When the makers of The Dish -- the Australian film about how the radio telescope in Parkes, NSW played it’s part in beaming live pictures of NASA’s moon landing in 1969 -- came to Max Burnet of the Australian Computer Museum Society asking for a PDP-9 as part of their prop, Burnet was happy to assist.
“’Not only can I provide you with a PDP-9, I can provide you with the very one they used in Parkes’,” was his reply.
Burnet has turned his home in the leafy suburbs of Sydney into arguably Australia’s largest private computer museum. Every available space from his basement, to the top floor of his two-storey home is covered with relics from the past. His collection is vast, from a 1920s Julius Totalisator, the first UNIX PDP-7, a classic DEC PDP-8, the original IBM PC, Apple’s Lisa, MITS Altair 8800, numerous punch cards and over 6000 computer reference books.
He certainly has an affection for the old stuff. Many of the 1960’s computers in his collection are bright and colourful. Fashionable even. And which he reckons are lot better than today’s PCs, which are “boring, like air conditioners”.
Burnet has been involved in computers all his life. He is an engineer by trade and took employment at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1967, moved up the chain to become the managing director and then retired when the company was taken over by Compaq in the late 1990s. He then set up BACK Pty Ltd – Burnet Antique Computer Knowhow.
During his time at DEC he traded in some of their earliest computers for a museum. On the day prior to the Compaq takeover , he bought them for $1. “Whether I got 10 tonnes of total junk or one of the world’s best collection of old computers only time will tell,” he quips. He has them in commercial storage facilities.
And he does not just stare at them. Burnet gives them a constant workout. He says moisture and aging are his biggest enemy and the best way to overcome that is buy firing up the CPUs at least on a monthly basis.
Because of his DEC past, his home is replete with all the DEC PDPs machines. In recent years he has actively acquired other manufacturer’s gear. However, because the sheer weight and size of the ancient relics– some were 6ft high – sometimes Burnet can only keep the consoles.
He does make a small amount of money converting old tapes and floppies from early machines to modern formats. But it is not without its challenges. “Tape is a nightmare to maintain,” he says because if you are not dealing with the fact that it oxdises, you’re unsticking it from the adjacent tape in the spool. “It’s a bugger to fix.”
Thanks to his engineering background he says he can pretty much fix most of the machines. The bigger obstacle is tracing down the parts, although sometimes it is just a simple solder and the part, and computer, is back in action.
Burnet’s home is just a part of the story. The Australian Computer Museum Society, of which Burnet is a founding member, has taken out significant amounts of storage space in a warehouse in inner Sydney. Other equipment is held in universities. And it is often in demand. Just this month one of the society’s IBM 729 Mark V tape drives was borrowed by SpectrumData from Perth, after tapes from NASA's Apollo missions appeared. The drives will attempt to reveal valuable data on moon dust that was collected by NASA.
To view Max Burnet's personal computer museum, click on the CIO Magazine slideshow 'Tech of yesteryear: Where old computers find their final resting place'.