Historic Hardware

IBM Selectric typewriter   The IBM Selectric typewriter was one of the most well-known pieces of office and computing equipment of the 20th century. Machines such as this one (which came from the applied physics department) were used at Caltech as makeshift printers and for terminal keyboards. Although quite complex, with more than 1,000 parts, they were remarkably reliable and rarely broke down. Today, there are estimated to be less than five in working order at Caltech.

IBM Selectric typewriter

The IBM Selectric typewriter was one of the most well-known pieces of office and computing equipment of the 20th century. Machines such as this one (which came from the applied physics department) were used at Caltech as makeshift printers and for terminal keyboards. Although quite complex, with more than 1,000 parts, they were remarkably reliable and rarely broke down. Today, there are estimated to be less than five in working order at Caltech.

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.”

Typing elements   The IBM Selectric typewriter allowed the user to switch typing elements (often called typeballs) for different fonts, as well as to type special characters, including math symbols. The club has a collection of 12 font balls, which go with the Selectric II C in the collection.

Typing elements

The IBM Selectric typewriter allowed the user to switch typing elements (often called typeballs) for different fonts, as well as to type special characters, including math symbols. The club has a collection of 12 font balls, which go with the Selectric II C in the collection.

Macintosh SE   The Macintosh SE was an entry level computer introduced in 1986. This particular one was manufactured in 1986 and used in the math department by a postdoc during the 1980s. One of the earlier models, it features the design team's signatures on the inside of the case (which the Vintage Computing Club found out when they opened it up). It even contains a battery made in West Germany. The corresponding keyboard and mouse did not originally come with the machine, but are period correct. The club also has a collection of floppy disks for the Mac SE. Shown on the screen is Microsoft Word 4.0 on Mac OS 6.

Macintosh SE

The Macintosh SE was an entry level computer introduced in 1986. This particular one was manufactured in 1986 and used in the math department by a postdoc during the 1980s. One of the earlier models, it features the design team's signatures on the inside of the case (which the Vintage Computing Club found out when they opened it up). It even contains a battery made in West Germany. The corresponding keyboard and mouse did not originally come with the machine, but are period correct. The club also has a collection of floppy disks for the Mac SE. Shown on the screen is Microsoft Word 4.0 on Mac OS 6.

Keyboards   Along with computers, the club also collects keyboards necessary for using the computers. Some are iconic (IBM Personal Computer, IBM Extended, Apple Extended) and some are proprietary (Sun terminal, SGI 101 Key, DEC, HP), but all have their place in history. Additionally, the club collects the mice that go with the computers. Shown here are the Apple one-button mouse and the Sun optical mouse from 1990, when optical mice were a rarity.

Keyboards

Along with computers, the club also collects keyboards necessary for using the computers. Some are iconic (IBM Personal Computer, IBM Extended, Apple Extended) and some are proprietary (Sun terminal, SGI 101 Key, DEC, HP), but all have their place in history. Additionally, the club collects the mice that go with the computers. Shown here are the Apple one-button mouse and the Sun optical mouse from 1990, when optical mice were a rarity.

1980s office machines   These machines are all part of what would have been in a researcher's office in the 1980s. Peripherals such as the (color!) dot matrix printer, HDS Viewstation dumb terminals, and IBM tape drives would allow students to access programs running on servers and workstations. The Macintosh LC shown here was a fully functional computer, but since it is an entry level personal model, it would most likely have been used for word processing and simple tasks. These machines were donated by the Goddard Group.

1980s office machines

These machines are all part of what would have been in a researcher's office in the 1980s. Peripherals such as the (color!) dot matrix printer, HDS Viewstation dumb terminals, and IBM tape drives would allow students to access programs running on servers and workstations. The Macintosh LC shown here was a fully functional computer, but since it is an entry level personal model, it would most likely have been used for word processing and simple tasks. These machines were donated by the Goddard Group.

RISC workstations   These RISC workstations were some of the fastest workstations of the late 1980s and 1990s. While their specs may seem very out of date today (the fastest machine runs at 125 MHz and has 400 MB of RAM), in 1990 the average computer had under 4 MB of RAM. Priced accordingly (most of these machines had price tags in the middle 5 digits before inflation), only universities and governments could afford them. Interestingly enough, these machines by SGI, IBM, HP, and Sun all ran proprietary versions of UNIX (IRIX, AIX, HPUX, and SUN OS) and competed directly with each other. These machines were donated by the Goddard Group.

RISC workstations

These RISC workstations were some of the fastest workstations of the late 1980s and 1990s. While their specs may seem very out of date today (the fastest machine runs at 125 MHz and has 400 MB of RAM), in 1990 the average computer had under 4 MB of RAM. Priced accordingly (most of these machines had price tags in the middle 5 digits before inflation), only universities and governments could afford them. Interestingly enough, these machines by SGI, IBM, HP, and Sun all ran proprietary versions of UNIX (IRIX, AIX, HPUX, and SUN OS) and competed directly with each other. These machines were donated by the Goddard Group.

Mainframe tapes  These mainframe tapes held programs for the DEC PDP-11 (1970s) that Robert Koh (now retired) used to evaluate his experiments on. The handwritten notes on the printed output date these to the mid 1970s.

Mainframe tapes
These mainframe tapes held programs for the DEC PDP-11 (1970s) that Robert Koh (now retired) used to evaluate his experiments on. The handwritten notes on the printed output date these to the mid 1970s.

Circuit board  The club is currently in the process of restoring the circuit board of a HP PA-RISC machine from the early 1990s, which was used in the Goddard lab for computations.

Circuit board
The club is currently in the process of restoring the circuit board of a HP PA-RISC machine from the early 1990s, which was used in the Goddard lab for computations.