The technology of today is quite simple: it works well, it does what it needs to do with the minimum of instruction, and when it stops doing so, it’s thrown out and replaced. When we think back to the “good ‘ol days,” much of the memories are of how we dealt with the stone-age technology we were stuck with. We remember that combination of steps to get the car started (choke out, turn it over, count to ten, push the choke in, hold the gas down). We knew to stop the VCR just before it was done rewinding, lest horrible tape destruction occur. We marvel at those archaic computers that required you to stop what you were doing, put in a new disk or cartridge, and reboot to start a new program. Frankly, we wonder why we remember those days so fondly.
There are many among us, however, who not only love that technology, but devote their free time to making those intricate and fragile pieces of machinery work. On and off, I’ve been a collector of all things computer. In my basement is a TRS-80 III, my first computer, still in relatively working order. The “E” key requires extra pressure to get it to work (a habit I continued even in later computers), and floppy disks had to be aligned just right. I’ve been a temporary collector, holding on to computers only long enough to prepare them for resale, but those days spent squeezing any usability out of those computers are delightfully fun. Recently, a Apple ][e ended up in my hands—complete with an original copy of Oregon Trail. I played for hours, trying to beat the game, since I never did during my gradeschool years (I still failed). Thousands of these computers were made, ditto on the software, so neither were particularly rare, but that combination of computer and software has a particular value to everyone who attended gradeschool in the 1980s. Despite newer versions of Oregon Trail being available, the early versions have a nostalgic value that you can’t get any other way. There are Atari 2600s, with their horrible sound and mediocre graphics, being played, right now, while XBoxes sit idle nearby. Sure, they might have to blow on the contacts and insert the cartridge just right to get the 2600 to play, but it is not discouraging enough to toss out the machine. The attraction isn’t the highest quality, or the greatest usability. The pleasure is in getting just as much out of these machines now as twenty-five years ago.
Vintage Harleys and classic cars might have their quirks and troubles, but they’re still street legal, and for the most part you can find a mechanic. Finding a repair shop to fix your Intellivision is a bit tougher: the technology is obsolete, and unusable to anyone but collectors. Collectors of obsolete technology know what they’re in for by taking on their hobby. They want their technology to remain usable and functional, despite any availability of spare parts. Phonograph collectors hoard needles and belts to keep their collections running. Typewriter collectors ration their ribbons as best they can. 8mm movie connoisseurs watch eBay for lamps and film.
The king of obsolete technology, however, is the steam thresher aficionado. These machines amount to a railroad engine that has left its tracks; they are steam-powered behemoths that chug across open ground, pulling farm machinery behind. Modern gasoline and diesel technology rendered steam power obsolete before even my grandfather’s time (and a new generation of collectors are restoring early gasoline tractors, too), leaving most of these rusting in shelter belts or sold for wartime scrap. One of the few places you can still see these machines is the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher’s Reunion in Rollag, MN. Once a year, these skilled collectors (who must be licensed to operate the steam boilers that power their machines) gather, fill their tanks with water and stoke the burners, and putt-putt around Minnesota’s lake country. Running these machines is hot, can be frustrating if a machine is being temperamental, and could even be dangerous if something goes wrong. The collectors, however, smile brightly, in their blue-and-white striped overalls, red bandanna tied around their neck, face coated with a haze of soot.
For whatever reason—nostalgia, proof of expertise, or simply to see if they can do it —collectors love to show off the things that shouldn’t work, and prove that, yes, they still do. Their collections need not be complete, or even rare. These collectors are not accumulating things, objects to be passively observed. These collections exist because they do something, even if there’s a simpler or better way to accomplish the same tasks. They live for the moment when they press ‘go’ on their collection…and it does.