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Holding on to History

Personal artifacts allow people to remember and preserve industry history

6/4/2014 12:53:05 AM | This is part one of a two-part series. Part two describes virtualized packratting and other things worth saving such as pictures, books, buttons and T-shirts.

I'm a packrat. There, I said it. It's clearly a subspecialty within the IT profession, happily coexisting with diverse primary professions. Of course, it can be a major or minor sink for time, money and real estate. But it's nostalgic, fun, educational and can—spouse willing—provide major decorating accessories.

Many people reading here have been in IT for a while (or a long time, or forever). So we've all seen technologies come and go—probably with mixed feelings. Some vanished too soon, good riddance to others.

It's always interesting learning—but much more fun SEEING—computing/career artifacts people have. I have a couple hex calculators. One, the Texas Instruments Programmer II, might have cost $60 (real money a couple decades ago) but much less than the preceding $250 model, which my boss foolishly refused to buy for me (productivity, what's that?). The other is mechanical, with metal slides and stylus (I think bought as a novelty, never used in production).

I know people and companies with hallways or rooms decorated in "early mainframe" (my wife calls one friend's house a computer mausoleum because he has mainframe DASD and 370x controllers in the main hallway); I liked explaining each box's glory-days function.

Of course, there are computer museums. But they can't match connections felt with personal possessions. Besides, you used it, now it's in a museum— how does that make you feel? Sadly, though, office and personal moves cause attrition. Sometimes you just can't bear to pack it all again. Or, worse: You never unpacked it after the last several moves, so why move it again?

Jeff Savit, a mainframer for decades, has a keypunch control drum, MSS cartridges and a SPARC Ultra 60 workstation. Somewhere along the line, he shed an entire working PDP-7 minicomputer, a P/390 system, an XT/370 computer, a Pascal MicroEngine and a System 370/135 nameplate, which he notes looked great on a refrigerator.

Why We Keep It

Artifacts and memories are categorized many ways:
  • It influenced your career
  • You liked (or disliked) it
  • It was a significant technology breakthrough
  • You have pictures of it
  • You developed/supported/have/want/found/stole/bought it
  • You bartered for it
  • Someone gave it to you for free
  • It's on eBay and you might buy it
  • Your spouse loves/hates it
  • It's small/large/operational
  • You're restoring it
  • You use it productively
  • It's in storage
  • You can't believe you threw it away
  • You’re glad it’s gone, never want to see one again
  • You have emotional/physical scars from it
Jan de Decker displays his collection in his home office: a piece of core memory, small copper wires going through tiny magnetic cylinders; OS/VS1 Programmer’s Reference digest Sixth Edition, 1975; 3370 storage devices; a tape cutter; and more than 50 small reference cards such as OS/VS VTAM Reference Summary Second Edition, 1976. On the small machine side, there are the Olivetti M15—a portable IBM-compatible PC based on an Intel 8086 chip—Sinclair ZX81, Commodore 64, TI-99, and IBM PC XT and AT computers. He keeps it because of his love for computers. His wife thinks it's cute but drew a line when he planned to acquire bigger things like a 3705 computer.

People also retain the inexplicable, such as an IBM Personal Computer (IBM 5150) with expansion unit, two full-height 5 1/4" floppy disk drives and a full height 10 MB hard drive. Of course, that stores and moves more easily than, say, the same-era 3081 computer. A college friend keeps H217C 16K x 18-bit DEC PDP-15 core memory, he says, to show young whippersnappers what core looked like.

Accessories, Software and Documentation

David Andrews has an impressive collection, including assorted cards and card tools (some homework assignments of the day, a copy of FRIEND and perhaps a copy of APL\1130), a card tray, a card saw and a card registration tool. He also has 96-column cards, long forgotten and useless, but he and his wife can't seem to part with them. The tape era is illustrated by a roll of markers, reels of various sizes, a ring stand with dozens of rings (used to teach daughters ring-toss), a 3420 diagnostic device and a tape trimmer. Disk representation includes a 3333 volume labeled "VS1 DLIB," a crashed disk platter from a TI "naked mini" (with pretty concentric circles scratched out of the oxide), a handful of 8" floppies and a 3274 control unit's diskette drive.

He occasionally brings the 3333 to the office to show others what 100 MB of disk space once looked like. His miscellany features an STK silo robot arm, 3081 TCMs, a battleship grey IBM carriage tape punch and a 1403 printer alignment tool. Paper goods include yellow cards, green cards, an FE Handbook, an OS/360 Sysgen worksheet and assorted coding sheets and printer layout tablets.

Ah, manuals—they're definitely a favorite of old-school systems people. For those who read them, wrote them, valued them, miss them and (especially) want to preserve them for the ages, there's Bitsavers. As of January, the archive stored more than 27,600 documents containing over 2.9 million pages. Specifically for IBM resources, visit here. Grouped by device number (24xx to 8000) and other topics (APL, Fortran, patents, SNA, etc.). 2250? Check. 1403? Of course.

It's great to browse for machines you loved, or ones you never quite understood. It describes desired format for contributions and gives contact information; Shmuel Metz notes that he pitched his IBM 650 manuals before Bitsavers began archiving. And Chuck Tribolet sadly pitched his System/360 Principles of Operation when the Loma Prieta earthquake dumped his manuals on the floor, popping open multiple three-ring binders.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. Email him at destination.z@gabegold.com.

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S11215
Great article! I love collecting mainframe stuff because it reminds me of an era when things were built right, with pride and love, and for the right reasons. I own a M3000 and a 9672-R35, also 3 IBM 3380, 2 IBM 3880, several TCMs, memory modules, IBM 3420 vacuum pump and header, etc... and of course most of IBM's programmed instruction manuals, quick reference cards, principle of operations, and even an MVS Overview, from the time when manuals were meant to educate, not just provide operating instructions.
7/3/2014 11:48:04 AM
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