personal computers, yet we're less aware of it now.

We even buy our computers at department stores. The small, independently owned computer shops that fueled the PC revolution (and make ComputorEdge possible) are harder and harder to find in the shadows of the chain retailers.

So I think there is a substantive change in the way we culturally view our computers compared to just 10 years ago. Maybe it's progress, or maybe something has been irrevocably lost, but it is certainly different.

Keeping it alive

Those of us who lived through those times, though, are unlikely to be content to simply let them slip away.

Former members of the San Diego Computer Society, for instance, have banded together in a Yahoo group – It's mostly a social setting, but technical questions still get asked, reminding of the old Saturday morning Q&A sessions.

And while the Computer Museum of America has ceased to exist as a physical entity – with the collection, fortunately, acquired by the San Diego State University library for preservation and future exhibition – the core group of Museum staff and volunteers remains in touch. Before it became apparent that finding a new home for the collection was the only way to protect that collection (one of the largest in the world), we had gotten our federal and state tax-exempt status and set up as a non-profit corporation.

One of the things we might do is keep the Web site – – as a virtual history center. And we also have the Computer Hall of Fame, the future of which is also being figured out.

But even if we don't keep those efforts going here, there are plenty of others who are.

The Computer History Center up in central California is now, with the demise of the Computer Museum of America (and the even earlier demise of the Boston Computer Museum), the only professional, physical museum devoted to computers I'm familiar with.

The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota has online exhibits about Babbage (who designed the first mechanical computer more than a century before the technology to build it existed), the Cray supercomputers (which were built in Minnesota) and the regional computer industry from that neck of the woods.

The Obsolete Computer Museum has a fairly deep virtual exhibit, plus regularly updated links to lots of cool other content online related to computer history.

All of the above are great starting points, and can get you started in re-immersing yourself into those heady times when the personal computer was still something new and exciting and not yet just another appliance.

But what really can restore the buzz is the Vintage Computer Festival. Every year, it sponsors a handful of decidedly old-school exhibitions of working old computers – it's like going back in time to the California Computer Expo! Ataris and Apples and Commodores and Ti-99s and Timex-Sinclairs and Colecovisions and Odysseys all beeping and whirring away!

And all of this passion, this desire to be with like-minded folk who share one's belief that computers are not only fascinating but can improve society – are we sure there's no real-world outlet for that here in San Diego and other large cities?

I'm not so sure.

SDCS and the Computer Museum may be gone, but the folks who made them are still among us, still tinkering.

Perhaps we are entering the second Age of the Computer Hobbyist.

If so, stay tuned – it will surely unfold online.