“(The Commodore 64) was the computer that first got me fascinated with computers,” said Grosse. “But if you are wondering about what in our collection intrigues me the most, I would have to say it’s the Altair. It was basically the first computer kit. It wasn’t actually sold as a whole functioning computer. It was a kit, so it might or might not work when you were done assembling it. It was kind of like a LEGO puzzle … It had no keyboard, no mouse, no monitor, and no printer. But, this was where home computing started in 1975. It was this computer that drove (Microsoft co-founder) Bill Gates to quit college. He saw what was coming and said if we want in on this industry, we have to start now.”
Oster’s favourite in the collection is also the Commodore 64, but points to the Altair as the artifact with the most historical value as a reminder of just how far computer technology has come in the last half century.
“I would call it our crown jewel, or one of our crown jewels. If we were told you can only keep five pieces for the museum, that would be one of them,” said Oster, noting how much an old system like the Altair puts current computer capability into perspective. “The number is 10 billion with a ‘B’. That is how many times more RAM (random-access memory) that a modern system has, versus the Altair 8800 in base configuration.”
But for Oster and Grosse, what really brings the equipment to life are the people associated with the computers. Those stories have been shared in fireside chat events over the years and during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Department of Computer Science in 2018, when the USask Computer Museum partnered with the Museum of Antiquities to highlight the history of the computer on campus.
“The museum is not just about the artifact, it’s about the story that goes with it,” said Oster. “So, it’s like, ‘This is the Apple computer that was used by the professor who was teaching the astronomy class for 35 years, and this is the computer that he used for the NSERC Award in Chemistry to do research. This is 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 is nice to say that we have an Altair and we have a PDP-8, but what was it used for? Well, it was used for space trajectory calculations and it came from the physics department, and we have that machine. So, it’s that back story that tells the whole story.”