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Packaging the past

A crew from Jackson Moving and Storage Inc. wrap the three chassis of the Control Data Corporation 6500 supercomputer that shipped Wednesday morning for the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, Wash. Terry Jackson, far right, was on the team that originally moved the machine from Purdue University in Indiana to Chippewa Falls in 1989.

CALEB BROWN | THE HERALD

Weighing in at more than 10,000 pounds and with less than half a megabyte of memory, the Control Data Corporation 6500 supercomputer would hardly be considered “super” by today’s standards. But when this gem was built in 1967 it defined state-of-the-art.

Unlike earlier computers that used vacuum tubes, the CDC 6500 operated with transistors.

“This was the best in the world,” said Jim Mandelert, Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology’s secretary.

The CFMIT at 21 E. Grand Ave. displays several computers built by Cray Research and its predecessors, but this particular device is extra special.

It’s, as far as the museum is aware, the only one of its kind left that could be made to work again.

Paul G. Allen’s Living Computer Museum contacted CFMIT, interested in acquiring the 6500 for that very reason.

“This will be made to work again,” Mandelert said. The Seattle museum plans fully restoring the machine so that visitors could operate it.

This particular machine started its life in Arden Hills, Minn. It was one of the first projects that Seymour Cray worked on as an employee of Control Data.

The computer spent its working life at Purdue University in Indiana where was used to teach students about math and physics.

All told it operated for 22 years as evidenced by a tag on the cooling system that reads “valves closed Aug. 2, 1989.”

The machine doesn’t even look like a computer. Three giant cabinets with panels that open to reveal banks of small metal points. Thick cables hang from the back of each cabinet.

These cables represent part of the challenge of restoring the machine.

“The cables had to be cut when they shipped it,” Mandelert explained, “They have to replace them.”

The cables also connected the computer with a large desk sporting two phosphorescent screens, a small keyboard, a telephone and one big red button that reads “emergency stop.”

The screens only displayed text and nobody had thought of a mouse yet, but this control station was very high-tech for its day.

“This was a very revolutionary concept of putting a display console on a computer,” Mandelert said.

Before this addition to the system computers could only be controlled by punch cards and magnetic tape.

Jackson Moving and Storage Inc. of Chippewa Falls, the same company that moved the unit to Chippewa Falls from Purdue University, showed up at CFMIT on Tuesday to wrap the components in blankets and shrinkwrap before sending them for the one-way journey west.

The computer shipped Wednesday morning.

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