He recites the three words in a nasal monotone: “Computer . . . History . . . Museum.” His head falls to his shoulder, while his eyelids droop from apparent ennui. “Three words to slow your heart rate, right?” Dag Spicer is a senior curator at that museum, which is in Mountain View, California – in Google’s hometown and in the heart of Silicon Valley.
But his institution is anything but snooze-inducing, even for non-techies. “We keep the focus on the people who made this revolution happen – on their stories,” says Spicer (BA 1993 TRIN, MA 1995). And so here are not just the nifty devices, but also an account of the quirks of their various inventors and popularizers. “Check out his handlebar mustache,” the former hardware engineer says of the Victorian-era gent who came up with a census tabulator. Of a supercomputer’s progenitor: “He had an amazing home bomb shelter.”
A playful polymath who lists his outside interests as limnology – the study of freshwater environments – and Cycladic art, Spicer is in his element wandering through the beeping, flashing, whirring components of the exhibit, adding his own comments to the hyper-stimulative mix. “This was the first computer to have a mouse . . . . This device was meant simply to store recipes and retailed for $10,000. Even Neiman Marcus couldn’t sell one . . . . Look at the built-in ashtray on this [American Cold War defense] computer – the hours, the days, the years they kept watching for the Russian bombers that never came . . . . Would you like to play Pong?”
Spicer’s adeptness at patter makes sense: he’s the son of the mandarin’s mandarin, Keith Spicer, Canada’s first Commissioner of Official Languages and the longtime head of the CRTC, and grew up in Ottawa with René Lévesque and other verbally agile political figures at the dinner table. At U of T, the younger Spicer studied everything from chemistry to classics – “I would have taken interpretive dance if they’d offered it” – and left a PhD in the history of science at Stanford University to join the fledgling museum in the mid-’90s. “It was supposed to be just a year, but, well, I stayed.”
He’s given a romp of a tour, and he must know that, but at the end, Spicer’s hosting instincts kick in, and he asks: “Were you terribly bored?”
Watch an interview with Dag Spicer about the Computer History Museum (there’s a 10-second intro in what we think is Dutch, but English follows):