A visit to the Media Archaeology Lab


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I've gotten to explore some fantastic computer museums in the company of Apple II users: the Boston Museum of Science with Ryan Suenaga; the Computer History Museum with Martin Haye; Living Computers: Museum + Labs with Olivier Guinart; the Strong Museum of Play with Andy Molloy. Last month, I enjoyed another such adventure, this one to the Media Archaeology Lab with Chris Torrence.

The MAL is in Boulder, Colorado, a place I briefly lived and to which I was now returning on business. I work for Automattic, a completely distributed company whose employees all work remotely. Instead of a traditional office, where everyone works together for fifty weeks a year then gets two weeks of vacation apart, Automattic flips that model: we spend only two weeks together a year, at two week-long team meetups. My first meetup of 2019 was in Boulder, giving me the perfect excuse to extend my stay for a visit to the MAL.

Another convenient synchronicity was that, just two months earlier, I'd started selling Steve Weyhrich's book, Sophistication & Simplicity. Steve permitted me to donate a few copies of his book to libraries and museums, so I emailed some historians to ask what institutions I should target. Jason Scott suggested the MAL, a museum that I was vaguely aware of from Chris Torrence volunteering there. I pitched him a donation of S&S as well as a complete collection of Juiced.GS, and he enthusiastically accepted. Instead of mailing so much heavy Apple II literature, my Automattic trip would enable me to personally deliver it, followed by a tour of the MAL!

The MAL resides in the basement of a building near the local university campus. Three rooms are accessible to the public, with the main lobby hosting one long table of operational Apple computers, and another table filled with other brands and models. Like the Living Computers museum of Seattle, Washington, MAL's artifacts are meant to be used: shelves are filled to the ceiling with classic software, mainly games, waiting to be played. I booted up an Apple IIe for a round of Oregon Trail, naming my wagonmates after fellow Apple II users, while Chris fiddled with getting BattleChess to work on the IIGS.

The back room, the second-largest room in the MAL, holds a dozen or so game consoles, all connected to CRT televisions. Chris and I rotated through several two-player Nintendo games, including Super Dodge Ball and Double Dragon II. I also tried the Vectrex, an all-in-one game console and display unit released by Milton Bradley in late 1982 and discontinued in early 1984. I was familiar with the Vectrex but had never gotten hands-on experience with one before. Its vector graphics, similar to an Asteroids coin-op, were bright and vivid — though playing the Star Trek game reminded me that this console is from an era where gameplay was not intuitive, and a thorough reading of the manual was essential.

I enjoyed my time at the MAL and wish I'd been able to stay longer. The assortment of not just digital technology, but all media, was fascinating, from computers to record players to oscilloscopes. As much as I'm a retrocomputing enthusiast, there is plenty of history and media I've still to discover. There are few places better to do so than the MAL.