Oral History of Museum Computing: Jonathan Bowen
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Jonathan Bowen, and was recorded on the 1st of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/QpXSUAWWZ_c.
Okay, well, a lot of people know me in the museum I.T. world from the Virtual Library Museums pages [VLmp], but that’s been written about quite a lot. I’ve written a lot of papers on it, whereas what I’m going to talk about today is something I haven’t really written about very much because it’s pre-Web, it’s just about Internet age. I guess it was pre [when] I started using the Internet mostly, so it was the very early days of [my] computing, when microcomputers were starting to take over.
Just a bit of history for me, I did engineering [as a degree] at [Oxford] university, where we had a sort of very brief course on computing. Most of it was real engineering, so I did do a little bit of Fortran. At school, I did a little bit of ALGOL 60 [programming] on things like this paper tape [holds up a roll of tape]. This is the university cards [holds up a stack of cards], but you notice these still exist [holds them both up]. You can actually read these with your eye, so these are very good media for lasting a long time. Whereas then, my first job was actually at Marconi Instruments [an electronics company], where I was working on PDP-11s [minicomputers], where we had these nice, um, this is an eight-inch floppy disk [holds up disk]. Well, whether this is readable or not, I don’t know, so some time, I want to try reading all these various bits of media to see what’s left on it, but that’s magnetism, they would have disappeared, whereas the holes on those bits of tape and so on, is still there to be seen. So, I actually went from engineering more into electronics, and then very quickly into computing at Marconi Instruments.
And then moved to Logica [a software house], so I still have my Logica diary [holds up diary]. You remember one of these old-style [diaries], no power needed? I still like to use one of these, because I think these are much better for recording your life than smartphones and things, most of which will be lost to posterity, so I’ve actually got a whole [set of diaries] from this time. This is 1979 through to now. Now I do Oxford University diaries, so at least my life is sort of recorded in a reasonably safe medium there.
So, I was working at a move to Logica in London, and this time my wife [Jane Bowen] was actually working at the Science Museum, so that’s where my interest in museums started. And I was getting a bit fed up with real work in industry. As you know, it’s much more fun in academia, so I actually found a job at Imperial College, which is right next door to the Science Museum, so that was great for commuting. So, I moved there and I was working on a big Fortran program to do chemical engineering simulation to start with, but then moving into the [Wolfson] microprocessor unit. This was when, in the early ’80s, microprocessors were just coming in, mostly 8 bits, some 16 bits, but people were using them for their research, and they needed a central place to help them with microprocessors. So, there was I, knowing a little bit about computing and certainly electronics and so on, and my wife was there at the Science Museum, a couple of hundred yards away. She’d done metallurgy [as a degree] at university, but of course, they then put her in charge of the computing collection, as they often do in museums. So, she, I guess, didn’t know that much about computing, but between the two of us, that worked rather well. She was put in charge of doing two temporary exhibitions at the time.
One of them was called the “Challenge of the Chip” [holds up booklet], so here is the original little leaflet on that and, let me take check the date, that was in 1980. So, I helped her do a demo for that, which may well be one of the first [microcomputer-based museum] demos. There’s very little [information available]. There’s a picture of it, [holds up photo of woman at a PC inside the booklet] you can see, on the [Commodore] PET [personal] computer, and it was simulating a field-effect transistor [FET] so you can see all the little electrons running around. And that was sitting in the gallery running all day. Interestingly, after that special exhibition, it sat there in the corner, and you could see etched into the phosphor on the [cathode-ray] tube, this demo of the field-effect transistor. I don’t know where that PET computer’s gone now. On the screen, you can still see that even if the electricity doesn’t work. So, in parallel with that, of course, that was all doing things on cassette tapes like this. [holds up audio tape cassette]
So, I actually worked also, [since] they were starting to do museum databases, and so on, so I actually wrote a little program for PET on a small [holds up audio tape cassette] database for the Science Museum, which had… Well, this is my one of the first things I wrote. [ holds up paper] I think you can probably hardly read this, because this is printed on a daisy wheel printer of the Index System Manual. I’ve actually put it online, so you can see it on ResearchGate if you want, unpublished, but that was a little index system that they [Robert Bud at the Science Museum] reckon was one of the first, but certainly for them, actually using computers to index things, but it was only it was only a very small thing at the time.
So that’s… obviously, I was getting interested in doing these demonstrations, and my wife continue to do exhibitions. They were always having special exhibitions. So after “Challenge of the Chip,” there was another exhibition called, “This is IT,” I.T. is a play on I.T., with uppercase I.T., so I did another demo for that, which was on an HP-85 [Hewlett-Packard microcomputer], which I have lost virtually everything for. That was on one of these sorts of tapes [holds up tape cassette], a slightly different tape. Where I can read this, I don’t know.
At least, probably these [holds up cassette] are real cassette tapes. They’re probably readable still, and I can maybe get the program off… If I want this one, I’ve got to go and find someone with an HP-85, etc. I’ve got lots of these odd cassettes. I’ve got a whole box down here. I’m not going to show you all of them. But some time, I’m going to the National Museum of Computing here in the UK, where they do have a lot of these microcomputers, and try and save some of these, especially the demos at the Science Museum.
So, when I’ve managed to do that, I will actually write something about it as a paper, but at the moment this seems more appropriate, just talking about it. So, I can’t [remember everything] … there was some sort of word game, but I can’t even remember exactly what that looked like in the midst of time.
I guess the next one that I really remember especially, was with my wife, who helped set up the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television up in Bradford. She was working days and nights, setting up this museum, and again they wanted some demonstrations, so they decided they’d like, they had a wonderful view over Bradford looking at a vista. It was meant to be a theater, but it became a big white elephant. It never was a theater, so it became a museum.
And they wanted to have something to go with that view, so here’s a little thing of that view. [Holds up photograph in booklet]. So, they put up a real thing to actually look at the view upside down, like you might see in an old camera, but then they wanted something more computerized, [holds up another page] so, this is the more computerized version on a BBC Micro[computer], where I actually… It let you look at the view with different telephoto lenses, so it drew that picture that you can vaguely see there [holds up view], at different telephoto lens lengths, very slowly at that time, so this is one of my first goes at doing color, color graphics, as you can see that is in nice color, but I think about 16 colors is all it had. So, and again I’ve got the tape [holds up cassette] one of these things, it’s got that on it. That’s certainly one I’d like to resurrect. So those are the main things I actually did at the museum.
I guess, in parallel, I was interested in graphics. I was writing articles on things like hypercubes, and I went off to Silicon Graphics in California, because my best friend from university helped set up that, so I was doing quite a lot of graphics things in parallel. What I really wanted to, show these various things that exist at home. [Again, shows those items] That is a little project of mine to eventually perhaps bring them back to life. I know there’s lots of simulators online. I’m sure there’s PET simulators and BBC Micro simulators.
So, my current projects, well, not current, but a planned project is to get some of those tapes onto the Internet or onto my computer, and then get them running on simulators and perhaps get them going again. So that’s a little bit of pre-history about 10 to 15 years or so before I started setting up the Virtual Library museums pages.
There’s no real connection, apart from the fact that they are both I.T., they are both inspired by my wife, because she was in museums, so you can thank my wife for the Virtual [Library] museums pages existing, all these demos existing, and so on.
Any questions? You’re muted!
[Marty]: I was just looking to see if there were some PET computer simulators online, and it looked like it, yeah…
Yeah, there are. I mean I’ve looked. The main thing is getting it off this [holds up cassette again], which is basically, if you play this even on an audio thing, you can hear the squeaky sounds on it. So, but I really want to go to the National Museum of Computing to do it properly, because they actually have, you know, a BBC Micro, a PET. They have all these things. They may not have the HP-85, which is a slightly rarer beast, but I’ve got a whole box down here of stuff. I’ll see if I can pick it up. [Lifts up computer to look below his desk]. Here somewhere, there’s a huge crate of old media, including large eight-track tapes and all these other things. But I think the ones that really like to get going are these Science Museum ones, because they’ll be quite fun, with the graphics and so on.
[Marty]: I have to say, I am envious of your box. I have a similar box here, but it doesn’t go back anywhere near as far.
Right, right. Yeah, well, all the recent stuff is all online, of course, so you don’t have to collect all this physical stuff. That said, I do have a whole pile of drives, you know, hard drives. They’re not in that box, they’re actually in the safe because I guess they’re more recent and they’re my backups at the moment.
[Marty]: I took our five and a quarter [inch] discs, not too long ago, to try out someplace that still had a working drive, but half of them work, and this is from 1980, right, unreadable.
Yeah, well, I’ve got all the, yes, five and a quarter [5¼ inch], and three and three quarters [3½ inch floppy disks], so I’ve got those as well. I suspect a lot of them are gone. I’ll take them with me to the National Museum [to] see if anything’s still available. I do have printouts of some of this stuff, some which has gone to the University of Swansea, but some… Well, this is another problem with old printouts, if you remember these [holds up thin thermal paper] things with which fade in the sunlight, so this you can still just about read some of these programs, so if… but I think probably, I can still read them off these cassettes, I suppose those last reasonably well – well enough, I’m hoping, to actually get them off electronically. So, this thing [holds up paper printout again] would be a last resort, but I have got some of those.
I’ve got a few slides here, if you want to have a look at any.
[Jones]: Sure, you should be able to share your screen.
Okay, I’ll do a share, just a moment and I’ll get the… some of it will be running through and I’m going to skip some of it, because it was talking about other things, let me just check how I share screen. Yes, here we go.
[Screen Sharing Activates]
Is, is that sharing? Yes, Okay. And if I make that… [Adjusting Screen Sharing]. So here we go. So, you see, you can see that screen now, yes Okay. Okay, well that’s actually me at the Science Museum actually programming the Babbage Difference Engine. That’s one of the advantages of having a wife who’s a museum curator. They can actually open up the case and let you play with these things. Obviously, for most people, you can’t get into the case for that. That thing is still there and you can see it at the Science Museum.
I’m going to skip through… So, this was a… I’m going to skip forward to it. So, here’s all that digital media was talking about, starting with my paper tapes, then cards. Although all those floppy disks look the same size, when you look at the ruler [they are different sizes]. They’re going down from 8 inches down.
Then at Oxford University, where I was after working at Imperial College. Actually, that tape, I’m just trying to remember, I think that tape is from Oxford University. And as you can see, various different types of cassettes, the ordinary audio cassette with lots of other odd cassettes, some of which is stuff I’d like to get back. Then, of course, there was all the CDs and DVDs, and so on. But then also, print stuff, so at the top left there [showing a new slide], you can see the old fading stuff, the daisy wheel printer stuff. The bottom is when I went to Silicon Graphics. Of course, in the early ’80s, they were close to Xerox PARC. They had a nice early laser printer, so it was all beautiful laser printed stuff, not dissimilar to what we do today. I guess the only difference was it was about the size of a washing machine, the laser printer then. Certainly, the quality was not dissimilar [compared to today]. And I was… those are all the hypercubes that I was printing out and doing on those SGI machines.
So, you know, I was writing articles about hypercubes and so on [showing hypercube article]. I was also just doing popular articles so this was one for… [showing Input magazine front cover], in fact through somebody we knew at the Science Museum, doing simple graphics on early microcomputers.
So, there’s a better view of the PET demo [showing a photograph]. Although it makes it look as if she’s actually using it [laughs], this demo just ran autonomously. You didn’t type anything in once it was running, but you can just about see there the field-effect transistor sitting there and there were electrons whizzing around.
And that’s a better view of the demo at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television [showing a photograph], so you can see that’s the… I can’t remember which telephoto lens that is, but it went from wide-angle up to telephoto, showing you different magnifications. So, I think that’s, yes, probably the main things I wanted to show you that I’ve actually got on slides. And, well, I’ll probably be using some of those if and when I actually write something about this. And I can send you this, if that helps for your archive.
[Marty]: That would be great, yeah. I’d also be curious to know, so what was it like working with the Science Museum, while you were at Imperial College London? I mean what was the… as you say your wife was curator, so that probably helped, right?
Well, that helped a lot, I think, yes, as nepotism is always wonderful. Basically, there were no problems at all, you know, I just did it. Yes, you didn’t have to go out to tender or any of these modern concepts like that.
[Marty]: The reason I ask is that, you know, we hear a lot of stories, especially in the early days of computing and museums, where a lot of the museum curators are very reluctant to have a lot of this technology come in. Did you… you didn’t get the sense of that at the Science Museum?
Well, I suppose I was dealing with my wife, and she wanted this, so no. [laughs]. I’m sure there were probably some people who… But I think being the Science Museum, you know, would be less reluctant. I think you would get more reluctance at places like the Victoria and Albert [Museum], over the road, where even now, some of them don’t like computers in the galleries. There are some computers in the galleries there now…
[Screen Sharing Ends]
In fact, the first Museum in the U.K. that went on the Web, was the Natural History Museum, which was next to the Science Museum, so they beat the Science Museum in terms of going online. I think the Science Museum did have a “Computing Then and Now” gallery, which actually had a [computer communication] link to Imperial College, very slow, I think a sort of teletype, I don’t remember now, 1,500 baud [bits per second] or something like that. So, in their gallery, you could do something on the Imperial College computer. So, I guess they were used to having… you know, it’s part of science history, computers, so I think, from that point of view, there were enough people there who we weren’t really against computers, per se.
So, I don’t remember any great problem at all, just lots of fun because it was with my wife and, you know, and you went to the opening [of exhibitions] and it was all fun. She was working incredibly hard, day and night, because, like most curators, when there’s a special exhibition, it’s all been delayed and you have to get things done. But actually, I think I wasn’t part of the delay, amazingly for an I.T. project, you know they were all done on time, in budget, which is unusual for I.T. projects, but, as you can see, they weren’t major projects, it was just me. All these projects probably took less than a week to do each of them, you know, so…
I guess one other project that I haven’t mentioned is the one project that made it into the actual permanent galleries, the Communications Gallery [Keeper: Keith Geddes], which was a Morse code demo, which had four buttons that [let] you choose different speeds of Morse code. So that was literally no screen, just the sound was on a 6502 [microprocessor] board, so I was just creating a ROM to go into the board, to run this thing with four buttons to do it, so that was probably the most long-lasting [museum interactive], but perhaps slightly less interesting, because it had no visuals with it, and that’s gone, of course. All these things have gone now, because they’ve moved on.
[Marty]: Did they approach you with that idea or did you approach them?
Uh, well, yes, I think that wasn’t my wife’s gallery, as such, but you know, by that time, they knew that I’d done these previous exhibits, and I guess, you know, there was this connection with Imperial College, because it was next door, and they’d already had something before me in computing gallery, so probably that helped, the fact that I was at Imperial College at the time. And I was cheap, I guess [laughs], compared to going out to, you know… real industry would have charged them an arm and a leg, whereas I was mainly [an academic researcher]. I mean, they did, they paid me, because, you know… I was doing it for the fun of it, really.
Sorry, you’re still muted, Paul.
[Marty]: I was just nodding and smiling, while jotting down notes right. This is a, this is a really interesting time period to be thinking about, right, as museums are coming to grips with how they’re going to work computers into the galleries, and so your perspective here I think is really fascinating.
Yeah, well, I’m told that the Science Museum beat the Smithsonian by a year or so in doing this by somebody [Robert Bud] at the Science Museum, rather than the Smithsonian. Perhaps you can talk to somebody in the Smithsonian on what they were doing in the early ’80s, late ’70s, in terms of computing in the galleries.
[Marty]: Well, actually, very good timing Jonathan, because we’re actually talking in 30 minutes with David Bridge from the Smithsonian.
Well, he can put you… is he an old hand? Was he there that time? He was there, was he, in the ’70s, ’80s?
[Jones]: He was there…
In that case, yes, ask him when the first exhibits were then. Maybe he’ll claim that the Smithsonian was first, but I think they were both doing things at a similar time. I guess at that time you had to be a reasonably big museum to be doing that sort of thing. Whereas at a small museum, it would have been quite difficult to do anything. And I don’t know [of] any small museum doing anything at that time.
Yes, I’ll be interested to see the Smithsonian recording, to see what happened there.
[Jones]: Jonathan, he was more involved with databases than the exhibits, but he would know, probably.
Yes, okay. Well, I mean, as I mentioned, I did this very small, sort of “noddy” database for a PET, which [was] at the Science Museum, because it was before they were really doing computer databases, so maybe the Smithsonian was faster at doing proper, bigger databases, I don’t know. But you can say that, I think I was writing about 1979, a mini database on a PET computer for the Science Museum, which I think they used a little bit, you know, it wasn’t [very big]. You could only have about a hundred objects on it. It wasn’t really a very big database…
[Marty]: So, how did, how did they use this? What prompted it? Did you come to them? Did they ask you for a database?
I’m just trying to remember now. I mean, I think I may have done it half off of my own back, and said, “Look, here, I’ve written this.” I don’t remember being paid for that work. Because, you know, at the Imperial College, basically sitting there, like, as you know in university, you have a bit of time to do your own thing, as well as what you are meant to be doing. And so, certainly, I think the first thing I did was that “Challenge of the Chip.” I was probably doing it about the same time in parallel with that. And I guess, I think just said, “Here’s this database which you could play with,” because I was experimenting myself with things you could do. There is the manual online, just about readable if you go on to ResearchGate.
So, you could show that to David Bridge, tell him it’s there, and see what they’ve got [at the Smithsonian] at that time. But, you know, it was printed on a daisy wheel [or dot matrix] printer, pre any complicated formatting and so on. I think that… and the database was running on it, yes, because they had a PET that had a disk, you know, I think it was back then, it was five and a quarter inch [5¼”] disk, so it was post the eight inch [8″] disk. But yes, if you had a very expensive PET, you can have a disk on it as well, rather than just the cassette. So, I think that’s what prompted me to do the database because now you had a disk where you could actually really do a database. Whereas on a… well, you can think of this [holds up a cassette] as a Turing machine with an infinite tape on it, almost, but it’s a bit slow to do databases on a cassette, whereas once you’ve got a random-access disk, it’s a bit quicker.
[Marty]: I’m looking at your ResearchGate page right now. You’ve got a lot of interesting things uploaded there for sure.
Well, there’s a few… well, you know, I’ve got lots of different interests as well as museums, so yes, but I think that’s the earliest thing I’ve got online that I wrote is the Index System Manual. Because I was a bit of a slow starter academically, in the sense that I thought I was going to be working in industry. And then I sort of drifted back into academia as a research assistant, and while I was at Imperial College, I didn’t really write any papers as such. I wrote a few articles, as you saw, on hypercubes and so on, but only once I got to Oxford, did I start really doing academic papers. Because I was really in a support role with Imperial College, and I was just interested in the, well, the electronics, with all the microprocessors and so on, but then increasingly in the software side, so I’ve always been interested in the combination of hardware and software, and I guess I sort of, you know, know the machine that down to the bits level.
I’m always amazed [that] people manage to use computers without, you know, it must seem like magic if you don’t really know what’s going on, but then actually once you know what’s going on, it’s even more magic because why, why doesn’t the whole thing go wrong, because there’s so many layers of complexity to it. Down at the bottom, we’re depending on Maxwell’s equations, you know. Up at the top, we’re depending on brains trying to think of things and you’re connecting Maxwell’s equations with human thought [and] somewhere in the middle, with computers and software and so on.
[Marty]: Reminds me of a line I heard recently that computers aren’t actually very good at doing math accurately, they’re just good at doing math very quickly.
Yes, I mean, I suppose they’re accurate, in the sense that you know they can do multiplying numbers very quickly, yes, but they do that fairly accurately.
[Marty]: It was part of a thread about floating point calculation errors.
Oh right, yes, fair enough, in that sense, yes. But then, they’re probably more accurate than people. I have just been reading a book by a colleague of mine on Euler, you know, with calculating Pi. [With] the simplistic series for doing Pi, I think you have to do about 500 iterations before you get Pi to about two decimal places. Something like that, if you use the very simplistic series for Pi. So, if you’ve got a human computer doing that, it’s not very efficient. Of course, now they’ve found better series for Pi, [with] which you get the answer or get closer to the answer a lot quicker. It’s a, it’s I mean, of course, you know the term “computer” is from humans doing computing, not as we now think of as machines doing computing.
[Marty]: So, Jonathan, I know you have written a lot about the Virtual Library museums pages, right, but I’m curious from your personal perspective, when did you first start thinking about museums on the Web and seeing what was happening there?
Well, from when the Web came along, well I had a SUN workstation which had SunOS [operating system] on it, and of course, there wasn’t any… you couldn’t run any Web browser on SunOS, whereas you could run X, the X window system, on SUN workstations as well, and then you got Mosaic [an early graphical Web browser], and actually you need enough reason to move from one operating system to another. It has to be an order of magnitude better, and I guess Mosaic convinced me to move from SunOS, where I couldn’t browse the Web at all, to Mosaic. So, I started looking at Mosaic at that time, in about 1993 or so, I suppose. Well, I tried it first time and at that time, I think there was about 10 megabits per second connection between Europe and the U.S. It was slower than most… it’s a very slow ethernet for a whole continent to connect together. So of course, I started browsing, and because my wife is in museums, I thought, “Well I’ll look for some museum things.” And duly did that, and found various Expo things and so on, but then I noticed any graphics, literally you’d watch the lines, you know, going like this [finger draws horizontal lines], and you sat there for minutes.
And so, I thought, “Well, this isn’t up to much, is it?” But then, I did come back to it probably about six months later. I guess they probably upgraded the speed of access across the intercontinental access enough that you could actually download things in real time. And also, we were… it was very annoying in the U.K., because at that time, we weren’t on Internet protocols, we were on our own X.400 [and X.25] protocols, so everything was a bit different. But we did have a very fast-speed connection locally in Oxford University. So, I was used to nice, fast connections. We have our own Web server, you know. All universities put in a Web server. I guess the year before, there had been a Gopher server, which was killed off by the Web after about a year or so.
But you know, I had access to the Web server. Because I was a Research Officer there, you know, you had access to everything. So, I noticed a few museums. So literally I thought, “Well, I’ll just do a little list to museums that have anything on there.” I think at Berkeley there’s paleontology, so… I think if you look at my paper in the EVA [London] Conference last year, with some others as well, it tells you a little bit about some of these early museums online.
So, I just made a collection of those and then I noticed also that Tim Berners-Lee with some colleagues, had set up this Virtual Library, because this was pre any real search engines, so if you wanted to find anything, you needed some sort of index page to help you find things. So, I, well, I just emailed off to them and said, “look I’ll volunteer to do the museum section,” and they said, “fine,” so I just set it up on our Web server, and I guess fairly quickly… well, also the nice thing about having your own Web server is you’ve got access to the logs, all the statistics.
Very soon, I realized that, you know, the numbers of people accessing the museums pages far outstripped any interest in any of the research going on, on the rest of the thing. I mean, it wasn’t being overloaded but, I can’t remember how many times, but it was several times more accesses for the museums than everything else on the server, so that just got me interested in moving things along.
And I guess going back to the Science Museum, you know the context there, John Griffiths, who was one of the curators there, for some reason, he decided to have a… well they had an exhibition, I think called the “Information Superhighway,” which dates it, and then they had a little workshop meeting of about one day, where they invited people along. And that was a very good networking place because there were people like Suzanne Keene, who was involved with the EVA [London] Conference that I’m now involved with, on Electronic Visualisation and the Arts. But also, David Bearman, who I’m sure you know, and maybe you’re interviewing him. He’d come over from the U.S.
And everyone else was giving these talks about how wonderful the Web was going to be, you know, in the future, whereas my talk was, “This is what I’ve been doing for the last year or so. Here is all the statistics of access. This is what’s going on.” So, I guess that made a bit of a contrast to what most people were looking at was the future, whereas I was saying, “Well, it’s already happening, if you like. Yes, it’s going to be very exciting.”
I mean, one little statistic: I knew somebody working in Rupert Murdoch’s [newspaper] empire then, and I think I was getting more accesses than they were on their Web server at the time. So, of course his little empire has somewhat overtaken me now. If I’d been a bit more savvy, you know, I’d be beating Rupert Murdoch online, but it wasn’t to be [chuckling].
Because actually, the accesses were going up. They were doubling every three months at that time. So, I did my little calculation, “Oh, you know, it’s going to be millions and millions…” Of course, it leveled out a few years later, so we didn’t keep going off exponentially, but at that time it really was exponential. But I guess that meant I got invited to the first Museums and the Web conference that David Bearman and Jennifer Trant set up in Los Angeles.
For me, I felt like a royalty because he said, “You’re coming along. You’re going to, you know, be invited as the honorary chair, give a talk, etc., etc.,” You know, and he put me up in this, for me, at that time, as an academic, amazing Los Angeles hotel, you know, in one of the top suites in it, and so on. But then he said right, “Yes, you, as the honorary chair, we wanted to say a few words.” But he literally only told me that half an hour before. And also, I was used to little meetings, you know, a hundred would have been a huge meeting of people for me. The first Museums and the Web had 400 people! So, for me, not really having prepared much, and he says, “Stand up and say something!” Yes, and at that time, I wasn’t quite as used to as I am now, to speaking in front of an audience, so it was a slight nightmare for me, but anyway, I really enjoyed the conference, and obviously kept going.
I can’t remember how many I went [to]… certainly [for] the first ten or so, I went to every Museums and the Web conference, when I was doing workshops, and so on. Gradually developing through contacts, because obviously I wrote papers on the Virtual Library museums pages, so countries volunteered to join, so CHIN in Canada, I think, was one of the first to volunteer to be part of it. ICOM adopted it, which is obviously wonderful.
Obviously now, it’s all sort of history because it’s disappeared off into the archive, and it still exists. I think I’ve got a Wiki site where it all sits, but obviously now we’ve got Google, we’ve got Wikipedia. So, all the museum stuff online, that I do now is on Wikipedia because that’s, I think, a very good place to go find out what museums are where. I still keep, you know, I still do updates for museums on Wikipedia. [If] I see a museum needs a bit of help on Wikipedia, [I’m] always happy to help with that side of things. So obviously now, you know, the Virtual Library museums pages is history, but I think it was quite an exciting time when it was happening for a decade or so.
[Marty]: Right, and as you say, right, the fact that you’re seeing the demand for this almost in real time, right? Will anybody even want this? And you saw it. You saw the numbers!
Yes, that’s right. Yes, it was, I mean I didn’t sort of predict it, although I suppose, looking back, you can see, “Well, yes. Obviously, museums are going to be more interesting than formal methods and mathematical things.” I do remember writing to the… you know, once I’d started doing this, I wrote to the Museums Journal, all very excited. I printed out Web pages, because then you add to actually physically write. They didn’t have an email address or anything. So, I sent them these things saying, “This is going to be very exciting for museums.”
Of course, they never… they didn’t write back. I didn’t hear anything. Until, about six months later, and then they suddenly realized that there is this thing called the Web. “Oh, somebody wrote to us about that, didn’t they?” So, you know, six months later, or so, they wrote and I did do an article for them at that point. But yes, although you can be very enthusiastic, if people don’t really know about, you know, it just lands on the desk and they don’t take much notice. But, you know, obviously the Web took over and everybody had to take notice fairly rapidly.
But it was interesting to see who wasn’t taking notice… I mean, another slightly non-museums example is the Royal Society. So, I remember saying, you know, they should have a Web page. And I remember getting a message back saying, “Oh, we don’t do that sort of thing!” [Laughs] Of course, now I have written an article on the development of the Royal Society Web pages. I don’t think I actually put that in the article. You know, it takes some of these organizations a bit of time to realize that there’s something going on. Of course, now they have wonderful Web pages and lots of stuff on it.
[Marty]: Yeah, I think it would be interesting to write a paper about that, those early realizations that the Web is going to be something. The one that I personally remember resonated with me was, you remember when the Caves of Chauvet were discovered in France?
Right. Oh yes, yes, yes. Yes, and I remember seeing those, yes.
[Marty]: That’s right. They put some of those pictures on the Internet in December 1994, and they were blown away by the millions of people that clicked on those links, and I remember, it would probably be impossible to find the interview now, but I remember seeing an interview with the director of this, saying he thought, maybe one or two people would look at it, he had no idea!
Yeah, exactly. No, I was one of the people looking at them. I remember it well.
Another I guess, non-museum one, but you know, once at my department, they realized I was the Web person. Somebody else [Joe Stoy] who, well, he was a physicist [at Oxford], so he knew about Tim Berners-Lee, and he was also quite up on European things, so he said, “Well, come to Brussels for the day. They’re having a big meeting about the Web, and what to do.”
And we thought, “Well, Tim Berners-Lee might come along to that.” So anyway, we went for the day. So, they did have a huge meeting and I remember this Brussels bureaucrat standing up saying, “Well, yes, there’s this Web thing that’s been invented. But of course, this is just a trial and this won’t be the real thing. We’ll be doing the real thing.” [Laughs] I thought, “What a load of rubbish. This is the real thing. Get on with it.” Sadly, Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t there. Well, he might have stood up because I mean… I guess by that time he’d just been tempted to go to M.I.T. because obviously he was going to get more money there than in Europe. But I think Oxford was sort of that time trying to tempt him, maybe, to come to Oxford because he was an Oxford physicist. He was only a year ahead of me as an undergraduate, although I didn’t know him so I did the same math lectures as him and so on. But now he’s back in Oxford, so he’s actually got a post at the Computer Science Department. I mean, he’s obviously not there all the time, but at least he’s got a role there and he turns up every so often.
[Marty]: It’s amazing, those near misses, right. You mentioned Mosaic a little while ago, right, I don’t remember if I ever told you, I was in class with Marc Andreessen. But we were in different research labs at the University of Illinois, so I had nothing to do with NCSA Mosaic, but a friend of mine did.
So, you might have made your millions, yes. Well again, you know, because I worked at Silicon Graphics, because my best friend at university, my tutorial partner [at Oxford], was an American [Charles Kuta]. He went back to Stanford to do a master’s and his supervisor happened to be Jim Clark, who said, “Would you like to found a company with me?” So, he was one of the seven founder members with Jim Clark and his team there, and then he said, “Would you like to come out to Silicon Valley?” And I said, “Well yes, great.” So, I went out and worked there for a bit, and it was all very exciting. I was doing all these demonstrations with, well, we could do with wonderful 3D things, so I could rotate hypercubes in 3D space, and so on. I mean, one thing I remember at the end of that…
[Marty]: Well, it was Jim Clark…
Yeah, that’s right. Well, you know, he set up three billion-dollar companies. Okay, they all went to a billion and down to nothing, but he kept enough of the money to be Okay, but he was a serial unicorn “setter-upperer”, because then he did Netscape, and he did a medical company as well. But I remember, at the end of that time… this was pre digital cameras, so of course I had the screen with lots of nice graphics on it, so I thought, “Well, I want to take some pictures.” Because I was only there for a few months.
In fact, that was when I was offered a job to go back to Oxford, so I had to decide, am I going to be a pauper back in Oxford or am I going to be a millionaire in Silicon Valley. Well, obviously no choice is there? [Laughs] I went back to Oxford. And so, that was one of those forks in the road. I’m sort of quite glad I did, in some ways, but anyway, so I thought I better take a record back of all the things I’ve done.
So, of course, no digital cameras. If you wanted to make a record of it, you got your SLR camera, you put it on a tripod in front of the screen, and you put the thing you wanted on the screen, and you took your picture. So, I dutifully did all that, and then there’s all these [lighting] tubes up in the [points to the ceiling], creating reflections, so I want to switch them off. So, I go next to the door to look for the light switch. Well, this is very Silicon Valley. There are no light switches. The whole place is on 24 hours a day. People are working there 24 hours a day. Why would you pay for light switches? You just switch the whole place on for the six months you’re there, or something, and then switch it all off again and move to the next place. So literally, I had to pull the tubes out of the sockets to get it to go dark, and took my pictures, put the tubes back in, and… but that’s a typical Silicon Valley situation.
So, some of these stories… I am planning to do a memoir to write down some of these silly stories. So that’s in there. I’ve written a little bit. I’ve got lots of silly stories like that I’d like to write down.
[Marty]: Well, you should. That’s a fantastic Silicon Graphics story…
I plan to, so, yeah. I guess I better do it before… Well, in fact, I think the nice thing about a memoir is all you have to do is write what you remember, not what actually happened, so of course there’s going to be a disclaimer at the beginning, “This is as I remember it. [Laughs] It may be different from what actually happened.”
I mean, you know, yeah, Silicon Valley is amazing. I’m very glad I did work there for a bit because, you know, my boss was very California, laid back. I remember, he was invited to do jury service, and he duly turned up to the jury service, and then was sent back within the day. He said, “Yes, they didn’t want me. They said I had a bad attitude!” [Laughs] He’s an incredibly nice guy. He obviously didn’t… I can imagine him with the judge, not really taking it very seriously, but a wonderful boss, yes, highly recommended.
[Marty]: Well, I’m wondering if we’re reaching a natural wrapping up point here. We got a lot of great stories from you, Jonathan, which really shine a wonderful light on these early days of museum computing. Is there anything else that you wanted to share that you’re just thinking of now?
No, I think I’ve shared my story. I mean, as you know, mostly Virtual Library museums pages stuff, so you know, most of the more recent stuff I’ve actually written so, for instance, you know I’m very involved with the EVA [London] Electronic Visualisation and the Arts conference, so I’ve been a co-chair for that for quite a while. So last year, if you want to look at one of my papers, there’s a personal view on the history of that.
I guess, a lot of these things I’ve looked at now, looking back over them in terms of a Community of Practice, a social science way of looking at communities and how they develop. So, while I’ve been involved with these communities, I haven’t really, never really thought about them in those terms. But now, looking back, I can see how these communities I’ve been involved with have developed as a community around the Virtual Library museums pages that was a virtual community of about 20 people all working on different part of Virtual Library museums pages. You know, that developed to about 20 people who were very much involved and I guess around that, there were people who were less involved. But then, communities naturally die, so that community sort of died off. Now there’s the Wikipedia community, that’s obviously, you know, probably going to last a very long time, because you have to get some critical mass for communities to really last a long time and Wikipedia is definitely at that critical mass.
But you compare that with… you know, there were other Wikis where people had tried to have a lot of control, I think Nupedia [for example]. “We want quality, we need a lot of control.” Any control kills things off. Wikipedia has very little control. There are lots of laws to do with Wikipedia. Once you get involved, you realize, you know, there’s lots of Wikipedia administrators, who I like to call Vogons [bureaucrats in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy], who are going around forcing you to do things. But, you know, you can do things and then, Okay, it might be removed again, which is a good thing, because, if you start doing bad things, then they need to be removed. By having less control, it lets it take its own natural course, and that’s why Wikipedia has managed to expand so much and become so dominant. So, things like Encyclopedia Britannica, [with] lots of control, [are] dead. So, I’m all for freedom in that sense.