The other day I scanned a list of museums in Austin thinking it would be a good way to explore my new city. One in particular caught my eye. The Goodwill Computer Museum.
As a teenager I would scour Goodwill stores with my brother in search of men’s running shorts from the 1970s to wear to track practice and old Levis to wear just because. I loved rifling through the bins and holding up treasures that lived in someone’s basement for decades before they decided it was time. They were moving and couldn’t justify harboring these refugees of the past any longer.
I visited the museum’s website and learned it began in 1994 as an effort to collect historically significant hardware and software that had wound up on the shelves of Goodwill’s Computer Works store. The collection was named “Relics of the Past.” The night before I had gone to one of the city’s free concerts on the green and was still feeling like something of one at the moment.
During the show as the purple glow of evening outlined figures sipping beers and laughing into the sky, I noticed the two drones flying overhead. Their green and red lights flashed as they circled the crowd, dipping low in the front and then sweeping back and higher into the atmosphere. I stopped listening to the music and followed their flight pattern wondering a great many questions that began with the same word: why.
“My buddy has one. They’re expensive,” a young man told me, turning back towards the stage. The girl to his right explained how they operated and how one could install a gyroscope and raspberry pi to it to ensure the camera captured only the angles that you want. Then she lit up a joint and resumed her concert experience.
“Do you know what people do with the pictures and videos they’re shooting?” I asked to no one in particular. No one in particular answered.
The experience reminded me of high school when I would drive across New England to watch my favorite bands play under hot lights and wish I didn’t mind it when the drunk person behind me kept bumping my shoulder. Suddenly I felt very old. The next day I went to the computer museum.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t one room adjacent to a larger Goodwill Industries facility. I think I wanted it to be a warehouse where computers were stacked on wooden planks over wooden planks and a skinny dude with glasses would guide me through the information age. I would nod when he said things I didn’t understand and marvel as the screens stretched upwards to wobbling ceiling fans.
I knew I would find items pulled aside by Goodwill employees that signaled once impressive improvements relegated to basements and garages where they gathered dust and disgust: Can you believe we once thought that was so cool? It’s so clunky! How did we survive?
Once inside I peered into a glass enclosure of such a device: the Epson X-20, considered the world’s first handheld computer and weighing in at only three pounds. It debuted the year I was born. I snapped a picture of it with my iPhone. Hello you old thing, I said as I tapped on the glass. We expect so much of these machines when they emerge. I wonder if we hold ourselves to the same standards.
These items are expected to work every day, every time, on command when we need them. They must always be right, be everything we need them to be. And then we throw them away. Or donate them because it’s kind of the same thing – you’re still getting rid of something you no longer want. Some people forget the past. Or try to. Sometimes I live in it – a different problem entirely.
I signed the guestbook and counted the visitors ahead of me. I was the first visitor of the day and the tenth that week. Driving away I realized I wrote the wrong date.
The Epson X-20 had a mini cassette drive, a keyboard, small display unit, and built in printer. It was once praised for its novel features and convenience. I could imagine the feel of the familiar custard colored plastic against my fingernail. When did they decide they had no more use for you, I wondered?
It is a strange thing to still be in your child bearing years and realize that machines produced the day you were born are now sold as antiques in stores. Vintage, to use a nicer word.
The museum also has a VideoWRITER from 1985 built by Magnavox. I learned how the company’s president eliminated production of game consoles and PCs, citing them as “a Cabbage-Patch Doll phenomenon.” Looking back it’s easy to see what a mistake that was. But I remember Cabbage-Patch Dolls. My sister and I had three. And I thought they were weird then too.
Naturally the museum housed an Atari 400 and an Apple II from 1977. I still remember when Apple’s apple was rainbow striped. I read Steve Wozniak’s name and recalled a community meeting we both attended regarding a potential ban of Segway tours on the local bike and walking trail. I was there to record it. A lot of people came out to testify their love or hate of the motorized two-wheelers. Some said they disrupted the experience of being out in nature. Others argued they took up too much space. I remember thinking the whole debate seemed rather silly. I was thankful I was a runner and could just speed on by.
Just before leaving the museum I turned to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I was still the only visitor. There wasn’t even a curator present. My heart slumped a little at its size. But I guess that’s how we all feel about the past when we revisit it – you swear it was different.