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Classic tech on film

Goodwill museum, local aficionado add authenticity to ‘Computer Chess'

Omar Gallaga

At a certain point, perhaps in the late 1980s, many of them went from being amazing wonder boxes from the future to space-wasters.

The curvy beige computers with dark brown keyboards, the floppy-disk drives with front-facing slots that looked like they were meant for toasting the world's thinnest bread. They ended up in closets, under beds, in garages, stashed away and forgotten if they were lucky enough to escape the landfill as the world moved on to PCs, to Macs, to laptops and the Internet.

The first personal computers, with their BASIC and their one-color screens, got the boot. Nothing personal.

Decades later, a film crew shooting a movie set in the era of Commodores and Kaypros and TRS-80s realized that finding these old machines was no easy task.

For the movie "Computer Chess," an Austin-shot production by writer/director Andrew Bujalski, a call went out to area computer hobbyists on Craigslist to seek old machines.

The filmmaker and his crew found retired engineers, state workers and archivists who were able to help round up systems that could be used in the film, a period piece about computer programmers and chess players.

The computers had to be authentic and they had to be able to run, said Bujalski.

He wrote in an email (on a 3-year-old computer he says is edging toward obsolescence), "These machines which many of us remember using (and can still remember having our minds blown by) hardly seem to occupy the same universe we're living in now. There's a kind of cognitive dissonance when you sit in front of one of them today and fire it up — it's not a computer anymore it's a time machine."

The computer geek

One of the people the "Computer Chess" crew found on Craigslist was James A. Cooley, a Texas Health and Human Services Commission worker who was giving away some computer hardware on the site.

His systems weren't old enough to use, but he knew co-workers and other computer hobbyists who had era-appropriate computers. Before he knew it, he'd signed on to be an extra on the film for five days in August.

He learned BASIC computer programming in high school and, like a lot of early enthusiasts, used computers to play video games. On the set, he bonded with "film geeks, computer game geeks, game designers, software programmers. They were all there. It was like a geekfest," he said.

Cooley says he couldn't bring a cellphone or other modern conveniences to the set, but wardrobe was less of a problem: "I just kept grabbing clothes out of my wardrobe. Four out of the five days, they didn't change anything, they just handed me glasses.

"This really says something terrible about my wardrobe," he laughs.

The curated collection

Bujalski says that computers provided by hobbyists like Cooley only got the shoot so far; eventually they turned to curators who continue to maintain vintage computers. He says the crew hit "the ultimate jackpot" when they began working with Austin's Goodwill Computer Works Museum, which features more than 100 vintage computer systems, all in working condition.

For years after it began in 1994, the museum was a metal rack of old computers against a wall at Goodwill Computer Works, a North Austin center for recycling and reselling electronics.

In 2005, the Goodwill center moved to a new location on Norwood Park Boulevard, near U.S. 290 and Interstate 35. With the help of curator Russ Corley, restoration engineer Phil Ryals and thousands of hours of volunteer help, the museum has evolved into an impressive exhibit space capable of putting a lump in the throat of anyone who remembers typing on an Apple II or has ever heard of an Osborne 1.

For "Computer Chess," the museum worked closely with the filmmakers to provide working systems that could enhance the storytelling.

"We tried to match the characteristics of the computers with characteristics of the teams that would be in this chess match," Corley said, For instance, "A team from MIT would have the best, most expensive equipment at the time. Another character in the movie possibly built his own because he was an individual engineer."

Programmers also wrote fresh code to run chess programs on the systems.

Each of the systems from the film, with fictionalized names like "Checkers," TSAR-30" and "CAPA-X" now shares a display space at the museum in anticipation of the movie, which is set for release in 2012.

Corley says that when the museum isn't helping filmmakers create an authentic geek world, it works to educate the public, programmers and students on how these machines work. There's also been a resurgence in computer music from the era (cue the synthesized "Chiptune" soundtrack), and the museum also helps projects like the University of Texas Videogame Archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History by providing equipment to run donated software.

The museum even has a giant machine called RC III, a computer project led by Ryals that demonstrates, with large relays and switches, how a microprocessor works. It runs at a blazing 6 hertz; it would take 15 years of nonstop computing for it to boot up a copy of Windows (if it could; it can't). It took 21 months to build and can print out the words "Hello World" on a modified robo-typewriter connected to RC III.

It won't run any iPad apps, in case you're wondering.

What feels like a genuine treasure trove to any computer geek at the museum is just the tip of the silicon iceberg. Corley says there are 16 or 17 tons of hardware in storage, all in various states of functionality. Some of those items are swapped out in the exhibit space to keep things fresh.

Playing with the old machines is a good way to learn computer programming in a way that's less abstract than today's super-charged, microscopic processing cores, he says.

"I've learned more here working with the older stuff than I have working with newer stuff in the tech industry," said Corley, who began working with the collection in 2007.

There's a thrill in seeing these terminals glowing once again, hearing the keys loudly clack and imagining those large, ancient banks of computer memory filling up with data.

Cooley says that thrill extends to the idea of seeing the computers turn into movie stars. "For some of the people, it's stuff they've had in their closet forever. I told one guy, ‘You'll get to point to the screen and there's your computer!' "

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

Goodwill Computer Works Museum