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Still Life With Emulator

Computer history gets a reboot

Author Paul Ford

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ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER

IT’S A CRUEL FACT that computers die and must be replaced. Out to pasture goes the slow, boxy machine, and in comes a new one, speedy and sleek. What better word is there than “upgrade”? (Good enough for Beyoncé to title a song “Upgrade U.”) And it’s not as if anyone actually misses old computers, is it?

I miss them. Every time I buy a computer, I set up special software that lets me run old computers inside the new one. My shiny new Mac can, with some tricks, be made to think that it’s a dumpy old Commodore 64 (even though it has 125,000 times the capacity) or that it can run Windows 95.

This process is called “emulation.” Emulators are software programs that pretend to be hardware—sometimes down to the sounds that old computers would make when you inserted a floppy disk (though here it’s not a real floppy disk but a fake, software floppy disk). Most emulators are free, created by hobbyists who simply want to preserve computer history.

It may seem that computers are too new to have much history, but the technology industry moves so fast—and computers themselves are so fragile—that a whole movement has arisen to capture our digital past before it disappears. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., and the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, England, are among the official conservators of old technology. Other, less official groups have a different mandate: to capture as much computer history as possible (the beeps, the boops, even the hard-drive crashes) and get it into the hands of the people.

In Jason Scott’s case, that means all the people. Scott is a computer historian—part activist, part ringmaster, part archivist. He leads ad hoc Internet organizations such as Archive Team, which makes backup copies of websites such as GeoCities before they’re shut down. He works for the not-for-profit Internet Archive (archive.org), a huge public repository of digital audio and film, scanned-in books and old software. And he has a 40-foot shipping container in his upstate New York backyard filled with, among other things, old software and computers.

What’s a computer historian? “We’re not used to the idea of there being new things to collect in the world,” Scott says. That’s changing—in an age of iPhones and app stores, we can hardly deny that technology matters—so Scott is increasingly invited to move items out of storage and into museums. But his most ambitious project, called JSMESS (jsmess.textfiles.com), is intended to bring emulation to the masses. “We’re working on putting an emulator in a Web browser window that can start up 500 different types of computers,” he says, “so that all computer history will be as accessible to us as movies, music and books are now.”

Some of this work is a race against the forces of entropy. Old computer files on floppy disks and tapes are literally rotting away. “The material is so inherently fragile and transient that it has no life span to speak of,” Scott says. If it isn’t recovered soon, it might be gone forever.

That would be a profound loss. Modern technology is so incredibly capable that even the cheapest modern computer can compose music, store thousands of books and photos, even paint pictures. When you used a Commodore 64 or one of the first Macintoshes, by comparison, you were keenly aware of its limits: the paucity of colors, the tiny memory, the long time it took to load files off a disk. You had to learn to work within the machine’s constraints. The history of computing is the history of human creativity and ingenuity—which is why we should hold on to it forever.

I asked Scott for the thing he yearns to find, his holy grail. He answered readily: “the CompuServe backup tapes.” Compu­Serve was an influential precursor to the Internet, a network service accessible via modem in the 1980s. For thousands of people, it was their first experience of using a computer to communicate; it taught the world that computers weren’t just for spreadsheets. Yet those early years of chats and discussion forums are gone without a trace.

It’s possible, though, that Compu­Serve exists somewhere, static and inert, in a stack of decaying tapes. For Scott, it’s a reason to hope. Perhaps the backups will be discovered in a closet or old storage cabinet and loaded up into a new machine, so that this venerable network can be emulated—and experienced anew.

PAUL FORD (@ftrain) is a Brooklyn-based writer and computer programmer who’s investigating ways to make Web pages scroll agonizingly slowly onto his screen.

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