by Aidan O'Donnell
Article published on the 2009-08-14 Latest update 2009-08-17 08:51 TU
If it’s too early in the day to navigate the Erotica Museum, you can take yourself off to “25 years of the Mac” at Paris’ Computer Museum. Just getting there is fun, since it’s located right at the top of the Grande Arche de la Défense, just west of Paris.
A glass elevator lets you look right down the city’s monument axis - Arc de Triomphe, Tuileries, Louvre – while taking you into the Computer Museum. Here you can inspect clunking machines from the early days of mainframes and data crunchers. The temporary exhibition is currently dedicated to the Apple Macintosh however, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.
Except, as Museum Director and exhibition curator Philippe Nieuwbourg tells me, just as Apple don’t like to talk about future plans, they’re not much interested in talking about the past either; when machines were slower, interfaces clumsier and aesthetics squarer.
Nonetheless, “if you love computers you cannot imagine a computer without speaking about Macintosh,” Nieuwbourg says.
“It was a revolution in 1984. It was the first time that we saw on the market a computer with a graphic screen, with icons, and with a mouse! It’s the first time we had a mouse on a computer for all the public”.
He goes on to mention early specialist machines and raises the thorny question of “mouses” and…“mice”? (The lexicographers among us will be glad to learn that the term “computer mice” is outdoing “computer mouses” by about ten to one in numbers of Google returns and that the Oxford English Dictionary endorses both).
Nieuwbourg shows off a special edition Mac called the “Spartacus”, of which only a few thousand were built, and describes it as “a machine for collectors”. There’s also the first “laptop” although laps may have been bigger 20 years ago.
“It’s not very heavy if you compare it with the other PCs of the time,” he says. It weighs in at a respectable seven kilograms.
“You didn’t have a mouse. You have a track ball, which is new, and it was a plasma screen, very close to what we are doing today. It was very expensive at the time,” he says. He points out that it also had a bag – which, at the time, presumably forced you to acknowledge that it was portable.
The only thing Nieuwbourg would have liked, and doesn’t have, is some prototypes; although he has expanded the collection beyond the machines. It includes Macintosh hoardings, advertisings and various early manifestations of the notion that you didn’t necessarily have to sell the product, just the idea.
“It’s perhaps the main difference between a brand like Apple and a brand like IBM or the others,” he says. “If you take the example of the first TV advertising in ‘84, when they launched the Macintosh, it was the first time that you can show TV advertising about a computer without showing the computer”.
“When you look at the advertising of the 80s for an IBM PC or a Tandy or a Commodore or all these things, it was always about the machine,” Nieuwbourg reminds me.
But the Mac was different, he says, because “the outside was more important than the inside”.
Visitors to the Mac exhibition include tourists who have just popped up for one of the best views of Paris. But there are also dedicated early-computer enthusiasts who are visiting the permanent exhibition and who then drop in to see the Apple exhibit (although you suspect that, for the true historical purists, things began to go downhill once computers got smaller than fridges).
Then there are the modern-day Mac fans.
“You have a huge number of Apple fans,” he says, adding that this can be a poisoned chalice. “They always have something to say about the machines: a machine I don’t have, a machine which is not the best, they think, a small difference in the number of bytes”.
“I saw one time a guy coming and taking pictures of the serial numbers of the machines to know if the serial number was good,” he continues. “I asked him ‘what’s a good serial number?’ He said ‘it’s very important, if you want to collect all the Macintoshes, to have the beginning of the production.’” Naturally.
So where did the museum find the 50-or-so different Macs that are on display, even if they may not all be carrying early serial numbers? Has Nieuwbourg been collecting them for two-and-a-half decades? He says that no, not all the machines come from a personal collection in his garage.
“But I have a very big garage,” he adds.
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