Caltech is a treasure trove of vintage computing equipment … if you know where to look. “You see these e-waste piles all around campus and people just stick old equipment in them,” says Albert Tseng, a sophomore majoring in computer science. “Most of it is actual waste, but sometimes you find really interesting things being discarded.”
Tseng teamed up recently with fellow sophomore Hongsen Qin, whose particular passion is old keyboards. The pair recruited junior Karthik Karnik and, together, the three undergrads turned their hobby into a new student club dedicated to preserving, collecting, and showcasing vintage computing hardware used on the Caltech campus.
Through word of mouth and social media, the Vintage Computing Club has garnered interest from a broad swath of students and alumni. Labs around campus are starting to contact the group about “old computers sitting in attics,” says Tseng, who notes that many of these computers were integral to the history of their former labs or to the history of Caltech.
“We’re finding these rare workstations that were very expensive at the time. And they still work!”
Beyond the thrill of unearthing hidden tech treasure, the trio’s goal is to gather enough items for a campus exhibit along the lines of Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum in Seattle. To that end, they are restoring the machines that come to them, keeping the patina of age and the Caltech property tags but making them operational. As Tseng says, “It’s no fun just seeing something behind a glass case.”
The club’s broader aim is to begin to document computing at Caltech through the decades. “We’re looking at the history of different labs, different research groups,” says Qin. “We’re showcasing them because it’s an important part of Caltech history.”