Oral History of Museum Computing: David Bridge
This oral history of museum computing is provided by David Bridge, 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/-Bd5Pqf5cm8.
It seems to me that people were constantly asking me and probably other people to improve on something. Can we make that better? Can we improve it? Can we make it faster, more reliable? I was constantly being asked to do things that I’ve never done before. And, you know, not, not only that I had never done, but nobody at the Smithsonian, and I’m, I’m sure someplace in the world, somebody had done that kind of thing but, you know, I’ve never done that, so… And, I remember being in a meeting with the Director and Assistant Director, and they were kind of beating up on somebody and I really defended him because you’re always asking us to do things that have never been done before, you know, we have, and I, and I say that, in the sense of, you know, you go and hire an architect to build a building. Well, maybe it’s very creative and it’s cutting-edge, but an awful lot of the architect’s work is based on 2,000 years of history of how strong things are, and, and you know so it’s not, it’s not the creativeness that I think most of have.
So um, so I don’t know what you want, in terms of stories. I’ll tell you a couple stories that I have, and this was kind of a major point in my career. I was running a VAX computer at the Smithsonian, and we were part of the BITNET network, and in order to do that, you had to run software called JNET, which, in today’s terms, we would call it an emulator because it allowed the VAX to look like an IBM computer to the, our mainframe. So we’re running this software called JNET and we’re on BITNET listservs, which are scattered, or, you know, people… the installations were around the world. And there was a guy in Crete, so I come in in the morning, you know, turn on the computer at 8 o’clock, and there’s this email message from this guy in Crete in the Mediterranean, who says, I – and he did a really good job. You know, “I’ve got this hardware, I’ve got this software, and I’ve got this problem, and I’ve got this communications, and it doesn’t work.”
And, you know, so, that’s like 8 o’clock in the morning. So later in the day, somebody from California pipes in and says, “I’ve got exactly the same hardware, and I’ve got exactly the same problem.” And lo and behold, by the time I went to bed, a guy from Singapore said, “This is the solution to your problem.”
And that’s a true story, I mean that’s in the archive someplace. Internet archives, so…
[Jones]: Could you back up just a little bit and give the kind of backstory of that? How did you end up being in that position, and what was the system that you were using?
Okay, we were running a [DEC] VAX 750, 78, sorry 750. And we got that system, the Smithsonian acquired that system… I mean, I did the research on it, we acquired it, and that was to support the move of Smithsonian collections from in, from many different places in Washington, D.C. to the new Museum Support Center in Suitland [Maryland].
The Museum Support Center is four and a half acres under roof at that point. It’s been expanded, and it currently houses somewhere between 30 and 40 million objects of the Smithsonian. So the background on that is that the museums are all located downtown, as they frequently are, and real estate downtown gets precious, and as you require millions and millions and more objects you run out of space to store them. So many museums now are storing things outside the city core in suburbia, where it doesn’t cost as much to build real estate and then take the downtown museums and turn them into more public facilities kind of thing. We had the Smithsonian had closed many different galleries and, and hallways in the Natural History Building to store collections. So we got the, we got the VAX computer in order to support the move [of the collections], but then, you know, I found out that it had email on it and wonderful communications capability, and the Museum Support Center is about eight miles outside of downtown, on the Mall, which was a big problem for a lot of people because it’s the first time you couldn’t just walk to the other end of the building, or walk to another building to meet with somebody. So I started email to talk to our HR people and financial people and stuff like that so. Anyway, so.
[Marty]: Was that the first email network at the Smithsonian?
Yes. As far as I know.
[Marty]: And what year was that?
The email was probably 1984.There were, there were email and, and the, the whole VAX computer was set up to be a network kind of device. There were other email systems. I’m sure the library had email on their system, but this was in the days when you had one terminal to talk to the library, and you had another terminal to talk to the financial system, or you know, that kind of thing, so. So that the email that we ran on the VAX was accessible by modem and other means, and you know, which meant that it was widely accessible from all over the place. And when we did the move system that we created, we had the Marine Mammal Collection, for example, was in the Alexandria Torpedo Factory, the old, the old military building, and you know we just took VT 100s and printers and took them over there, and plugged them in with modems, and documented the collection that was being moved, and then we took it all out and put it someplace else.
So, anyway, so, that’s and you know, since I was you know interested in communicating because we were eight miles off the Mall, you can never get a hold of the HR people. You call them up and you get their voicemail and all you want to do is check and see what’s the status of the request that I put in, so you can put that in an email.
So, that’s how we, that’s how we got on to BITNET and that’s how… and I know we take that kind of for granted nowadays, that if you get an error message that you’ve never seen, you just put it into Google and you’ll get an answer, but that was kind of an eye opener back then that, and what really impressed me and still impresses me, I am absolutely certain that the three people that I mentioned, and I don’t remember their names, they never knew each other or probably never met ever in real life, but the guy in Crete has a problem and it’s validated, and then the solution comes from somebody else, and they’ve never met each other.
Anyway, that really impressed me and probably one of the things that, you know, colored my approach to communications and MCN and everything else so. I don’t know. Is that what you want?
[Jones]: That’s perfect. I was just looking at your document. I mean there is a lot of kind of deep history and what you have done, from the time that you started at the Smithsonian and a lot of change that you saw there. I don’t remember the date but David, did you use SELGEM also?
I helped develop SELGEM.
I mean, the real creator was Reginald (Reggie) A. Creighton…
[Interview Katherine Jones]: Yep, Reg…
And we attempted to interview him, but his mind isn’t here much anymore, but Natural History provided funding for three programmers, the computer programmers, and Jim Mello [James Frances Mello] and I went over and met with the managers and the programmers like once a week for the first two or three years, and they said, “We’re thinking about doing this,” and we said, “That’s good, but you know, why don’t you do it this way?” You know, user input, in other words, and you know, at the end of about 10 years I think at least a third of the programs were my ideas or reflected them.
[Jones]: So, did that happen to your background as an ornithologist as well?
What happened to my background?
[Jones]: No. Did, when you were writing SELGEM, were you thinking about it from the… any collection of birds that you’ve had worked on?
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean that I think that’s one of the strengths, is that I had collected birds, I had done research with birds, were working on a couple of books, so you know, I knew how museum people thought, and the kinds of things that they wanted to do, and in addition to that, when I was in the ADP Program, you might have somebody in mammals, who says, “I have this kind of problem that I, you know, I need something.” And then I could say, “Well, the people in Paleo [Department of Paleobiology] have the same issue, but they would put it in different words.” And then I would take you know the consolidated, and maybe expand it a little bit and come up with a more generalized solution, and, and that all got factored into SELGEM, which I think is one was one of its strengths. It was generalized, it wasn’t just designed for the insect people or mollusks, or whatever kind of thing. I don’t know if that helps.
[Jones]: Yeah, that’s great.
I mean, I had enough biology background, and that’s one of the things that actually disturbs me a little bit about the current people. I mean half the people in our I.T. unit have never been in a museum today. And I don’t know how they can sympathize with and understand the issues when they don’t have any experience with the professionals they’re serving, so…
[Jones]: I know. They need somebody to translate it for them, I think.
I was often considered the person who could bridge them all. I didn’t make that up. Somebody else said you can go from Natural History to the Computer Center in the Arts and Industry Building and tell them what we really need, so.
[Jones]: Yes, I believe that to be true. You know, I know the history of GRIPHOS. Could you say a little bit more about SELGEM and why you eventually decided to discontinue using it?
Um, some of that goes past the time when I was responsible for that, but, I don’t know, Paul probably doesn’t know, but SELGEM was a very flexible system, and so I could sit down with you today, and you say, “I’ve got these 50 interviews and I want to get some keywords and people, dates, and times,” and we could have a database for you tomorrow, a file. So, it was extremely flexible and that really grew out of the HEW Project. [The HEW Project was an informal name for a project supported by the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, Office of Education, Bureau of Research, which was officially named “An Information Storage and Retrieval System for Biological and Geological Data”. This project lead directly to the development of the SELGEM system.]
We never used GRIPHOS at the Smithsonian. And it hasn’t been ‘til I started working on the computer history here at the Smithsonian that I really understood that a little better. Purely by happenstance, I would say, SELGEM was developed in COBOL and in absolute pure anti-standard COBOL, which means that you could move it to any other computer that was available in the ‘70s. GRIPHOS… losing track of my memory here. There’s two other systems, one in Oklahoma and one in Colorado, and they were both built on IBM mainframes, which is perfectly logical, since they had the largest base of installed machines. They also had, all of them had assembly language code someplace in the middle of the program, which meant that it wasn’t transportable or as transportable, and so, you know, all the little museums, museums, universities and whatever that had CDCs or Sperry Rand, or you know, whatever kind of computer, they couldn’t run that that software, and it certainly was not the intent of the Smithsonian to have a killer app like that, I mean we built that and I mean, I built it myself just for Natural History, but it was done in a general enough a way that all the other Smithsonian museums, and least 100 others that we gave it to, implemented it.
We gave it to the University of Utah, and I heard back from those people that the radio station had put all their LP records on it, which is not what I designed it for in Natural History [laughs], you know. But it’s a, it’s a file management thing. You got a title, you got an author, it’s jazz, or it’s you know easy listening, or whatever. You got a date period kind of thing, so anytime you want to put together a show about, you know, 1940 jazz or something, it… “Okay, here’s the 10 records I need to look at” kind of thing, so it just made perfect sense.
[Jones]: Shows the flexibility of how you built it.
Yes, it does. Well, you asked me when we got rid of it, um.
[Jones]: And why.
Our favorite person, David Bearman said, we were going to get rid of the Honeywell [mainframe computer] in 1985. I think the Honeywell finally left about 2000. There were just too many applications on. So we use SELGEM, then the Smithsonian went to INQUIRE [an IBM mainframe computer database system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infodata_Systems], then we went to EMu, but I think a few people when we were in the late ‘80s, ‘90s, you know, there were options that became available for people to take a file and put it on a PC or put it on a small minicomputer of some kind, so you know, I can’t say, I can’t say that everybody migrated from SELGEM to some system to some system kind of thing. In… up until up until ‘82 when I got the VAX in ‘85 when the Smithsonian got an IBM mainframe, the only computer we had was a Honeywell, so, and it’s really amazing to think that the cell phone has about, you know, my, my iPhone here [holds it up] has about… I don’t know, a thousand times more CPU cycles than, than the mainframe that we ran the entire Smithsonian on, so you know, financial, payroll, everything.
So, I don’t think the last SELGEM application died until very, very late ‘90s, so, which means that the system ran for almost 30 years, which was pretty incredible.
[Jones]: It is pretty amazing. So, when you, when that was happening, you had to think about migrating to a new system. Do you want to… were you involved with that, David?
I helped do the RFP for INQUIRE, but I did not have, you know, because of my extensive background with museum data, specimen data and object data, I helped do the RFP in 1985 we got ENQUIRE. I think that we all grossly underestimated how easy it would be to develop individual applications for each of the departments in museums because we’ve been working with SELGEM for so long, and then after that I went to American Indian, and we selected ENQUIRE. No, I’m sorry, I misspoke. We selected EMu for the National Museum of American Indian collection, which was also being used in Natural History, and different museums, I guess there’s three or four different collections information, collections management systems now in different museums at the Smithsonian.
[Jones]: Yes. Shall we move to MCN for a minute, and the work that you did on the Information Superhighway? Policies around that?
[Laughing]. Well, as I think when I joined, I mean I’ve been going to MCN a couple of times, but what annoyed me — I think that’s the right word — disappointed me was that it was called the Museum Computer Network, but it wasn’t a network. You know, just a group of people, I mean it’s a network and in the old definition of a network, and you know here, we got computer network, and it’s not a computer network. And so, email was coming on, and I really wanted to move MCN you know, into an interactive online kind of presence and so. And I don’t, I don’t remember all my talks that I gave for MCN. Paul can look that up now that he’s got everything.
I do remember that I was also trying, I was also active with American Museum Association, and they’ve changed their name, I guess, but I proposed to give them to give a talk on electronic mail to AAM, and they said, “Oh, that’s way too technical for us.” I kid you not! Turned me down, rejected the proposal completely. And their idea was that, “Well, we only have email addresses for 20 to 30 of our people, so obviously it’s not being used.” But of course, they didn’t ask them for their email address, so they didn’t have them, so. But I have always thought the AAM was a little backwards. Sorry, personal opinion there. So, I don’t know so I just you know I, I know that I gave talks to most of the MCN meetings and mostly was about networking and Internet and getting online and all that kind of stuff.
[Jones]: Well, you were, you were the person who got museums recognized in the Clinton/Gore policies.
If you say so.
[Jones]: Yes, I say so.
[Marty]: Well, there’s a couple of threads here, I just wanted to pick out, right for a second. So, so one you’ve got this online community, community of practice for MCN, and this is something that I’ve written a lot about, and you know, and what’s interesting when you look at the history of MCN, you see people like yourself, people like others throughout time who’ve made this argument over and over, and it’s almost as MCN is still struggling to try to figure out what would an online community of practice look like for this profession? And so I’m just curious on, on that thread, to know what, what, what did your, what was your vision at the time?
Ah. Well, I told you, the story about JNET, and the mutual support co-op… collaboration that was possible by that. And then I’m really serious that really has stuck with me all these years — kind of thing that I just wanted to get more people talking to each other and working together in real time. Oh gosh, you’re triggering… who was the person who put together a museum network, “Museum-L,” the listserv… Chadwick, John?
[Marty]: John Chadwick, yeah, yeah, and MCN-L followed shortly thereafter.
But John Chadwick, well, Mary Case and I had come up with the idea of Museum-L, and we were talking about it, kicking around other things, and the next thing you know, John Chadwick starts Museum-L out in New Mexico, and I know that when I saw last, it … when I was last monitoring, when I was last administering it for John, you know, there was like 5- or 6000 people on it, kind of thing.
So, where I was going with that was John wrote an FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions, and sent it to me because I had stopped to see him in New Mexico. And, and he sent it to me for, and this is back with BITNET, so you’ve got no interactivity, you can just send a file back and forth. We wrote that together without ever talking in person. He wrote a draft, I told him I thought it was a really great idea, but I really hated what he’d written, so, I thought it needed some improvement and adding some certain things, so I wrote a next draft, send it back to him, I said, “Okay, this document is yours until you send it back to me,” and so we went back five or six times, and actually turned out the full Frequently Asked Questions without ever talking to each other, which you know, just illustrates how you can collaborate. Anyway….
[Marty]: I’m actually trying to double check the dates on these right now. What do you think, what do you remember, what’s the date when John started Museum-L?
Do you have a list of all of the, um? … Maybe it wasn’t then… Did we have an MCN meeting in San Diego in ’93?
[Marty]: I can double check that in just a couple of minutes. I just checked the date on MCN-L, so MCN-L started in ‘96.
That doesn’t surprise me. So I went to a meeting in San Diego, and it might have been one of David Bearman’s meetings, Museums and the Web, but it might have been an MCN meeting.
[Jones]: Yeah, I think it was a joint meeting in 1996.
[Marty]: Well, the MCN, I have my conference metadata list up right here, MCN met in San Diego in October of 95. That was joint with ICHIM.
Yes, there you go. Yeah, I went to that, and I made arrangements, instead of flying directly back to Washington, to stop in New Mexico in Albuquerque and meet with John, and so we spent a day on the way back, after the meeting, and I was able to, he and I met then for the first time, and I think I probably stayed at his house, and we talked strategy and, and goals and stuff like that. And that, again, is one of the strong points about both the networking in person and on the line, you know it’s so much better, and I don’t mean to slight you Paul, but Kathy and I worked together, and you know you if you meet people and you get to talk to them, then you can work off, you know, remotely and you know, because you understand each other better. I think I understand it.
[Marty]: Well, well, I mean and what I was just thinking, while you while we were talking about the value of listervs, right? It is really hard to find people now who appreciate a good email listserv. And I am very sad that so many of the email listservs that I have followed over the past 20 years now are, are dying right, left and right. And, and MCN-L is pretty much on its last legs, to tell you the truth.
Well there’s, the listservs are good for a particular kind of audience. When we first got on BITNET, you know, you could subscribe, you could find a list of all of the different listservs all over the world. And there was one on strategic planning, and I thought, “Great, I want to know about strategic planning!” Well, if you think about it though, strategic planning is one of those things that takes months and months, and you wind up with a two or three- or 500 page document. It’s not the thing that goes to listserv to say, “I’ve got this problem. What’s the solution?” Or, “What is this bird or insect or whatever kind of thing?” So, a listserv is good for shorter, shorter questions, shorter answers I think, and it’s not good for you know, dissertations or whatever the right word is, you know, it doesn’t… It was like never any traffic on the strategic planning, because you know, the people who are doing aren’t going to be on listservs.
[Marty]: Yeah, I mean, and I don’t want to, I don’t want to get bogged down on this, but, but I’m thinking about now. Nowadays, instead of using MCN-L, most of the MCN folks are having these conversations on Twitter where none of its being archived, and it’s, well, it’s not searchable in the same way that the listserv archives were in the past.
[Marty]: … and I worry that that a lot of history is being lost. Do you remember, what was it, say it was maybe 10, 15 years ago when Archives-L threatened to delete their entire listserv archive?
[Laughing] I probably retired before that. No, but again, there used to be and there, there are listservs for birdwatchers, so there’s a listserv for Delaware, there’s a listserv for Maryland and Virginia, and so forth, and so on. And these are archived, like you say you can go back and search them. Well, it turns out that there’s Facebook groups in Delaware that have, you know, five times the membership of the Delaware ornithological society or the listserv, and, and the same thing is true with in Maryland so, it’s, there’s a shift there and I’m not really into social media things, so…. It would be a good, that would be a good little paper to say, “What are the pros and cons of this communication method and this communication method and so forth?” but there’s no moderator, there’s no archives, there’s no history, whatever kind of thing.
[Marty]: Yes, there is a growing tendency to embrace the ephemerality of communications media over the past decade or so, and, and I worried that we’re going to look back on this from the future and say, “Well, we lost a lot of content.”
Well, and it’s not just electronic. I mean, when I started working, every memo they went out of the office, a copy went into the read file. There actually was a read file of all the correspondence that went out of this office. And now you’ve got email, and so forth, and so, in the early, when we shifted, when the Smithsonian began to shift from everything was on paper to suffer with the game to be on email, there was a period there, which I think the archives calls “the dark ages,” or something, where, you know, nothing got saved! I mean all the email that was on my VAX computer was backed up and saved, but eventually, I threw all that away, and that’s not in the archives, so the Smithsonian now has, and I don’t know what year it started, Riccardo [Riccardo (Ricc) Ferranto, SI Library and Archives] could tell you, but they archive all the email messages on the central system now. When I started, there were 16 different systems — not when I started, but in 1994, there were 16 different email systems at the Smithsonian, which means 16 different archival policies and everything else, so.
[Marty]: That’s a fantastic example. Now, now I need to apologize. I derailed us from the conversation that I know Kathy was asking you about the about the Internet in the, in the note that you sent us this morning, David you talked about, um, I see it’s July 92 when the si.edu domain was registered, which is very early. I’d love to know the backstory there.
Well, I evidently, I had a reputation for getting things done and, and interested in communications. And I was walking through the cafeteria in Natural History, and Richard (Dick) Thorrington and Barbara Smith — Barbara Smith was Director of the Library — and they said, “Come over here and sit down.” And they said, “We’ve been hearing about the Internet. Can we get connected to the Internet?” and I said, “I have no idea, but I will find out.” And, and that actually, you know, well… so, so anyway, so I said I would find out, so… What you may not know is that there were no ISPs at that point. I mean, nowadays you think you want to get on the Internet, well call up a local ISP, right? Well you know, there were no ISPs.
So, you know, by poking around and whatever, I wound up at the University of Maryland, which was part of SURANET, which is “S-U-” Southeastern University Research Network, which basically, used to be all of the ACC schools on the east coast here. And, and so they were running a backbone to connect all those universities and their research centers together. And they were tied into George Washington University, I think. And so, I met with them, I had several people from the Internet Society come talk at the Smithsonian, we had like, quarterly meetings for a year or more to understand… you know, I had different speakers come in and talk about what the Internet was, and what it could do, and what’s really amazing is that this is all before the Web. I know lots of people can’t tell the difference between the Internet and the Web, but that’s okay.
Anyway, so, so we managed to cobble something together, and get it put into the budget request, which was rejected in January of 1991. Yeah. You don’t have enough hours for me to explain the federal budget cycle process. But anyway, so we got word back just before Christmas that Office of Management and Budget in the White House that cut out our request for Internet connection. And we had two or three people who were really adamant that that we need to get connected to the Internet, and so I went around to them and said, “We can try again next year, and we may have the same results, and that will still be 18 months before you can get, get connected, or maybe we can pass the hat and we will fund this, at least at a minimal level.” And so, I collected $72,000 from about a dozen different offices and organizations within the Smithsonian. And the Library contributed, maybe $23,000 or something, but a lot of people put up $5,000, you know, “I want my office to be… I want my organization to be on.”
And I remember the head of Research in Natural History at a meeting said, “We have to decide whether we’re going to be a first-rate research institution in the world, or a second rate one.” And, you know, they put in $10,000. So, you know, we collected all the money and put all that into a central pot that could be administered because it all came from different places, and so that was kind of in place by late February I think of ’92, and the other thing that I think is really interesting about that story is that we were, there was no TCP/IP network protocol running anywhere within the Smithsonian when we started. We weren’t building on top of anything, well we’re building on top of the wires, but you know not building on a lot of experience, so you know we set up our first DNS server. We probably ran for five years without a firewall which is, you know how cheap, we did that, and there was no Network, Network Operations Center for the first five or six, eight years, I don’t know, long time, almost 2000 probably, and so you know, half a dozen of us made things work. Tried to make them work.
I don’t know. Does that answer your question? Want me to elaborate on something?
[Jones]: I think that’s great David. If you could, though, then came Clinton and Gore, and so, how did you get how did you get museums placed in that conversation?
I think you give me too much credit for that.
[Jones]: No, I don’t.
There was a guy at the Internet Society, Anthony [Rutkowski]. He was very big on museums being a part of things. I, I didn’t… I did meet Al Gore. The Smithsonian was very instrumental in helping the White House Website get launched. Our head of photography, [Jim Wallace], you know, he said, one day, said, “Dave, they’re going to launch the White House Website. Would you like to go over?” And I said, “Sure!” And so, you got to give them your Social Security Number and date of birth and all that. You get a pass, and you get to go to the old Executive Office Building and everybody sits there for a while, and all of a sudden, bang! The Secret Service comes in and the, and hangs the Vice President’s emblem on the podium, and then the Vice President pops up, so… And they launched the White House Website. So I didn’t do that, but it was it was really nice to go and be a part of that little piece of history.
[Jones]: Yes, so somehow through MCN, papers were written and submitted, and it got done, and I know that you and Diane Zorich had a lot to do with it. So maybe we can piece it together with Diane as well, but I thought you had quite a bit to do with it because I was reviewing the papers that you wrote, David, when I was sitting at my desk at the Peabody Museum.
Well, I mean, I was following the Information Highway discussion, and getting copies of all those papers. And, I think, rather than putting museums into that document, I was trying to make sure that that information got disseminated, disseminated to all the MCN people, because a lot of people working in, you know, little museums, might not be aware of it, kind of. It’s really, I don’t know if you know this, but it’s really against government policy for federal employees to be talking to legislators, and you know, there’s, there’s an official office within the Smithsonian, and if you need something you go to them and they’ll go get, and so they sent me a bunch of stuff. I mean, but I didn’t… I’m not sure I contributed very much, but you may be right. [Laughing]
[Jones]: Well, let’s just say that MCN was, MCN submitted it, but you had a lot to do with it.
Well, that might make sense too in that you know, it’s you know my impact as an individual wouldn’t be the same as coming from an independent organization and speaking for museums and so forth.
Are we running out of time?
[Jones]: No, we have a few more minutes, what would you like to tell us.
Well, I want to make sure I answer your questions, too.
[Jones]: Well, why don’t we talk about what happened when you went to the National Museum of the American Indian? Because you were working with Jane and Doug Evelyn, and I know that both Jane and Doug were very involved in thinking about museum databases and how we could perhaps, as museums communicate with each other about not shared collections, but collections that we had from the same site, so thinking about it as a network, but never realizing it.
Well. Yes, and a lot of my work was to help open the new museum on the Mall in, whatever I told, 2004, I think. And the other, the other issue there too, which we were constantly aware of, is that Native American Communities in the United States, indigenous communities and Canada, are probably the most poorly served in terms of Internet and lots of other things, unless of course you happen to have oil on your reservation. So, you know, it’s difficult just to say, “Well we’ll put everything up on the Web and you’ll be able to get to it that way” kind of thing because they don’t have access, they don’t have electricity in half the homes on the reservation, let alone Internet access. But most, so you know, I was involved with a lot of, I really liked Doug and I really liked Jane. It was very, very creative and pleasant working together. An awful lot of work was with, with getting the new museum going. We had a Windows on Collections exhibit, so you’d have cases with a whole bunch of objects, very traditional kind of thing, and then you’d have a bunch of drawers that you could pull out, they would have objects in them, and then we had a computer screen there where you could look and get somebody talking about that object. Or, if it was a rattle, you could have it, maybe being used in a ceremony or performance of some kind, so you know, it really, and I just helped do some of that technology it wasn’t, I wasn’t a designer. The designers were Australian. But, but that was fun, I mean it, you know, for those of us who have worked in museums for a long time, and you have a director, or the secretary in this case says, “None of the labels can have more than 100 characters on them, you know, because people won’t read that,” but you know, you, you can’t capture the whole story of an object in just a few words kind of thing, so, you know, I still think there’s a big role for computers to play in in adding music to an instrument or performance, or have somebody talked about it, or how you make it. All that kind of stuff…
I did have one story I want to tell you that you didn’t ask about. At some point, I was running an email directory system for the Smithsonian because nobody else would do it. And, we had this in a SQL database, I’m sure, and my assistant was Jason Young, and we had to, we got an order of five or six Pentium computers in and there was one spare, and so you know, he said, “Well, how can we make this information more readily available?” kind of thing, and, and we weren’t really running our own Web server or anything, and so you could download ColdFusion software for like a 30-day free trial, and in the space of a day and a half or something, he had a very crude interface to go to the database, and so, then we downloaded I think, Apache, which was a free Web server on to the Pentium, and we made a pretty nifty little Web front end, where you could put in, you know, “I’m looking for people named Bridge,” and you get “Bridget” and whatever. So, we had this sitting on the desk in our own office, and it would work, but made it, it made terrible noises, grinding noises. [Imitating noises] So, we call up the ColdFusion people, and I had this very vivid image of somebody who’s maybe 21 with a ponytail and a tie-dye shirt, and he says, “That’s way cool. We didn’t know you could do that!” So, you know, nowadays, you would call that a proof of concept, I believe, but it was fun. And then we moved it to more appropriate hardware and added bells and whistles and so forth, but…
[Marty]: What year was that?
I think that’s probably ’96, ‘97.
[Marty]: In the document you sent this morning you thought it was between ‘96 and ‘98.
Alright, so my memory overnight is good. Okay.
[Marty]: It’s a, it’s a fantastic story, and were people around the Smithsonian using that, that directory?
Absolutely! The central people would never make one.
So, you know, and thinking about your broader… you know invisible work, it seems to me that you know, the people that I knew that I worked with, you know, they’re constantly trying to improve something and you know wouldn’t it be neat if we could do you know fill in the blank kind of thing? Or, or somebody comes to you and says, “You can do this, and this, and this. Why can’t we do that?” So you say, “That’s a good idea. Why don’t we try that?” So, I don’t know, it seems to me that, you know, the people that maybe paved the way and so forth, were self-directed and creative and experimental and enterprising, and I was even wondering if, if there isn’t a parallel here with, I’m going to say young men, not to be sexist, Kathy, but, the ones that tinkered with cars and made hot rods and things like that in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, you know, I mean they’ve got a car and they say, “Well, this engine’s only got 10 horsepower or whatever. What if we put a V8 in there?” And you know, I mean that, that kind of, “Let’s try it and see what happens” kind of thing. In fact, you just reminded me of something else.
My assistant, Jason Young, we used to have a little test that we would do on, on things like, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if we do this?” And if the answer is “Well, it would probably bring down the whole network…” Who cares. [Joking] No, but if, if the answer is, “Well, it won’t work, and we’re the only ones who will know that it doesn’t work,” then that’s fine, right? But if it’s going to bring down the whole network, maybe we should test that a little bit ahead of time, so we had, we had, you know, to juggle the, the, the risks, if you will, to trying something.