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Dig Up Dead Tech At The Media Archaeology Lab

The project includes over 1,500 outdated computers and devices that have since been brought back to life.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. 1981-1993. Original selling price: $525

New technologies creep into our lives rather silently. They're introduced on a micro level with each operating system upgrade, and a macro level with the revelation of each new device. This transition is often so subtle that, in the long-term, we don't realize just how many different evolutions our machines have gone through before arriving at their most current iteration. But when one assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder got $20,000 in funding from a technology center within the Colorado education system five years ago, she decided to invest in a project that would remind us of how many different processors and interfaces have come and gone since the start of the era of personal computing.


It’s called the Media Archaeology Lab, and it was founded by CU Boulder faculty member Lori Emerson. As of today, Emerson and company have collected more than 1,500 items into a diverse, functioning (yes, each one works) archive, including everything from 80s-era portable computers to floppy disc video games.

Compaq Portable 386. 1987. Original selling price: $12,000 - $14,000

Originally, creating a hybrid museum-lab wasn’t exactly Emerson’s plan. One of her major fascinations at the time was Canadian poet bpNichol, who used the Apple IIe computer as a medium for his binary poem series “First Screening” in 1983. Her initial idea was to acquire enough Apple IIe computers to teach a classroom of students bpNichol’s work, but, according to a recent interview with Furtherfield, she eventually moved past the Apple IIe and started hunting other still-functioning dinosaur devices.

The machines' ability to still function was essential. While a stockpile of outdated electronics could standalone as a fun source of nostalgia for those old enough to remember MS-DOS, Emerson’s main intention with MAL is to impart a return to the end-user as a way to promote a cross examination of new and old. The project on the whole works as a medium of mediums, a means for us to articulate and work with past devices to analyze, theorize and speculate upon the implications—political and technical—rendered by devices we use today.


“[The MAL is] a kind of thinking device in that providing access to the utterly unique, material specificity of these computers, their interfaces, platforms, and software makes it possible to defamiliarize or make visible for critique contemporary, invisible interfaces and platforms,” says a statement of purpose at MAL’s website. “Without reading early computing devices and interfaces against their contemporary off-spring and vice-versa, the present slips from view for the contemporary computing industry—which is accelerating its drive to achieve perfect invisibility through multi-touch, Natural User Interfaces, and ubiquitous computing devices[.]”

It may be difficult to formulate just how many keyboards, screens and trackpads led up to the ability to command a device by simply swiping your fingers against its glass, but taking a look at just a few of MAL’s contents should give you a bit of visual context.

Apple Lisa. 1983. Original selling price: $9,995

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. 1981-1993. Original selling price: $525

Osborne 1. 1983. Original selling price: $1,795

The MAL acts as a laboratory, a museum and a classroom. But until recently, it also acted as a home for visiting artists and writers. Its residency program gave creators the ability to craft literature or visual media with MAL’s arsenal of processors. The results were quite varied, but in that variety is a glimpse of all the potentially unthought ways to “use” a computer.


Joel Swanson, for example, centered his residency around the semiotic nature of the keyboard, and how the chosen symbol, shape or inclusion (or exclusion) of certain keys on a keyboard could be read as a token for social or cultural events from the computer’s era.

“Removable Objects” by Joel Swanson. 2013

Jon Chambers, on the other hand, created a digital triptych with three Apple computers: an iMac G3, an eMac, and an iMac G4. ‘Using PHP, JavaScript, HTML and CSS, I coded a single webpage that customizes the output depending on what browser is being used on each computer. The page's elements change and function without a user's input, creating an automated system within,” says the description over at his website.

Multimedia artist Matt Soar, like Joel Swanson, grew interested in the many surfaces of MAL devices during his residency. In addition to documenting their cigarette stains, stickers and other markings of past ownership, he created this color spectrum chart based on the different color schemes of 13 devices. In doing so he wished to document the “optimism” of early PC design, by “searching out tiny oases of primaries and secondaries in an otherwise bland desert of off-white plastic.”

Samantha Long manipulated images of a number of MAL items in favor of lefties, to explore the way right-handed media has impacted the way we accept device dimensions without truly questioning their user-friendliness.


“Color Studies” by Matt Soar. 2014

As of today, the MAL is unable to continue its artist residency program due to a lack of funding. It’s collection, however, is brimming with pieces—so much so that they’re no longer taking donations. But with the unveiling of each new gadget, the one just behind it gets closer and closer to being put on the shelf. To keep up, MAL might one day need an actual museum space.

Vectrex (gaming). 1983. Original selling price: $199

Kaypro 2X. 1984. Original selling price: $1,595

Franklin ACE 1000. 1982-1984. Original selling price: $1,100

All images courtesy the Media Archaeology Lab.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno


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