Personal Computer Museum – A Look Back in Time

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By Angus Gillespie

It’s quite amazing to think how far computer and communications’ technology has come in a relatively short span of time, and yet based on the number of people who walk through the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, Ont., there’s obviously no shortage of nostalgia for those early days when machines such as the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 were all the rage in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s; and let’s not forget those bulky IBM PCs.  Computers which had such little onboard memory that vital information had to be dumped onto cassette drives and stored on tape.  These are just three of the many legacy-type computers on display for the public to see and use. 

The museum, just off the city’s main thoroughfare – Wayne Gretzky Parkway – was the brainchild of 40-year-old curator Syd Bolton, who was born and raised in Brantford.   The fascination with computers and their associated peripheral technologies began when he was just 10 years old.

“It was 1981 and the IBM PC had just been released,” Bolton says.  “I used to write stories on my neighbour’s electric typewriter.  They had an accounting business and ordered one of the very first IBM PCs in Canada.  But there were delays getting it into Canada so the computer store lent them an Apple II for a month before the PC came in.  I played some games on it and I was fascinated.  Then the IBM came in; it had adventure games and I loved it and that’s how I got involved with computers.”

When Bolton returned to school that autumn he was ecstatic to see that the school had purchased a Commodore Pet; one computer for the entire school.

Taking his excitement to another level, he was asked to be classroom monitor, which meant he was tasked with learning how to properly load a program off a cassette tape, if a malfunction occurred. 

“I would come in to school early; I started skipping recess and they had to force me to go out and exercise,” Bolton chuckles.  “I would go in during my lunch hours and then got interested in programming.”  Within a matter of weeks, Bolton’s knowledge had surpassed that of his teacher’s.

By the time he was 12, Bolton owned three computers, which was unheard of in the early 1980s.  By the time he was 16 he had 16 computers and became a programming guru.

“I remember making a declaration that I wanted to have as many computers as I was old,” Bolton says.  “So if that’s the case, I should be about 1,000 now,” he laughs, inferring to his extremely large collection at this point in time.

Because Bolton got a head-start with computers at such a young age, by the time he was finished high school he quickly came to the realization he was already well ahead of where programming courses were at the college and university levels, so attending made no sense at all.  With school not offering much in those days, he decided it was time to join the workforce.

“I started a software company at 18 and my family had a retail business,” Bolton notes. 

“I then opened a computer store in 1990 but I got bored with that after a while.  I decided to go into writing software and found a niche market and eventually expanded that company to five people.”  Somewhat surprisingly, it was productivity software, not gaming.  A photographer friend had been looking for a program to keep track of his clients, but there was nothing available for the Amiga computer.  That’s when Bolton decided to write a proprietary program for him.  Upon completion, Bolton felt he’d made a strong product and wanted to sell it commercially, but the initial response was anything but positive.

“I remember a distributor telling me there were too many programs that do this,” Bolton says.  But in reality, there was no such software at the time.  Bolton decided to send his program in to a technology magazine, and from it he garnered a fantastic review.  Shortly afterwards, the company that originally turned him down came back and wanted to do business, begging for an order.

A bit further down the road, Commodore, which made the Amiga, went out of business.  Bolton tried to get involved with the PC market, but he quickly found that being a small fish in a large pond wasn’t a recipe for success.  After several years of consulting, Bolton was offered a position with a high-tech point of sale company, where he wound up working for 13 years.

“People don’t realize how stressful owning a business can be,” Bolton states.  “I decided I’d take a job and let someone else worry about my paycheque every two weeks.  But I always had small businesses on the side.”

The Museum is Born

All throughout this time, Bolton continued to collect old computers and video games; it was always an interest.  When he purchased his home in 2003, there was a large building in the back that everyone called The Barn.  Ironically, there is also a personal computer museum in California called DigiBarn. 

“I spent about $100,000 of my own money renovating it,” Bolton says.   “I had been storing my computers and I finally got the chance to put them into the building in 2005 after a year-and-a-half getting it ready.  From that, The Personal Computer Museum was open to the public.

Bolton reconnected with many of his old high school friends and they’ve enthusiastically helped him with the operation of the museum ever since.  There are now about 35 people Bolton can call upon to assist, and he’s exceptionally grateful for it.  In the near future, there’s a plan in place to move the museum into a much larger 20,000-square foot facility, also in Brantford.  He hopes to complete the transitional move later this summer.  

The Personal Computer Museum has received several grants from the government, but the vast majority of money has been raised through self-funding and people donating when they visit.  The museum website attracts about 250,000 visitors each year.  Bolton and his team have also shown an incredible amount of charitable goodwill by taking in old computers, fixing them up and then donating many of them back to the community to people in need, so they too can share in the joys of the technological experience.  

One thing that is plainly apparent when meeting Bolton is his incredible attention to detail and his thirst for seeking out the more intricate aspects of each computer and software.  He keeps track of every bit of information and posts much of it on the museum website.   

“I do research on the companies that make software,” Bolton says.  “It’s one thing to catalogue a piece of software; anybody can do that.  You take a piece of software, you scan the front and back, put the UPC code in, you try to look it up on Wikipedia, put it on your website – you’re done.  I look for the company information.”

While companies such as Microsoft were quite dominant 25 years ago, an intriguing factor for Bolton is the amount of software written in the 1980s by small shops, with no more than one or two employees.  Bolton scans the logos and then tries to determine who was involved and where those individuals are today, trying to contact them to find what ever happened to them.

“You like to know what happened to some of these people,” Bolton notes.  “A lot of those guys became an instant success, and now – nothing.”

After 13 years of writing software for the POS company, Bolton was offered a job as an IT Manager with a pharmaceutical company.  Despite some initial hesitation, he accepted the position, and gave his two-week notice with his former employer.  As it turns out, Bolton’s timing couldn’t have been better.  When he reported for work to fulfill his final two-week obligation, he was laid off along with 80 per cent of the rest of company’s employees.  The entire business was shut down less than two months later. 

“Through my day job I stay in touch with current technology, while at the same time this stuff keeps me in touch with technology of the past.  I kind of live in the two worlds, but I exist in that space just fine, and that’s what I’m doing.”

BlackBerry Exhibit

Bolton’s newest addition to The Personal Computer Museum is a BlackBerry Exhibit. 

“We’ve been collecting cellphones for a number of years now, and also PDAs, things like the Apple Newton.  They’re mini computers so there’s no reason why we can’t have offshoot exhibits that are technology-related.  The PDA was the first thing I wanted to do, but the cellphones are also interesting.  We started to get lots of BlackBerrys.”

Despite the well-documented problems facing Research In Motion over the past year, Bolton has a soft side for the Waterloo-based business and the technological marvels the company is produced.  He wants to remind people why we should be celebrating its achievements and look back at the various technological gadgets they’ve provided to the marketplace.  RIM has made 84 variants of its hand-held devices over the past 15 years for various carriers, which is a lot of technology to produce and then support.  The more products to support, the more a company’s internal resources tend to get stretched, sometimes beyond acceptable limits.  Bolton’s 22 devices now on display cover off many of the different families of phones in terms of the BlackBerry brand.

He even has a BlackBerry flip phone, which seems out of place to many visitors to the museum.  

“When it comes to business, from a practical standpoint nothing beats the BlackBerry,” Bolton opines.  “As an IT Manager I’m going to stand by BlackBerry because it’s right for the company.  As a consumer phone it’s had issues, no doubt about it.  But I can’t understand as Canadians why we’re being so critical of a company we should be proud of.  Yes, they’ve (RIM) fallen behind and have been playing catch-up the last couple of years after being the leader.  Other companies such as Microsoft and Apple have also been guilty of it where they get to a leading position and rest on their laurels.  They need to come back with a vengeance and come back out on top again.”

Of course, Research In Motion is largely banking its future on the so-called Superphones that are slated to hit the market this fall in order to get them back to the summit of telecom technology.  What has remained a mystery and a closely guarded secret, is what will these new devices will be able to do that’s not already available on the current smartphones.  Bolton has some ideas about that.

“If they’re able to do a lot of seamless integration between the desktop and the mobile device even more so than what has been seen, I think they may have something there,” he offers.  “People want to not necessarily think about what’s on their mobile device versus what’s on their phone and that might wow people a bit more.  Opening up to the Android market is also a smart move.”

Bolton has several friends who work at RIM, but they’ve kept him in the dark as to what features may be included in the next version.  Bringing back basic fun to the phones also cannot be overstated.

Video Games

Bolton also has a massive collection of video games that would make any gamester green with envy.   He’s got enormous collections from Game Boy, Sega, Atari, Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox 360 and PS3.  Bolton has the largest collection of Dragon’s Lair versions in the world.  One single game has more than 100 skews and the game is available on more than 50 different platforms.  There are 1,476 PlayStation 2 games.  Surprisingly, that only ranks him No. 2 in the world, behind a man from the U.S. who has every game every released in shrink-wrap, about 1,700 in total. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without Star Wars and Star Trek collections as well.  This collection makes his one room look exactly like a kids’ retail store.
If you’re into technology and the history behind it, with some science fiction mixed in for good measure, The Personal Computer Museum is definitely a place to see.  To find out more, visit www.pcmuseum.ca.

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