Vintage Computers


The 52-year-old Disney Imagineering engineer pulls his Saturn automobile up to a large public storage facility in suburban Valencia, rolls up the door to one of his three bins, and out pops a scene from William Gibson's cybernovel Neuromancer. From floor to ceiling, piled on shelves, boxes and on top of each other, lie the detritus of the late 20th century -- discontinued, obsolete and discarded computers.

I have to wade around awhile before I can make sense of the space. Duncan pulls an old Apple off the shelf to reveal a Commodore 128 behind it. Silicon and plastic expansion cards and chips -- one of them a single megabyte of RAM on a "chip" that's about a foot long -- lie with their circuits exposed on top of yesteryear's user manuals. "This is just a temporary home," says Duncan.

Duncan plans to open a museum in the L.A. area to house his collection. The Pacific Rim Technology Center, he's calling it. ("Because if you call it the Computer Museum, that makes it sound like it's just a bunch of old, dusty machines," he says.) Duncan wants the computers in his museum to function, "so people can come in and play with the technology." With this objective, he joins one of the strangest, but strangely inevitable, trends cresting on the technology scene: computer nostalgia. Dozens of virtual computer "museums" have popped up on the Web (see for an array of links), and up in Silicon Valley, the Vintage Computer Festival ( will hold its third annual gathering in early October.

In one sense, the wave is a longing for a return to what cybertheorist Sherry Turkle described as the early hobbyist subculture. "For hobbyists, the goal was to reduce a machine to its simplest elements in order to understand it as fully as possible," Turkle wrote in Life on the Screen. "Many hobbyists used the kind of control they felt able to achieve with their home computers to relieve a sense that they had lost control at work and in political life."

It's also a reaction to the hegemonic reign of Windows-style GUI or graphic user interfaces. Writers such as sci-fi dean Neal Stephenson worry that although GUIs are easier, they require us to relinquish control to our machines, as opposed to the old Command Line Interface (DOS, Linux), which, while difficult, ushered us into the dark heart of the information age.

"A lot of guys want to go back to that magical moment when they were able to sit down and interact with a computer directly," says 28-year-old Vintage Computer Festival founder Sam Ismail. "They're collecting not so much to have a collection but to really restore these machines and get to play with them again."

Duncan is a tall, goateed man who grew up in Norwalk and once worked on '70s-era NBC game shows. ("When the host said, 'And now, let's let our computer tabulate the results!' -- that was me and another guy back there with a slide rule.")

I knew a couple of things about Duncan before he drove me out to see his computer babies: He works at ã the Glendale Imagineering site, designing lighting and special effects for live shows at Disney theme parks. He programs them using, among other relics, an Apple PowerBook 140. State of the art -- eight years ago. Unlike many computer collectors, who keep their taste for vintage circuitry private while relying professionally on the latest equipment, Duncan puts his inventory of old computers to work every day.

I also knew that he had designed his own house, at the apex of the Grapevine in Frazier Park, on a Mac. The design and operating system for his "house control system" (operating lights, heat and such), however, came from his Apple II, which he purchased back in 1978.

And I had seen his Web site (, where he lists his 208 computers, from the same Apple II to the Tandy TRS-80 "pocket computer." Still, none of that prepared me for the seemingly bottomless swamp of musty technology that lurked behind the garage doors of his bins.

Like the Apple III he rescued from someone's garage. Retailing in 1980 for $3,500, it was one of Apple's great boondoggles (though, like most Apple machines, it retains devotees). Duncan was delighted to get his hands on one for free. "But when I got it home and opened it up, there was a mouse in it," he chuckles. Not the cursor-moving kind. "The little guy left a few surprises."

His biggest moment? "Finding a Southwest Technical Products 6800 in a guy's garage, under a bunch of boxes and stuff that he'd forgotten," Duncan says. It takes a true computer fiend to appreciate the significance. One of the original "kit" computers from the late 1970s, the SWTP 6800 looks like something from a low-budget 1950s sci-fi flick: a couple of blinking red lights, some chrome and black metal. And not much else.

Duncan, who worked at a German computer store in 1981, has two vintage German computers in his warehouse as well. "Real bizarre-looking things. One looks like a truck." That would be the Basis-108, a computer manufactured in the early '80s that could run Apple II software as well as DOS and the now-defunct, once de rigueur CP/M operating system.

How did Duncan get here? In 1977, when the "personal computer" was still an exotic beast, Duncan attended the first "Computer Fair" and met a bubbly young man named Steve Wozniak who couldn't stop talking about his new company and the cool little computer it manufactured. Duncan was convinced. He paid $1,200 for an Apple II, a bulky, manila-envelope-hued object with a built-in keyboard and the serial number 889. Over the next several years, more than 2 million Apple IIs were sold. "It didn't have a disk. You had to put everything on audiocassette, so the first programs I wrote were saved to tape," recalls Duncan. "I thought, 'I spent all this money on a computer, I'd better buy a really good cassette recorder.'"

And what did this wonder box do?

"It didn't do anything to speak of, when you got it," says Duncan. "It didn't have an operating system. It came up in BASIC, and you had to have an idea of how to program something. When I first got the speaker to squawk -- that was exciting."

More than 20 years later, an iMac for the same price will have even the most nervous novice surfing the Internet in less than a quarter-hour. Like all nostalgia, computer collecting takes its practitioners back to a less jaded era. In the early '80s, Duncan recalls inviting a shop owner to the computer store where he worked to dismantle the latest Apple machine. They soon had the pieces spread across the showroom floor, "just to see how it worked.

"That was really an exciting era in L.A.," says Duncan. "There were very few of us who were into computers, and there was still a camaraderie of people."

Duncan hopes to bring this era to life again when he finally empties his storage bins into his Technology Center.

"That's the real intent," says Duncan. "To have people go in there and push buttons and make things work."