A friend pointed out an article about a young man who has founded a company to sell heirloom computers: that is, computers made so well that they will be permanent possessions, things one can pass on to one’s grandchildren. He calls it the Mythic Computer Company, and if you visit his site, you can fill in a contact form so he can judge whether you are worthy of one of his computers. If you are, he will make one to your specifications.

Are heirloom computers possible? Within certain assumptions, they probably are. The case of the prototype is a gorgeous piece of woodworking, and all the components are chosen for long service and the ability to be repaired or replaced when they fail.

Keegan McNamara, the creator of Mythic Computer—which is to say the conceiver of the idea, the carver of the wood, the solderer of the components—is 25 years old, and his eclectic education is probably similar to what most very clever 25-year-olds get these days. His company site has a motto from Virgil at the bottom, probably sourced from the Internet somewhere—we would guess that he does not read Latin himself. He talks easily about Shinto spirits. He took a course in guitar-making in college, which may have taught him some of his woodworking skills. He looks up etymologies of English words and is very impressed by their Proto-Indo-European roots. His education, in other words, is a bit of this and a bit of that, but not really moored in a tradition.

The people who write about him are much more unmoored. And it is fascinating to see what this lack of mooring does to them. It places everything outside their own experience in the age of myth. Norse gods, rotary-dial telephones, Shinto spirits, steam locomotives, handcrafted tools—they are all in the same category of things before my time. Thus the name Mythic Computer: it is a return to the mythical age when Vulcan forged rotary-dial telephones to last forever.

Sometimes this lack of mooring in any one tradition causes strange categorical overlaps. The subhead of one of the articles on the Mythic Computer tells us this:

Computers used to be made out of wood, endlessly customizable, and totally personal. Now they’re all metal rectangles. Can one guy in his LA house help bring the old way back?

Now, if you are older than 25, you may be asking yourself: When were computers made out of wood? The first Macintosh was not made out of wood. The IBM PC was not made out of wood. Dr. Boli’s own first computer, an Atari 800, was not made out of wood. The Altair was not made out of wood. The Whirlwind was not made out of wood. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine was not made out of wood. In fact, the Difference Engine, as Mr. Babbage intended it to be built, was a metal rectangle.

But we can see what has happened here. The IBM PC and a cabinet by Thomas Chippendale are both from the Age of Myth—the time, that is, before the writer was even born. They are in the same category, and they must be fundamentally similar.

We have the impression that Mr. McNamara himself is a lot brighter than most of the people who write about him (you really ought to read his essay on the origins of the Mythic Computer, in which he hits many nails right on the head), but even he seems limited by a point of view that regards the whole period before his birth as more or less the same. For the operating system, he very sensibly chose a robust version of Linux, because, as he says, “in order to make something last forever, just build it using stuff that has lasted forever.” Linux came into the world in 1991, which gives us a terminus post quem for “forever.”

At any rate, what Mr. McNamara has built is a text editor in a wooden box—something like an AlphaSmart, but with much more expensive parts. And it is a glorious thing. It is worth whatever price he puts on it, because it is a work of art. In writing about it, Dr. Boli does not at all mean to imply that creating a computer made by hand is a silly thing to do. He simply uses it as an occasion to examine certain otherwise unexamined assumptions that seem to be prevalent among our bright young people, “young” meaning “born within the past hundred years or so.”


  1. Von Hindenburg says:

    One wonders if ‘wooden computers’ is a reference to the faux wood, or at least dark brown coloration of some early computers and video game systems. Maybe the writer saw an image of one of those and didn’t dig any more deeply. Or, maybe they were using a search engine which doesn’t clearly distinguish between real and AI-derived images; something which will very soon make the past even more unknowable and mythic.

  2. Antiplanner says:

    McNamara says, “As far as I can tell, no more than a handful of designers or engineers in the last 50 years of personal computing have thought: ‘We should consider the physical instantiation of these ubiquitous machines very seriously.'”

    Tell that to Apple Computer. Remember the first iMac? The original iBook? I remember when Mac desktop interfaces were completely customizable and some gorgeous designs resulted. I suspect that even today designers such as Raymond Loewy would appreciate the iPhone and MacBook Air.

    • Von Hindenburg says:

      Indeed. Laptops in particular are a very carefully considered balance of ergonomics and performance, to say nothing of the amount of thought and effort that goes into software interfaces. It’s not that computers aren’t carefully designed. It’s just that most aren’t designed for the small niche market to which he’s selling.

  3. The Shadow says:

    I strong suspect that the subhead was being deliberately ironic. I certainly hope so!

    And perhaps ‘Mythic’ here means an era of computing that he feels *should* have existed, even though it unfortunately didn’t?

  4. Arkadiy says:

    My computer has served for 15 years so far. There is not a single hardware part left from the original machine. The only thing that makes it the same computer is the data.

  5. GP says:

    Arcade machine cases were commonly made out of plywood, perhaps that’s the ispiration?

  6. KevinT says:

    I believe that my first slide rule was made of wood. As were all of my #2 and HB pencils. And, if you can lay your hands on one, a wooden abacus can be a beautiful computing tool as well.

  7. Dutch 1960 says:

    The first Apple computers were typically housed in wooden frames or cases.

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