Volume 12, Number 8 December 3, 2004

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Volunteers creating museum of early U of S computers

By Matt Barron

Rob Grosse, left, and Merlin Hansen, volunteers helping to create the University's computer museum, show off some of the early computers that will be part of the museum's collection.
Photo by Colleen MacPherson

It’s fitting that exhibits for the future U of S computer museum, whose mandate it is to preserve the history of computing on campus, be stored inside a giant walk-in freezer.

Of course the freezer in the animal science building is turned off. But because the computer museum isn’t quite a reality yet—as there have been problems of finding display space—a group of six interested computer science faculty, staff and students have been storing future exhibits wherever they can find the space.

The volunteers have taken it upon themselves to preserve and display anything at all that has relevance to both the history of computing on campus and the history of computing at large – vintage desktop computers, laptops, disk drives, even user manuals.

“A lot of people see these things as pieces of junk,” says Rick Bunt, a museum volunteer who is also a professor of computer science and Associate Vice-President of Information & Communications Technology.

“But there’s a human story behind those things. And the advantage we have is still being a part of the generation that started all this, which means we can preserve those human stories.”

One of these stories illustrates the significance of the U of S in the history of computing in Canada – and how easily that history is nearly tossed away.

One of the first data transfers over a telephone line in Canada was made at the U of S: in the 1950s, the late physics professor Leon Katz shipped data to the University of Toronto, using a modem that looks like a telephone answering machine.

This modem was bound for the dump when Bunt, who happened to receive a call about it, intercepted it. But a lot of historically-relevant equipment ends up in the trash or at Value Village.

“We’re gathering these artifacts for the same reason you would go out and save a steam engine,” says Merlin Hansen, a lab co-ordinator with the department of computer science.

“It’s to show a way of life that no longer exists. And even though we’re 50 years away (from the advent of the computer), the students today are so far out of touch with that existence that they can hardly imagine it, let alone appreciate it.”

Grad student David Schwab, another museum volunteer, says that having concrete examples of the foundations of computer science can help students gain insight into new computing problems. What were once “elegant, efficient” solutions to old problems, he says, are often elegant, efficient solutions to new ones.

“It means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to do something on the computer,” Schwab says.

Computer technology continues to evolve at a dizzying rate, and partly for this reason, the volunteers will be selecting machines for the museum based on their historical significance.

But the machines need a home first, a place where they can be displayed. The volunteers hope to have a display in the computer science department, once the department moves into the Thorvaldson Building early in the new year.

They also hope to spread the exhibits around campus for maximum exposure; there has already been an exhibit at the library. An online virtual museum is also in the works.

But finding storage space has become an issue. The volunteers’ offices now brim with future artifacts and some volunteers are quick to jokingly ask new acquaintances, “Do you have any space in your office?”

And there are problems with existing space: pipe leaks in the freezer have forced volunteers to move stored computers to avoid a rivulet of water running across the floor.

That the museum isn’t up and running doesn’t bother Rob Grosse, a volunteer and an ITS machine deployment specialist at the U of S. After all, the objective, as he sees it, is to collect as much history as possible for posterity’s sake.

“What really excites me,” says Grosse, “is thinking 50 years down the road, when the university community says, ‘Thank goodness these six people got together and saved these pieces of equipment.’”

Volunteers of the computer museum welcome donations of older computers and other materials related to computing. Simply e-mail the volunteers at museum@cs.usask.ca or go to the museum website at www.cs.usask.ca/museum.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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