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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Computer Museum: A peek back at the history of computing

For an industry that's just 30 years old, personal computing has a lot of history.

The ConBrio 200R, one of four that exist in the world.

Here at the Computer History Museum, just a stone's throw from the Microsoft campus here in Silicon Valley, PC industry veterans, tech enthusiasts, and even a few kids came out for the annual Vintage Computer Festival.

The event is highlighted by seminars and panels on topics like "Deconstructing the Intel 4004" and "The Disk Drive Industry Family Tree," but the real payoff is the Exhibit Hall, in which hobbyists display their dusty, yellowed sets of two-decades-old computers, usually arranged around a theme: calculators, Macintosh, Hewlett-Packard, Atari, and more. The collections are usually culled from attics, basements, garages and, of course, eBay.

Of the sessions, a clear crowd favorite was the DigiBarn presentation. DigiBarn is a computer museum housed on a farm in California's Santa Cruz Mountains, famous among the PC hobbyist crowd for its extensive library of seminal computers and accessories. DigiBarn is run by Bruce Damer and Allan Lundell, who describe their museum as the container for "the garages of Silicon Valley."

DigiBarn first opened 10 years ago as Damer's ode to the birth of the graphical interface, first developed by Xerox. Now his collection includes a range of PCs, calculators, and even flight computers for airplanes.

The centerpiece of this year's festival was the LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer), first developed in 1961 at Washington University St. Louis. DigiBarn's Damer hailed it as the "first personal workstation devoted to one person." The hulking gray metal box covered in knobs and a tiny display was invented to do online biomedical research in individual research labs.

In the exhibit hall, Tom Wilson of Woodside, Calif., an attendee of the Vintage Computer Festival for several years, showed off his collection as an exhibitor for the first time. He brought along his Atari 800 and Atari 400 computers, along with an Atari cassette player, printer, and popular games like Donkey Kong, Frogger, Qbert, Pac-Man, and more, which he let anyone try their hand at.

Next to a vast collection of calculators sat a hulking combination computer and keyboard--not the computer peripheral, but the musical kind. Called the ConBrio 200R, it's one of four that exist in the world. It was originally invented in 1980 by three students at the California Institute of Technology to write synthesized music. It recently fell into the hands of Brian Kehew, a Los Angeles-based music producer. While he's not touring as the keyboard player for rock band The Who, as he did last summer, Kehew is hatching a plan to be the first person to use the ConBrio to record music. But first he has to figure out how to use it.

"There's no owner's maual," Kehew said. "I'm learning how to work it by myself with tips from the old (inventors)."

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