An Account of the COMMPUTERSEUM ‐ Commercial Computing Museum
by Kevin Stumpf

This is really a story of how God opens doors and closes doors. It is specifically about the opening and closing of Canada's first computer museum and, at that time and as far as my research showed, the first computer museum dedicated to the commercial application of computers. It is about the Commercial Computing Museum also known as the COMMPUTERSEUM that exhibited vintage mainframe and minicomputers in Ontario, Canada in 1996 and 1997 and then officially closed in 1998. This account, in a timeline format, puts the 5 videos that are available on YouTube, in context.

note ‐ There had been a computer museum initiative in Canada in the mid-1980s that had planned to build on Toronto's lakefront. The board was made up of a who's who of the Canadian computing community, but nothing ever happened. There was and is the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada with a section dedicated to the history of computing in Canada. There were and are on again, off again exhibits focused on local themes in provincial and municipal museums. There were also, as there are, many "displays called museums" in spare space or lobbies in universities, colleges, and companies across Canada plus there were and are many museum-like efforts preserving and exhibiting microcomputer technology (desktops, servers, laptops, and other information appliances).

The 5 videos are:

1.       The official press conference at which the COMMPUTERSEUM was announced. To learn about the premise, scope, and goals of the endeavour.

2.       An off-beat demonstration of what to do with vintage computer parts that appeared on a daytime variety TV show that acted as a promotion for the COMMPUTERSEUM.

3.       The removal of an entire IBM System/360 Model 22 computing system by crane from a second story window. Really.

4.       The art, science, and history of the computer control panel. A promotional exhibit that occupied the entrance to Comdex Canada 1996.

5.       An extensive guided tour of the mainframe exhibit we set up in a high school gym in the summer of 1996. I am your tour guide and the fella who came up with the idea and so I'm probably the most qualified person to walk through it with you.

1967 ‐ I walked into the Red Room at U of Waterloo, Ontario and was awed by the control panel of an IBM 360/75. Already being a child of the space age, this moment solidified my becoming a "techno-romantic". I immediately started collecting manuals I found in waste bins at UW. My library grew as companies of the era, especially Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) would freely send any of their magnificent Handbooks to anyone who asked. A real collection started a year later. In grade 9 I wrote to the presidents of CDC Canada, DEC Canada, and IBM Canada for any spare systems they could give to me so I could experiment with home uses of computers. Someone from IBM Canada and CDC Canada wrote back with regrets, but the personnel manager of DEC Canada wrote back inviting me to the mill in Carleton Place, Ontario to tour the manufacturing facility and browse the spare parts room and take whatever I wanted. A few buddies and I (escorted by a teacher the first time) made that trip two years in a row. From those trips I scored core planes, control panels, Flip Chips cards by the box, racks, test rigs, DECtapes, and more documentation. This generosity resonated with me and I have tried to emulate it.

1984 ‐ Suddenly realized control panels, which are probably the icon of the early days of computing, were already a thing of the past so I collected a few to show so our sons and use them to attempt to explain why their dad worked with computers.

1984 - 1990 ‐ A few panels (IBM 360/40 (mint!), 370/145, System/7, and 1800) grew to include DEC 8's and 11's, KA-10, KI-10, Xerox Sigma 9, IBM 3705, Honeywell DPS-8 and Level/6, GE Datanet-30, UNIVAC 418III and 1108, Amdahl 470V/6, Burroughs B1700, and many others. Owners offered entire systems, but I declined thinking "who could ever collect entire systems?" Storing the panels alone was expensive; entire systems, no way. Yet my "rational" collecting principles verged on being destructive since I was stripping the panels and consoles and ignoring the rest.

1990 - 1993 ‐ Began to accept entire systems while still pursuing control panels and consoles. Owners usually stipulated I could have the system free in exchange for de-installing and hauling it away at my expense (this meant all peripherals, supplies, docs, even furniture). At this point I joked that I collected big computers to justify driving big trucks. Collection grows by an entire DEC PDP/9, the panels-only from an IBM 360/75 (Serial #1!), 370/165 and /168, an entire IBM 4361 installation, entire Unisys Model 80 (including the false flooring), entire DEC Typeset-8, 8/e, 11/70, 11/45, 11/34, IBM System/34, /36, and /38, 4381 CPU-only (very tall), the console from an IBM 705, and 3 ‐ count'em,3 ‐ working DECSYSTEM-20's (3 2065'S), plus dozens and dozens of other artifacts.

note ‐ I remember reading a post in the Classic Computer mailing list that said something like "it is good that someone with the resources is rescuing" meaning other collectors had decided I must be well-off to pay for trucking these babies around and paying to store them, but that was and is not true. I am just a guy like them who was following what he believed to be his path and was blessed for it. Another collector from the USA determined my success with finding and acquiring mainframes was due to the fact I collected in Canada because Canadians used older machines and used them longer. Oh really. I wager that the huge number of current model systems in my hometowns of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada created one of the highest CPU cycles/person than anywhere on the planet*. I can only imagine how many other complete systems I would have found and trucked away had I lived in southern California instead of southern Ontario.

*For more info in that CPU cycles thing check:
A grassRoots History of the Early Hi-Tech Community in Kitchener-Waterloo.

1994 ‐ The collection became a burden. It was a financial drain, but that wasn't the burden. My family and I believed we were doing the right thing and contributing to the history of the world, so we struggled on. The burden was seeing these marvelous relics collecting dust when they should be adding value to society so when I heard about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the ENIAC (1996 February 14) the vision for opening a museum, in 1996, based on our collection became clear. It would focus on commercial computing including office automation ‐ this was the most common and popular use of computing. This meant excluding industrial automation, real-time, scientific, embedded, special purpose computing while exposing the most mainstream computing technology to the public. The opening year theme would be mainframes then, in 1997, minicomputers, and office automation in 1998, and then who knows what. The mainframe exhibit would be static (not working), but there would be no railings around the exhibits. It would be a "computer petting zoo." This is especially exciting since the complete systems we would exhibit were typically tucked away out of sight so this is the first time both old-timers and new-netters could actually be close enough to touch a mainframe. Please watch video 1 of 5 to learn more about the premise, scope, and goals of the COMMPUTERSEUM. I was adamant that the museum would be a privately funded endeavour and should not depend on government funds. This seemed reasonable since this computer museum would open in the heart of Canada's Technology Triangle, the proud home of the University of Waterloo and RIM, but none of the many people I contacted at UWaterloo (to collaborate with) or any of the tech companies ever answered emails, letters, or returned phone calls. They were all too busy pursuing the future so there was no time to dwell on the past. I couldn't generate any excitement around our grassroots approach nor was I able to convince them that by the time they placed a value on the history of computing there would very likely be nothing to fill their no doubt expensive edifice with.

Nevertheless doors did open:

         Charitable Status ‐ Became a federally registered charity through the guidance and assistance of a friend from church who specialized in these matters being the exec director of an agency for financial accountability in Christian organizations operating in Canada.

         Venue ‐ In keeping with the grassroots culture we were trying to create we approached the local public board of education to ask permission to use the gymnasium in the high school across the street from the current "ware"house as the opening venue. The Superintendent of Support Services for the board endorsed the idea and approved the request. Afterwards he told me he had worked on a Honeywell H800 in the 50's. Custodians at the school were concerned about supporting 20 tons of hardware until someone pointed out the weight on the floor during a Friday night dance.It was an ideal location since near expressway, on busy street (University Ave) leading to UWaterloo (also Wilfrid Lauier U) and the core of Canada's Technology Triangle, and at the crossing of this street and the busiest street in KW. Regional traffic stats showed thousands of cars pass the school every day so someone should see the huge signs we mounted along the street.

         Volunteers ‐ Many friends and eager citizens and my mom answered a call-out. The museum's board consisted of an employee of the Federal Government who worked at the William Lyon Mackenzie King & Woodside National Historic Site, and a prof from Wilfrid Lauier University. Also since the museum was open when the school was closed I asked a cellular phone company for a phone and Rogers provided one for 2 months no-charge.

         Centre-piece exhibit ‐ The IBM 360/22 story ‐ This was a remarkable find.Through a local third-party maintenance firm I tracked down a working IBM System/3. During my first visit to that data centre I asked the staff if they had knew of any 360 installations. Yep, they had heard of one through another third party maintenance company they used ONCE when the firm that had introduced us couldn't respond in time. I called that firm and yep they were still maintained one, but the contract was not being renewed so my timing was perfect. I called the owner of the IBM System/360 and told him what I was up to and asked for the system when he was done with it. He laughed and laughed with delight. You see he understood the significance of his machine so he offered to universities and museums in Canada, but couldn't find any takers so he was giddy with delight now knowing it would not be scraped.Still laughing he explained how he had planned to push it out a window into a dumpster. We were both laughing by now, but hey, wait. What? He explained he was on the second floor of a building that didn't have an elevator so 23 years earlier IBM used a crane to move the system into his offices. Far out! On a whim I called IBM Canada to announce the find and asked for their assistance to properly remove it and transport it to Waterloo. Within 3 weeks IBM decided to foot the entire bill and handle logistics. Wow. The coordinator with High Tech Express reminisced with me because 23 years earlier he had helped move it in when there were just saplings on the boulevard, but now had grown into tall trees. Hearing that perspective was very cool. See these valuable vintage boxes being moved through the air in video 3 of 5.

         Financial Assistance ‐ The then RBC regional director of Ventures (venture capital-type investments) an acquaintance, offered, out of the blue, to help with a no-interest loan. We took a tiny one out.


         Promotion: I launched a website in 1994 viewable through Mosaic, the only browser at the time (one of the first local ISPs gave us a free account ‐ I built the site on a sub-domain); posted in the popular newsgroup of the time ‐ alt.folklore.computers ; sent announcements to the prime minister and premiers of each province and territory, and local mayors; was a guest on day time TV (see video 2 of 5); given a booth at Comdex Canada (see video 4 of 5) and regional Ontario Computer Fairs covered in local and nation newspapers and computer industry trade publications plus on TV newscasts (did a cool commercial for a national company that ran daily during a national news program), and radio newscast and a documentary celebrating the ENIAC's birthday, and student and staff newspapers and media dispatch services at local community college and 3 local universities; public displays a large window at a computer book store at a prominent corner in downtown Waterloo (a Window to the Past), held a press conference to announce the opening; public speaking through local library; ran Nerd Night at UWaterloo featuring the film Triumph of the Nerds; ran an essay contest for high school students; had flyers distributed by the local boards of education before the summer break;and held a fund raiser before the grand opening the guest speaker was George Fierheller (from IBM and then the founding CEO of System Dimension Limited and Cantel, and then at Rogers).


note ‐ At the pre-opening fund raiser in 1996 the president of Toyota Canada arrived with an aide only to leave minutes later after murmuring those famous words "but it's gymnasium!" Even as extraordinary as the man must been to have held that position he was simply too rooted in the capitalist worldview of "bigger is better" therefore a museum must be in a special building and so he was blinded from seeing our powerful yet grassroots vision. No museum anywhere had any model of an entire IBM System/360 or an Amdahl 5885 but these behemoths were invisible to those blinded with clout and cash in that humble setting.

note ‐ We did have champions though. One was a local real estate broker who I knew from when he was a centre for the WLU Golden Hawks football team and I was the water-boy (before high school).He was very generous. He tried to find a home for the museum and he also arranged for me to present at a monthly meeting of Waterloo non-hi-tech business owners. My goal was to inform them about our plans and seek the group's approval of the idea, but when I finished all they asked was how much money was needed to start. I was taken off guard and stupidly said $80K instead of ignoring the question and clarifying my purpose in meeting with them. Had my goal been to ask for money I would have asked for money, but even though I didn't, the audience automatically listened to it as a sales pitch which seemed to have interfered with hearing how good and worthwhile this project was. There is huge value in being endorsed, but "endorsement" does not always mean money. Our champion did what he could and we were grateful.

1996Being a volunteer-run charity we were proud to open at all given the existing unusual economic times. Since our opening-season exhibit venue was a high-school gym and since we're exhibiting about 20 tons of mainframes we decided our opening year slogan should be: "A remarkably small museum for remarkably big computers." The theme of the opening season was "Input-Process-Output." We decked out each system with all appropriate and authentic peripherals, supplies, and accessories. We featured an IBM 360/22 and 4361, DECSYSTEM-20 (2065), a UNIsys Model 80, and a gigantic Amdahl 5885 multi-processor. We gave a brochure to each patron that described each exhibit.We had about 200 visitors. We charged $5/family and $2 for individuals. Teens who attended on their own weren't charged and many adult students from a local private business school were not charged either. Fewer than 300 individuals attended over the 2 months. Two small groups drove from different parts of the USA. Initially open 7 days a week, but we soon changed to weekends only due to attendance. Total receipts over 2 months were not enough for one month's rent at the "ware"house. Take a guided tour of the exhibit in video 5 of 5.

1997 ‐ The public had spoken; potential sponsors had not yet come forward; volunteers understandably found other uses of their time; our man at the bank moved up to head office and his replacement called the loan; an employee at the ISP noticed we hadn't paid for the service (remember it was a free account) so he deleted it and our files (no backups); and the superintendent at the board retired and the new regime refused to donate space for the summer of 1997. Doors closed so we took the minicomputer exhibit on the road. I dragged the CPUs from an IBM Series/1, a DEC PDP 11/70, and a TI 990/10 to 4 large regional shopping malls for one-day exhibits over July and August. These venues required liability insurance so a old high school buddy provided it to the museum at cost and that expense was picked up by Communitech (a new organization in town) and a local hi-tech services company. Even after additional media coverage in each city to which the exhibit travelled to, nothing changed ‐ the COMMPUTERSEUM was still on its own without partners or sponsors. At this point a friend who sat on a municipal board charged with dispersing budgeted funds to groups focused on local history suggested I apply a life-sustaining grant. A grant was gratefully received, but it wasn't life-sustaining so we made the decision to wind down. It was covered in local news. We notified donors some of whom retrieved their donations. Everything else was offered to The Computer Museum (only to discover it was closing too), Ontario Science Centre, Science North, Smithsonian, and other appropriate organizations. A private museum in Montana was the only taker, but we had to pay for transport to them so that museum can claim to have offered to preserve the collection, but it can't be seen as a reasonable claim ‐ if we have the funds to transport tons thousands of kilometers, we'd have had enough funds to continue on our own. In the end much was recycled or scrapped, and the remainder was purchased (back) by my family. These funds were used to pay the final bills for the museum.It was good. Friends who knew the museum had closed and my collection dispersed gave their condolences but they weren't needed; they were generous, but were't needed' because I was just doing what I was supposed to do. There was no emotional attachment to the artifacts or the project. God opened the door and then closed it so all is well, life is good. The End.

postscript Collecting 1998 - 2010 ‐ Accepted an entire 4341 system, many IBM Series/1's, IBM System/3 Model 12, DEC PDP-8/L, 8/s, 15, 8/I,(offered another PDP-9 ‐ re-directed to RICM, Rhode Island Computer Museum), PDP-15, and another 8/e,Data Generals Nova800, 1600, 2, 3, and 4, plus a DG clone the Keronix (also now at RICM) , DEC KL-10 (that I powered down for the last time ‐ this is the KL-10 at the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, Washington, USA, several Interdata Model 70's, the control panel from an IBM 360/65 (that was the model for an experimental sculpture), and an entire IBM 1800; in 1998 published a book called A Guide to Collecting Computers and Computer Collectibles: History, Practice, and Technique; tried starting the Retro-Computing School (took a DG Nova to high schools); opened an exhibit called Punch Card Data Processing in free space in a downtown mall (featuring an IBM 29 keypunch, 83 Sorter, and PDP-8/e with card reader); presented a paper on techno-romanticism called Techno-Collecting to a 3rd year Communications class at Wilfrid Lauier U. at the "ware"house; and held a fundraiser for a local men's shelter (featuring an IBM 1800, 360/75 control panel, 83 Sorter, PDP-8/e and a fellow collector powered-up and displayed his collection of IBM PC's). The exhibit made the centre page spread of a section of the weekend paper. We used a ladder to climb to the top of the 1800. All of these have since found new homes except for the few trinkets I still have.

postscript Storage 1967 - 2010 ‐ During the early years the few boxes of publications and small artifacts were easily kept in closets.Once a few control panels filled our house (our sons flew all sorts of space missions on them) the overflow pieces and boxes were kept in the attic of a brother-in-law. Hearing of my space dilemma as more artifacts were acquired, a friend starting a wholesale business offered spare space. He moved once and continued to let me use space in the new building. Soon needed more space so moved into really inexpensive rented space. The collection was moved 3 times in that building due to larger tenants needing more space. Overflow items kept in friends' garages and once in an empty indoor pool in another friend's house. Also kept several IBM/3x systems in empty space offered by a photographer I used while working at HP plus kept the remains of a NCR 8xxx system in a glass walled room just off the lobby at HP. Moved everything- from rented space, garages, indoor pools, photographer's place, and the mysterious space at HP Waterloo ‐ to larger rented space across the street from the first exhibit venue (high school) ‐ another door that opened, i.e. we found the space first and thought of asking to use the gym afterwards. We moved twice within that building when the landlord reorganized unit sizes (once moving from the front to the back using an empty feed truck and then down a long ramp to the basement). Later a downsized collection was loaded on to skids and wheeled into trailers that delivered them to space in the newly built HP facility, but that space was soon needed so it was loaded back on a trailer and kept on-site at HP, but then HP shut down and so the trailer was moved to the parking lot of a well known company called Electrohome (my dad had worked there for 43 years). Also new acquisitions were temporarily kept in freely offered warehouse space at Electrohome. Once the museum closed and the collection shrunk again I was able to sublet space in an old tannery in downtown Kitchener so my collection spilled out of that trailer into another "ware"house. It remained there for many years until all tenants were evicted to make way for work to convert the tannery into office space. Today the Tannery (notice the capital "T") is the home of Communitech and several hi-tech companies including Google Canada, but I still claim the title of being the first hi-tech tenant in the Tannery :)

The opening spoke about this being a story of how God opens and closes doors. Why would I say that? Isn't it appropriate and customary to recognize key contributors? Indeed it is. Let's say for instance that the museum would probably have not opened if not for a retired high school teacher of mine or local business elder who took me under his or her wings who worked in the background enabling and encouraging; in other words "opening doors". This story would mention her or him and no one would flinch and so, there you have it. Just giving God props. There are several incredible events in this story wouldn't you say? One is the IBM 360/22 and another about the venue. Acquiring the key exhibit: doesn't IBM always pay for the removal (by crane) of an entire vintage mainframe installation and pay for delivering it hundreds of kilometers away to a start-up, hopeful museum? No. Another aspect of this event is that even if IBM often does that you would expect there would be forms to fill out, meetings held, and many telephone calls, but in this case it all came about because of one brief telephone call. That just doesn't happen. Venue: in 1996 the administrator at the board of education was an old techie himself and so from many perspectives was eager to help the museum, but unbeknown to us he also retired in 1996 so when we approached the board a second time we met the new administrator who was disinterested, nearly annoyed by the same idea that was embraced by his predecessor and so we lost the venue. Slam! That door closed and no others were to be found. It was amazing how clearly guided we were to open the museum and how right it was to close the museum because clearly that guidance disappeared. So be it.

Another idea of Kevin Stumpf   •   1 Cor 15:58   •   Page created on 2013Oct19   •   Last updated on 2017Nov04