Working in a field as niche as vintage computer restoration, the engineers of Living Computers encounter many unique problems, often with implications pertaining to environmental sustainability and conservation. Many of the computers on display in our vintage collection were made at a time when concern for the environment was a much lower priority. Early computer manufacturers were focused on expanding the possibilities of computer performance regardless of environmental impact. Though the pursuit of processing power and profit over the health of our environment is still very much a pervasive and often overlooked issue, throughout the years many government regulations have been put into place and many manufacturing practices have shifted in attempts to curb the environmental damage caused by the computer industry. In their restorations, our engineers have worked to make our vintage machines more eco-friendly through the implementation of more modern power systems and the replacement of less-energy efficient components.
At Living Computers, every computer in our vintage collection features power systems that have been modified during the restoration process. Many of these old power supplies were highly inefficient, produced large amounts of heat, and had very short lifespans. In early discussions about the mission of our museum, Paul Allen requested that our restored systems last 100 years into the future. Many of the updated power supplies boast an estimated longevity much longer than this, some expected to sustain for several hundreds of years. Our 1964 PDP-7, manufactured by the Digital Equipment Corporation, is a great example of our updated and more eco-friendly power systems. Our engineers have replaced several old capacitors in this machine, greatly reducing the heat dissipation within the computer, in turn reducing the amount of electricity required for cooling. The replacement of these parts also reduces the need to replace other parts of the machine that gradually break down due to excessive heat.
Another example of our engineer’s efforts in sustainable restoration is our Control Data Corporation 6500, the largest computer in our vintage collection and the world’s most powerful supercomputer when it debuted in 1967. The CDC 6500 is the most intensive restoration project Living Computers has ever carried out, having taken two whole years just to boot it for the first time back in 2015. Located in our mainframe room on the second floor of the museum, our 6500 is a one-of-a-kind restoration, the only functioning one remaining in the world. It is also a rarity in its use of a built-in refrigeration system. While every computer in the mainframe room needs to be cooled to function properly, the 6500 is the only one in this room that is not cooled with our HVAC system. It is instead cooled with a system that uses water and freon. Freon is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) that causes degradation to the ozone layer. In 1996, CFCs were banned in refrigerators to curb this damage. The 6500 was released in 1967 when CFCs were still commonplace. Thankfully, freon is only dangerous when the system malfunctions and the freon leaks, a very rare occurrence.
When our CDC 6500 was originally installed at Purdue University, it also ran on a system that required much more water to run. The computer cools itself by passing freon through each of its chassis, which is collected in a condenser then subsequently cooled. This heat is then dissipated with water. Cold water is pumped back into the machine to cool the freon and have it cycle back throughout the machine. Purdue’s original system had tap water continuously running into the machine. Imagine how much water this could waste over the course of the decades this computer was in operation!
During the restoration process, our engineers developed a solution to this problem that involved the installation of a water cooler on our roof. Now hot water is pumped up to the roof and cooled so that cold water can run back down. That cold water is then returned to the machine, creating a recycling mechanism so that no new water is ever needed unless a rare leak occurs. In addition to this sustainable cooling method, our replacement parts for several of the original core memory components in the CDC 6500 make it so much less power is required to run the machine. Instead of building new core memory, which would require lots of precious materials like copper, our engineers have built replacement core memory modules which emulate this obsolete technology with more recent integrated circuitry, functioning in a way that is virtually indistinguishable to the rest of the machine while using a fraction of the electricity of the original design.
In the restoration process of our machines our engineers must carefully consider the environmental impact of continuous operation into the foreseeable future. Power systems, cooling, and the lifespan of vintage computer components must be considered if we hope to meet our goal of 100 years of sustained use. These considerations also reflect the gradual changes in the concerns of computer manufacturers throughout the history of the industry. But even though there have been some regulations put in place in response to the environmental damage caused by computer manufacturing, negative environmental impacts are still very much an issue in the modern-day computer industry.
This is evident in the highly destructive mining of metals and chemicals needed for semiconductor manufacturing in countries like the Republic of the Congo, Cuba, and Zambia or in the increasing carbon emissions of growing energy-intensive applications like cloud computing and cryptocurrency mining, amongst other countless examples. And though they are from a less-environmentally conscious time, the artifacts in our vintage collection are also living examples of a time before the attitude of designed obsolescence pervaded our consumer electronics. It is certainly a wonder that many of these machines, with proper care, can remain operational for over half a century when many of us may not even be sure if our smartphones will make it to the end of the year!
This article incorporates research and content contributed by former Living Computers guide Rachael King.