Curator holds the IT artifacts
- By Florence Olsen
- Mar 23, 1998
While many of his government colleagues plot ways to get new computers, David Allison
spends his days collecting old computers and thinking about their impact on society.
The Smithsonian Institution's curator of computers at the National Museum of American
History works with a small staff to preserve and interpret the artifacts of the
"I've been very interested in the way technology migrates through society,"
Allison said, noting that the technology first used by military combat forces in World War
II has moved "by circuitous paths to almost everywhere."
Allison thinks of modern offices' fax machines, video screens and other devices as the
evolutionary descendants of WWII combat information centers.
As a historian, he is interested in early influences on leaders in the computer field
and the evolution of their ideas.
He has collected oral histories and videotaped interviews of living pioneers in the
computer field, including Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates, who described himself as a
voracious reader of Fortune and other business magazines at age 12.
Gates and a few friends with similar interests had fun writing letters to corporations,
asking for their product literature and "trying to think about how business works,
and in particular, looking at computer companies and what was going on with them,"
Gates told Allison.
In a field dominated by engineers who rarely write memoirs or reflect on the forces
that shaped their work, historians must rely on oral and video histories, Allison said.
One of the museum's most valuable collections of personal papers is that of pioneer
programmer Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper.
The museum adds computer and communications artifacts to the collection if they
represent breakthroughs in the evolution of information technology or become the most
widely used devices of their kind.
A computing device associated with an important historical event enjoys a better chance
than others of being selected for preservation in the national collection, Allison said.
"We have [integrated circuit inventor] Jack Kilby's chip--that's a first of its
kind--and we have the National Crime Information Center terminal that was used to help
track down Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer," he said.
In the past year, the museum acquired one the first Ethernet cards and related Xerox
PARC research books.
Even though Allison has an attic's worth of old computing devices at hand, he can't
help people who call to ask him to extract data from obsolete media.
The museum has a policy of not firing up its older devices "for safety reasons as
much as anything," he said, and to avoid damaging the artifacts.
The Smithsonian collection includes paper documents that the museum is capturing in
digital form to make them more accessible to researchers and the public.
Information technology itself is creating "new opportunities to share information
about items we can't afford to display but we'd like people to have access to," he
Starting next year, museum visitors will see that effort in a live exhibit in the
museum's third-floor printing and graphic arts gallery. "People will be able to come
and see firsthand those things being digitized," he said.
University interns and volunteers probably will do the scanning, printing, World Wide
Web publishing and 3-D imaging, he said.
It will not be the first time Allison has made the museum's own computing
infrastructure part of a public exhibit. Its permanent "Information Age: People,
Information and Technology" exhibit recently added a live Silicon Graphics Inc.
Indigo2 server and three SGI Indigo workstations for the public to log on to the Internet.
Allison, who received a doctorate in the history of science from Princeton University,
knows of only a few curatorial cousins who focus on computers in other places within
government. The National Air and Space Museum, for example, has a curator of aerospace
computing, and the Army and Air Force have history programs that employ technology
But surprisingly few institutions focus on the history of computers, he said, despite
the considerable influence of computers on society.