“(The Commodore 64) is the computer that first fascinated me with computers,” Grosse said. “But if you’re wondering what intrigues me most about our collection, I have to say it’s the Altair. It was basically the first computer kit. It wasn’t actually sold as a working computer as a whole. It was a kit, so it might or might not work when you’re done assembling it. It was a bit like a LEGO puzzle… There was no keyboard, mouse, monitor or printer. But this is where home computing started in 1975. It was this computer that caused Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft) to drop out of college. He saw what was coming and said if we want to participate in this industry, we have to start now.
Oster’s favorite in the collection is also the Commodore 64, but singles out the Altair as the artifact with the most historical value as a reminder of how computer technology has evolved over the past half-century.
“I would call it our crown jewel, or one of our crown jewels. If we were told that you can only keep five pieces for the museum, this would be one of them,” said said Oster, noting how an older system like the Altair puts today’s computing capabilities into perspective, “The number is 10 billion with a ‘B’. This is how many times more RAM (random access memory) a modern system has, compared to the Altair 8800 in the base configuration.
But for Oster and Grosse, what really brings the equipment to life are the people associated with the computers. These stories have been shared at fireside chat events over the years and at the Department of Computing’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2018, when the USask Computer Museum partnered with the Museum of Antiquities to highlight light the history of computers on campus.
“The museum isn’t just about the artifact, it’s about the story that accompanies it,” Oster said. “So it’s like, ‘Here’s the Apple computer that was used by the professor who taught astronomy for 35 years, and this is the computer he used for the NSERC chemistry prize It was the Commodore 64 that came out of engineering, where they used it in the lab to study bus interfaces and data collection using integrated circuits, or whatever. And it’s fine to say we have an Altair and we have a PDP-8, but what was it for? Well, it was used for space trajectory calculations and it came from the physics department, and we have this machine. So this is the story that tells the whole story.