I first visited Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum in October 2013. It offered a unique museum experience, combining traditional displays and plaques with interactive exhibits and vintage computers that allowed you to run a variety of old software–and even write your own.
In 2012, when the museum first opened to the public, here’s what Paul Allen wrote on the LCM website:
Note one sentence in particular:
The Living Computer Museum also fulfills my hope that the achievements of early computer engineers aren’t lost to time.
I was a long-time member and fan of the museum, and even donated a few items, so in October 2018, I wrote a letter to the LCM archivist, volunteering my help on any of their archiving projects, in exchange for the opportunity to hang out with the engineers and staff and maybe even work on some exhibit and website ideas for the museum. They took me up on my offer, and I started working in the LCM Collections department 2-3 days a week, beginning in late November.
Sadly, Paul Allen had died a few weeks earlier, on October 15, and his passing began to create some uncertainty and turmoil at LCM. At the beginning of 2019, the museum’s executive director was suddenly gone, and staff from Vulcan (Paul Allen’s parent company) began descending on the museum every Tuesday for all-day meetings to discuss all aspects of the museum, from future hardware restoration projects, exhibit plans, educational programs, and special events to finances, membership, staffing, inventory, storage requirements, and more.
I did not participate in those meetings, but the atmosphere in the building suggested that the overriding concern was how to make the museum more self-sufficient – or at least less reliant financially on Vulcan. One big cost-cutting move involved transferring the museum’s off-site inventory from a storage location in SeaTac to cheaper facilities in Arlington.
Of course, the easiest way to cut costs is to eliminate staff, and on October 3, 2019, Vulcan did that, too. I think there were only around 25 LCM employees at that point, but they laid off another 4 or 5. Layoffs didn’t stop at LCM either; employees all across Vulcan were laid off that day as well.
Here’s what the Chair of Vulcan was doing on that somber day:
In early 2020, the rapid rise in COVID-19 infections led to closure of the museum on Thursday, March 5, and on March 6, all LCM employees began working from home. The following week, LCM sent an email to all its members that said, in part:
While the physical space of the museum may not be available, our website and social channels and offer a ton of great resources for the computing enthusiast. From our collection of blogs, videos on our YouTube channel and our offering of remote systems, there’s plenty to do during this temporary closure.
LCM staff rose to the challenge, learned how to work together using Microsoft Teams, and began developing educational and other materials that could be used online. I continued to help as well, updating LCM Collections records in their cataloging system. It was an especially challenging time for the hardware engineers, since for the most part, they were not allowed to enter the building or access any of the physical equipment, but they were able to do some remote systems management, as well as work on documentation, emulators, patents, etc.
On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, the final blow came, when Vulcan announced widespread layoffs, including the entire LCM staff. Vulcan promised to re-evaluate the museum’s prospects in 12-18 months, but the reality of losing everyone with the experience required to operate the museum meant that it would become extremely difficult to re-open.
At the time, Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf framed the closure both as an unavoidable consequence of COVID-19 and as a difficult decision that was actually in keeping with Paul Allen’s wishes – that how Paul wanted his money to be spent after he was gone was very different from when he was alive.
Yet it’s almost impossible to square the idea that Paul Allen, after investing so much time, energy, and money in the Living Computer Museum and its people – not to mention his express hope that efforts like his would not be “lost to time” – would have also left instructions that could somehow be interpreted to justify completely shutting down LCM after his death.
It makes sense for some of Paul Allen’s acquisitions, like his recently auctioned art collection, to find their way into new hands after he’s gone. Items like artwork are always changing hands.
But LCM was fundamentally different. It also involved a lot of acquisitions, but as the Living Computer Museum, it became something greater than the sum of its parts. It was Paul Allen’s personal creation, and a reflection not only of the legacy of the entire computer industry, but also of his own legacy.
With all due respect to the people in charge of Paul Allen’s estate, moth-balling his creation and leaving its future in limbo is a strange way to honor that legacy.
The LCM website hasn’t changed much over the last 3 years, and it continues to say the museum “is closed for now,” with no indication of what, if anything, Vulcan decided to do when the first 18 months came and went. And we are now fast approaching the end of another 18 months since the museum closed.
When will someone turn the lights back on at LCM?
P.S. I took hundreds of photos at the Living Computer Museum during my visits over the years, and future posts will feature some of those photos, focusing on all the good work the museum used to do.
Also, I encourage you to leaf through LCM’s Engineering Blog, before someone decides to power that down as well.
Several people noted – and I should have mentioned – that there is still remote access to a number of systems at LCM. In fact, after more than two years of total silence, LCM sent this email to former remote systems users in October 2022:
Hello, Several years ago we modified how the Remote Systems are accessed via the INTERNET. Connections originally were done directly via TELNET and some of the systems lived wildly on the wild INTERNET. Currently all Remote Systems are accessible via a Secure Shell (ssh) pass-through server know as 'tty.livingcomputers.org'. Examples of ssh clients are: * Windows: putty * MacOS X: ssh in Terminal.app * Linux/BSD: ssh * Web Browser: https://ssh.livingcomputers.org To reach the Remote Systems, you can use 'ssh firstname.lastname@example.org' This will present you with a menu system which lists all available hosts and what they are running. Currently there are 17 Remote Systems online with the majority running on real vintage hardware while 4 are operated as hybrid or full emulation. When you make a selection in the menu interface information regarding direct access to that host, as well as guest login access, will be displayed. If you have a login on that particular host, you can log on or use the guest account. Note, if you've forgotten your login/password, please reply to get it reset. A user contributed WIKI can be found at https://wiki.livingcomputers.org Here you'll find Remote Systems pictures, details, manuals, survival guides and coding examples. If you have some coding examples or additions to the survival guides, please let us know. Thank you for continuing to use the Remote Systems at Living Computers! Stephen Jones
The focus of my post was the entire museum and all the in-person interactive programs that it used to offer, but it is nice to know that there are still some beating hearts and spinning disks in the bowels of the building, so perhaps all hope is not lost.
Feb 16, 2023