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New Kensington museum preserves computing relics

Chances are pretty good that those who read this article will do so on a computer.

There’s even a chance a reader will slip that computer into his or her pocket.

Computer technology has come far from just a few decades ago, when computer pioneer Ken Olson in 1977 said “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Desktops, smartphones and computer tablets, once ideas found only in science fiction, are commonplace.

But to understand how far we’ve come and where we are going, we have to see where we started.

That’s the lesson David McGuire, 48, of Apollo hopes he imparts to visitors at his newly remodeled Large Scale Systems Museum in New Kensington.

The museum, at 924 Fourth Ave. and scheduled for a grand re-opening Saturday, is 4,000-or-so square feet filled wall to wall with the dinosaurs of computing.

They range from number-crunching supercomputers, mainframes used to run entire banking and business systems and so-called minicomputers the size of a desk.

“The whole idea is to give people an idea of where all of the fantastic stuff we have today came from - because it all came from somewhere,” McGuire said.

McGuire, a systems engineer, sees his museum as bridging the gap between smartphones and the monstrous machines that preceded them.

“Just like any endeavor, we would not be where we are today without passing through these phases,” he said.

McGuire, who has been working with computer systems for 41 years professionally and as a hobbyist, said the museum is a living history of those machines he learned to use decades ago.

“Some of the machines in here were fairly modern when I started,” he said. “The history of these sorts of things is rich with fantastic stories of dismal failures and awesome successes, and fistfights over technical decisions between geeks in parking lots.”

Some of those geeks, McGuire said, are the kind of people the museum has attracted since it opened in 2015.

But almost more than that, McGuire said he is a source of information for tomorrow’s computer experts, “who know something must have come before their smartphone and desktop computer but may not realize what or how to find out about it.

“I’m sure you can imagine 30 or 40 Carnegie Mellon computer science geeks in here for a day, just grinning ear to ear,” McGuire said of one group of visitors.

While collecting old and seemingly obsolete machines may seem odd to some, for McGuire, it’s no different than collecting old cars.

“Everybody knows someone who has an antique car in the garage, and nobody questions that,” he said. “But cars have only revolutionized transportation - computers have revolutionized everything.

“Their history is every bit as rich, their variations even greater than that of automotive technologies.”

Beyond showcasing the machines, McGuire is saving them. Most would end up torn apart for the bits of precious metals within their hardware.

“This is how we get machines to safety and save them from the gold scrappers,” he said. “Nobody would melt down a Model T Ford for 20 bucks worth of iron, but people do that to these machines all of the time.”

Chris Atkeson, a professor with Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, said McGuire’s mission of preservation is important to the students he teaches.

“I think it’s really important for students and young people to understand our history; that we started out with computers the size of buildings, then size of rooms, then they covered your desk and now they fit in your pocket.”

According to McGuire, the crown jewel of his collection is a PDP-1 1?70, a minicomputer that was considered the top of the line in data processing equipment. The PDP-11 units sold for a bargain price of $10,000 when they were manufactured by Digital Equipment Corp. in 1970.

McGuire said as a young programmer, he promised himself he would own one someday.


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