The look on Sven Pretorius’ face is near ecstasy. Finding an old computer on the floor of a North Side basement, he’s beaming like a botanist who has just found a rare plant.
Pretorius just added another dusty, abandoned computer to his collection.
Some day, he promises the man donating the obsolete, nearly worthless piece of equipment, it will have an honored spot in his Museum of Computer History.
That is, if Pretorius ever transforms the growing pile of 170 computers in his basement, garage and storage areas into a public showcase of modern technology.
“I am one of the world’s great stumblers,” says the former computer programmer. “I stumbled into programming. I stumbled into collecting computers.”
He said he hopes to stumble one more time into a good deal and find enough money to turn his idea into reality.
At 53, after suffering two strokes in the past eight years, he lives alone in a cramped North Side bungalow surrounded by electronic gear that otherwise would have landed in the landfill or incinerator.
If the computer museum ever opens, it’ll be just the fourth building of its kind in the country.
The largest, the Computer Museum of Boston, has about 180 computers on display.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has a small collection of personal computers. The American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Mont., is the third.
Pretorius uses a simple method to build his collection. He begs.
“I’m always looking for old computers. I visit businesses and ask them. I visit garage sales.
“Or I go to electronics trade shows and tell people to think of me when getting rid of stuff,” he said.
To some who have watched his efforts, Pretorius is the patron saint of pack ratting.
“This has been Sven’s life work for the past five years,” said Miles Crawford, who along with Pretorius has been a member of SMUG, the Spokane Microprocessor Users’ Group.
“Sven’s approach is like a butterfly collector,” Crawford continued. “He doesn’t collect those specimens for money. He does it because he has to add to the collection. It’s like a compulsive disorder with him.”
Computer users and technology groups have two basic responses to the computer museum project.
Some see it as a harmless, well-intentioned lark, like trying to put together a yard full of old Studebakers. Others consider it worth doing but wonder if Pretorius can pull it off.
It hasn’t helped that Pretorius’ first collection of 150 computers was sold three years ago at auction during a bitter divorce with his third wife.
After the divorce, Pretorius had no job, poor health and no clear plans of what to do with his life.
Soon after, at a meeting of a Spokane computer users group, Pretorius found five old computers piled on a table. Club members told him: “Here. This is to help you get the collection started again.”
The collection that was sold, he added, was more interesting than the one he’s assembled since.
“It had more unique and significant pieces, like one of the first Lisas,” an early version of the Macintosh personal computer.
The second time around, Pretorius is running into some resistance among veteran computer users who aren’t sure they’ll continue donating their old equipment.
“The museum idea is great,” says Brian Kamp, a SMUG member.
“But I won’t give Sven any more pieces, not until he gets non-profit status for the museum, and finds some other people to run it with him.”
Pretorius doesn’t let that bother him. He knows plenty of people are glad to have him get rid of equipment that few others want.
“If it’s a computer and I can carry it, I’ll take it away and put it in the collection,” he says with a laugh.
MEMO: Tom Sowa writes about technology for The Spokesman-Review. Readers can send him electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.