It doesn’t look like much from the outside, especially cloaked in Seattle’s typical gray mist. But inside the three-story warehouse that contains Living Computers: Museum + Labs is a unique convergence of new and old technology that shows in a fun, hands-on way how ideas can improve and evolve over time.
This may be the only place in the world where one can take a virtual ride in a 3-D-printed, self-driving car, then head upstairs to play Space Invaders on a wood-veneer Atari 2600 console while reclining on a plaid chair.
The museum began in 2012 as a modest repository for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection of old computers: a PDP-10 from his Harvard days, a working MITS Altair 8800, a (Tandy/Radio Shack) TRS-80. It started adding and restoring donated machines, and now has the largest publicly accessible collection of vintage operating computers in the world.
Operating is the key word here. The institution’s motto is: “Most museums put glass in front of their stuff — we put a chair.”
Indeed, one of the few things encased in glass is a tattered Atari version of the 1980s arcade classic Defender, excavated from a landfill in 2013 by a Canadian entertainment company as part of the documentary “Atari: Game Over.”
The museum, located just south of downtown Seattle, is among the city’s unsung treasures. (Living Computers: Museum + Labs)
In 2016, Living Computers tacked Labs onto its name and expanded with a floor dedicated to new technology trends such as virtual reality and digital art, drawing subtle connections to the ways they complement the older machines and exhibits.
On a visit to Seattle last spring, my family added the place to a packed day of sightseeing, but quickly realized that we would need more than the two hours we had allotted. We ended up staying until closing time at 5 p.m. along with a few other small groups, who seemed as surprised and pleased as we were to have stumbled onto this unsung treasure south of downtown.
Like most first-time visitors, we started on the ground floor in a modern-tech bonanza of telepresence robots, magnetic battery-powered building blocks and a digital art studio with a giant mural that responded with music and movement as we walked by it. We observed a decade’s worth of virtual-reality headsets, arranged on a wall as carefully as shards of ancient Egyptian pottery at the British Museum, and took a virtual ride in a Strati, the world’s first 3-D-printed electric car.
Things got even more interesting on the second floor. Home to the museum’s Vintage Collection, this is anything but a quick walk-through of dusty machines and rose-colored Microsoft history exhibits. Microcomputers such as the Commodore PET and Compaq DeskPro 386S share space with an operating IBM punch-card machine from the 1960s. The CDC 6500, an eight-ton supercomputer used in the 1960s to research topics including the workings of nuclear physics and the causes of the common cold, was resuscitated by museum engineers and now sits in a climate-controlled cooling room along with a Xerox Sigma 9 and other “big iron” computers of that era.
The Apple II version of the Oregon Trail game is available to play, as are dozens of other classics such as Donkey Kong, Super Breakout, Pac-Man and Missile Command. Exhibits explain in easy, but not pandering, language how Allen and Bill Gates built Microsoft (accompanied by their 1974 résumés and the traffic-data machine that was the base of their first company) and how the programming of early machines such as the Altair 8800 required the painstaking entry of ones and zeros via toggle switches. Women’s contributions to the early computer industry (like those of Grace Hopper, a U.S. Navy rear admiral and pioneering programmer) are woven smoothly into the fabric of the room, not marginalized or given a separate exhibit.
A view of the museum from the main entrance. It has the largest publicly accessible collection of vintage operating computers in the world and underwent an expansion in 2016. (Living Computers: Museum + Labs)
John and I challenged the kids to Space Invaders, Pong, and other games of our childhood, reveling in both nostalgia and amusement at hearing them complain about the “stiff” keyboards. Then we all broke out on our own to explore: John played Earl Weaver Baseball on a Commodore Amiga 500. Jack, 13, played chess against a 1965 Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8 computer (if you win, the museum takes a Polaroid and puts you on its wall of fame), while Theo, 9, figured out how to play Frogger on the Apple II, at least until he discovered the living room setup with an Xbox version of the popular football game Madden 15. (This has since been replaced with an Atari Flashback console with built-in games including Centipede and Arcade Pong.) Next to the 21st-century living room is a cubicle that mirrors a late-1970s den — complete with an Atari 2600 console, shag carpeting and a metal peacock wall-hanging that every 50-something child of suburbia will recognize.
The computer renovation room was also a revelation: floor-to-ceiling shelves of donated hardware and software items: 3.5-inch disk drives, joysticks, cassette tape recorders, computer mice as big as library books. Similar in fashion to natural history museums that showcase paleontologists working on the latest fossil acquisitions, visitors can often watch engineers in the process of restoring or maintaining a range of machines, such an IBM mainframe, and donated data processors and minicomputers. Sometimes, when they can’t bring something back from the dead, they’ll create “emulators,” or simulations of computers that allow users to run old programs as they would on the original one.
Visitors can experience a day in the life of a late-20th-century teen in the “Totally 80s Rewind” exhibit. (Living Computers: Museum + Labs)
We ended up spending so much time on the second floor that we only had time for a drive-by of the mezzanine level, where a game-maker space lets you experiment with making your own video games and an Internet of Things table highlights connections between electronic devices and everyday items such as light switches. Theo managed to get in a few verbal commands to Alexa on an Amazon device before the lights dimmed in warning that it was almost closing time. (Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Back in the car, fighting rush-hour traffic as cars streamed out of the Starbucks headquarters next door, the kids asked if we could return the next day.
That wasn’t possible, but I was glad that we had made this museum a part of our first family trip to Seattle. In this age of daily wars over screen time and its deleterious effects on family time and relationships, the four of us somehow managed to connect through technology, thanks to the museum’s thoughtful and wide-net approach.
I’m pretty sure we’ll be back someday for more rounds of Oregon Trail and Frogger.
Source: Laura Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles. / The Washington Post