As I walked through the glass door to be the offices behind of what used to be an Atlanta-area CompUSA store, those six familiar colors filled my vision.
The store is being temporarily brought back to life, but instead of selling all-in-one printers and CDs of cruddy PC software, it’s being used to peddle history.
Inside, I met Lonnie Mimms, the man behind the Apple Pop-Up Museum, a 6,000 square-foot display of much of the company’s history, from blue boxes to iPhones. Almost everything on display is out of his personal collection, including the giant six-color logo across from the entrance.
He isn’t just an Apple collector, though. He owns just about every significant piece of computer technology from the last three to four decades: supercomputers, notebooks and everything in between. He rattles off dates and product names like he’s got all memorized.
I suspect he does.
“I never sell anything or throw it away. I’ve added to it as other people have wanted to throw things away,” he remarked when asked about the size of the collection. “While I want to show the history of microcomputers from the beginning, we felt Apple was going to be more mainstream, so for an initial exhibit, we’re hoping to bring out more of the general population with Apple as the feature,” he said.
Mimms is fascinated by microcomputers. While computers were once hot, gargantuan machines with miles of wire, mechanical parts and power supplies tucked away in the seats, that changed with the introduction of the microprocessor. Suddenly, technology that was once off-limits to anyone not in a lab coat with a fancy name tag could be found in people’s homes.
Of course, early microcomputers weren’t really what we think of today when we use the term “computer.” Many of these machines were just logic boards with sockets for processors. If you wanted to hook it up to a TV, it was time to break out the wire and soldering iron.
While it wasn’t the first microcomputer, the birth of the Apple I is often considered the start of this revolution.
If the Apple I is Genesis, then a little garage in Los Altos is Eden. The garage is recreated in Mimms’ Apple Pop-Up Museum, with large prints of what the workstations looked like. In the middle of the room, on a white stand, under glass, is Mimms’ Apple I.
Stepping out of the garage and back in to the hallway, I asked about the layout of the museum. Thereze Almström, the Apple Pop-Up Museum’s curator and exhibition designer, explains the design of the space. “We don’t have to be in a gallery,” she said. “We can set up in an office. Everything can be moved.”
That mobility and flexibility is important to the goal that Mimms and Almström share: to take their exhibit on the road.
The next two rooms down the hallway are a prime example of how simple — yet powerful — the displays in this exhibit are.
The first one is all about the Apple II — the machine that launched Apple into its first giant wave of success. The room features the machine of course, but also the first Disk II and controller card. The back wall of the room is an art piece made of old disks, and on the wall hangs examples of Apple II logic boards and designs.
While the space is dedicated to the Apple II, the next room shows how the single machine exploded into a full range of products.
The room also showcases the company’s gradual move from the Apple II line to the Macintosh, including the ill-fated Lisa, and the oft-forgotten MacColby, an early attempt at making the Macintosh more portable.
Mimms is especially proud of the latter unit. “No one really has a whole set anymore,” he said, noting that one prominent collection just shows the keyboard off.
While the machines in this room are rare, the original 128k Macintosh steals the show.
Instead of being under glass or on a shelf out of reach, the Mac is set up for visitors to play Through the Looking Glass, the first game available on the Macintosh. As Mimms held the box in his hands, he mentioned how unique the title was at the time, and to this day, how well even the packaging holds up. “It really was remarkable,” he said.
While this room displays a wide range of years and machines, they are important ones, Mimms stresses. The Apple II brought the company great success. The move away from it was risky, and quite bumpy at times.
As we exit, I notice this note taped to the wall under a well-known quote:
At the end of the first hall, there’s a room that stands out. While the hallway is bright and colorful, this room is dark, with the entrance painted black. In sparse white letters above the door, it reads “The Wilderness.”
In this room, Mimms has numerous NeXT machines up and running. As we stood there, chatting about how NeXT’s technology ended up forming the backbone of OS X, he booted up one of the machines. After a few moments, he had audio playing while a 3D rendering of molecules spun around the screen. While the media-heavy multitasking seems simple by today’s standards, at the time, it was a marvel. “It’s hard to believe this machine is 20 years old, isn’t it?” Mimms asked as we watched and listened.
As with most things however, Steve Jobs’ “wilderness years” outside Apple aren’t all dark. To highlight this, Mimms and Almström have lined an entire wall with Pixar figurines, books and photos.
Just past this room is a small area, highlighting some of Apple’s products without Jobs at the helm. The Macintosh II makes an appearance here, and on purpose. The machine was the antithesis of the original Mac: it was big, heavy, sported loads of expandability and was amazingly expensive.
Across from it sits one of the rarest Apple computers ever built: the 20th Anniversary Mac. I’ve never seen one in person, and the it was a real treat to spend some time with one.
The rest of the exhibit takes place in a series of white rooms and a large lounge. Everything is well-lit, and clean. There’s a room dedicated to the iMac G3 and OS X, with an iPod exhibit next door.
In this lounge, Mimms and Almström sat down with me, and we discussed why the universe that exists around Apple is so much bigger than that of other companies. The cult, if you will.
Almström said, “I’m an average user, but not into computers. But I see Apple’s place of leadership and their presentation. Everything’s thought-through, and everything has a purpose. That’s what appeals to me.”
Mimms agreed. “Long before Jonathan Ive was involved, even from the Apple I, they were focused on creating elegant, simple designs. Woz wanted to minimize the number of chips he used. People just didn’t care about that, but by doing that, you end up with an elegant product.”
“Once they started putting thing in a case with the Apple II, Jobs wanted it to be very clean and concise,” he continued.
I then asked the pair the question that had been on my mind the whole time. From Steve Jobs giving away the company’s archives, to dropping support for hardware much faster than its competitors, Apple is always moving forward. So why, with such a rich history, why does Apple seem ashamed of it?
Mimms believes Apple isn’t alone in this. While the company’s followers have a tendency to look back with a pang of heartache, he points out there’s no reason for a company to look to the past. “Without a history, you have no identity,” he said. “The history is extremely important, but the corporate entity doesn’t have to be the one to do the remembering. There are plenty of folks to do that for them.”
Almström chimed in. “When we hear a band we liked as teenagers, we feel nostalgia, but that’s usually not the band’s thing.”
“You get sick of playing the same songs,” Mimms said. “People aren’t always ready for the new songs.”
When it comes to what’s new, Mimms and Almström agree that software and services — not hardware — is where people will tinker in the future. Jobsian hardware is closed and sleek, and the trajectory set forth by machines like the iMac G3 with its all-in-one, closed hardware isn’t changing any time soon.
“Software has been what people tinker with for a long time now,” Mimms said. “That’s where all of the new companies are really all about. It’s hard to project where things will go in the future, though.”
That said, Mimms and his group have a positive outlook when it comes to Apple and its future. The last room of the exhibit is about looking forward in to the unknown, and while I won’t spoil it, but it’s a perfect ending to an amazing exhibit.
The Apple Pop-Up Museum will be on display in Atlanta, GA on Saturday April 20 and Sunday April 21 as part of the Vintage Computer Festival Southeast event. Admission is $10 per day or $15 for both days. My thanks to Lonnie Mimms, Thereze Almström and the rest of their team for giving me a preview of the exhibit, even though they weren’t quite done with it yet.