Restoration: Impossible

With Britain’s first-ever Vintage Computer Festival at TNMOC, Bletchley Park on 19-20 June, TNMOC volunteer Delwyn Holroyd speculates that over the next 30 years a computing museum may be forced to become mainly a computer museum.

Whilst hammering some new bearings onto a drive motor shaft the other week, a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. Firstly, how computer restoration can often be more akin to car repair than electronics. Secondly, how fortuitous that it’s possible to buy new bearings off-the-shelf for less than a tenner to repair a 30 year old disk drive – one of the 14″ removable disk pack types made by Control Data Corporation and used widely throughout the mainframe and minicomputer industries of the 1970s and 80s. Visitors to The National Museum of Computing often comment how much like top loading washing machines these drives look, and indeed the technology is possibly closer to washing machine than the modern hard drive.

It isn’t just the industrial nature of the technology that aids the restorer tackling computer hardware of this era – manufacturers used to be a lot more open in the information they provided about their products. The technical manual for this particular CDC drive runs to three volumes, including full schematics, wiring lists, and a reference section written in an agreeable university tutorial style: very useful for repairing the drive, but equally valuable for learning about analogue electronic design techniques.

Fast forward to 2040, and the restorer attempting to get a 30 year old Blu-ray drive working will face some significant obstacles. It will be next to impossible to find any schematics, none of the specialized integrated circuits will be available and to cap it all trying to extract the firmware for analysis will probably be illegal on the grounds of reverse engineering.

We are facing today the culmination of a process that started sometime in the 1980s – a steady shift from ‘open source’ hardware to ‘no user serviceable parts inside’. Should we care? After all, what’s special about the PC on your desk that might make it worthy of restoration in the distant future? In many cases it won’t matter, but it’s notoriously difficult to recognize in the present just what will be interesting or valuable to future historians.

The open source community has been very successful in raising awareness of the benefits of openness in a software context, but exactly the same considerations apply in the hardware world. Increased availability of hardware technical information would ensure more of it survives into the future. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the source code to Linux is ever lost, but you may well have just thrown out the last copy of the technical manual for what will be viewed as a landmark machine in 30 years’ time.

If the current trend continues, the computer museum of the future will have far fewer working exhibits. Ironically, the machines from the 60s and 70s will still be going strong (chunky bearings will probably still be available) but that shiny hex-core PC will just be another non-functional box gathering dust in a display cabinet.

Delwyn Holroyd is the restoration team leader for the ICL 2966 at TNMOC. You can follow his progress on the TNMOC restoration project page.