Ex Machina

I was in Seattle last weekend for Rack­etCon—the biggest and best yet, thanks to those of you who were there. (Those who weren’t can watch the livestreams.)

A local programmer recom­mended I stop by the Living Computers Museum on my way out of town. Another suggested the Seattle Pinball Museum.

Tough choice. Would’ve been pinball, except there was no parking nearby. The Living Computers Museum, OTOH, had plenty of parking.

But I’m afraid things went down­hill from there. As a program­ming enthu­siast, I really wanted to like the LCM. Their collec­tion of histor­ical computer equip­ment is vast and fantastic. Many of the machines are displayed in working condi­tion, including several main­frames. (Unlike the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, where every­thing is broken.)

Not working, but still impres­sive to see, is their Enigma machine:

But the presen­ta­tion—the expla­na­tions, the contex­tu­al­iza­tion—is disap­pointing. The LCM spends little time on what makes computers inter­esting in general, or the special historic & tech­nical features of specific models. For instance, a wall-sized diagram depicts a chrono­log­ical history of program­ming languages. But doesn’t show (or even tell) what makes them different and inter­esting.

Worse, the LCM devotes most of its atten­tion to the desktop-computer market of the ‘70s and ‘80s, largely framed as a victory of Bill Gates / Paul Allen / Microsoft over various foes, espe­cially Steve Jobs. (No coin­ci­dence of course—the LCM was founded by Paul Allen, who appar­ently still feels inad­e­quately recog­nized.)

Every­thing before or after the desktop-computer era is glossed over. For instance, the museum dedi­cates floor space to an Atari 400—nobody’s idea of an essen­tial computing arti­fact—but has no room to explain the origins of the internet. (Nor Microsoft’s long-running entan­gle­ments with antitrust inves­ti­ga­tors in the US and Europe.)

My advice: unless you’re dying to play Oregon Trail on an Apple II, look harder for pinball-museum parking.

update, 1616 days later

Paul Allen died in October 2018. The Living Computers Museum perma­nently closed in July 2020.