Arriving at the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, we were quickly aware that this collection objectified someone’s personal love affair with a cherished subject matter. It was nothing we could have predicted.
The museum is nestled off the beaten track behind an inconspicuous house in a Brantford neighbourhood. Despite being open just once a month, it is very well sign-posted. A path led from the front lawn to a large white building behind the house, and stepping inside took us back to the computer labs of our youth, only the ‘lab’ was retrofitted with rows of computers of all kinds from the 70s, 80s and 90s, each with a different pixelated game flashing on its screen.
Rows of beige, grey and black computer cases lent the collection a nostalgic appeal of aging plastic. A 1982 Commodore 64, still down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest selling computer model of all time, impressed us with a ported version of Flappy Bird the smash-hit mobile game released over thirty years later. Since every piece was touchable, Moo was able to play on her first Atari, her first Nintendo Entertainment System, use her first joystick, and meet her first full-sized robot. The first video game she seemed to really enjoy was Kirby’s Adventure, in which together we took on (and vanquished) the Rolling Turtle.
Topo the robot was a three foot tall machine with a white, angled exterior and slots for carrying drink and snack trays. Manufactured in the 80s, he made simple forward, left and right movements which were enough to delight Cass and scare the bejeebies out of Moo. He too was completely available for visitors to play with.
The owner and curator of the museum, Syd Bolton, says his collection isn’t about being pristine. Although it is clearly wide as well as deep – having just watched the Steve Jobs movie we reveled in seeing both a real life Lisa II and NeXT Cube – Syd says the museum is so much more about personal stories. Frequently his visitors tend to bring their kids and families and find excitement pointing out the first computers they ever used. So it was for us – Mark spotted his first machine and couldn’t quite believe it, the Commodore Amiga 500 released in 1987.
The museum has also has many of the original engineers who worked on some of the machines or games stopping in to reminisce. At the museum during our tour was Michael Thomasson, who previously owned the world’s largest video game collection which he sold in 2014 for over $750,000. Despite the prestige of the collection, Syd served pizza and Timbits, creating an atmosphere that took every bit of intimidation away from the technology. We weren’t afraid to break anything or to say anything stupid. It was clear by the room full of guys and passionate volunteers that Syd has cultivated a community of connection and meaning.
“The musuem isn’t about being pristine. It’s about stories.” – Syd Bolton
For our February visit, Syd and several volunteers had set up an exhibit on Satoru Iwata, the late president of Nintendo. Upstairs a large-screen video played a documentary about Iwata’s life and influence from the vantage point of several of the most comfortable chairs we’ve ever sat in. Behind us, a handheld calculator collection spread its numbered keys and beige tones across a countertop, walls were filled with Amiga magazines, and several other machines were tucked under tables and between boxes. It’s a collection that is enthusiastically and physically bursting at its seams. Syd hopes one day to team up with a university who could provide more space and permanent staffing, but he says that’s still a long ways off.
We stuck around a bit longer for Syd’s rare tour of his video game collection – the largest in Canada – stored inside a maze of rooms within his home. Not only did he have a room dedicated to full-size arcade games, he had several others that contained floor-to-ceiling shelves of games, with every version and international release seemingly cataloged in Syd’s brain. While we wished at this stage in our lives that we had 1/12th of a day for time to ourselves to just play, we were rightfully impressed by Syd’s collection, and even more so that he was so eager to share it with the world.
The accessibility of the museum’s offering did something unexpected: It reminded us of why we began working in technology in the first place. Not only is the field creative and challenging, going back to our roots reminds us that there are others like us out there, waiting to connect.