Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

Paul Allen checks in on the hobby

by Evan Koblentz

Several months ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen launched his new site in something of a beta mode. Now, it's the live version, officials of his Vulcan Inc. holding company said.

The most appealing aspect of is live Telnet access to machines in Allen's personal collection -- click the "community" link to register for an account. The PDP-10 systems are the same kind that powered the original ARPANET; they reside in a Seattle warehouse and the restoration stories, along with technical tips, are fully documented on the site. The site also contains user stories, an image gallery, a history timeline, and discussion forums. will eventually expand to cover Vax systems as well, but it is not Allen's first foray into the vintage computing hobby. In October 2004 he announced funding for the Microcomputer Gallery, currently under contruction at the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Museum of Natural History & Science. For more general science history buffs, Allen also sponsors the Flying Heritage collection of World War II aircraft located in Arlington, Washington, and the Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame, co-located with Seattle's Experience Music Project.

"Whether you collect cars or computers, or I have a few World War II airplanes... It reminds you of the more limited things engineers were able to do. That was a time of true craftsmanship and innovation," Allen explained in a telephone interview with us today. "I think there's a fasination with having something from a certain period of time and they're still working artifacts," he said.

In the beginning, 15-year-old Allen and 13-year-old Bill Gates began computing through an ASR-33 teletype terminal in high school -- they acquired manuals and taught themselves to program. Allen didn't begin looking backward until about five years ago. "I don't think I really thought about it much until after I left [Microsoft] and started collecting things here. I always had a few of the orginal tapes around. But I didn't think about it much until the last five years or so. It was amazing progress from them until now," he said.

For the Albuquerque project, Allen's collection has highlights such as an original Apple 1, and even original tapes from his and Gates' programming efforts on DEC 2020 and 2060 machines during the early days at Microsoft as a New Mexico sub-contractor porting BASIC for the MITS Altair. The first microcomputer they used was a homebrewed machine with 1 kilobyte of memory, he added.

However, it's the PDP-10 that is truly "heartwarming" to Allen. "It was just very well architected, there were a lot of utilities and ways of copying files around. We were exposed to Unix back then too. There was a Unix system at Harvard at the same time Bill went to Harvard. It's kind of interesting to think about how things might've been different if there had been a better Unix OS back then."