Travel Back in Time With These Vintage Computers

By today’s standards, the Univac I was a clunky behemoth of a machine. It filled an entire room, weighed as much as four cars, and had an adjusted-for-inflation cost of around $8 million. But when it accurately predicted the outcome of the 1952 presidential election, it sold the public on computers.

Mark Richards pays tribute the Univac I and other computing trailblazers in his book Core Memory. It travels the annals of bits and bytes, from the 1890s, when nobody could imagine a modern computer (much less carrying one around in their pockets), to the 1990s, when the stylus became a (thankfully short-lived) status symbol.

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“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Richards says. “That’s an oft-used cliche, but if you’re picking up your iPhone to read the president’s tweet, there’s a lot of people that got you there.”

He’s not just talking about Jobs, Wozniak, or Gates. He also means lesser-knowns like Herman Hollerith, inventor of a 19th census tabulating machine that turned hand-written notes into machine-readable data, and Curt Herztark, an Austrian engineer who refined the design for his famed calculator while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Their inventions paved the way for others, and now belong to the 90,000-strong collection at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where Richards shot the photos for his recently-updated book.

Richards—a Vietnam vet, former war photographer, and history buff—first visited the museum roughly two decades ago. Though not a techie per se, he fell in love with the machines—”objects of beauty,” he says—and asked to photograph them. So began a monumental, three-year project documenting more than 1,000 items. A gloved technician gently placed those light enough to carry against white and black velvet backdrops for Richards to shoot with his Canon 1DS Mark II, using simple overhead fluorescent lighting for illumination. Richards loved it. “How often do you get to be in the middle of history?” he says. “In this case, I wasn’t in the middle of it, but I could literally touch it—of course, only if I had gloves on.”

It’s fun to see the ingenuity and resourcefulness that went into many of these machines. Allan Alcorn’s 1972 Pong prototype has a black-and-white TV for a screen, while chopsticks sub for a stylus in Jeff Hawkin’s 1997 wooden PalmPilot model. For Richards, it shows how “success is gaffertwaped together. It’s not this wonderful stack of PowerPoint presentations, but the fact that you pull it together, out of your ass, from the most amazing bullshit circumstances.”

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