Rob Ferguson

Rob Ferguson
Rob Ferguson with his donated 1981 Osborne 1 computer in UVic Libraries’ Historic Computing Lab. Image by UVic Photo Services.

Paying it forward in an obsolete world

Tucked away in the lower level of the Mearns – McPherson Library sits a room filled with history–equal parts technology and nostalgia–named the Historic Computing Lab. It’s furnished with once common, but now rare computers like the Commodore PET, Osborne 1, and IBM PC/XT, some dating back to the 1960s. The lab supports a range of UVic initiatives, including data recovery from obsolete computer media in the University Archives, research and instruction in the Digital Humanities, and an ongoing project to restore a lost school of Canadian digital art. It’s an impressive collection, thanks in part to Rob Ferguson’s generous donation of historic computing equipment.

Rob and John Durno, the curator of UVic Libraries’ historic computers, became acquainted through mutual connections in Vancouver’s retro technology community. When Rob sought to re-home part of his collection of classic computers, software and documentation, the University of Victoria was his first choice. 

Finding community by touching the past

In this digital era, media archaeology has become an important part of digital preservation. Every new invention eventually becomes obsolete, presenting the challenge of how to retrieve data, whether that’s on a floppy disk or a smartphone. Trying to access the information that lies beneath the surface often requires the hardware that it was paired with to reproduce the work.

UVic Libraries has been actively developing its historic computing collection since 2016. “It was an unanticipated outcome of my research in digital preservation,” says John. When surplus coordinator Stephen Wylie learned of John’s interest in that area, he offered the library a range of older computing equipment that had been set aside in the surplus warehouse. That became the core of the collection, which has been significantly enhanced through purchases, donations, and other campus finds in the years following.

Rob’s donation to the collection in 2021, valued at $10,000, added 14 unique pieces to the collection.

“Rob’s donation really takes the collection to the next level,” John continues. “In addition to excellent examples of iconic early computers from IBM, Commodore, DEC, and other well-known manufacturers, it also includes some fascinating BC computing history, such as a homebrew all-in-one computer built by engineers at Microtel in the very early 80s.” 

“It was important to me that these machines don't end up hidden away where nobody ever gets to see or touch them again,” explains Rob. “I also wanted to make sure students could learn from them. The fact that UVic is supporting John, and that he's being given the opportunity to do unique work is wonderful.”

Engaging students with the history of their field

Rob emphasizes that computer science is a really young field. While students cannot get a degree in art without studying art history, or a degree in literature without studying Shakespeare or James Joyce, they can get a degree in computer science without looking back beyond 1995.

“My hope is to engage computer science students, and even art students, with the history of their field. And also to make sure that these machines are preserved in a way that is publicly accessible, and sustainable over time. Even if I preserve them, I'm not going to have the resources or the ability to keep them running forever, and having them stored in somebody's basement is not really serving the public good.” – Rob Ferguson

With the Osborne 1 computer running in the background, Rob explains the impetus for his gift to the university. “We are too busy thinking about the future to think about the past. By donating this historic computer equipment to the library, I am able to help John build something here that changes that viewpoint. And that’s really important to me.”

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Historic Computing Lab