Collecting Computer History

Together with colleagues at CHNM, I have been working for several years now on ways to elaborate and extend the practice of online collecting, especially in the areas of history of science, technology, and industry. Some of the results of that work can be found at CHNM’s Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online website, where our own efforts and many others are catalogued in the Collecting Center. There are lots of great projects listed in the Collecting Center, but most (if not all) of them are institutional or professional efforts of one kind or another. Two sites I recently stumbled upon make me think that we need to do a better job of including amateur efforts as well.

The first is Pastelero, which isn’t really a collecting site at all, but rather the personal blog of a Brazilian student, who in one post has put together a great collection of 25 years of television commercials for personal computers. Because it’s not soliciting submissions from the public, Pastelero doesn’t really qualify as a collecting site under the definition we’re using for Echo. But it’s close, and I think if we could encourage casual collectors like Pasterlero to open their sites up to include public submissions, we might have more success in achieving our aim of extending the practice of online collecting.

The second is the Browser Archive, which more clearly qualifies under Echo’s criteria as an online collecting site. The Browser Archive is a truly amazing collection, which catalogues and provides free downloads of literally hundreds of more or less obsolete web browsers. (Take a look. No matter how geeky you think you are, I’m sure there are some you haven’t even heard of, much less used.) According to its founder, web developer Adrian Roselli, the Browser Archive started simply as an internal resource for his company’s usability testing work. Along the way, however, it “took on a life of its own” and was released as a public archive. It now encourages browser contributions from the general public, and from what I saw in the “Recent Changes” section, the public is responding.

The Browser Archive may not have started as a historical effort, but it now stands to become a real resource for computer historians. In that respect it shares a development trajectory with some of our greatest museum collections, many of which started without anything like history in mind. This amateur and unintentional aspect to historic preservation is a fact that we at Echo would do well to remember as we work to support online collecting in the history of science, technology, and industry.

Late update (10/18/06): It looks like PC World has tried to steal some of Pastelero’s fire with it’s own compendium of old computer ads.

Classic Toys of the 80s

The past month has seen the reintroduction of at least two classic toy lines of the 1980s. Having finally reached adulthood, having finally attained a certain level of financial and corporate clout, my generation has chosen to mark the achievement with Transformers and Choose Your Own Adventure books. Put in charge of product lines and marketing plans, the children of the 1980s are now probing their pasts and finding Optimus Prime and The Abominable Snowman. At least ten original Choose You Own Adventure titles are already back on shelves, and a set of at least six first-generation Transformers “Classics” will return to stores by Christmas.

For the purposes of Found History, I’m going to chalk these developments up to my generation’s keen sense of history. I will politely ignore more plausible but less flattering interpretations—namely that we are having a hard time growing up and remain helplessly attached to the easy sense of agency that Transformers and CYOA lent us as children. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Historically Bad Advice

Stepping off a plane at BWI this weekend, I spotted an ad for Saul Ewing, the venerable Philadelphia law firm, across from the gate. Below a headline asking “Will you have the right counsel when you need it?” the ad featured a painting of General George Custer and a quote from an imagined advisor at the Little Big Horn. “General Custer,” the quote read, “I say we attack. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. Fingers crossed, I went to Saul Ewing’s homepage when I got home, and I was excited to find that the Custer ad is actually part of a larger campaign. (Found History readers may remember that this isn’t the first time this has happened.) Each of the four ads in the campaign features a different “historic” personage and the bad advice his lawyers may have given him, in each case to his tragic disadvantage. In addition to Custer, Saul Ewing invites us to consider the captain of the Titanic, the gatekeeper at Troy, and the chief architect of the Tower of Pisa.

Obviously this is questionable history, as Saul Ewing itself surely knows, but it’s pretty effective advertising and a clever use of history in the marketplace.

Lincoln Billboard

I noticed this billboard on I-84 in Danbury, CT on my way back from Christmas in Massachusetts. Since then, I’ve been kicking myself that I didn’t stop to get a picture for Found History. But now I’m glad I didn’t. As I learned in my online search for the billboard, it turns out to be sponsored by something called The Foundation for a Better Life. Here’s how they describe their operation:

The mission of The Foundation for a Better Life, through various media efforts, is to encourage adherence to a set of quality values through personal accountability and by raising the level of expectations of performance of all individuals regardless of religion or race. Through these efforts, the Foundation wants to remind individuals they are accountable and empowered with the ability to take responsibility for their lives and to promote a set of values that sees them through their failures and capitalizes on their successes. An individual who takes responsibility for his or her actions will take care of his or her family, job, community, and country.

You can draw your own conclusions.

In any case, it looks like they’ve spent an awful lot of money on billboards and TV ads in which not just Lincoln, but a host of prominent historical figures, are used to embody certain selected (family?) values. Thus, Lincoln is “persistence”, Edison is “optimism”, Ghandi is “soul”, and Churchill is “commitment”. Obviously there are serious problems with this kind of historical argument, first and foremost the attempt to write biograpy in a single word. There’s also the choice of subjects, the choice of values, and the parings between the two. Still, I think the billboards do a pretty good job of tapping into popular notions of historical biography and are probably worth paying attention to … if only to know what we’re up against in our pursuit of the popular historical imagination.