During our travels last year, Sarah and I spent a couple of weeks with our friend Renee near Boulder, Colorado. While there, we visited the University of Colorado’s Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), a space overflowing with old computers, technology, and media. Everything in the space is hands-on, making it a wonderful opportunity to finally get to try out some of the computers I’ve only ever heard of—devices that didn’t make it across the Pond in large numbers.

MAL squeezes a huge collection of technology into a small space

MAL has a whole wall of Macs plugged in and ready to go and I couldn’t resist powering a couple on and having a play.

Sarah trying out a Power Macintosh 5260/100

The Apple IIc was especially exciting, finally giving me a chance to play that mainstay of American education, The Oregon Trail.

Sadly, we lost Lex to dysentery

Seeing so many computers side-by-side makes it easy to see clearly how design cues and influences carry through. For example, it’s so easy to see the heritage between the Apple Newton eMate and its far more successful successor, the iBook.

The collection is grouped into different sections and it was fun to see a couple of ZX81s and a ZX Spectrum as represented by its US cousin, the Timex Sinclair 1500 (still sporting a terrible ‘dead flesh’ keyboard).

American Spectra

Spread throughout the space are various installations made by the MAL’s resident artists. Buried in amongst the wealth of artifacts, these can be a little hard to find, but I enjoyed the ones I discovered: a pair of old phones that always dial each other, and a calculator with a nixie tube display, and a rotary phone as a keypad.

I’d completely forgotten the wonderful neon phones of the 80s

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of all of the collections, it was the mobile computers that really spoke to me. MAL has a wonderful collections of PDAs and esoteric portables, some I used growing up, some I worked on during my time at Symbian, and others—some of them very popular—I’ve simply never used before.

There were far too many devices to try out, but there were a few standouts: a Compaq C140 running Windows CE and a Handspring Visor (both of which I’ve since acquired for further exploration), an HP 200X running DOS and boasting Quicken and Lotus 123, and an Apple Newton MessagePad 2000.

The collection also contains some amazing bits of industrial design from other markets, including this absolutely charming Fujitsu Oasys Lite Word Processor:

Now that we’re based in Hawaii, MAL seems a long way away, but I hope to get a change to visit again soon and see what else they’ve added to the archives.