There was a time in the 1960s when computers took up entire rooms. By the early 1970s, there was at least some floor space for the programmers to move around on, but they still didn't have video screens. Instead, they had to use switches on the front of the machine to instruct it, and received their readings from lights that flickered on and off. Later they had the luxury of reading the answers on punchcards and then on paper readouts.
It seems arcane now, but in those days, every computer had its own operating system and an entire team of people to check, double-check, and triple-check every bit of information and data that went in and out of it.
In the mid-1970s, something amazing happened: Computers began to shrink. They got so small that people could actually build their own personal computers from a kit -- though balancing a checkbook and playing early versions of Pong were about as complicated as things got.
Nowadays, computers are nearly ubiquitous in the United States. Almost anyone with a third-grade education can pick up on the nuances of the technology, and almost anyone with a steady income can afford technology that thirty years ago was used only by government agencies or major companies like the old Hughes Electronics.
For some time now, Gordon Ulrickson has been collecting computer components that trace the development of the personal computer.
He has a core memory component -- the precursor to Random Access Memory -- from one of the room-size ENIAC computers that requires four people to carry it. He has displays that illustrate the functionality of RAM, hard drives and hard disks, and displays that explain what a megabyte is and how all of these components work together and have developed over the years.
He's got a sample of every IBM ever made after 1975, every Apple ever made, and models of the Commodore and Altair PCs that would make any computer aficionado drool. He has modems dating back to the '70s that are partially made out of maple wood, and an educational plan in place to help kids and other people understand what all of these pieces of plastic and silicon mean to their lives.
Ulrickson is the head of the Museum of Computer Technology -- but it's a museum without a home.
"We get calls weekly from people who want to see our stuff," he says.
But operating hours are the least of his concerns, since most of Ulrickson's vast collection is boxed away, stored for the last year at Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Although he has an eleven-member board, a lot of exhibit pieces, all of the necessary tax-exemptions from the IRS and plenty of philosophical support, he still needs the two things to make the museum come to life: a building and funding.
Since the school has told him it wants the space where his collection is stored, Ulrickson is now trying to partner with a college or a university that wants to house it. But he's having a hard time finding one.
"I would love to assist any way that I can," says Ken Stafford, Vice Chancellor of Technology Services at the University of Denver. "We just don't have any space on this campus right now."
Ulrickson is still trying, though. "I've spoken with [chief of computer information systems at Metropolitan State College of Denver] Stuart Monroe...and invited DU as well to speak with me, and they are still interested, but they don't have space, and they only have so much in funds," he says.
His main problem when he asks for money from businesses or charitable organizations is a catch-22. He's got plenty of equipment -- most of it donated by businesses and agencies, including the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Columbus Energy Corporation and IBM -- but without a building, there will be no cash, and without cash, there will be no building. He has already applied to and been turned down for grants by the state's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the Gates Foundation.
At one point, the museum was functional. But its spot, in the 3,500-square-foot basement of 1640 Grant Street, wasn't handicap-accessible. "We didn't want to promote ourselves as not demonstrating our accessibility to people," Ulrickson explains. As a consequence, he and his board didn't pursue the possibility of remaining at that location.
Currently, there are only three other computer museums in the country, located in Boston, Bozeman, Montana, and La Mesa, California. But according to Ulrickson, none of the museums have a collection as extensive as the one he oversees.
Ulrickson's interest in electronics and computers began when he was a teenager in the early 1970s, after he and his family moved from Minnesota to Colorado. He took electronics classes at Emily Griffith, and in 1977, he took a test from a U.S. Air Force recruiter and qualified for training in some of the military's most advanced and specialized electronics.
In 1978, he bought his first personal computer, a Northstar Horizon that he built from a kit. "It was amazing," he remembers. "The programs were simple...but they were real computers. The possibilities were endless."
In the Air Force, he served as a munitions disposal specialist, loading weapons onto aircraft, as an explosive ordinance technician in charge of taking care of bombs and missiles, and as an escort for nuclear weapons. While he was in the military, he also took some computer classes. Ulrickson left the military in the early 1980s and opened his own business, later branching out into computer programming.
Around that same time, companies like Apple and IBM were beginning to mass-produce computers small enough to use at home. Eventually, IBM developed user-friendly business applications and started an aggressive ad campaign that featured a Charlie Chaplin clone who ran his various bumbling business ventures on an IBM computer. Apple marketed its computers as creative tools that could help unlock IBM's grip on personal computing.
Computers are now the most powerful tool in the business world and one of the most useful tools in the private sector. Because of that, Ulrickson wants to show people who are unaware of the computer's history how these machines have become such a prevalent force in our culture.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ulrickson works for the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park as the director of information systems, but the museum is still a priority. He has created a Web site for it (www.museumcomputer.org), and his board of directors now has a person with experience in grant writing and fundraising.
"It would be nice to get an exhibit in a science and technology museum," he reasons. But what really lights his face up is the mention of Ocean Journey. "I'm amazed at the lines to get into the aquarium," he exclaims. He figures that if he can garner the kind of corporate support that Ocean Journey did, he could put together a first-class museum.
What does he give his chances?
"It's possible," he says. Just like anything else related to computers these days.